Friday, October 18, 2019

Progressive Churches Can Grow

An article published by The Washington Post caught my attention recently because it discussed a church split. In some macabre way I always enjoy reading those. I hate the heartache that people feel, but I find how and why churches split to be either amusing or simply fascinating. What struck me about this particular article was that, while it focused on the fresh start the anti-lgbtq Falls Church Anglican has in a new building, after fighting for years to keep the historic building that belonged to the Episcopal denomination, the real story seems to be about the astounding growth of the progressive, inclusive parish that they left behind.

Boiling it down, 90% of Falls Church Episcopal’s parish voted in 2006 to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. For several years the majority occupied the historic church building, while the continuing ECUSA parish was in ‘exile’ meeting elsewhere.

Just 35 people had decided to remain Falls Church Episcopalians when the church split. During the years of the court battle, that number grew to 80, who moved back into the contested building when the ruling came down in their favor.
A tiny group of a mere 35 managed to grow to 80 without their church building and the resources it housed. That’s pretty great. Separately, a minister of the ECUSA parish had this to say later in this timeline:
What I mean by that is when I started here in 2012, there were about 100 members, almost all of whom attended church almost every Sunday. And almost all of them were actively connected to their church — regularly volunteering in a ministry and/or actively engaged in discipleship/growing in the faith/learning to be an apprentice of Jesus.
Okay, so according to that there were roughly 100 parishioners with Falls Church Episcopal, back with their own building, in 2012. In March 2014 on the website of Episcopal Relief & Development, an astonishing number is mentioned.
The congregation has seen tremendous growth since moving back into its buildings after a lengthy lawsuit over ownership, from an average Sunday attendance of ninety to now almost two hundred people. While there are many factors that contributed to this growth, one area that has become particularly vibrant is the youth and children’s ministry.
If all the foregoing is correct, then the congregation nearly doubled in just two years. I’ve never seen growth like this in any church I’ve been around, and we usually attribute such to conservative evangelical churches, while we expect churches with more liberal theology to wither and die.

But wait, there’s more, and it’s buried in the article from The Washington Post.

Today, The Falls Church Episcopal, less than a mile from the new building of its conservative counterpart, has almost 600 members, according to the Rev. John Ohmer, who has been rector since 2012, but recently announced he will leave for another church position.
Holy moly kiddos, this parish went from 35 in 2007 to almost 600 in 2019. In 2012 it had about 100, so it’s gained an average of about 70 new members each year.

I’d really like to know how they’re doing it. There are massive, well-equipped congregations all over the United States with relatively tiny, mostly elderly congregations hanging on inside. I’ve seen a few just in Manhattan. That’s aside from the average-sized buildings with just a handful of hangers-on, such as were many I supply preached for in my college days. Just having a great facility can’t be what’s helping Falls Church Episcopal experience such growth.

Evangelicals tend to think that mainline Protestant churches just want to be popular, and follow every whim of society. Frankly, I can see where they’re coming from with that. At the same time, if that’s the strategy of such churches, it’s failing miserably. Denominations like the United Church of Christ, perhaps the most theologically liberal of the mainline Protestant churches (of which the Unitarian Universalists are not a part and thus not considered in this group)is hemorrhaging members at a shocking rate. ‘Popular’ they are not.

Falls Church Episcopal makes it clear that they are generously progressive, welcoming everyone, and setting no doctrinal requirements or standards with regard to who people are or who they love. And they are growing. Like gangbusters. There’s something to be sussed out there, for sure.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Ziusudra's Ark

“Enlil organized his assembly, he addressed the great gods, ‘The noise of mankind has become too much, I am losing sleep over their racket.’” — The Epic of Ziusudra

The ancient tale of Ziusudra is one of the ancient deluge narratives, one upon which the biblical story of Noah and his ark was likely based. The writers and redactors of what became the Hebrew scriptures adapted it in ways to match their concept of Yahweh, once he had ascended to the role of supreme and only deity in their imaginations. With that sanitization, a certain vividness of emotion was lost, I think. Ziusudra’s story is too long to include here in its entirety, so I’ll begin with a very quick summary, and invite you to read the full text here.

Originally, the gods worked the land. They toiled hard on the Earth, while the greater gods enjoyed a peaceful existence. This lasted for a while, until there was a rebellion. As a solution to the matter, a young god was sacrificed, and through a ritual involving his body, blood, and some clay, humans were made. The humans were then set to work the land. Generations passed, the human population grew, and they became too noisy. The god Enlil called for their destruction through disease. Many died before an intervention saved them. 

