Guide to visiting other faith communities

Here’s a five-minute video I made about what to pay attention to when you visit services at a faith community that’s not your own. Drawing on Ninian Smart‘s seven dimensions of religion, the video suggests that when visiting another faith community it’s most interesting to focus on three of Smart’s seven dimensions: the emotional/experiential, social, and material dimensions.

Preferred pronouns

Non-binary gender meets arts-and-crafts…. I was trained up by old-school DREs (Directors of Religious Education) who addressed many congregational issues with arts and crafts projects and filing systems. Sure, arts and crafts and filing systems can’t address every social challenge, but you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish through simple means.

In our congregational, we’ve been thinking about non-binary gender. How do you educate people about non-binary gender? How do you make non-binary gender seem fun and interesting? If you were trained up by old-school DREs, the answer would be obvious: stickers! Stickers and a filing system for them!

You can see my prototype above. We’re going to try it out this Sunday, though I expect a number of problems. First off, an index card file box is not the ideal storage system, and and it may not work well during real-world coffee hour. The stickers may prove to be a bit small, though I had to size them to fit on our name tags (recognizing that people who would use these might have one or more other stickers on their name tags already, e.g., rainbow sticker, UUSC sticker, etc.). And I’m sure someone will criticize my choice of personal pronoun sets (’cause we’re Unitarian Universalists, and we love to criticize each other).

Aside from the inevitable problems, I think three things will work well from the start: 1. the stickers will affirm those who don’t fit into binary gender (even if they don’t use the stickers because they don’t want to be out about it on Sunday morning); 2. the stickers will serve an educational function; and 3. everyone likes stickers!

Specifics of how I formatted the stickers are below: Continue reading “Preferred pronouns”

Religious tolerance and Trump’s order banning refugees

The BBC has posted the full text of Trump’s executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” here.

The executive order states in part: “The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.” By the same logic, the executive order itself should support the Constitution, including the right to religious belief set forth in the First Amendment, viz.: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

What is particularly problematic here is that Trump, like both his presidential predecessors, is using executive orders too broadly. This particular executive order has the effect of proscribing persons with certain religious beliefs, notwithstanding that the courts have generally held that, while certain destructive religious practices (e.g., Hindu suttee, human sacrifice, etc.) can be prohibited by law, religious beliefs cannot be regulated by Congress. Trump’s use of a presidential executive order can be seen as an attempted end run around the First Amendment. US District Judge Ann Donnelly has issued a temporary stay of the executive order, though she did not attempt to rule on its constitutionality — that will be left to another court.

Although Trump has stated that this executive order does not target specific religious groups (i.e., Muslims), the effect of the order is to severely limit the admission of Muslims into the United States; under the order, no visas will be issued to nationals of seven countries, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, all of which are Muslim-majority countries, according to the BBC. Furthermore, the BBC notes that in an interview of Friday, Trump specifically said that Christians “would be given priority among Syrians who apply for refugee status in the future” (BBC’s paraphrase), thus implying that the government gives preference to certain religions.

All people belonging to faith communities should be wary of this executive order; we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of our religious beliefs in the United States, and this executive order is a definite step towards establishing state-sanctioned religious beliefs, insofar as it brands certain beliefs as not acceptable. As noted previously, Trump has indicated that Christian refugees will be considered exceptions under this executive order, but Christians should also be worried, unless you’re sure that you hold exactly the right kind of Christian belief that will receive government sanction. Atheists and agnostics, you too should be worried about the creeping establishment of government-approved religion!

Write to Trump right now to express your concern. You can send your email to president@whitehouse.gov — if you prefer to send classic mail, address your letter to:
The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Do this RIGHT NOW. Then tell ten friends to write letters as well. Let’s make sure the White House receives a million or more letters opposing this executive order within a week.

I’ll put the text of my email below, along with a sample email you can tweak for yourself….

Continue reading “Religious tolerance and Trump’s order banning refugees”

Short practical guide to grief

You can find tones of books about grief, but (speaking as a minister) I haven’t seen a short practical guide to grief — the practical things I find myself saying to lots of people right after someone close to them (spouse, parent, child, sibling, etc.) has died.

Everyone is different and experiences grief differently, but many peole experience the following:

— The first seven to ten days after the death, the grief is pretty raw. You may find yourself bursting into tears at the slightest provocation; and if you find yourself laughing at some memory the next instant, that’s normal too. It often helps to be with family, or if you don’t get along with family, then to be with good friends. You know how Jews sit shiva for a week after someone dies? That makes total sense. If you only get two or three bereavement days off from work, still you can cancel all your other commitments.

