July 9, 2016
Yet again our nation has been wracked by the bloody mix of guns, fear and anger. In one instance a loner, crazed by hateful thoughts, used a gun to kill many strangers. In another a police officer, frightened by seeing a gun, killed a non-threatening man in a car.
Far too often people with guns in this nation kill people they know, but we are more disturbed by attacks on strangers. The most recent mass-shooting targeted police officers, and the killer invoked racial hatred as a motive. Thus this particular act of violence took on a particularly tragic quality. But in the end it is the same as other mass-shootings, a crazed person, acting as a free individual with a gun, wrought havoc on several fellow citizens.
Likewise, if Jeronimo Yanez or Philando Castile had not possessed a gun, that particular traffic stop could not have ended in death. Race was secondary to that situation. It adds to the fear and misunderstanding between people. If both men had been white and carried guns the situation was also likely to end in violent death, if slightly less so. It is the fear of violence and the way we use guns to amplify our that fear that must be opposed by the spirit of love. To paraphrase Christian scriptures, “We fight not against flesh and blood but the powers and ruling ideas of this troubled world.”
We, Unitarian Universalists, as a religious people, consciously dedicate ourselves to respond to gun amplified fear by working for Love and Justice, Dignity and Tolerance. Our goal is to counter the fear and terror created by these mass-shootings. Our goal is mot to merely end all the gun related violence in our nation, (and in our world). We want to create a spirit of peace. We have no one single method for undoing this violence. Some of us focus on gun control legislation, and others on raising awareness of our own biases. But in worship, together, we will represent our shared dedication by lighting a flame in a chalice. The flame represents the one spirit and truth that inspires us to use all resources available. We use our feelings of sadness, even helplessness, to support one another, and to create peace.
June 6, 2016
Recently I went to see the movie, The Lobster. It is definitely a thought provoking movie, disturbing and funny and very wierd. I plan to write an article about its theology, but for the moment, here are two insightful quotes from movie reviewers.
Beethoven, Shostakovich and Stravinsky all put in prominent appearances, but the most evocative selection here may well be Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue’s country-Gothic ballad “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” which its plaintive plea for unrestrained love: “Do you know where the wild roses grow, so sweet and scarlet and free?” Perversely romantic almost in spite of itself, “The Lobster” doesn’t offer the answer, but it suggests we keep looking.
Chicago Reader Review
Lanthimos and his frequent cowriter Efthymis Filippou draw heavily on the theater of the absurd in their crafting of timeless and tragicomic fables that hold up a mirror to society.
The term “theater of the absurd” was coined by Hungarian dramatist Martin Esslin in a 1960 essay of that name, which dealt with the work of Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, and Eugene Ionesco. “The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy,” he wrote in 1965. “It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it.” The absurdism of these plays, according to Esslin, typically arises from a world devoid of meaning in which people are controlled by mysterious outside forces. Absurdist plays often mix broad comedy with horror and tragedy; the dialogue is riddled with dictums and cliches; the flat or archetypal characters, stuck in meaningless routines, tend to behave like automatons; and the cyclical plots emphasize repetition and the pointlessness of existence.
The Lobster’s comedy, like that of so many absurdist plays, is biting and tinged with terror.
The Lobster’s dialogue is purposely ridiculous, the actors straight-faced and robotic as they utter romantic bromides.
Esslin wrote that the real challenge of absurdist drama is to persuade the viewer to “accept the human condition as it is.” An absurdist drama, if written and executed well, need not leave the audience feeling miserable. “The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful,” he wrote, “but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief . . . in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.” The
April 27, 2016
Remarks made at the First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis, April 23, 2016
My Dear People, long ago according to Mr. Tolkien, Bilbo Baggins gave a speech at his one-hundred-and-eleventh birthday party. I have borrowed some of Bilbo’s words, and added some of my own, to properly to honor this marvelous event, our Fellowship of the Church Dinner.
