Overcoming wordiness

A word of explanation about why I care about these two (1, 2) BBC pre-war and wartime prayer books.

At some point, perhaps in the early postwar period, American Protestantism became consumed “togetherness” and word-smithing. That cozy togetherness which fit in so well in the baby boom suburbs, but which makes anyone who’s the least bit introverted writhe in the pews. And the temptation in the age of the mimeograph for ministers to craft special liturgies for every occasion, and to use ten words where one would do. (This is not an original thought on my part, and if I can find the reference I will include it later.) In short, Protestant worship (by which I include Unitarian Universalist worship) has become friendlier, more tactile, more community-focused and far wordier. Fine for some, but I can’t say I like it very much.

I appreciate the 15-minute services that the BBC broadcast, even though I’ve never heard one. Because participation is more than repeating the words that are printed the order of service, and comprehension is more than a quantum of words. In that spirit, I won’t labor the point.

Reviewing “Each Returning Day”

A few days ago, a second book arrived from the United Kingdom, the 1940 BBC prayer book Each Returning Day.

Four years had passed since the first BBC service book for the broadcast Daily Service, New Every Morning, and with those years the beginning of World War II. The new book was intended to be a supplement, but it served broader needs. The slim preface, written by F. A. Iremonger suggested its usefulness as a resource for private, family and congregational worship, though it was not specifically authorized in Anglican churches. Each days prayers were not meant to be comprehensive, but part of a monthly cycle, following. My own copy seems to have been the property of a Birmingham congregationalist minister, R. R. Osborn, who himself broadcast the Daily Service from time to time. My copy has those little pencil marks that ministers add to make the book more useful, and to keep from repeating prayers.

The tone is more patriotic, but not as much as I would have expected for a wartime supplement. As Dean Iremonger put it: “To pray about nothing but the war and their relatives may lead, in times of loss or distress — as it did frequently in the last war — to a revulsion against all religion; and for these in particular several sets of prayers are included which have no direct connexion with the war, but which may deepen and develop the sense of union with God through prayer.”

Because it’s hard to find here are the thirty daily services. (For months with thirty-one days, “it is suggested that any set of prayers be used which may be of special relevance at the time.”)

  1. For Faith in God
  2. For the King and the Royal Family
  3. For a New World
  4. For our Children
  5. For the Unemployed
  6. For Rulers and Statesman
  7. For the Grace of Perseverance
  8. For the Church of Christ
  9. For the British Empire
  10. For a Quiet Mind
  11. For all Workers, especially those engaged in war-work
  12. For the Forces of the Crown
  13. For those who Mourn
  14. For Courage
  15. For our Enemies
  16. For the High Court of Parliament
  17. For the Gift of Sympathy
  18. For the Spread of Christ’s Kingdom
  19. For the Spirit of Service
  20. For those at Sea
  21. For Peace
  22. For our Nation
  23. For the Sick and Wounded
  24. For the Protection of Almighty God
  25. For our Homes
  26. For the Spirit of Sacrifice
  27. For Chaplains, Doctors, and Nurses
  28. For Absent Friends
  29. For the Love of God
  30. For the Fallen in Battle, and all Departed Souls

Unlike the first book, this one does not have hymn suggestions, the hymns, psalms and a reading from scripture is noted in the Radio Times listing for the service.

Indeed, the form is spare. An opening sentence, a versicle and response, a brief themed call to prayer, a few appropriate collects, and a notion for use of additional prayers and the Grace.

The appendix has those additional prayers, including the hoary Book of Common Prayer’s collect “for all conditions of men” and the General Thanksgiving; these also show up in the Universalist prayer books, and are worthy for use as-is or in modern editions.

Sermon: Guiding One Another

I preached this sermon — in fact, I jettisoned a part in the middle for time — at Universalist National Memorial Church, on September 30, 2018 with the lectionary texts from Numbers and James.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit his morning, and to you, for welcoming me to the pulpit today.

A couple of weeks ago I got a partial root canal. It turns out that I’ve been grinding my teeth and eventually a cracked one of them. I may end up still losing the tooth. I might lose other teeth besides, because I keep gritting and grinding my teeth. Lately, I’ve been grinding my teeth every day. Perhaps you understand.

