Thursday, December 10, 2009

A "Mary" Christmas

A “Mary” Christmas

Rev. Jane Page

December 13, 2009

I was raised a Southern Baptist. We did not pay much attention to Mary. Oh, we pulled her out of the closet at Christmas time – like I suppose I’m doing now. But then we stuffed her back in there for another year. To me – she was Jesus’ mother – not a saint – and certainly not “The Mother of God” or “Queen of Heaven.” I would never have considered praying to her or calling on her in any way. But as I grew older and learned about other denominations and religions, I became more intrigued with the way others worshiped. And I found the adoration of Mary to be rather – interesting. Not bad or good – just interesting. That’s the term my Mama uses when someone asks her about her my brother and me. She says – “My children are …interesting.”

So this morning, I’m going to share some ideas about Mary and Mariology that I find interesting – and then explore what we might gain from the story of Mary to help us in our own lives.

First, I find it interesting that there is very little about Mary in the Bible. The very earliest writings in the New Testament were written by Paul or Pauline students. And although I have disagreements with Paul on many issues, I do consider these writings to be the most historically accurate – because they were written in the early to mid 50’s and by someone who at least had contact with Jesus’ disciples. And I find it interesting that Paul – who was a primary founder of the RELIGION of Christianity- never mentions Mary by name. And in only one verse does he even refer to Jesus having a mother --- when he notes that Jesus was “born of woman.”

Most biblical information about Mary comes from the gospels (that’s Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

Now all of these gospels were written long after Jesus’ death. Isn’t it interesting that none of his story was written down by historians when he was doing his thing in life and in death?—because there were certainly historians during that time period writing about other events in this region. Nevertheless, some of these early Christians eventually began to write down stories about Jesus. Now since all of these gospels were written much later and based on stories passed down or written to match earlier prophesies – most of what we know about Mary should probably be put in the category of myth or legend – but it’s still interesting. Scholars believe that the author of the gospel of Mark probably wrote his little book sometime after 70 AD, because of his reference to the destruction of the temple. Some believe it could have been written as early as 62 AD. But in any case, it was the earliest.

The first time Mary comes up in Mark – it’s not by name – and actually, she’s ignored by Jesus in this passage. This is a very interesting passage though – because in this passage, Jesus’ family is concerned because they think he’s gone mad and they want to intercede. Listen to these passages from Mark 3: 20-35. Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind." ...There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

So Mary was not lifted up by Jesus in that passage – but ignored, and it sheds a different light on WHO family is to Jesus—(at least as the story is told by the author of Mark).

The only place Mark mentions Mary by name is in a passage in which Jesus is being put down by others in Nazareth. Mark 6:3 reads: Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph,] Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?"

The bulk of Marion knowledge based on the Bible – comes from Matthew and Luke. And for both, the story of Jesus’ birth is primary. Now when you read these stories, you see some similarities – but lots of differences in how these events occurred. When we do the nativity drama here on Christmas Eve – we draw from both – but mainly from Luke. When you read these – especially with a commentary that connects with the Old Testament, you can see how these writers weaved their stories to match various prophesies. And that’s why they are so unusual – having Joseph and Mary travel different places in the process – so that every prophecy could be covered. For example, if one prophet says the Messiah will come out of Bethlehem and another says he will come out of Egypt – what do you do? (Especially if the one you believe is the Messiah was from Nazareth.) Well, you have some event that causes Mary and Joseph first to go to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth and then to flee to Egypt – then come out of there also.

Now Matthew is the one who is overly intent on covering all these prophesies – therefore—he has more events like the killing of the innocents, the wise men coming from the East, and the family fleeing to Egypt. And he constantly refers back to prophesy to reinforce that Jesus is the Messiah. He even throws one in to back up why Jesus ended up growing up in Nazareth. Matthew 2:23 reads: (He) came and settled in a town called Nazareth in order to fulfill what was said by the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene." No such prophecy can be found in the Old Testament – and scholars can’t find it in any written prophesies of old regarding the Messiah being a Nazarene. The defenders chalk it up to oral tradition.

WE usually read the Christmas story from Luke – because it’s written as a beautiful story. Indeed, Mary comes to life in Luke. She doesn’t even speak in Matthew. Catholic tradition has it that Luke’s source was Mary herself – and that he even painted pictures of her. This was one skillful doctor. In fact the Catholic Church venerates him as the patron saint of physicians, surgeons, students, butchers, and artists.