My dear Dusenberys and Fathmans, and Koebbes, O’Briens and O’Malleys, and my dear Myers and Kindlebergers, and so many more. Too many to name and count, including individuals such as Bovento and Hoeklman, going on to those at the end of the alphabet, such as the Wires, and the inestimable Weck. WELCOME! Also, my greetings go to all those who have worked to make this party possible including Ms. Clemons and Ms. Underwood, and our custodian, Mr. Smith.
Today, this church is more than a hundred and eleven years old! In fact, it is only a couple of months past its hundred and eighty-first birthday! Since we did not celebrate our birthday at the end of January, let’s do that now. Cheers!
I hope you are all enjoying yourselves as much as I am. I shall not keep you long. We have feasting to do, but we are gathered together for a purpose. Indeed, I have three Purposes for this speech.
First of all, I speak to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all and that five years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable Unitarians and to say that I am sorry to be leaving you in a few months.
I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
Secondly, we are here to celebrate birthdays of another sort, the anniversaries of all who joined this church 15 years, 25 years, 50 and 55 years ago. I am not going to add up all those years, all the Sundays celebrated, all the Fellowship Dinners attended, all the money that you gave or any of that, but it is not a trifling amount. It is a form of inheritance given to us for which we should be grateful.
It is also, if I may be allowed to refer to ancient history, the sixth anniversary of my arrival by barrel here at our annual Fellowship Dinner; this was the first time we were, properly, introduced. I was only fifty then, but I had the honor of being seated at a front table with the eldest of our elders, including Marietta Hunsche, who on that day was not even a hundred and who, tomorrow we will memorialize in words and song. The banquet that night was very splendid; I was as grateful to be here then as now. I repeat what I said then, ‘Thank you very much for coming to this little party and for including me.’ I now expand on what I said then: thank you for including me in all that we have done together for the past five years.
Thirdly and finally, I wish to say that this party is not my party, even though I briefly wondered if the Tolkien inspired theme was chosen just to please me. In fact, this dinner is not about me at all. This party is about you, the fellowship of this church. The minister of a church makes visible the good of the church, but he or she is not its goodness. I represent the center, but I am not the center. I clarify our purposes, but I do not determine our purposes. I choose a course across the wilderness, I can name the dangers and the joys we should face in our journey together, but I cannot choose what you do or how you do it. You are the fellowship of the church. Even when I give a great speech, without you to create the occasion, to support my work, to open your minds and hearts, I am just talking to myself. And when I am gone, when someone else holds this office, you are the church. With you and only through you does the church live and love and remember and hope. Together, as a fellowship, you must seek the truth, seek love, seek justice, and seek honesty, integrity, and inspiration, because the finding is in the seeking.
But tonight we cease from seeking. Together, we rest from our eternal journey to find the spiritual ring of Love, Justice, Dignity and Tolerance. We take the time to look around and to see in each other, the fellowship of the church, to appreciate how far we have come on our journey, and to see clearly the spirit that moves us all to do the hard work of committees, and boards, feasts, and festivals. Tonight you are all to be honored, for you are the mighty Fellowship of the church.
April 6, 2016
Often, while marching in Ferguson, we chanted “No Justice, no Peace.” I thought to myself as I chanted, “Know Justice, know Peace.” However, during a lull in the chanting, I asked a young man next to me, “What do you think ‘justice’ is?” He replied without hesitation, “Put that murderer away.”
Last month, on the Books and Culture website, Tim Stafford posted an essay titled, “Why Justice Divides Us; And how it can unite us.” You can Find it here. (Tim Stafford is a self-avowed Evangelical Christian, an author and the general editor of a recent publication, God’s Justice: The Holy Bible (Zondervan).)