The last two times I preached in this pulpit, the president had done something awful and I thought it was my responsibility to address that in theological terms. The hearings of the Senate last week, including the harrowing testimony we heard, also counts as something awful. But I want to continue with my prepared remarks, and hope that what I have to say might spare me some teeth, and spare you some pain, by giving you strength and resources that the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary can neither give nor take away.

I looked at the texts assigned for today in the Revised Common Lectionary, an ecumenical readings calendar that breaks up the bulk of the Bible into a three-year cycle. It’s online; you can search for it. You might be interested in the scope of readings, what thoughts and feelings they evoke and how the readings relate to one another. (It’s also a point of pride. The committee that produced the Revised Common Lectionary included Unitarian Universalist Christians, and we don’t often have a place at the ecumenical table.)

So, we have for today a lesson from Esther, about her daringly exposing Haman as the plotting enemy of the Jews, with a psalm to match, used today in the opening words. There’s a gospel reading from Mark, with teachings from Jesus, including the well-known phrase “Whoever is not against us is for us.” But to be frank, Esther’s passage ended in violent death for the baddy and Jesus teaches one of those passages that makes Universalists itch, and I did that last time. And I saw something the other two had in common: teaching about the practice of faith itself.

So, I’d like to visit some of the practical and pastoral guidance the Bible has passed down the generations, and pull out some parts that apply to us today. And while I already have the curtain pulled back, and looking at how the sausage is made, let’s be clear about about what we might find in scripture.

Despite how some big-platform preachers might act, there’s not a one-to-one correlation between what the Bible records and what people do, much less what people ought to do. The Bible, in this sense, does not speak. It is not a guide book, instruction manual or cookbook. When I was a youth in Georgia, there was a popular bumper sticker that read “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it” which is entirely the wrong approach, because that all too easily becomes “I believe it. I will show that the Bible backs me. Don’t you dare cross me.” We have to be continuously on guard against self-validating appeals to divine power: self-validation that empowers bullies and fanatics, and builds walls between us and where God might lead us. The world is loud and scripture whispers.

There’s another risk. Take the current political moment. I find it intensely frustrating and often frightening. It would be all too easy to withdraw from awkward conversations, rigorous engagement and public participation and enjoy a private life. That’s what the Amish did; they are descended from one of the most radical Christian traditions of the Reformation and were so brutally persecuted that they withdrew from society.

And one last thing. And if we’re honest, we know these works have been compiled and edited within a particular historical and cultural contexts. This human hand does not distract from its divine origin, but reminds us that while they were lived in the Iron Age, we do not. We have to interpret these words for our time. We have to figure out what these words meant in their time, and hear that anew. This is what distinguishes the liberal approach.

Now, let’s review the reading book of Numbers (Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29).

Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible, and in the Torah, the heart of scripture, so shared by Jews and Christians. The Hebrew name translates to “in the Wilderness” and the English name refers to the censuses recorded in it. On the whole, it can be drowsy reading; this is practically an action scene, so it does take special care to uncover its meaning.

If you have not read Numbers — there was no homework — have not read it, or heard much about it, the “storyline” follows much what we find in the second half of that monumental film, “The Ten Commandments.” The Hebrew people had been released from captivity in Egypt through God’s action. Numbers covers the time from God’s self-revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai to the entrance of the people Israel into the land of Canaan.

But what’s this “mixed multitude” really forty years in the wilderness? At least one English Baptist scholar (Harold Henry Rowley; see note in Plaut’s Torah, p. 1011.) thinks that the Exile in the wilderness was only 2 years long: the 2 years that are mentioned in Numbers as the first and last year. The other 38 years were slotted in between.

Why would someone do that?

The Exodus narrative here and in the book of Exodus show how the people stopped being slaves, went out of Egypt and became a people in their own right, seeking a new homeland. But that it was a challenge and a process, and that they failed to hear and mind God along the way.

It’s easier to believe this idea of a nation developed over the course of generations, and not a single trip through the scorching and hostile desert, however long. What the point of the story is to say that one generation died that another generation and people would live.

And the number 40 is important to suggest a long duration. Where else do we see this number? The 40 days of the flood. Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness. A number which suggests a long time, and not to be understood literally. But the meaning is clear enough, once you understand the intent. It’s not a matter of deception or exaggeration, but coding the story with extra meaning. Which is fair, if you know what the code is.