Then, Enlil once again called for their death, this time through drought. Again, many people died before they were spared with rainfall and a good harvest. Finally, the gods obligated Enki, who had orchestrated the salvation of humans twice already, to bring a flood upon the earth and wipe out humanity. Enki was made to swear an oath to that effect. However, he whispered through the reed wall of a temple into the ear of Ziusudra, instructing him to make the temple into a boat, and take into it friends, family, and animals. Ziusudra, with the help of others, did so.
All manner of life was placed aboard the boat, Ziusudra selected the best of all species and placed them on the boat. He invited his people to a feast. He put his family and friends on board the vessel. They were eating, they were drinking, but Ziusudra went in and out, pacing the decks of his boat, he could not stay still on his haunches, his heart was breaking, and he was vomiting bile.*
How could his heart not break? The emotion someone would feel in a situation like this, knowing that friends and family were safe, but that so many others were about to die, must have been overwhelming. It was so bad Ziusudra was having dry heaves. As bad as that was, I can only begin to imagine the survivor’s guilt for him, and everyone else on board, once this was all over.
The face of the weather changed. Ishkur bellowed from the clouds. When Ziusudra heard this noise, bitumen was brought to him, and he sealed up the door with it. While he was closing the door, Ishkur kept bellowing from the clouds, the winds were raging even as he went up and cut through the ropes, he released the boat. Anzu was tearing at the sky with his talons, the bolt of Abzu broke open and the Flood came out.
Did people left to the merciless elements pound on the vessel, hoping for mercy? The door was shut and sealed by Ziusudra’s own hand, sealing the fate of his neighbors. Shivering men, women, and children soaked to the bone and then swept away to their deaths.
The Flood went against the people like an army. No one could see anyone else clearly, none of them could be recognized in the catastrophe. The Flood roared like a bull, like a wild ass screaming the winds howled. The darkness was total, there was no sun. The bodies of man and the children of the gods floated on the surface like fat white sheep, their corpses pushed by the Flood into heaps like piles of dead dragonflies in the marsh. The earth was inundated with the power and noise of the Flood.
The baying of terrified animals and the pleas to the gods from anguished people were lost in the howling storm and darkness. In the end, silence. Just the splashing of water amidst thousands and thousands of corpses.

This is imagery that is left out of the Hebrew version, but which was captured in the illustration of a children’s Bible I had when I was little. That’s the image at the top of this post. While Genesis makes no direct mention of this scene, the artist captured it in all its horror. Before I could even read I found this picture and stared at it, fascinated and disturbed. I asked my mother about it, and especially about the animals, and as I recall she said something about God ‘taking care of them.’ It’s been so long that I can’t remember.

Some time back I had the great misfortune of standing in line with an avid Fox News viewer. What began as a plain vanilla chat became a roaring debate about climate change. He thought he was clever by pointing out that the climate has changed many times in the past billion or so years. I responded that this time it’s caused by humans, and will harm humans. Mentioning the islands being lost to their native inhabitants got nowhere with him, but when I mentioned the North Carolina farmers dealing with salt-poisoned fields due to rising sea levels, he quickly changed the subject.

He could relate to the presumably white farmers.

There are many ways that climate change is going to impact our species, and every other species on the planet, and virtually nothing is being done about it. By the time the deniers admit there’s a problem, it will be too late, and they’ll insist that we just have to deal with the situation. The cost in human life is simply too high. Lost farmland, homes destroyed by storms and floods, drought, and other consequences will push more to become refugees, fueling the xenophobia of certain citizens of the various nation states. This, despite the fact that populations are facing certain decline in developed nations, could well continue to drive efforts to build walls and kick otherwise productive members of society out.
Enlil was fetched, and made to stand upon the holy mound. Upon this mound did Enlil swear to the covenant known as Duranki, the Bond of Heaven and Earth, never again to harm the people of the land, and never again to allow the Anunnaki to cohabit with the children of man. And so the years passed, and mankind flourished, and the gods were made happy by the people of the land.
These are ugly times, and it wasn’t any gods that got us here, or that can save us. This one is entirely on us. The future is not closed, however. We still have the opportunity to take action now with protests, environmental advocacy, and political action. We also have the means to come up with technological and engineering solutions for the many to survive this oncoming crisis, rather than settle for a quick fix that will only save the privileged few. This also requires our direct and concerted effort, because otherwise the plutocratic oligarchy will only work for its own preservation, and not for that of the people.

If we don’t want our ‘corpses pushed by the Flood into heaps like piles of dead dragonflies in the marsh,’ we must be Ziusudra and Enki.