In his essay, he notes how most people contrast justice with mercy, and associate justice merely with laws, and punishment for breaking laws. He notes the obvious parallel between how Christians often see the “Law” of the Old Testament and the “Grace” of the New Testament. But, Stafford argues, that ultimately, Biblical justice “Is not the application of a static body of law, but a foundational component in the great story of God setting right the creation he loves.” In fact, he emphasizes that the Biblical view of justice contains and incorporates Grace and Mercy.
He writes: “The gospel is not just about personal transformation. The good news is that God is setting right everything: individuals and society, nations and nature. If the gospel is strictly about sin and atonement in the individual’s heart, “your God is too small.”” I have met many people, even Unitarian Universalists, who’s God is too small.
Many people in UU congregations struggle with what appears as an absence of a clear and unifying theology, because we have no creed. In fact, we have a robust theology (defined as “a way of speaking about the holiest and trusted source of all that is good and right in our lives”), and it centers on a Beloved Community of Ultimate Justice.
Our theology shows up in what we do and value. For example, we are often very proud of being among the first, in this country, to speak out against slavery, to ordain women, and to affirm gay and lesbian marriages. We feel energized by action on climate change, or engagement with immigration reform, or demands that our political system treat the most vulnerable and poor with a fair and generous hand. These examples show what we think is of greatest worth and that the heart of our faith is a vision of Ultimate Justice (what Stafford calls “God’s Justice”). This vision draws from all our religious sources, Biblical, and Humanistic. Thus, it is an act of worship for us to chant “Know justice, know peace” if we remember that Justice is an integration of radical mercy, kindness and reconciliation into the application of the Law.
March 16, 2016
Last weekend I was cleaning out some leaves that January winds had left in our back stairwell. Beneath and amidst the layers were worms and centipedes.
It amazed me to see vibrant life, already moving and multiplying, while Saint Louis still has an edge of cold, especially at night. Where did they come from these creatures? What instilled them to travel across the cement stairs and slabs to these rotting leaves? I thought, with a smile, of spring coming and bright flowers growing and the coplex intertwining of all living things.
Then I recalled those who are squeemish about “creepy-crawly things” and then my mind lept to a silly image in Peter Jackson’s movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Early after Merry and Pippin have stumbled onto Frodo and Sam, they all hide under a huge tree’s tangled roots. An evil Black Rider pauses on the road above them. Jackson wanted to communicate the evil and unreasoned fear that radiated from the rider, so he showed all manner of earth creatures coming out of the ground and across the four humans (hobbits).
One could argue that these icons of good and fecund soil were trying to escape the Black Rider’s deathly presence. But I assume that Mr. Jackson just wanted to instill a feeling of fear in his audiance, and he used arthropods and annelids to do it. As a friend of mine says, “They have too many limbs or worse yet, none at all.” But I have always been one of those who find wonder in insects and such. It is reported that the biologist J. Haldane was once asked what he had found of the mind of God after studying creation for so many years. He responded, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” Haldane also conjectured that God loved stars too, because there were more of those than beetles, as far as we guess. But beetles and centipedes and worms are far more complicated, more caught up with our own survival and wellness, than are stars.
So, even these fellow creatures reveal to me the texture of heaven, the Pure Land that is waking up in the early spring amidst the leaves of my back yard.
November 14, 2015
In response to the violence in France. We should condemn as evil the attacks upon Paris and call all in metro Saint Louis to respond in ways that affirm the greater power of compassion, and peacemaking. Though international powers must forcefully oppose the radicals who have lost their love for humanity, we know the radicals will be defeated, spiritually and physically, by cooperation between people of all religious faiths to create a merciful, fair and compassionate world.
George Bush led us into this war with bravado, shock and awe. But his policies had very little to do with undermining the spiritual and religious roots of this war. “We fight,” as the apostle of Jesus, Paul, said “not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities: in this world and in the spiritual realm.” Obviously, we do fight against flesh and blood, those people who are willing to tear human flesh and spill human blood. But that very physical war, and its allied spiritual powers of intimidation and fear, will not bring Peace. Victory of that kind of physical force can bring a lull in the violence, and can establish a foundation for the rule of law. But, in the end we must be the peace we want to be in the world. We must undermine the forces which separate and oppress, and replace them with democratic process, compassionate action and mutual understanding.