One way to understand scripture is to understand where you are in the story. In this view, you have to think of yourself as being a part of the story rather than it happening to someone else. This way, we grow in empathy and see if there are parallels in how those people found God in their lives to see if we can find God in our own. A borrowed life lesson that provides a common language.

And also a link that provides context for other parts of the Bible. For example, Jesus would have known this passage, of course, and alludes to the manna in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth hath eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which cometh down out of heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. (vv. 47-50, Revised Version)

This changes our understanding of John: that Jesus was the renewal of promise, provision for the liberated, and reward for the wandering. It makes comments about pride or cannibalism seem silly and doctrinaire.

So, a few passages before today’s reading, we headed out into the wilderness with the people Israel, from the mountain of the Eternal, following the cloud that rose from the Ark of the Covenant. They went out in ranks, like an army. The people moved, and encamped, and grumbled. A mixed crowd; a little bit of everyone. A “motley crew” long before that became the name of a metal band.

What makes this telling of the story different from the one in Exodus (or Cecil B. DeMille) is how it was edited and what it focuses on.

Also, since we ascribe great worth to the Bible, it’s worth knowing how it came to be. The usual, pious understanding is that the first five books of the Bible — the Torah — were written by Moses personally. But there have also been serious and faithful questions for hundreds of years. But a simple reading of scripture should throw that into doubt. For one thing, how could Moses be the author if it records his death?

The work of “lower criticism” looks at the books, their structure and vocabulary, and try to understand the sources that we were developed to make these works as we know them. Written works don’t last forever. We don’t have a “first edition” or manuscript of any part of the Bible, and until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s and 1950, the oldest portions of the standard Masoretic version of the Torah we have is about eleven centuries old. The oldest biblical text we have today — say, 26 centuries old — is a in a rolled up silver amulet, so fragile that it had to be read with modern imaging technology: a part of the priestly blessing, from Numbers.

According to lower theory, there are four main sources for the Torah. Two — known as the E and the J sources, based on how God in named in the text. A D source, for Deuteronomy, which seems to be its own thing, and a P, or “priestly” source.

(We see a similar kind of development in play in the the four Gospels.) So where critics of scripture see contradictions and foolishness we see development, versions and alternatives.

Numbers relies on the priestly source, suggesting the book is about 25 or 26 centuries old, and based on the older E and J sources. That is, the underlying question in Numbers is “what is the role of priests in the community?” That doesn’t mean so much for us today, but it means there’s an editorial viewpoint that means the text cannot be read at face value, leading us to the historical or “higher” criticism.

This is where we pick up our lesson. Our passage skips over the manna. This strange, monotonous food; I imagine it would be like eating nothing but chia seeds. And, what do we have now? What is this? But, oh, remember the food in Egypt! he people are on their last nerve, “the Lord was very angry, and Moses was distressed.” (11:10, Plaut trans.) Then the Eternal God bid Moses bring seventy of the “elders and officers” of the people to the presence of the Eternal God, with Moses so that he would not bear the responsibility of leadership alone. (10:17) Those gathered with Moses spoke in an ecstatic voice when the spirit of the Eternal God came upon them, but not those leaders alone. Two others, named Eldad and Medad, did too: Moses would not restrain them. And then the feast of quail come down — maybe 50, 100 bushels full. The people were hit with a plague, and the motley crew, having buried their dead at the place named “graves of craving” set out again.

And perhaps the hunger for meat meant a return the familiar life of Egyptian captivity. One of relative ease and luxury; something more than literal meat, and something manna couldn’t feed.

Dear friends, we have the ability to be a great blessing to ourselves and to others. We have within ourselves the seed of greatness; “the kingdom of God is within you.” This is not an escapist fantasy. It however does take imagination. An imagination that resists the deadening pall of convention and the limitations of second guessing: an imagination and a direction that bubbles up possibilities inside us, and that God has set before us. Possibilities that create a hunger for something different, and before you know it, this faith has us wanting something better and seeking to make it real. I believe that there is a Divine path that we can take — one that we have no monopoly over — and welcomes companions. A way described in our passage from James:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.

Now, none of us alone can make the world right, but each of us can do our part to make it better.