The source of this and following quotes is The Atra-Hasis, located at

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Yahweh's Forge

A 4th century BCE drachm (quarter shekel) coin from the Persian province of Yehud Medinata,
 possibly representing Yahweh seated on a winged and wheeled sun-throne.
For several years I’ve simply accepted the idea that Yahweh was originally a Canaanite storm god. While this still may be true, there’s now a competing theory that he was, instead, a god of volcanism and metallurgy. That would make him like the smith gods Hephaestus (Greek) or Vulcan (Roman). This has me thinking about how ideas change and grow, and the impact they can have on history along the way.

Here’s what the main proponent of this alternate understanding has to say, according to Ancient History Encyclopedia:
Scholar Nissim Amzallag, of Ben-Gurion University, disagrees with the claim that Yahweh’s origins are obscure and argues that the deity was originally a god of the forge and patron of metallurgists during the Bronze Age (c. 3500–1200 BCE). Amzallag specifically cites the ancient copper mines of the Timna Valley (in southern Israel), biblical and extra-biblical passages, and similarities of Yahweh to gods of metallurgy in other cultures for support.
The idea here is that he was venerated in a region known for its copper mines, a valuable resource in the Bronze Age, and thus he could well have been the god of the forge. Some passages of the Bible lend a certain credence to this theory.
Poetic metaphors throughout the Bible describe Yahweh as a fiery deity who makes the mountains smoke (Psalms 144:5) and melts them down (Isaiah 63:19b), just like smelters melt down ore to obtain copper and other metals, the researcher notes. In fact, in Psalm 18:18 Yahweh is depicted as anthropomorphized furnace: “smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.
To ancient people, the process of melting down rocks to extract metal would have “appeared completely preternatural and required a divine explanation,” Amzallag told Haaretz.
Yahweh’s metallurgical attributes were also on display in the pillar of fire and smoke by which he guides the Hebrews in the desert (Exodus 13:21) and the cloud that accompanies his visits to the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:9–10), a simpler version of the Tabernacle in which Moses speaks face to face with God.
While those references are interesting, there is an abundance of other verses that portray Yahweh as in control of the weather, as well as the source of fertility for the land.
Haaretz again:
“The theory is interesting but I don’t think there is enough evidence to say that the first worshippers of Yahweh were metallurgists,” says Thomas Romer, a world-renowned expert in the Hebrew Bible and a professor at the College de France and the University of Lausanne. There is strong evidence connecting the Israelites and the Edomites, and maybe the latter worshipped Yahweh as well, says Romer, author of “The Invention of God,” a book about the history of Yahweh and the biblical text.
However, Romer disagrees with Amzallag’s interpretation of the supposed volcanic phenomena described in the Bible. He thinks they are more indicative of a god of storms and fertility, similar to the Canaanite god Baal.
“It is quite common for storm gods in antiquity to make the mountains tremble, but is this really an allusion to volcanism or is it just showing the power of the god?” Romer says.
A few verses that appear to back this up are the following, although there are certainly more that use this kind of language:
I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit.” (Leviticus 26:4)* 

He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth; he makes lightnings for the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.” (Psalm 135:7)
“He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills.” (Psalm 147:8) 

“They do not say in their hearts, ‘Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives the rain in its season, the autumn rain and the spring rain, and keeps for us the weeks appointed for the harvest.’” (Jeremiah 5:24)
Despite that,the idea of Yahweh as a god of the forge isn’t quite dead yet. Ancient History Encyclopedia quotes Nissim Amzallag:
The god of metallurgy generally appears as an outstanding deity. He is generally involved in the creation of the world and/or the creation of humans. The overwhelming importance of the god of metallurgy reflects the central role played by the copper smelters in the emergence of civilizations throughout the ancient world. (397)
While reading about this I thought about the way Yahweh is described in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it occured to me that he is also strongly associated at points with the sea. This is particularly true with regard to his primordial creation of/conflict with Leviathan, a great sea monster.
“There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.” (Psalm 104:26) 

“You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.” (Psalm 74:14) 