Every violent attack can make us afraid. We can become like the cousins of Arjuna, ready to spill more blood in anger, or we can be like Arjuna at the beginning of the Gita, overwhelmed by evil. But the best is to heed the voice of the One: on world, one humanity, one spirit of inculsion peace and agape Love.
October 19, 2015
The movie, The Martian is basically a survival story set on Mars. It is funny and interesting, with a likable main character named Mark Watney, engaging side stories, many tense moments of action, and lots of beautiful visions of Mars. But what does religion have to do with this survival story? If you are Mark Watney, (or most anyone else in this movie) not much. The story is about the value of human effort and achievement, science and intelligence. So, by the traditional definition of religion as belief in a supernatural deity, it is not a religious movie. But that is not the whole story.
The most obvious appearance of religion is when people on Earth at mission control are worried about launch of a supply rocket. To quote the book, Mitch asks Venkat, “Do you believe in God?” Venkat responds, “Sure, lots of them, I’m a Hindu.” “Ask ’em all for help with this launch” Mitch tells Venkat, and the reply: “Will do.” (Note that Venkat does no “puja” at that moment). This is what I call “movie luck religion.” A character or characters find themselves in a place where luck will make the difference, or they find a situation where it seems their effort alone is not enough, and so they look for some other and mysterious source of help. Sadly, in The Martian this launch fails, reinforcing the idea that gods (as superstitious luck charms) are pretty much useless. Perhaps they have a value as anxiety reducers.
Religion also appears as a sacred icon. Martinez, a devout Catholic, has been forced to leave several personal items back on Mars, including a wood crucifix. The main character, Mark Watney, shaves it down to kindling. Reflecting back on what he has done he says “If there is a God he won’t mind, considering the situation I’m in.” Religion is presented as a personal hobby of one character, or an unimportant belief in a supernatural judge. It is not made clear how devout Martinez really is, but the impression is that though his faith might have personal value, it certainly is not of universal or practical worth. Watney gladly whittles away religion to serve practical ends.
If, on the other hand, “religion” is a set of shared values and actions that shape the meaning and obligations and ethical decisions that people make, then this movie has a strong religious element. Shared values like loyalty, cooperation across differences and a desire to help others are all factors that drive character’s actions. Watney, while talking to his fellow astronauts, speaks of the fact that they are willing to give their lives to “something greater.” At the end of the story Watney says, “Every human being has a basic instinct: to help each other out. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”
The author of book and of the movie do not reflect upon the validity of this universal truth, or exactly what is the “something greater” that an individual life might serve. Characters also speak seriously of guilt and forgiveness, but only on a practical and personal level. Even the value of the space program is assumed, protected from being hurt by public opinion, but not defended on any real deep level. The religion of this movie is an unquestioned faith in human effort and progress, science and intelligence. Religion is the public and culturally shared expression of personal spirituality. As Scientific Humanism, which deeply vlaues human progress, motivates human striving and human unity, this is a very religious movie. But in this story of space travel, no one is heard praying. Lots of cussing, but no praying.
September 20, 2015
Following is a quote from Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber and her interview on the NPR show Fresh Air.
For me these words show that there are people in mainline religion who stay there, even though they are really Unitarian in theology, and thus are crypto-Unitarians. It also reveals that there are people, like Bolz-Weber, who consciously reject following our way, even if they are OK with who and what we are.
The prefix “crypto” means secret or hidden.