As we proceed, we must ask ourselves: in what way do we mean better? A thin 51% control over the other 49%? Luxuries that we enjoy that others could not possibly also have? Sympathy that stops at the D.C. line or some other border? Lip service to full participation in the economic, moral, political and spiritual matters but acquiescence to the various systems that make this participation impossible? Not any of these, of course.

So taking the love of God, a humble and prayerful heart and a great deal of hard work; we must pray God to raise up scouts and guides for the journey, wherever they may come from; to apply ourselves to prayer and praise; confession and healing; guidance and counsel; and no less than all of these to use our minds and good sense to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (1 Thes. 5:21)

This is what we may enjoy and offer future generations. May God bless us now and forever.

How the wartime Daily Service might have sounded, first notes

It’s been more than a month since I order my copy of the BBC’s wartime supplement prayer book, Each Returning Day: A Book of Prayers for Use in Time of War and I’ve not gotten it, so let’s move ahead with a few notes on New Every Morning I’ve picked up while we wait. This helps us understand how the book was used. I started this series here.

  • The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship described the Daily Service as “a simple daily office comprising a sentence of scripture, a hymn, a prayer, a Bible reading, psalmody, intercessions and thanksgivings, a closing hymn and blessing.” With descriptions in the Radio Times it should be possible to figure out how the service was set out.
  • The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship also notes that “[w]omen as well as men led the service.” Notes elsewhere about BBC staff leading the prayers suggests that it was a lay office. (Ordained women ministers from Dissenting churches did lead the fuller broadcast Sunday service in this period.)
  • Winter’s Tale describes how tight the service was timed. For example, the Lord’s Prayer might be read at “anything between a brisk 24 seconds and a reverent 36” with blessings timed to choose one to fit the remaining time. It was 15 minutes long.
  • In the article “Hymns on the Air” by Cyril Taylor (Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland bulletin, October 1947), we learn that the Daily Service “contains two hymns, the first being linked with the opening prayers of worship, thanksgiving, or confession, the second with the closing prayers of intercession.”
  • The hymns came from Hymns Ancient and Modern and Songs of Praise (and didn’t vary as listeners followed along in their own books at home) plus metrical psalms and paraphrases “which we know will be particularly appreciated by listeners in Scotland.” Hymns were often shortened for time, and the tune was selected for its suitability for an octet, so none of the grand ones like “NUN DANKET or EIN’ FESTE BURG, or even OLD HUNDREDTH.”
  • Not so relevant to our concern, but interesting all the same: the BBC had a studio specially consecrated, looking something halfway between a period office and a chapel, used until destroyed by German bombs. It was lovely and must have made religious broadcasting seem that much more special.

“New Every Morning” for radio worshipers

I’ve neglected my public writing far too long, but neither have I had much to say. About a month ago, I started reading documents related to World War Two. This is not a new interest, but the occasion was accidental: I found a set of official bulletins from the Office for Emergency Management — entitled Victory — and that prompted a search for more. Turns out there’s a BBC history project, where years of the magazine Radio Times were scanned and the schedules digitized. All of 1939 are available to read, and with them the opening months of the war for the British. Add other documents and you get an amazing story that I’ve just begun to investigate.

The BBC had a basic problem: German bombing could knock out a part of the pre-war regionalized service. The solution was to consolidate the various radio programs into a single Home Service with transmitters blanketing the country. At first, the whole country’s broadcast service was reduced to news bulletins, recorded music and exceptional amounts of theater organ. This was during Hitler’s Phony War, and the BBC developed a other entertainment, documentary and informative programs, plus regional segments, including news and notices in Welsh. Religious broadcasting was a conspicuous part of the programming, including the Daily Service, which marked its ninetieth anniversary earlier this year. Naturally, I’m interested in what they came up with, not the least because they were responsible for a pan-Christian audience. (I’ve yet to find reference to Jewish or other religious programming during this period.)

Since 1936, and through the war and post-war period, the BBC Daily Service used a service book, New Every Morning, with a supplemental book Each Returning Day published during the war. How were they used? Did they appeal to an ecumenical audience? What limitations were put on the service to perfectly hit the fifteen minute broadcast window? I ordered copies of each book from British booksellers, and New Every Morning has since been delivered.

