The Parable of the Two Sons–a Modern Midrash

A story for all ages that I wrote to complement the sermon I gave on James Luther Adams’ fourth stone of liberal religion: no immaculate conception of virtue and the necessity of social incarnation.  It was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 14 March 2010 (c).  This is based on the parable from Matthew 21: 28-32.

Once upon a time, there was a family that was known through out the town for their goodness. This family was held in high esteem by everyone. If there was ever a dispute between neighbors, this family was able to find a solution that worked for both parties. If there was ever a need in the community, this family was able to support the filling of that need. This was a good family. They believed that actions that resulted in the expansion of good were important in order to have a wonderful and loving community.

Now there were two sons in this family of roughly the same age. Wherever they went, they met people who told them what a good family they came from. Hearing these things made them feel good.

In school, the teachers would tell them, “Jason and Bryan, you come from such a good family. We know your grandfather, what a good man he is. He has been so very helpful to the community. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have clean water here because he found a way to purify the wells that were contaminated.” Their grandfather was head of the city health department and made sure that the city had clean water.

The school’s foot ball coach would say, “Bryan and Jason, I know your father. He is such a good man. Why if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have a decent volunteer firehouse with a Hook and Ladder truck.” Their father was a volunteer firefighter and helped organize the community to raise the money for the truck to ensure they were ready in case the taller buildings had a major fire. One such fire happened and because they had a Hook and Ladder truck they were able to prevent a tall building from burning to the ground. More importantly the fire fighters were able to save a family that was trapped on the upper floors.

There was another time when a complete stranger came up to them and said, “Aren’t you Elizabeth’s sons?” They shook their heads, yes. “Well, your mom is one of the finest women in town. She helped my children have access to the town library because it wasn’t wheelchair accessible. You see, my two children were born with physical disabilities and they are unable to walk. But your mom worked with the library and the city to find the money to put in ramps to enable my children and other children like mine to use the library. I am so glad to have met you fine young men.”

Everywhere Bryan and Jason went there were accolades given to their family about all the good things their family did for others. The stories of how their family made the community better for others continued to be told. And in time Bryan and Jason came to believe that they were good simply because they came from a good family.

Then one day something happened at school. Bryan and Jason told their parents about it. There were two girls who wanted to go to the school dance as a couple and were told that they could not go; only boy/girl couples could go. Their parents asked them if it was fair that a girl couple be denied to attend the dance. After some discussion, their parents asked Jason and Bryan if they would be willing to start a petition to give to the school board requesting these girls to be allowed to go to their dance. Jason said he would not because he didn’t want to be made fun of by his football team. Bryan said he would do it. But Bryan did not start the petition. He decided he didn’t care if two girls could go to the prom or not after all it didn’t affect him any.

Jason begin to think of his grandfather’s work with getting clean water, his father’s work on having a fire truck, his mother’s work on having wheelchair ramps at the library. He remembered all these good things that his family did to help others and so he changed his mind and began the petition after all. Jason reasoned that if the school could tell two girls they couldn’t go to the school prom, what else would they do to keep people from being themselves? On Saint Patrick’s Day would they keep him from wearing the green plaid kilt his aunt bought him in Ireland to honor his Irish heritage?

So Jason circulated the petition. Teachers, students, and community members signed it. He received so many signatures that the school board decided to allow the girls to go to the dance as a couple.

Now sometimes, Bryan gets asked if Jason is his brother. When he tells them yes, he is told, “Jason is a fine young man. He stood up to fight an injustice in the school. If he hadn’t done that, then girl couples and boy couples who wanted to go to the dance would not be allowed. He is a good man just like his parents and grandparents.”

Bryan tells them that he initially wanted to help with the petition and that Jason did not. They reply, “But did you act on your good intention?” No, Bryan would shake his head. They would sigh and say, “Good intentions mean nothing; it is good actions that make a difference.”

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Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 5:28 pm  Comments Off on The Parable of the Two Sons–a Modern Midrash  
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When does personhood begin?

This is a variation on the age-old question of when does life begin–at conception or at birth?  There was a recent bill passed in Utah that criminalizes  miscarriages as homicide if the woman engages in “intentional, knowing, or reckless act” that results in a miscarriage.   Potentially this means if the woman does not wear a seatbelt, or she drinks alcohol, smokes, falls down stairs, or remains in an abusive relationship and then miscarries she could be charged with homicide.   This bill had passed both houses of the state legislature and was sent to the Governor for signing.   The Governor wisely, after an uproar nationwide, sent the bill back for removal of the most offensive language, the word reckless.   It is expected that some miscarriages will still be considered homicide and carry a felony.

There is another bill , an amendment actually that will redefine for Mississippi what is the legal definition of personhood.  Personhood Mississippi is seeking to define personhood as beginning at conception.  The wording of the amendment is as follows:  Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hearby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”  The organization has received wide support and exceeded the number of signatures needed to place this on the 2011 ballot.   There are similar petitions being submitted in Florida, California, Montana, and Missouri. 