“On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.” (Isaiah 27:1)
It turns out, there are some interesting parallels with the Greek and Roman gods of metallurgy, Hephaestus and Vulcan. These two are so similar that they can be considered largely the same deity. The Romans certainly made use of the myths around the Greek form of this god as either the basis of or reinforcement for their own deity. With that in mind, I was fascinated to discover that Hephaestus/Vulcan has a strong association with the sea. In fact, he was raised in it.
As the son of Jupiter, the king of the gods, and Juno, the queen of the gods, Vulcan should have been quite handsome, but baby Vulcan was small and ugly with a red, bawling face. Juno was so horrified that she hurled the tiny baby off the top of Mount Olympus.
Vulcan fell down for a day and a night, landing in the sea. Unfortunately, one of his legs broke as he hit the water, and never developed properly. Vulcan sank to the depths of the ocean, where the sea-nymph Thetis found him and took him to her underwater grotto, wanting to raise him as her own son.
Vulcan had a happy childhood with dolphins as his playmates and pearls as his toys. Late in his childhood, he found the remains of a fisherman’s fire on the beach and became fascinated with an unextinguished coal, still red-hot and glowing.
Vulcan carefully shut this precious coal in a clamshell, took it back to his underwater grotto, and made a fire with it. On the first day after that, Vulcan stared at this fire for hours on end. On the second day, he discovered that when he made the fire hotter with bellows, certain stones sweated iron, silver or gold. On the third day he beat the cooled metal into shapes: bracelets, chains, swords and shields. Vulcan made pearl-handled knives and spoons for his foster mother, and for himself he made a silver chariot with bridles so that seahorses could transport him quickly. He even made slave-girls of gold to wait on him and do his bidding.
That’s all well and good for Hephaestus/Vulcan, but could there be any sort of connect to Yahweh? Possibly. Check out this hypothesis on the origins of Vulcan, taken from Wikipedia:
The origin of the Roman god of fire Vulcan has been traced back to the Cretan god Velchanos by Gérard Capdeville, primarily under the suggestion of the close similarity of their names.[51] Cretan Velchanos is a young god of Mediterranean or Near Eastern origin who has mastership of fire and is the companion of the Great Goddess. These traits are preserved in Latium only in his sons Cacus, Caeculus, Romulus and Servius Tullius. At Praeneste the uncles of Caeculus are known as Digiti,[52] noun that connects them to the Cretan Dactyli.[incomprehensible]
This god came along far later than Yahweh, being described just a few years before the beginning of the Common Era. However, his ‘mastership of fire’ and the possibility that he is of ‘Near Eastern origin’ at least calls for our attention.
His theology would be reflected in the Greek myths of Theseus and the Minotaur and in those concerning the childhood of Zeus on Mount Ida. The Mediterranean Pregreek conception is apparent in the depiction of Velchanos as a young man sitting upon a fork of a tree on coins from Phaistos dating from 322 to 300 BC, showing him as a god of vegetation and springtime: the tree is the symbol of the union of Heaven and Earth and their generative power, i. e. the site of the union of the god and the goddess. Otherwise Earth would be symbolised in the tree and Heaven in the double axe of the god.
Note how he was portrayed as ‘a god of vegetation and springtime.’ Along with fire, this connection to the fertility of the land sounds just a bit more like Yahweh. The existence of a goddess to whom he was bound in some way has a parallel in Yahweh and his queen consort, Asherah. That, of course, was later redacted out of the biblical text and revised to have him calling for the destruction of her shrines. Talk about a bad breakup!
The theological profile of Velchanos looks identical to that of Jupiter Dolichenus, a god of primarily Hittite ascendence in his identification with the bull, who has Sumero-Accadic, Aramaic and Hittito-Hurrite features as a god of tempest, according for example to the researches conducted in Syria by French scholar Paul Merlat. His cult enjoyed a period of popularity in the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries and the god had a temple in Rome on the Aventine.[54]
While Velchanos likely came along after Yahweh, I can’t shake the idea that they shared origins. Gods and goddesses are, after all, ideas that we carry around in our minds, share, rethink, and share some more. Perhaps Velchanos, and by extension Hephaestus and Vulcan, have Yahweh as their forgotten source. Or, maybe all four have an even earlier point of origin. It’s also possible that I’m reading far too much into this, and should leave it to more scholarly minds than my own.
Although the biblical narratives depict Yahweh as the sole creator god, lord of the universe, and god of the Israelites especially, initially he seems to have been Canaanite in origin and subordinate to the supreme god El. Canaanite inscriptions mention a lesser god Yahweh and even the biblical Book of Deuteronomy stipulates that “the Most High, El, gave to the nations their inheritance” and that “Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob and his allotted heritage” (32:8–9). A passage like this reflects the early beliefs of the Canaanites and Israelites in polytheism or, more accurately, henotheism (the belief in many gods with a focus on a single supreme deity). The claim that Israel always only acknowledged one god is a later belief cast back on the early days of Israel’s development in Canaan.
This reference to Deuteronomy makes me wonder, given that it’s likely the last book of what became the Pentateuch to be composed and edited. It could be that they were drawing on older language, or that this portion was written before Yahweh became considered chief of the gods by ancient Israelites and was later incorporated into the text. Even so, the presence of other, extra-biblical sources making El chief and putting Yahweh as subordinate is enough to satisfy me.
It’s an odd story, this one about Yahweh. A god that so many believe they know so well, but whose true ancient origins are obscured by distance in time and scant primary sources attesting to when, where, and why he was first worshipped. I’m inclined to accept the Bronze Age origin of Yahweh as a god of smithies, but given the limited information available I hold that loosely. What a thought, that a relatively minor deity associated with mining and metallurgy could become the focus of worship for over 3.6 billion people in the world, represented by the Abrahamic tradition. Filtered through the lens of myths about matriarchs and patriarchs, various legal codes, the pleadings of prophets, and the legend of Jesus, he has become something far different than he was to begin with, whether he had dominion over storms, forges, or both. One could argue, poetically and metaphorically, that the present world of hate and hope is being forged in his fires.