I think there are probably lessons for worship services with wide appeal, worship services for dispersed groups, and brevity. (Brevity being one of my ongoing beefs with Protestant liturgy.)

I’ll let you know what I find.

Sermon: How Not to Be a Prophet

This is a synopsis of the sermon I preached at Universalist National Memorial Church on July 15, 2018, based on the notes and manuscript I prepared for the occasion. The texts were Amos 7:7-15 and Mark 6:14-29.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit this morning, and to you for welcoming me to the pulpit today.

I say “welcome” because there’s an old joke that a preacher has one sermon, preached in hundreds of different ways. At the worst, that suggests uncreative preaching; at best, it means that we are dealing with issues of such depth and importance that they must be approached from different directions in various ways over the course of years, perhaps a lifetime. And if we’re lucky, we can sketch the outlines of the eternal truths, and delve into one or more of them. I hope I can honor your welcome by building on past sermons; this is how theology develops.

I won’t keep you in suspense; what do I have to preach? What’s the one sermon? In a nutshell, Live with God, and grow into a godlike way. The rest is commentary, detail and a lifetime of work.

So, today I’d like to talk about a particular kind of ministry – that of prophecy – and how it fits into our life with God, and growing in a godlike way.

Let’s start by dispelling the biggest misunderstanding about prophecy. It’s not fortune-telling. Rather, prophets are intermediaries with God, and when God deigns to speak through them, it is often a word of judgment and warning. A judgment and warning attuned to the times they live in, and its failings. These failing can be of morals, of religious observance, of justice, or of peace. But they are prophecies to the time and place they are spoken in.

The funny thing is that human behavior doesn’t change so much, even over the centuries. So a prophetic word about greed or violence, spoken twenty or twenty-eight centuries ago, can sound like it was meant for us today. And I have to think this twin observation – a prophecy to a long-dead king being heard and stirring later generations – lead to these words becoming recognized as scripture.

The prophet Amos is particularly universal this way, so little wonder Martin Luther King, writing from the Birmingham jail, could quote words…

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” …

as if they were meant for our age, too.

But that ability to identify with an ancient prophetic text can be misleading. There’s a strong tendency in the liberal churches to de-emphasize law and commandments and apply that emphasis to the prophets instead. We are moved by their words, particularly those which image a universal order of goodness, fairness and plenty. Our own tradition, as you can image, is particularly smitten.

The prophet’s word is ecstatic and mystical. If you don’t buy that it is at least courageous and deeply intuitive. And you can’t order up people touched by God. Worse, you have to be on guard for those. Just because the prophecy sounds universal, that doesn’t mean prophets are universally present. Indeed, they are very rare, but false prophets are always around the corner.

(I’m thinking of Jim Jones and his followers, more than nine hundred in all, who died at Jonestown forty years ago this November. One thing I can give credit to the UUA for, if rumor holds, is that he sought ministerial fellowship, but was rejected.) Beware prophets, even if they look the part.

And we should beware sounding like prophets just because we like the force and clarity of the prophet’s voice. It’s hard to live with God, and grow into a godlike way, when you’re mad all the time. Or shooting the upset with diversions, pleasant or otherwise. So then, what shall we do?

The church has a responsibility to look at the world, first to see that we approach it through the right lens and then offer means to cope with it. The most important of these means, I think, being the plain proclamation that God will gather us together, to be All in All. An ethics of care flows from that. But we live in the world that have, and not one we would choose.

It has become a standard response in the liberal church to maintain a prophetic witness, and perhaps even a cliché. I’m not sure I could define a prophetic response, but you know it when you see it. They are noisy, inconvenient, angry in tone or some combination of these.

And you’ll forgive me if a lot of “prophetic action” seems to be the action of people confused about what better could be done. Appealing to God’s prophets of old, and kindling their fire in this age, draws attention to those seeking justice.

We can admire the prophets. We can try to follow their teaching, perhaps also resent their wrath. We can teach their lessons to each other and our progeny. It is not at all clear that we should act like them. In any case, we’re not learning about the breadth and width of prophecy as if it were as new as it was in Amos’ day. Ours is a responsibility to act not as prophets but as responsible people who heed the prophets in the right time. Because the right time is the missing piece. Amos spoke out of a particular moment in his nation’s history. There was a context that called for a particular response. We can—and do—draw out guiding values from his words, but it’s clear that it’s not a universal prescription. Perhaps we do not need prophets because we have other spiritual offices – namely the pastors and deacons – who supply care in the ways particular to those offices.