Obviously if this personhood amendment were to be pass it would strike down the women’s right to control her own body should she become pregnant even if that pregnancy were to threaten her life.  If she aborts the fetus because of the risk to her health, under this redefinition she could be charged with infanticide but if the birth of the child resulted in the death of the mother, does the newborn then get charged with matricide since the fetus is a person with rights and responsibilities?  A whole other question for debate. 

These are two bills that would alter how we define personhood. These bills are based in a theological and doctrinal belief that conception is the start of personhood or the start of life.  There are doctrinal beliefs that state that birth is the beginning of the person’s life. 

Two very popular verses in the Hebrew Scriptures are quoted to support the doctrine that life begins at conception:  Jeremiah 1:5 states, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”  and Psalm 139: 13, 16 reads “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb . . . your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”   These verses point to more than simply when life begins but also suggests the doctrine of pre-destination. 

There are verses in the Hebrew Scriptures that support the doctrine that life begins at birth when the baby draws its first breath.  Genesis 2:7,   He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and it was then that the man became a living being”.   Although the man was fully formed by God in all respects, he was not a living being until after taking his first breath. In Job 33:4, it states:   “The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” Again, to quote Ezekiel 37:5;6,   “Thus says the Lord God to these bones:   Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.   And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live;   and you shall know that I am the Lord.”  [as found at http://joeschwartz.net/life.htm

These two very different and opposing doctrines are based in the Bible. These are doctrines held by various denominations of the Christian and Jewish faith.  So whose doctrine is correct?  And whose doctrine should reign supreme in a democracy that claims freedom of religion? 

To add to the confusion, science has its own varied theories of when human life begins.  Does it begin at fertilization?  Does it begin at gastrulation–the point at which the embryo can no longer subdivide and create twins or triplets.  Or  is it when an EEG can be discerned?  It is a definition of death, when the brain flatlines and an EEG no longer registers.  Or is it when the fetus has potential viability, or when there is lung function somewhere between weeks 25 and 28 of gestation.   Or is it when the cord is cut and the first breath has been drawn?   Science according to which area of speciality has multiple answers to when human life begins.  As Dr. Gilbert states in his lecture given in 2007 (see link here)  there is no one coherent view and no consensus in the answer.

The answer is not one that will be found easily.  And if we are going to pass laws based on a doctrinal belief rather than based on the unfolding science then the debate becomes whose religious doctrine is supreme.  That is a road towards theocracy.  A road that this democracy needs to ensure that humanity never travels down again as it thwarts the fullness of humanity in all of its creativity and expression.    Blessings,

Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 11:55 am  Comments Off on When does personhood begin?  
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Comfortability

Comfortability is a word I coined several years ago when in a dialog about racism.  It is the skill of being able to be fully present / comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.  It is a skill that I believe we need to develop if we are to thrive in a pluralist society.

The school board in Itawamba County, Mississippi decided that a student could not attend her prom in a tuxedo and bring her girlfriend, also a student at the school, because it might be uncomfortable for the other students.  This is not the lesson that should be taught.  It teaches  that segregation and hiding our truth is acceptable behavior because integration of our differences and being honest might make someone else uncomfortable.  The lesson that needs to be taught is to embrace our differences be it racial, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or gender expression.   We live in a pluralist society.  This is the reality of our nation.  We are going to meet someone and most likely several someones in our life time who are not just like us.  Doesn’t it make more sense to teach our children how to live in that reality rather than teaching them to be fearful of the other?  Being uncomfortable is a form of fear and it is no way to live.

There is a wonderful song in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific that was very controversial when the musical came out entitled, “You’ve got be carefully taught.”   The chorus is

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught”

And so it is taught to this very day in school districts like Itawamba County, MS and in churches like Westboro Baptist Church.  Fred Phelps’ Westboro church is an example of blatant hate teachings but the fear of the diversity of humanity is also taught subtly and quietly in other church communities, liberal and conservative alike.   There are reasons why Sunday morning is the most segregated time in the country. Not having the skill of comfortability is one of these reasons.

I hear the lack of comfortability in Unitarian Universalist congregations when I hear comments that lash out at those who believe in God or Jesus.  The people who make such comments are uncomfortable with the notion of God and Jesus as savior or even as a teacher. Being comfortable in the face of diversity is an important skill set to develop. Comfortability means to be able to be accepting of the other, honoring their inherent worth and dignity.  It does not mean subscribing to the other’s way of thinking but it does mean being able to listen or be in the presence of the other without feeling threatened, with the calm assurance of being oneself.  

Fred Phelps feels threatened by homosexuality.  Itawamba County School District feels threatened by homosexuality.  Unitarian Universalists who lash out at UU Christians, theists, and deists  feel threatened by them.  If this were not true, then their behavior would be vastly different. It might be hard to hear being compared to Fred Phelps if one’s anti-Christian comments are no where near extreme as Fred Phelps anti-gay behaviors.  However, the root cause to all three examples given is fear and being uncomfortable of the other.  We need not be this way.   

If we are going to thrive in this nation we need to begin developing this skill.  We need to begin teaching comfortability in our schools and in our congregations.  The message is ripe for the picking.  There is a lot of fear being propagated in the nation right now and it needs diffusing.   