Now the SECOND thing I find very interesting about Mary is that much of Mariology came from texts that were deemed apocryphal by the Church – like the Book of James and the Gospel according to Pseudo-Matthew. The book of James is an Eastern text that heavily influenced the cult of the Virgin in the west. Now there are lots of very interesting stories in these texts about Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, and her how Mary was conceived without original sin. That’s the actual Immaculate Conception. It’s not the conception of Jesus. It’s the conception of Mary. It also provides additional stories of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Now interestingly enough, all of these were later published BY the church supposedly by St. Jerome who admits that the books are dubious, but backtracks to say he is publishing them to “unmask the deceit of heresy.” In any case, the three teachings of the church which generally come from these texts are these. (1) Immaculate Conception; (2) Perpetual Virginity (It wasn't enough for Mary to be a virgin at Jesus' birth; she had to STAY a virgin. So all those brothers and sisters mentioned in the Bible must have actually been cousins -- or perhaps Joseph's children by a previous marriage -- but oh, no -- many say that Joseph was a perpetual virgin as well); and (3) Bodily Assumption (you can't just let someone like Mary decay or something).

Third, I find it interesting that icons, statues, and pictures of Mary have become so very important to various groups. The Church heavily promotes prayer – yet acknowledges that prayerful contemplation can be difficult for many folks. And indeed, just as some who meditate need something external (perhaps a Buddha statue) to focus on, the church also recognized the importance of external stimuli to prayer. One scholar noted: the sacred drama of the mass excites the senses, with its spectacular display and pageantry, its music and perfumes, even the taste of the Eucharist on the tongue…. So pictures, relics, and sanctuaries are all component parts of the same language of prayer that communicates heaven to earthlings and makes addressing a saint much easier.” (Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex, Vintage Books, 1976).

The earliest representations of Mary that we have are on the catacomb walls. I didn’t bring pictures of those because they are pretty difficult to see. But I did bring several other reproductions of reproductions of what are traditionally thought by the Church to be first century depictions.

I'm going to show you a few of the MANY that are attributed to that prolific artist St. Luke. Each of these has some fabulous story that goes with it about how originals of these works were kept in various places and how miracles took place when people would come to view them.

Here is the Hodgetria – or “She who shows the way” with Mary pointing to Jesus.

I really was drawn to the ones where Jesus seems to be paying attention to Mary – like this one sometimes called “The Tender Mercy.” I don’t know what that says about me and my parental needs.

And here are others in a similar vane:

(Sorry, I couldn’t share them all in this online document)

In this slide, Mary is shown in her primary role as intercessor.

This is the famous Black Madonna from Poland with many interesting tales of miracles associated with it. Although it’s been painted over many times –and with materials that make it impossible to recover what was originally there – it still holds primary historical importance as an original artifact, because tradition says that St. Luke (yes, Luke again) painted the picture on a table top that was in Mary’s house.

The title “Queen of Heaven” was used in antiquity by many religions. In particular, it was used by the prophet Jeremiah, probably in reference to Asherah, a goddess worshiped in ancient Israel and Judah. But Mary replaced those queens in Christianity and is often depicted in a queenly manner. These ideas along with other teachings like the assumption were reinforced as formal church dogma in 1950 when Pope Pius XII basically said – I’ve said it’s true – therefore it’s true. And although Vatican II seemed to back off a little with some of the heavy emphasis on Mary, the current Pope, Benedict XVI, declared in 2006 that “Mary's acceptance of the divine will is the ultimate reason, she is Queen of Heaven. Because of her humble and unconditional acceptance of God's will "God exalted her over all other creatures, and Christ crowned her Queen of heaven and earth."

Virgin Orans depicts Mary in the Orante position. The Orante is a figure with open arms, a symbol of the soul at peace in paradise. You’ll see the Christ Child in Mary’s womb. I’ve read that these icons are favorites among those who actively oppose legalized abortions.

Now of course Mary has continued to be an object of visual art through the centuries, but she changed some, depending on the location of the artist.

(Examples shown from Europe, Africa, and Asia)

Then there are wonderful depictions of Mary in statues and sculptures. The two I’ve brought to share today are by Michelangelo.

The first is his Madonna and Child and the second is Michelangelo’s Pieta, which depicts Mary with Jesus’ body after it has been taken down from the cross. I actually got to see this sculpture when my parents took me to the World’s Fair in New York in 1964. It was on exhibit at the Vatican’s pavilion. I’ll never forget it – because all I knew was that I was standing in line to see a sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary and Jesus. So I was expecting a Madonna and child. As a 13 year old, this was very difficult for me to view – and brought home the human aspects and heartbreak of the story of Mary and her son. This sculpture was vandalized in 1972 by a mentally disturbed man, but has been preserved – and is now behind bullet proof glass at St. Peter’s cathedral.