*Quotes from the Bible in this post are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Elisha’s Bones

Christianity in general, and Protestantism in particular (with its ‘sola scriptura’), sits uneasily atop documents written and redacted in eras very
different from our own. This causes a fair amount of dissonance for believers who spend time reading these texts.
It seems to me that the history of Christianity has tracked with Western history in general as we have moved away from a demon-haunted world to one that can be understood through the scientific method. Protestantism, whether theologically liberal, fundamentalist, or somewhere in between, rejects much of the ‘spooky’ thinking of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. One topic in that vein which can be particularly troubling for Protestants is that of relics, and they should let it move them further into reason and away from supernaturalism.
As a man was being buried, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha; as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet. -2 Kings 13:21
Relics are items thought to hold a special blessing for believers who possess them. My first encounter with the concept was during my First Communion class (I was the only student that year) when the teacher showed me where in our church’s altar a relic should be. She was uncertain whether our parish actually had one, and I still don’t know. Throughout the Middle Ages various relics found their way to altars, shrines, and elsewhere, including private owners. It has been joked that if all the alleged splinters of the True Cross were put together, we could build Noah’s Ark.
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them. — Acts 19:11–12
Protestants generally denounce the collection and veneration of relics as ‘unbiblical,’ and then have the inconvenience of running across the phenomenon while reading the Bible. A common solution theologically conservative Protestants put forward argues that scriptural examples are specific to certain times, places, and situations and therefore should not be generalized or expected to be replicated. This is a subset of the larger position that conservative, non-Pentecostal evangelical theologians take regarding miracles in general. Among Pentecostals, for their part, there are those who hold to a form of having relics, such as obtaining strips of cloth from a preacher as a ‘point of contact’ for healing. In the grander scheme of Protestantism, however, this is quite anomalous.
Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured. — Acts 5:14–16
In my ministry training program at a very conservative Christian university the matter was handled in essentially the way I described above. For example, Peter’s shadow healing the sick and driving out unclean spirits came up, there were nervous chuckles in the classroom. The answer to this as well as other such passages was that those ‘historical events’ are part of our faith but should not be expected ‘in this dispensation’ while we await the bodily return of Jesus and the final judgement.
What this topic should do for contemporary Bible readers is wake them up to the legendary nature of their sacred text. With its many anachronisms, contradictions, endorsements of genocide, and miracles, together with the oppressive, patriarchal outlook it holds forth from beginning to end, the Bible is not a historical text nor a very moral one. Stories like that of Elisha’s bones should not be ignored by Christians, who either need to tread the ground back toward folk religion and animism, or accept that there’s no evidential basis for belief in relics and the like. That sort of change, I’m afraid, could well take a miracle.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Is This Denominational Grief?

In this post from a former blog, dated 3 June 2017, I reflect on how it feels to me to have changed religious fellowship at the halfway mark of my life. Now, 3 years later, the mild sense of loss remains.

Tripp Hudgins, whose background is in the American Baptist Church, and who now is with the Episcopal Church, blogged recently about ‘denominational grief.’ I got to thinking about what he wrote, and I think I can relate.

The night I told my mother that I wanted to leave the Roman Catholic Church and ‘be a Protestant,’ my father was finishing his shower in the bathroom across the hall. I was 17, and had no idea what my mother’s reaction would be when I went in to speak with her just before bed. It turns out that she took it quite well and was supportive. My non-religious father, on the other hand, wasn’t impressed. Overhearing our conversation as he shaved in the other room, he suddenly bellowed, “Don’t do this! You’ll end up regretting it!” Mom told him it was okay and asked him to let her take care of it. His words remained with me through the years, and never once to my recollection have I regretted leaving the Roman Catholic Church. At times I wonder, though, if I’ll ever find one place and stay there.