— After the initial shock and raw grief, numbness sets in for most of us (thankfully) for about three months. The grief is still there, but you can pick up with your ordinary life — although from the outside you may look a little out of it at times.

— When that initial numbness wears off, often about three months after the death, that can be the toughest time. Co-workers, friends, and family often expect you to have moved on with your life, and no one is bringing you dinners at home, or treating you extra gently. But here’s the grief, coming in waves, back again as strong as ever. Because grief tends to come in waves, so you might be fine one minute, than overtaken by a wave of grief the next. Be careful when driving!

— For most people, grief lasts about 18 to 24 months. The first year is often the hardest, and the first anniversary of the death can be very tough indeed. In fact, do yourself a favor, and don’t plan anything big on the first anniversary of the death — or do something like plan to have the gravestone installed, or some other commemorative thing like that.

OK, that’s the basic timeline. Remember, grief comes in waves, so you can be fine one minute, and not very functional the next — one minute you might have energy to start working on a project, or start cleaning the house, or whatever, and the next minute about all you can do is sit and cry.

Remember to eat regular meals, you need the energy. Exercise is a good idea, too. Don’t forget to sleep. Breathing is also a good idea; nice slow relaxing breaths can help a lot.

And of course, the reason I’m finally writing this post is that my dad is about to die. So this is a good way of reminding myself of what I need to pay attention to.

Rules for prayer

Even though I’m the guy who wrote the essay “Why I Don’t Pray” in the pamphlet “UU Views of Prayer,” I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer recently. Not because I’ve started praying (I haven’t), but more because I’m sick of hearing about the alleged virtues of meditation and mindfulness. You see, meditation and mindfulness are being coopted by consumer capitalism: Meditation will improve worker productivity! Mindfulness will help your children get better grades! And if you work more, or get good grades and go to college, you will be able to buy more!

These are fairly recent developments for meditation and mindfulness. Prayer, on the other hand, got coopted by consumer capitalism a few decades ago. Prayer is an integral part of the “Prosperity Gospel,” a mutant offspring of Christianity and consumer capitalism which holds that if you believe in God and pray and give generously to your church then you will get rich. While I try to be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs, the Prosperity Gospel is bullshit. And it’s clear clear to me that meditation and mindfulness are on track to being coopted in the same way prayer was: soon we will faced with the spectre of the Prosperity Dharma.

Unitarian Universalists have developed some standards and best practices that have tended to insulate us from the worst excesses of the Prosperity Gospel. It is worth reviewing what those are:

1. Prayer is not going to make you rich; some people who pray might get rich, but that’s random chance. (In fact, the same can be said of religion in general.)

2. If prayer works for you, go for it. If prayer doesn’t work for you, then don’t — AND don’t be an asshole and make fun of people who find that prayer works for them.

3. Unitarian Universalists generally agree with Jesus when he says in the Bible, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray on the street corners to be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5). In other words, it’s fine if you pray but don’t be a show-off. In fact, don’t be a show-off with any spiritual practice.

4. We do not have to bow our heads during prayer (see previous point). If you want to, that’s fine, but you don’t have to.

Why is it worth reviewing these standards and best practices? Because they can also be applied to meditation and mindfulness. And meditation and mindfulness are coming ever closer to breeding their own mutant offspring with consumer capitalism. And the last thing we need is to be taken over by the Prosperity Dharma.

Religion in the public square

In the United States, all too often the phrase “religion in the public square” means someone accosting you and telling you that you should join their religion; so the meaning of the phrase becomes, “our religion is right and yours is wrong.” Or that same phrase can be used pejoratively to imply that all religious practice shouldb e kept out of public view; so the meaning of the phrase becomes, “all religion is wrong.” Either way, someone is imposing their own views on the rest of a democratic society.

But if ours is a truly multicultural democracy, we should allow space in the public square for a variety of worldviews, without letting any one worldview dominance over the others. This becomes a delicate balancing act. Literal or metaphorical shouting matches between religious worldviews don’t promote tolerance; mind you, sometimes you have to get into shouting matches to preserve the openness of the public square, as when we have to fight to limit Christmas displays on public property, but no one imagines that these shouting matches increase tolerance. So given that public religious expression is a delicate balancing act, what does it look like when you have an appropriate expression of a religious worldview in the public square?