Now the fourth thing that I find interesting is that people devoted to Mary today find her in so many INTERESTING places. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful in showing you these – but I think it’s interesting that if you are focusing on some figure – you will find it. Here are some modern-day Mary sightings.

(Note: Just Google Mary Sightings)

And finally, I find it interesting that I find Mary interesting. In many ways, she represents everything that I’m not! I had thought about doing this sermon on Mary – in a dramatic portrayal of the blessed Virgin. But when I suggested that to the program committee, some of them had a huge laugh! I don’t understand why – since they have seen me portray such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dewey, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and of course – Jezebel. But I agree that you can only suspend reality – so far. And Mary would be a stretch for me. Besides, I have some real problems with Mary.

Now it’s not just because most of Mariology is totally unbelievable to me. I gain much inspiration from religious stories that I don’t believe literally. But the messages that Mary brings makes a feminist like me squirm with frustration.

First of all – the whole thing about the virtuousness of “immaculate conception" and "continual virginity” bothers me tremendously. It’s that whole "sex is dirty" mindset – and child birth is dirty. Some state that Mary really didn’t need purifying because she remained intact.

And then I’m bothered by Mary’s permanent role as an intercessor who needs to pray to her own son or to God the father – the males who can really help you. The church has made sure everyone understands that Mary is no goddess—she’s a go-between that keeps the peace, as many mothers have been relegated to doing for years. And even though stories, art, and music about Mary are beautiful (and in some ways I love them) – I worry that these beautiful depictions of Mary have condemned women (especially in the Catholic Church) to permanent inferiority.


There IS something about Mary.

And I do find something quite holy about one who conceives, gives birth to and nurtures the divine. That part of the Mary story is one that is very meaningful to me – and I think it can be meaningful to us all – because I believe that we can all accept that privilege and blessing. Some of us may do this by the love and care we give to others who are special to us. Some may conceive of something divine through their work or through their play. We can give birth to something divine in our involvement in the community and with projects that we know can make a difference. And we can nurture the divine in our connections with nature. By focusing on that goodness within us and within the world, we can be as Mary – full of grace. And we may find peace and joy in the acceptance of that call. But we all know that in following this call to connect in love, we also risk great heartbreak. Sometimes the joy in connection with the Divine is bittersweet and hard. Yet, it is deep and profound. And there may be peace in knowing that you have answered that call to make the world a little bit better, by planting that garden, caring for that sick person, tutoring that child, writing a note of encouragement to someone who is discouraged, or rocking a baby.

I found a song when I was preparing for this sermon that presents Mary in this light – as one who has accepted that blessing and privilege – yet it is difficult, so she calls on the Breath of Heaven. That almost has a Buddha nature to it, doesn’t it? This song was written by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. And I found the melody, the words and the emotions – more than interesting! I share with you now – “Breath of Heaven, Mary’s song.”


I have traveled many moonless nights,

Cold and weary with a babe inside.

And I wonder what I’ve done.

Holy Father, You have come

And chosen me now to carry Your Son.

I am waiting in a silent pray’r.

I am frightened by the load I bear.

In a world as cold as stone,

Must I walk this path alone?

Be with me now, be with me now.

Breath of heaven, hold me together.

Be forever near me, breath of heaven.

Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness.

Pour over me Your holiness, for You are holy,

Breath of heaven.

Do you wonder as You watch my face,

If a wiser one should have had my place?

But I offer all I am

For the mercy of your plan.

Help me be strong, help me be…. help me.

Breath of heaven, hold me together.

Be forever near me, breath of heaven.

Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness.

Pour over me Your holiness, for You are holy.

Breath of heaven, hold me together.

Be forever near me, breath of heaven.

Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness,

Pour over me Your holiness, for You are holy,

Breath of heaven, breath of heaven, breath of heaven.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Holy of Holies

From the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro Newsletter
December 2009


Yes, the hectic pace of the holiday season is upon us. Where, oh, where can we find peace? Where can we find the Divine?

Poet Anne Sexton went looking for the Divine and wrote the poem quoted below about that experience.


Ms. Sexton went out looking for the gods.
She began looking in the sky
—expecting a large white angel with a blue crotch.

No one.

She looked next in all the learned books
and the print spat back at her.