In Amos, high in the heritage of the prophets, God has upset heritage itself. He was not born to prophecy, but for lack of a better term had it imposed upon him for the sake of his people.

Many of us are practical people who want sensible, approachable and actionable ideas to the world’s problems, even shaping our careers to help others. Ask generous people what they do to make life more fair and just. Good habits – including the good habits of being fair and just – good habits need models, practice, patience and reinforcements. Ask how others how to live with God, and grow into a godlike way — and do it.

Improving prayerbook typography

So, last time I said I was putting off a post about improving prayerbook typography to focus on the times. Then I started writing it and began to grow into a sermon. No thanks.

Here’s the deal. I nicely arranged the 1894 Universalist prayerbook with proper small caps and the rest for my own use last year. Then I shared a copy with a minister who I thought could use it, and now I’m sharing it with you.

  1. To learn more,  fead PracticalTypography.com “Typography in Ten Minutes” by Matthew Butterick. If you find that useful, keep reading and seriously consider buying the book. (It’s on the honor system, but it sends a message that the work has value and that others can be created by the same model and without advertising.)
  2. Download LibreOffice.org, the leading free and open-source office suite. In its last big update, it started supporting advanced OpenType features. This means using the real small caps and old-style numerals often embedded in typefaces.
  3. I use the Linux Libertine font in the prayerbook, and many of my projects. I think it’s included with LibreOffice.org, but if not get it here.
  4. Download the prayerbook file here. (ODT file, 9.5 Mb) Even if you’re not interested in the contents, you can see how I styled it. I’m not a designer, but I think this works pretty well. You should be able to open it in Microsoft Word. (Let me know in the comments.)
  5. Or a PDF of just the Morning Prayer section (80 kb) to use or to see the concept. Print double-sided on U.S. letter paper and fold.

That’ll do for now. Again, the  comments are open.

A word about the situation we’re in

I usually write on a narrow set of subjects — worship, theology and church administration — so leave subjects of national or international importance to those who have a greater depth of experience or better vantage point. Say, the merciless change in policy that means migrant parents in custody are separated from their children. I can’t imagine their horror, or the life-long damage this causes them all.  The UUA made this statement; my heart is closer to this Greek Orthodox statement. There’s lots of religious objection from many quarters to this policy, and the Attorney General’s presumption of quoting Romans to defend his actions.

Of course I detest it. I want it to end. I want decency, democratic norms and accountability to guide national and international governance. But the list of the unbelievable and the unimaginable keeps getting longer. Defend against this, and the White House lobs that grenade into the crowd.

Overcoming these assaults will mean a lot of hard, wearing work, and success is not given. Things I used to care about deeply — employment rights for gay people, or the end of the death penalty — are (to me) now less important than the calculated and empowered de-humanization of target groups by the current Administration. God willing, we may step out of crisis in a few years, but I’m not banking on it.

I paused to make this statement because I was going to write a little post about automating and improving prayerbook typography, and that seems so small by contrast. Even a bit callous. But here’s part of my thinking: we will be called to fight and sacrifice for a very long time. There won’t be as much money or time to enjoy pleasantries, also because the economy is rigged against all but the very rich. We should make as much of what we can, that we might enjoy it the more. If the organ is broken or the plaster crumbles or can’t put a down payment of a church building of our own, we can at least have well-ordered services and (in this case) attractive printed material. We can have that much, and try not to be jealous for more. We must be careful not to be anesthetized to evil by heaping up things or meeting or processes. More than a policy change, the situation we’re in calls for a change in how we live.

So if the flower fund becomes someone else’s legal defense fund, we might better see the beauty of the Lord, and worship in spirit and in truth.

Sermon impression: “Teaching of the Holy Spirit” (June 10, 2018)

What follows is not a manuscript of the June 10 morning sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, or even a reconstruction, but an impression to share with those who were not present. The morning’s texts from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians and the Gospel of Mark may be found here.