I just don’t think that belief should be the basis of belonging to a community like this, and so we don’t sort of make that the central reason why somebody belongs. So we don’t even talk about belief that often in my church, strangely. It’s not that I don’t care; it’s that I don’tfeel responsible for what people believe. I feel very responsible for what they hear, as their preacher, as their pastor
We have people who are atheist, agnostic, people who are very evangelical in their faith; somehow it’s a space where people who believe a lot of different things can come together, but that doesn’t mean I’m like a crypto-Unitarian. So I’m not just quoting Thich Nhat Hanh in my sermon; I mean, I’m actually a very orthodox Lutheran theologian, and it’s a very sort of Christo-centric community, but it’s one in which really everyone is welcome to come and participate.”
August 10, 2015
“Why We Are Here” Rev. Thomas Perchlik
Remarks at UU Kickoff for the one year anniversary weekend of the Ferguson Uprising. 2015-08-07
I am the Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis. I serve the eldest Unitarian Church in this metro-area. Tonight I am here to speak for the founder. The Lorax spoke for the trees, I speak for the founder of Saint Louis Unitariansm.
In 1834, a young, entrepreneurial minister named William, William Eliot, came to this small city on the edge of civilized America. He knew that city was growing by the spirit of rapid profits and capital gains and booming commerce, and he wanted it to also be shaped by Unitarian principles. William knew that to follow Jesus meant to affirm the dignity and goodness of all persons. He knew that to fight for the Kingdom was to bring love and justice into all our actions and speech. Inspired by the preaching of W. E. Channing, Eliot was passionate about how education can lift the human soul.
William also saw how slavery oppressed and dehumanized people. He was known to speak out against the unfair and cruel treatment of slaves. When he inspired Unitarians in the work of creating a public school system the city was deeply segregated. So, we also created a school for black people that met in our church building. At its height, this school served more than 200 students. When the Civil war began, it became against the law for black people to gather together. Our police did not have tear gas back then, but fear worked the same then as now. Hearing about the new law, Reverend Eliot walked to the governor’s office and got approval for the school to continue meeting while the war raged on. This history is part of the foundation upon which we build here today. Unity of the one human race, with Love and Justice for all.
However, our motivations are never simple. William was a gradualist. He opposed those who wanted to end slavery immediately. He thought it would take generations to change habits and hearts. He feared the loss and pain and violence that always came with any sudden change. He feared the ruin of war. In general, Unitarian Universalists have put him on the losing side, even aligning him with the slaveholders. Some Unitarians called for immediate emancipation. Unitarians like Julia Howe and Theodore Parker went on to give voice and theology and vision for the cause of union and the fight against slavery. But in a way William understood the human spirit more truly. For here we are, more than one and a half hundred years later, generations later, still trying to change hearts and habits, still trying to undo oppression, unfair treatment, and divisiveness. That is why we are here, bearing these twin strains of our heritage, the immediate call for action, and the long vision.
No matter how we are called to serve, no matter our specific actions, may all that is holy bless us and guide us as we seek to embody Love and Justice this weekend.
July 2, 2015
Flames connect us. You know that it is the sunlight of a million summers, caught by photosynthesis, sealed in the earth, that we burn within car engines, moving us here, or there. We gather at fires in the winter, but it was under summer skies when I was closest to my father. We would camp in the mountains, hiking toward the sun. I learned from him to turn a pile of sticks into a fire, to heat beans or perk coffee. I remember liking the taste of burnt marshmallows: their molten centers so sweet on the tongue. Never as golden as his.
Perhaps it was a charcoal grill your father cooked on. A fine combination of lighter fluid and smoke may summon his younger self back to you. Perhaps your father was furnace hot burning you with words or strikes. My father lit sparkers in our hands, and one July he had to chase a burning wheel of fire through dry grass to stop a forest from catching flame. I remember his sun-dark skin, sweat radiant, working a shovel in summer heat.
Perhaps the sun is a god, as some imagined, quickening life, changing the earth, transforming each of us. Or perhaps the summer sun is an icon of something like love; source of power, fearsome, more distant than the inconstant moon, and yet shining in our eyes and skin, warming our minds and heart in this very moment.