Sukkah at the JLISF, Columbus and Lombard, San Francisco

Today I saw such an expression of a religious worldview in the public square, and it looked like a rented flatbed trailer with a sukkah built on top of it. The trailer was parked in front of the Jewish Learning Institute of San Francisco (JLISF), on Lombard Ave. right off busy Columbus Ave in the North Beach neighborhood. Carol and I walked by just as some people from JLISF were cleaning up from lunch. They were polite and friendly, and ready to explain that they were celebrating Sukkot, and what a sukkah was, and so on.

This is a good display of religion in the public square: present, but not intrusive; with friendly people who are ready to explain, but not berate.

Sukkah through a bus window

(Posted the next day, and backdated.)

What’s a deity?

This week I’ve been posting images of deities. But what is a deity, anyway?

Here in the United States, popular culture has been heavily influenced by Protestant Christian culture, and so when we are asked to define a deity, we default to the concept of a monotheistic transcendent deity. If we have to draw a picture of this deity, we might either draw a picture of a man with a white beard sitting on a cloud, or say that this deity is transcendent and can’t be pictured.

However, most of the human race, for most of human history, has had a far more complex and nuanced understanding of deities. In our own Western cultural tradition, which extends back to the civilizations of Rome, Greece, and the ancient Near East more generally, we can find a great diversity of deities. Here’s a list of some of the categories of deity we can identify in the Western religious traditions:

• a single transcendent deity, e.g., the transcendent god of Xenophanes and other early Greek philosophers; God for some Jews; God the Father for some Christian sects
• a most powerful deity among other deities, e.g., Zeus in ancient Greece
• greater deities, e.g., the more powerful ancient Egyptian deities such as Horus, Osiris, and Ra
• lesser deities, e.g., the Titans in ancient Greece
• local deities, e.g., river gods, deities of a grove or forest, etc.
• household deities, e.g., the household gods of ancient Rome, etc.
• deified humans, e.g., the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Roman emperors deified after death, etc. (some might argue that the Virgin Mary of some Christian sects fits into this category)
• humans that are more than mortal but slightly less than gods, e.g., Herakles for the ancient Greeks, Jesus for the Christian followers of Arius, etc.
• humans with special powers who are worthy of veneration, e.g., canonized saints, sports figures and celebrities, etc.
• abstract concepts as deities, e.g., god as the unmoved mover in Aristotle, scientific method, financial success, etc.

These are just the first examples from the Western religious traditions that come to my mind. Then we can add in all the deities which are current in our increasingly multicultural world, such as the vast hierarchy of Hindu deities, the several Buddhas (who may appear as humans with special powers, but who may also appear as transcendent deities), ancestors who are venerated (as in some African traditions), deities as part of nature or tied to natural places (as with some Navajo deities), etc., etc.

I don’t believe we should accept without question the U.S. Protestant Christian definition of deity as a single transcendent god in whom one either believes or doesn’t believe. Humans in the U.S. today venerate a variety of deities, many of which look nothing like the U.S. Protestant transcendent God. And that veneration can take a variety of forms, from overt public worship to more covert forms of veneration. Given that, don’t you think that there is a lot more religion in the U.S. today than is captured by polls which ask whether people believe in “God” and attend “church”?

No one sings in church any more

On the Sacred Harp Friends page on Facebook, Katie posted a link to a blog post by Thom Schulz, titled “Why They Don’t Sing on Sunday Anymore.” Schulz’s reasons why people don’t sing in church: too often services are spectator events; church music is dominated by professionals, to the point of squeezing us amateurs out; sometimes the volume gets cranked up so high people just stop singing; the hymns are unfamiliar or hard to sing.

Katie then noted that Sacred Harp singers do sing, and we sing fervently — because there are no spectators, there are no professionals, it’s loud but not deafening, and Sacred harp singers have been singing pretty much the same tunes for a century and a half.

Actually, in my church people do sing. Amy, the senior minister, and I made a pact some years ago that the first hymn would mostly get chosen from a pool of ten or so hymns; that way, the kids can memorize ten or so hymns and know them by heart. And indeed the kids (and the adults) do memorize those hymns, and they do sing with fervor and gusto. In one recent service, I watched as one of our more cynical upper elementary kids stood on a chair, hung on to dad, and sang with utter abandon; cynicism gone, this child was completely lost in the hymn.

Given my experience, I’m with Thom Schulz: congregational singing does not need spectators, over-professionalism, blare, or crappy songs. Congregational singing can aim towards joy, towards ecstatic union with the universe through song. Congregational singing can be — should be — cynical kids belting out a favorite hymn at the tops of their voices, completely lost in the moment.

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