No one

She made a pilgrimage to the great poet
and he belched in her face.

No one.

She prayed in all the churches of the world
and learned a great deal about culture.

No one.

She went to the Atlantic, the Pacific, for surely God...

No one.

She went to the Buddha, the Brahma, the Pyramids
and found immense postcards.

No one.

Then she journeyed back to her own house
and the gods of the world were shut in the lavatory.

At last!
she cried out,
and locked the door.

This poem was quoted by one of the speakers at the ministers’ conference that I attended recently and I immediately connected. Ah, yes, I know the place. The gods of the bathroom are very real to me. Here, and sometimes, only here, can one find solace, privacy, and peace, among the soap and toothpaste and toiletries. And there is even a throne to sit upon for meditation.

I became a Unitarian Universalist convert in this holy room. You see, I spent most of my life in the Southern Baptist church, but began questioning their beliefs in my early teens. I continued my spiritual exploration in adulthood, and rationalized that Southern Baptists lifted up the “Priesthood of the Believer,” so I could still be a Baptist and seek my own interpretations of the Divine. But when the conservatives took over the denomination in 1979, it became especially difficult; and I no longer felt that I could openly share my feelings and beliefs, not even with my husband who was a deacon in the church. When I saw a program in 1990 about Unitarian Universalism on television, I ordered the materials, hoping they would be delivered in a plain brown rapper. When the package arrived, I retrieved them from the mailbox – and took them – where? – to the bathroom of course. I hid them in a drawer under the “feminine products” along with my other contraband literature. It was here that I studied Unitarian Universalism and began to embrace this liberating faith.

Two decades later, as a Unitarian Universalist minister (with a new UU husband to boot), I no longer have the need to hide what I read in the bathroom drawer. But this room is still a very holy place to me. I especially love taking baths – soaking in the warm water, and smelling the soap. Here in this special “Holy of Holies,” I sing praise songs to Sexton’s "gods of the laboratory" and listen to their sweet refrain.


Monday, November 9, 2009

Come, Come, Whoever You Are...

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro

Rev. Jane Page

November 8, 2009

About a week and a half ago, I sent an email to those members and friends who attend here regularly. And I asked for you all to respond to a question giving me a word or phrase (like agnostic, Buddhist, Christian, pantheist, etc.) that might describe your theology or world view. Here are three results of that little study.

1st: Only 18 people responded to my request to share something of your theological identity or worldview to help me with this sermon. Now that low response in itself tells me something I think. I’m still trying to be careful, though, about the conclusions I could draw from the fact that this response was low.

2nd: Only two of the responses just listed a word or words for their identity. Most folks responded with a narrative explanation. And usually any identification words – like agnostic for example – were accompanied with other adjectives or narrative descriptors.

3rd: In my attempts to categorize the responses, I found that a majority of those responding would fall into a group that I might refer to as “Rational Worldviews.” In fact that’s where I placed 11 of the 18 responses. There were three folks whose descriptions might be categorized as “earth –centered” and the remaining four were what I guess I would term “other.”

Now I use the term “rational” because that term is often found in the literature itself for identity labels like agnostic, naturalist, humanist, scientific, and more – not as a category that would deem others necessarily as irrational. I don’t know that these responses necessarily tell us anything about this congregation. It MAY tell us who in our congregation is more likely to identify their world view – especially to Jane Page, who tends to lean in a rational direction herself.

Of course I’m not going to try to paint a picture of the theological diversity of our congregation based on this small number. I know better. However, I’m glad that I made the request. It, indeed, HAS given me a better understanding of 16 of you – for only two of those responding used the anonymous option via survey monkey. And I believe it was a great exercise for those of you who responded. Many of the responses were so profound and thick that I was very tempted to spend part of this sermon quoting them. But then I was afraid that folks would turn that into a guessing game and try to figure out who said it – and I promised to keep responses confidential. I do believe that contemplating our theology or worldview is a good thing for us to do – not just because it’s interesting, but because it can help us frame how we respond morally and ethically. So this process – and perhaps the lack of response – has motivated me to make sure we offer a “Building Your Own Theology” class soon – perhaps starting in January.

Although I don’t know how our congregation might really look on the theological pie chart, I do know that we are diverse – like most UU congregations. An internal study was done over a decade ago by our association that included over 8000 respondents. That survey included a question asking participants to select a single theological label to describe themselves. And unlike my open-ended question, the choices were provided for them. Here’s the breakdown: Humanist (46.1%), earth/ nature centered (19%), theist (13%), Christian (9.5%), mystic (6.7%), Buddhist (3.6%), Jewish (1.3%), and less than 1% for Hindu, Muslim, and other identified labels. However 13% chose the category of OTHER.