I believe Unitarian Universalism is the faith being prepared to bring such a message today.  We are not fully skilled yet in our comfortability as seen by the example I gave above.  Yet, our covenantal faith has been priming us to being more open to theological plurality and over all we do a fairly decent job at this.  We can do better.  But our developing comfortability in theological diversity is only a step towards developing comfortability in a pluralist society filled with many ideologies,  many races, many ethnicities, and many cultures.  

Harmony only occurs when there are multiple notes being sung.  May we sing the song of comfortability and heal our nation.  Blessings,

What Happens in Vegas Goes Everywhere

This is part three of reflecting further on my sermon, “Creating the Future that We Want.”  Previously I wrote about having a clear mission and having a firm footing.   In creating the future that we want we need to realize that what happens in Vegas goes everywhere, it does not stay in Vegas. 

“Our seventh principle talks about the interconnected web of which we are all apart.  We generally think of this as specifically referring  to the greater world beyond our doors, the environment, the planet on which we live, the stars from which science now points to as the origin of all life.  “We are stardust” is not just some nice poetic words by Joni Mitchell but a literal fact at the molecular level.   But this principle also pertains to how we operate as a congregation.  What happens in the children’s religious education classroom impacts on what happens in the worship service, impacts on what happens in hospitality, impacts what happens in membership and the reverse is also true.  

“I received a phone call the other day by someone looking for help and she asked for the donation department.  I did not know at first what she meant but I had to explain to her the church does not have departments.  We are more interconnected than that.   Yet sometimes we act as if we are separate departments and what we do in one area does not impact the other.  It certainly does impact and in often times subtle and profound ways.  

“A recent example.  A guest commented to me that he had heard of us through the blog I post online.  He would sometimes come to the area on business and was hoping that his travels here would coincide with a weekend.  He commented that his experience of the congregation fit what he sensed might be true by reading the blog.  He was warmly welcomed by several people in the congregation.  He thought the paintings on the wall added to the warmth of the people.  He commented on how the postlude with the children coming back in to join in playing with the percussion instruments felt good to him.   He said he was looking forward to returning the next time his business brought him here.  Several independent factors tied in together for this person’s overall experience.  Individually they aren’t much, but because these were all combined together in his experience they added up to something much, much more.  This is typical of how things work, not one thing but several things combined give an impression of who we are as a congregation.  How we behave and the things we do in this place is interconnected towards developing that first impression for every person who walks through our doors.  Needless to say, it warmed my heart that his experience of us was consistent with our stated mission.” [from the sermon “Creating the Future that We Want”  by  Rev. Fred L Hammond delivered February 21 2010 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa]

Nothing that happened in Children’s Religious Education, in Worship, in hospitality, in membership stayed there.   The attitudes engendered;  the successes or weaknesses of these committees or programs spreads out into the rest of the congregation for good or for ill.

In creating the future that we want in a congregation, the entire congregation has to be working together as an interconnected entity.  No committee from the board to the building and grounds committee can be working in a vacuum as if the other does not exist. All of the goals and objectives that are developed for the congregation need to be working in sync with each other towards the overarching goal which is ultimately the mission of the congregation.  If they do not then there are conflicted objectives and the congregation will not grow towards the future that is desired. 

Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable discusses the importance for the team to have trust in one another, to have healthy and engaged conflict around ideas, to commit to decisions and plans, to hold each other accountable in executing those plans, and focus on the accomplishment of the communal results.  Each of these areas are interelated to the other and if they are dysfunctioning will cause the team, read congregation,  to not succeed in its stated mission.   Each committee needs to be able to operate in this manner towards the fulfillment of the mission.  Each committee chair needs to be working with the other committee chairs in this manner so that each committee goal is lined up and in sync with the over all goal of the congregation. 

The committees of a congregation are not separate entities but are an intrical part of the whole.  Paul of Tarsus discusses this when he compares the church to that of a human body.  1 Corinthians 12 : “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.”  The various committees together make up the many parts of the congregation and need to be working together in ensuring the health of the congregation.   There is no place for ambition, for ego strokes, or being a savior in this setting.  If this is a person or a committee of people their self-serving actions will impact the rest of the congregation and thwart the mission of the congregation. 

And just as an infection in a foot might lead to limping and throw out a back and disable the person so can an infection, read dysfunction,  in a committee cause an entire congregation to be disabled and unable to reach its goals.  A dysfunction in a committee does not stay in that committee but will spread to other committees if not addressed with the needed medical intervention. 

Ultimately, this means that the congregation needs to be in covenant with one another to always be striving towards creating  in every activity that the church is engaged in that which we hold utmost value.  Each committee, each program is woven together to make a tapestry that speaks to that value held individually and collectively in the congregation.  If there is any committee  that is not revealing this communally held value through its activities, then this tapestry will appear moth ridden with glaring holes and frayed edges.  

The experiences the business traveler had is the kind of first impression that could be happening consistently every Sunday with as many visitors as possible.   Everything came together that day for him because all of the players who were involved in his experience were gearing their outcome towards the mission of the congregation.  Each played their part and the result was an open and nurturing congregation, our mission statement.  May our congregation and all congregations grow consistently towards their mission statements every Sunday and every day of the week.  Blessings,