For roughly 20 years I was part of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. In various ways I’ve experienced life in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, a cappella Churches of Christ, and even the International Churches of Christ (post cult years). I came to see the history, institutions, and future of that movement as my own, and at times marvelled to myself about how a fellowship in which I was not raised could feel like home to me, moreso even than the Catholicism of my childhood and youth.

Then, it was over. Though I’d had a number of conflicts with people in the Stone-Campbell movement over the years, from an anti-American Brazilian evangelist in Brazil who tried to prevent my marriage to a member of hist church, to a deeply dysfunctional congregation in New Mexico that broke my spirit and led to the end my my full-time ministry, through it all I remained with the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. What finally brought that chapter of my life to a close was the end of my faith.

It’s odd, really. In 2012 I made a trip to Brazil, after many years away, and attended the World Convention of the Stone-Campbell churches. I saw several people there I’d not seen in many years and assisted as an interpreter for several of the workshops. By the end of the next year I was no longer a believer.

It was a shock to me, at first. I had to process this new understanding of the world while resettling in Brazil and looking for gainful employment. I was entirely on my own there, with no one I could confide in about my newfound non-theism. Online I connected with people, but ‘out here’ in the real world I had to sort through it all myself. Somehow, I made it.

The trouble is that I’m not sure that I have a tribe now. I mean, I’m a Unitarian Universalist and a Humanist, and that definitely describes my present worldview. At the same time I don’t feel as much a part of either of those as I did the Churches of Christ, or even Catholicism. It could be that I need time and to attend more conventions. I’m certainly volunteering with the local Unitarian Universalist congregation I joined last year. It is slow going, though.

While I don’t miss Roman Catholicism, I am at times wistful and nostalgic for the Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ. Still, there is no going back. I can’t unknow what I’ve learned, and I don’t regret the personal progress I’ve made in recent years. Perhaps this is my own denominational grief.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

World Convention 2012 – A Gathering in Goiânia (Repost)

What follows is a post from August 2012 in which I review the World Convention of Christian Churches, Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ. This event tied together two threads of my life; namely, Brazil and the Stone-Campbell Movement. I even took on the role of interpreter for three of the scholars in their workshops. This was truly a capstone event in my life, as by the end of the following year I was post-theistic. I consider the first 20 or so years of my adult life my 'First Act,' and the Second Act is what I'm living now as a Unitarian Universalist. If there's a Third Act, I hope it doesn't involve yet another change of traditions. It's not a great feeling to no longer be at home in a tradition two which I devoted so much time, energy, and thought.

When I first heard that the World Convention of Christian Churches, Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ would be held this year in Brazil, I was thrilled. As part of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement and former missionary to Brazil, this came as great news. Over time, though, I began to doubt that I would make it. Fortunately, it all worked out. My family took a vacation to visit relatives in Brazil in July, and I went with a group of men from the Churches of Christ in Uberlândia to World Convention.
To begin, the positives: Friends! I saw old friends I imagined I’d never see again this side of the resurrection. People from every phase of my connection with the churches in Brazil were there, from Campinas to Belém and all points in between. I also made new acquaintances, particularly with Newell Williams, Doug Foster and William Baker, three scholars for whom I translated on different days.
While the fellowship was fantastic, there were some rough spots with this convention.
First, the evening worship sessions were way too long. I’m not saying this as a stodgy old grandpa (heck, I’m in my mid-30s), nor as a North American (the Brazilians with me also complained). We were expecting to be out of the evening sessions by 9pm, but every night the speaker didn’t take the pulpit until around that time. Because we were staying with relatives of someone in our group and did not want to inconvenience them, and also because we were exhausted after a day at the convention, we never hear any of the evening preachers for more than 15 minutes.
(left to right) Adam Gonnerman, William Baker
First, the evening worship sessions were way too long. I’m not saying this as a stodgy old grandpa (heck, I’m in my mid-30s), nor as a North American (the Brazilians with me also complained). We were expecting to be out of the evening sessions by 9pm, but every night the speaker didn’t take the pulpit until around that time. Because we were staying with relatives of someone in our group and did not want to inconvenience them, and also because we were exhausted after a day at the convention, we never hear any of the evening preachers for more than 15 minutes.
(left to right) Newell Williams, Doug Foster, Adam Gonnerman
 Third, there was only one small corner near the registration booth where wifi was available. This was an international convention and they had made a point of promoting a twitter hash tag (#wccc12), but there was virtually no Internet available.