Another UUA study of congregational ministers or presidents was done in 2005 that asked them to check the primary theological perspectives of their congregants (and they could check more than one). And here are these results:

Ninety one percent of these congregational leaders checked Humanist as one of their choices. The second highest choice was Earth-centered with 59%, followed by Theist at 55%, Christian at 39%, Mystic at 28%, Buddhist at 27%, Jewish at 25%, and Other at 12%. Now, you understand that these leaders were not saying that, for example, 25% of the congregants identified as Jewish. It’s just that 25% of the leaders included a check by “Jewish” as one of possibly several primary theological perspectives in their congregations.

These UUA survey findings make me think that perhaps my little survey may be reflective of these other findings and that a majority of our folks might line up in something akin to the Humanist camp. Now I don’t know that this is really the case – but even if it IS the case, that doesn’t mean that we define ourselves as a congregation in these terms. There are some congregations who do just that – because they are in larger cities where UU’s have a choice. For example, when Greg and I were in Washington, we attended one event at a UU church that identified as a Christian Congregation. And near Atlanta, there is one congregation that identifies as humanist. But we, here in Statesboro, are a congregation with diverse theologies and worldviews – and frankly, that is one thing that appeals to me. However, some of my readings recently have affirmed what I already know – that this theological diversity can be a challenge in many ways.

Michael Durall is a UUA congregational consultant and author of The Almost Church which I shared about on August 27 2006 from this pulpit -- and now this little book called The Almost Church Revitalized. This little book was so motivating to me that I purchased copies for all of our board members to read – and we’ve been sharing together about this book in special meetings this past month. When we complete our own study, we’ll put these books in our lending library for the rest of you – or you can order your own. In any case, I don’t normally just read something from a book to you -- but I’m going to read half of a page from this little book that relates to this subject of theological diversity. Durall states:

In my experience as a parish consultant, I find that UU congregations possess a limited capacity for systemic change. This occurs, in large part, because of a diverse theology and various factions that exist within the membership. For example, proposed changes in worship or music run a high risk of being opposed by various combinations of theists, deists, humanists, atheists, agnostics, pagans, people of different generations, and the ubiquitous vocal minority that seems to exist in all UU congregations.

Attempts to make changes in congregational life reveal that the more diverse the theology, the greater the likelihood of internal dissent. Diversity it the ultimate UU dogma, but the emphasis on “all voices being heard” creates congregations whose dominant attributes are maintaining harmony and keeping various factions content. Fear of controversy can paralyze a congregation, ensuring that it maintains existing habits and ways.

I am familiar with numerous UU congregations whose clergy and board members literally live in fear of displeasing various segments of the congregation. But maintaining harmony, according to Congregational ministry Anthony Robinson, “Is often an inability to deal with the tough questions or to be honest with one another.”

UU congregations offer people of all beliefs a place at the table. This is a unique strength. However, being seated at the table cannot be the culmination of congregational life. The culture of, “We are here and we are diverse,” is not enough.

Now, I know as a minister that I am constantly trying not to offend. But that’s pretty tough to do with a group like this. One of our board members got on to me about my feeling the need to WARN you all when I might talk about something that offends you – like when I put– “God, Sex, and Politics” – up front as my last sermon topic, so folks would know that I’d be talking about these topics that are sometimes -- to some folks – offensive. She said – “You have freedom of the pulpit. Folks should come here expecting that they might be offended by what you say.” It’s like that story that I told when I first became your minister – about the man and his son and the donkey trying to please everyone they met along the way regarding who should ride and who should walk -- and ending up with their ass on their shoulders.

I also know that the choir members have experienced this to in their efforts to select songs that will not offend. You know the old joke about why Unitarian Universalists are such poor singers. They are reading ahead to see if they agree with the words. Actually, I think we’ve made some progress on some of these issues – especially the music. I do think that folks here now understand they don’t have to agree with all the words to appreciate the music and the message of love behind it – regardless of the theology expressed.

Our UU Associational leaders have realized these concerns related to our diversity and challenged our congregations to explore this further. Our association has something called the Commission on Appraisal – which was first formed by the Unitarian branch of our movement back in 1934. This commission is charged with studying various aspects of our movement and making a report every four or five years. Their 2005 report was entitled, Engaging Our Theological Roots.