I had planned to preach from a manuscript, but the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain so close together raised a consciousness and care that I knew it would be on our minds at church. Better to speak from the heart and with with short notes…

I would like us to speak clearly about suicide, generally, and about the people we’ve known and lost personally. My call to the ministry began after the suicide of a dormmate in college, nearly thirty years ago. I’m sure it has touched people here.

Spade and Bourdain’s deaths are troubling, in part, because they were styish and adventuresome and well-known. Our culture values these things but they is no protection. And their deaths reminds us of the unrecognized courage and suffering borne by unfamous (but much loved) people who died from suicide, or who struggle with it. Silence is a deadly enemy, and their deaths is both a loss in themselves and a threat to our sense of self. There is help available, and I recommend you keep these numbers handy in your phone: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) and text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

It is important as Universalists to make a public, matter-of-course profession of the hope we share, and claim God’s care for those who die in suicide. There are people who claim that “a spirit of suicide” is loose in the world, or that Spade, Bourdain and others who take their own lives will suffer hell for their act. But this is not so, and a terrible, cruel thing to say. Should someone say this to you, say back, “I’m a member of a church that believes no such thing.”

For we each rely on God’s nature and not our own actions, and God’s nature is love. Ill health (including mental health) and misfortune can afflict any of us. But God made us, and God cares for those who take thoir own lives. Hold on to that.

We could spend much time reflecting on these realities, but let’s also review the text from the Gospel of Mark. It is not easy to hear — say, “Satan casting out Satan.” What would that mean? But there is one part that stands out more and has long been a difficulty for Universalists.

With this in mind, let’s turn to the passage in Mark 3, about the eternal sin and the blasphemy against the holy spirit.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”– for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Blasphemy is one of those words that might make us chuckle because it so lost in time, like haughty, wicked or naughty. Each of these meant something very serious, but that was a long time ago. So it’s easy to under-estimate the point of the passage. In some sense, it is about demeaning or not adequately showing honor to some deity, and by extension to a text or holy person. Most of the remaining blasphemy laws are in Muslim countries, but this hides the fact that they existed in many other countries, including in western Europe until very recently. Denmark had a blasphemy law until last year, its repeal triggered by an active prosecution. The past, as the saying goes, isn’t even in the past. It has long been the perogative of civil authority to police blasphemy.

Jesus was engaging in theological jujitsu with blasphemy hunters in religious leadership. He was suspect of blasphemy and were hoping he would entrap himself. So that blasphemy against the holy spirit is blasphemy against what was working within Jesus, and as he had just commissioned the apostles, presumably the work within them. This seems not so far removed from our ideas of the violation of conscience, except that the “conscientousness” comes as a divine gift, we would call that grace. Then it seems to me that the blasphemy against the holy spirit is tied to an intrusion, a violation against our inward soul. That picking and digging that others so easily do, perhaps because they think they have the right to do.

Blasphemy against the holy spirit is insulting the grace God gives us, and souls by which we meet God. Anyone who stood out for the three and a half hours of the Pride parade yesterday saw evidence of this. The mistake grows by reading “eternal sin” as “something that needs punishment (after death) without end.”

There’s a problem here with the word translated eternal. … not a succession of years stacked end to end without beginning or end. The short version is that the word translated eternal pertains to God’s nature, much as we might speak of God as the Eternal One. A sin against God’s nature, which is not ours to forgive.

The answer is to defend the work of God as it grows in each of us, through care and forbearance, and not act in hubris against one another.

New congregations to join the UUA?

I had been waiting for the UUA Board agenda and packet for their meetings that surround General Assembly; they published them last night.

Why? To see what great things the UUA is planning? No. Something simpler. Will there be a new member congregation celebrated at General Assembly? Not that many years ago, welcoming new congregations was quite the event. Pictures of smiling faces, maps pointing out the new starts and delegations on stage. Then fewer. Then one. Last year, none.

The last congregation to join the UUA was two years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Benton County, Bentonville, Arkansas. Meanwhile a few others, all very small, have since disbanded or disaffiliated. I have my opinions why this is the case, and no, the covenanted communities aren’t a replacement, but I’m not keen on shouting into the wind.

Instead, I’ll say thank you to the people of the recently-disbanded Peter Cooper Fellowship, Memphis, Tennessee (as noted in the packet) and wish them well for whatever the future brings.