(left to right) Wanderson de Jesus, Marcelo Lima, Nilson Ferreira
The first two negatives are really the only two that I think count, and the first can be explained by the fact that the local hosts for this gathering were from the Pentecostal branch of Churches of Christ in Brazil, those associated with the Concílio Ministerial das Igrejas de Cristo no Brasil. These churches took their beginning from the work of Disciples of Christ and independent Christian Church missionaries decades ago, embracing Pentecostalism over the years. They are distinct from the a cappella Churches of Christ, International Churches of Christ and traditional, instrumental Churches of Christ in Brazil. From past experience I can say that their worship style tends to be long and loud in comparison with the other branches of the movement found in Brazil. The other two points above explain themselves, I think.

Despite how it may seem, I actually had a fantastic time at World Convention and am very glad I was there. The fellowship alone made the entire experience worthwhile, and in the end, isn’t fellowship really the point of this convention?

Friday, July 26, 2019

A Faith Into The Future

“A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science , might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths . Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.” — Carl Sagan
Unitarian Universalism represents has enormous potential. It is a denomination without a formal creed, based on principles that emphasize human rights, democracy, and the interconnectedness found within our universe. The UUA is the organizational embodiment of what some refer to as the Unitarian Universalist ‘faith.’ Yet, it’s running a serious risk of dying the same death as the mainline Protestant denominations. Check the data. In 1961, the year two denominations merged to form the UUA, there were 1035 congregations counting a total of 151,557 members. In 2015, there were 1,043 with 156,620 members total. The needle barely moved in 54 years.
Now, to be clear, I don’t believe in growth for growth’s sake. If a denomination is failing to serve any practical purpose in people’s lives, then it might as well shut down (though in fact they usually merge with other denominations that are themselves also fading away). Institutions often fight to survive, even betraying their values to do so. Simply look at how Union Theological Seminary’s virtue is being offered on the altar of gentrification in return for just five more decades of existence.
In the case of the UUA, I’d really rather not see it come to that point. I perceive genuine and lasting merit in the progressive values preached and in the healthy communities fostered, with excellent RE programs and an educated, professional clergy. At present we’re hearing calls for the congregations, regions and headquarters to adopt ‘the language of reverence.’ Based on the terms I see promoted, it looks like a mere imitation of the language of the United Church of Christ. What use is a watered-down christo-mystic theology that has served only to inoculate recent generations again ‘organized religion’? It is irrelevant.
What is relevant is the truth. Not the so-called ‘truth’ of traditional religion based on claims of divine revelation, but the genuine, evidence-based truth of science. In the past 100 years we have managed to do what no other age of humanity has accomplished. We’ve created vaccines, cured diseases, increased crop yields exponentially, built a global infrastructure, laid the groundwork for international law, sent humans into orbit and on to the moon, and probes to all planets in our solar system.
What else is relevant? Good music, sound philosophy for living, and stable communities of shared values and mission.
Sunday Assembly and Oasis are two groups in particular that have shown the way with informative talks by educated speakers, upbeat, contemporary music, helpful small groups, and meaningful volunteer work and activism. In less than three years Sunday Assembly has grown from one chapter to over 70 worldwide. Oasis is growing more slowly, but this seems to be accelerating as it becomes better known.These new communities are not made up solely of atheists. The ‘nones’ are finding their way in as well.
While the UUA charges ahead thinking that what people want is what the Presbyterians down the street already offer, it misses out on the freedom and cultural wealth that its own Sources offer. This fellowship could be planting congregations that are truly inclusive and non-theistic (though welcoming theists and atheists alike) and creating vibrant assemblies that inspire.
The UUA does not have to sell out what it is to do what I suggest. We can gather around the flaming chalice, affirm our unity in diversity, and go out to work for a better world. We can quote from any book and not cringe from any scientific discovery. We can use words that any can understand and all can embrace.
Though I doubt UUA headquarters or the regions have any real power to move any of this forward, as it is (thankfully) a congregational system, they could wake up to what’s really happening. New leaders could step forward — perhaps even from among the established ordained clergy, but also seminarians, those yet to study for the ministry, and committed lay people with no desire to don the stole — to gather together groups along the lines described above.