In this report, the commission encourages us as congregations to focus directly on some of the areas that some may see as problematic in our diversity. One of these areas is Our Christian Roots.

They report:

Both the Unitarian and the Universalist national organizations were Christian at the time of consolidation, although this seems to have been forgotten or ignored in some parts of the denomination. In the intervening forty-two years, there has been a dramatic shift. Today most UUs, if asked, “Are you Christian?” would respond with something between “Well, not really” and “Hell, no!” Though there are many UU Christians, they have become a minority within the denomination. In fact, UUs seem almost proud of the way they have abandoned their roots. “We are not Christian,” some say perhaps implying that they are better than Christian. … Unitarian Universalists need to make peace with their heritage.

We are not suggesting, as some might, that Unitarian Universalism should become a Christian denomination again. That would not be remotely practical, even if it were desirable. But UUs should do a better job of remembering the tradition from which they came, and even be grateful to it.

Another problematic issue that the Commission raises is EXOTICISM—and this may offend some of you – and is actually a little offensive to me – but here goes.

They state:

(The) undercurrent of anti-Christianity is reinforced by cultural sentiments among the liberal intellectuals Unitarian Universalism tends to attract that Christianity is passé. .. It’s not “in.” What is “in,” and also unobjectionable (from the standpoint of many unreconciled former Christians), is anything Eastern or “earthy” in nature. Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American spirituality and pagan earth-centered religions have been identified as trendy, cool, and acceptable among UUs.

The problem with this is that the fashionability of these “exotic” religions is frequently defined in opposition to Christianity. The exotic religions are prima facie given great latitude and not always critically examined, while any use of Christian sources in UU churches is minutely scrutinized….

This exotic fashionability of non-Judeo-Christian sources is something that the UU movement has not adequately examined but needs to. There is a colonialist attitude inherent in the way UUs, made up predominantly of whites, seems to pick and choose what they want from religions that have traditionally belonged to ethnic groups different from the majority UU demographic. It seems like an unspoken assumption that UUs, as members of a predominantly white denomination, can take what we find appealing from the religions of Native Americans, East Asians, South Asians, and others without any regard for the context or the history of the symbols, beliefs, and practices that we are hoping to co-opt. OUCH!

This concern about cultural misappropriation has come to light many times at our General Assemblies in the past few years and it’s raised my consciousness considerably. For example, the last time November 1 fell on a Sunday – that would be 2001 – I had just started seminary and was leading some of the services here occasionally. And I thought it would be interesting for us to do like the Mexicans do and have a celebration of the Day of the Dead. So I researched, planned the service myself, set up an altar based on pictures I had seen – and found a Mariachi Band to come play for us. We had, I think, a meaningful service and a great time. But were we guilty of cultural misappropriation?

This time we did it differently. From the very beginning we involved folks who had emigrated from Mexico and had a true understanding of this tradition, which actually comes from their indigenous pre-Christian roots. They even helped us present a service the Sunday BEFORE the actual Day of the Dead so that we could put the celebration more within the context of their culture. And folks from Voces Unidas came and put up the altar. And they were partners with us in this service. We probably still made some mistakes – but we are trying.

Now there are some who maintain that we should find a CORE for our beliefs. I have a colleague who has been trying to identify our theological core for some time now. I don’t think it’s going to happen – nor do I believe it necessarily needs to happen. Instead, I concur with those who would draw our attention to the metaphor we use in our 7th principle. In that principle, we indicate we affirm a respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. There are religious systems which are more like a planetary system – in which a large body is in the center and the gravity of that large body is what holds all of the moons and satellites in place revolving around it. But what is in the center of a web. My mom called took me out in her yard the other day to see a beautiful spider web that had formed between some trees. It was huge and it was glistening in the sun. Actually it looked kind of magical. In the very center, of course, was a hole- H-O-L-E. It was empty. Yet the web with its many strings was a part of a whole – W-H-O-L-E – all interconnected around—not a solid core symbolizing perhaps god or humanity – but an opening, a void, from which intricate aspects of reality emerge. Can the seventh principle be the common ground for us? Perhaps.

In any case, I do not believe that our congregation will become paralyzed by our theological diversity. I believe that we are ready to do as Michael Durall has suggested – and allow our diversity to serve as a platform by which people of dissimilar beliefs unite in common cause for a greater purpose.

Yes, may our faith be diverse but deep – connected in a sacred web of love for one another and a desire to make this world a better and more loving place for all.


Come, come whoever you are – wanderers, worshippers, lovers of leaving. Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, yet, again come!

Amen and Blessed Be!