Let’s try new things. Let’s adopt what works to make people’s lives better and brighter. Let’s truly live out our calling as Unitarian Universalists. Let some congregations continue identifying as Christian, others as vaguely theistic, others as traditional and neutral, and yet others as contemporary and evidence-based. Let’s be together as diverse congregations and as very different people, sharing a common vision for our times and for future generations.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Innovative Faith

Innovation is something startups are all about, and to which major corporations pay lip service but rarely manage to grasp without acquiring a startup. In religion, it is almost always the sworn enemy of orthodoxy, with the word ‘innovator’ used throughout history as an epithet against those who think differently and dare to talk about it. If you think about it, it really makes sense that the orthodox would fear innovation.

First, innovation threatens core beliefs and ways of doing things by saying that there could be a better way. Christianity, for example, claims to have ‘the faith once delivered.’ Roman Catholicism in particular talks about core dogma as ‘the deposit of faith.’ Innovation questions this fossilizing approach and looks to think and be better.

Second, innovation disrupts. Look at how Uber has thrown the taxi business into chaos around the world. Taxi companies could have invested in an app a few years ago, but they didn’t. They preferred to stick to a tried and true business model, until it was too late. If this is the case with business, how much more disruptive innovation can be to religious communities. In not only questions authority, it has the capacity to show them as being wrong or out of touch.

Unitarian Universalism can be a very innovative faith. So many ‘heretics’ of so many varieties in its history and its present reality make for some interesting ideas. At the same time, like any other organization with a bureaucracy, the Unitarian Universalist Association can lag behind at times. We see this right now, I think, in the fevered attempts to imitate the ‘language of reverence’ seen in dying mainline denominations. The thinking is that people want more ‘reverent’ language, and so UU churches should use more of it. This goes completely contrary to what’s actually happening in the United States, with a growing demographic of ‘nones and dones’ leaving church behind. We are seeing secular groups like Sunday Assembly and Oasis growing relatively swiftly, while mainline churches hemorrhage members. Newer, secular communities are innovators.

Within UUism there is an openness to difference, and a belief that change can at times be good. The pulpit is free, the congregations are free, and the mind of the UU parishioner is free. In this context, innovators should rise up and take the historic opportunity to form new UU communities that welcome all into upbeat gatherings, deep discussion groups, and meaningful service opportunities.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Fresh Look at the Wisdom of the Ages

The Roman Catholic Church claims to have existed since the day of Pentecost recorded in the biblical Book of Acts. Certainly the organization is quite ancient, tracing back to the first centuries of the Common Era. We know that the Christian faith began with the spread of the legends about Jesus of Nazareth. Islam is said to have begun in 610 C.E., with the first revelation given to the prophet Muhammad when he was 40. Other religions, like Judaism, Hinduism,and others have origins in the early history of human civilization, shrouded by the mists of time. What does Unitarian Universalism offer in terms of history and accumulated insight?
The American Unitarian Association was organized in 1825. The Universalist Church of America formed a few decades later, in 1866. Almost century later, these two denominations merged, in 1961, to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. It may seem that such a young faith, still finding its way and figuring out what it is all about, couldn’t have much to offer in comparison to the faiths born in antiquity. I would argue, though, that it has much more to offer than them, precisely because it is able to draw from wisdom wherever it may be found.
Unitarian Universalism doesn’t have a creed, but it does have seven Principles. Beyond those, it also identifies the body of teachings and knowledge it has to draw upon, enshrined in its six Sources:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life; 
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life; 
Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit; 
Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Where Christianity has the Bible and tradition, Judaism the Torah and Talmud, and Islam the Quran and the Hadith, Unitarian Universalism has all these and more. A progressive faith, UUism doesn’t take any of the sacred texts of the various religions literally. It does, however, encourage us to look into them for insights, testing them to see what works and what doesn’t, filtering out sexism, racism,oppression, and whatever else is not conducive to human flourishing. Unitarian Universalism at its finest takes a humanistic approach to world religions and the spiritual teachings of the ages.
In fact, Humanism itself has long played a significant role in Unitarian Universalism, with many ministers and members identifying as atheists or agnostics, and taking this lifestance to be their own, lived out in the context of UUism. Even self-identified Christians and others of a theistic bent within UUism will often say they follow their chosen paths from a humanistic perspective. Reason, science, and evidence all matter, and they help to temper and inform the perspectives learned from older religions.
Unitarian Universalism is able to do what virtually none of the major religions — expressed in their myriad sects and movements — can do. It can draw on everything from every corner of human civilization, examine it in the light of current scientific understandings, accept what is good and reject what is less so, and create new paths. This is a potential that has only begun to be tapped in this young faith, and I’m glad to now be a part of this pilgrimage, still so close to its beginnings.