June 24, 2009


Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 7:55 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

At the Berry Street Lecutre Dr. Paul Rasor moved us another step on the road to a truly multi-cultural anti-racist anti-oppression religious movement. I found his speech, “Provincial Ironies,” and Rosemary Bray-McNatt’s respose, to be challenging, disturbing, exiting, hopeful and frightening all at once. He is just another in a long line that have asserted that we fall way, way, way short of what we say we are and what we want to do in the world.

I am sure the text will be up on the Berry Street site soon. http://www.uuma.org/BerryStreet/index.htm

In the meantime I will simply say that his focus on clear statistics grounds a powerful anaylis of the mostly cultural barriers that keeps us small and lacking in true diversity.

I almost wish I was not going on summer break so I could give a rousing sermon this Sunday, or well, maybe next Sunday. Then again August is just around the corner, and the path before us is long, very long, incredibly long. Still, the path bends toward justice.

June 8, 2009

MSG Religion

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 11:46 am by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

Appearing back to back, two articles in the Summer 2009 UU World Magazine caught my attention[ http://www.uuworld.org/currentissue.shtml .] Both echoed (for me) the closing quote in the “Blog Roundup” from Joel Monka: “UU itself is still like monosodium glutamate in my life – a flavor enhancer for what I already had, rather than a stand-alone religion in its own right.” Wow,” when I read that I thought, “The purpose of  my life, as a UU Minister, is to improve the flavor of various religions.”  In “Natural Aptitude” Laura Pedersen tells us it is hard to distinguish UUs from Hippies and says, “… UUs believe that there is truth to be found in all religions, but no one relgion holds all truth.”On the next page, Ken Collier tells us that “Religion is about the healing of brokenness,” which is a powerful purpose but, though he speaks of the religions of Buddha and Christ, he says nothing about UUism being “a religion.”  He ends with the idea that religions are just different cultural methods of achieving the same goal of wholeness and healing.   Furthermore Pedersen notes that UUism is not so much a choice as a found quality, “Finding that one is UU is “… like discovering that one is gay or has a natural aptitude for clog dancing.”

The point for me is that even if a candidate for the UUA Presidency tells us “We are the religion for our time,” the fact is that most of us do not think we are a religion, but either a smorgasboard of religions, or something that enhances the flavor of religion cooked up somewhere else.  To be sure, there are many who think we are a particular religion, such as the religion of Existential Humanism, or the religion of  “God is love,” or the religion of “be reasonable and openmided,”  or the religion of  particular liberal causes.  But each of these are minorities who favor one cooking style over others and ultimately see the UU movement as a flavor enhancer for their own particular dish.  There are those who think of UUism as “an approach to religion” but certainly not a religion of its own. 

Maybe that is just fine, and we should accept our place as a “liberalizer of religions” or something like “fusion cooking,” an approach with endless variations.  However, when I meet Unitarians from the Kasi hills, or people in North America who’s lives have been utterly transformed by finding a UU congregation I think we can be something more.  I think our best churches are offering not just MSG but the substance of universal truth, prepared as religion that feeds the hungry soul.  I can’t say my church is “one of the best” but we do struggle to make each worship service not just a sampler of all the good spiritual food in the world, or a place to get something to suppliment your own spiritual cooking, but full meals that have real integrity and their own unique flavor.

May 20, 2009

Unscience Fiction

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 8:54 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

I went to see the latest Star Trek movie this past week. It was lots of fun, but I came away wondering again why fantasy with spaceships, but no science of any sort, is called “science-fiction?”

Of course the original Trek series often played loose and free with science.  For example they never took trouble to explain phasers that vaporized bodies down to their shoe soles, without effecting anything near them.  But the latest movie had strange “red matter” that was never explained in any way, starships being built on a planet’s surface (very illogical), huge shuttle bays on a small ship, inexplicable water works on a starship, magic mathematical equations, planets (Vulcan and Delta Vega) that are way too close to one another, (and what does “delta vega” mean?)  etc. etc.  There was, literally, no science ever used or mentioned except in some questions for Vulcan kids being tested in school.

The point is that we communicate our values in the stories we tell.  Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists have long valued integrity between science and religion.  We have long insisted that supernatural ideas be taken with a grain of agnosticism and that science is of great value.  Many of UUs have loved Star Trek shows because they blended science and religion in fun ways (“Who Morns for Adonis,” “The Apple,” to name two original series episodes off the top of my head).  Often there were strange “spiritual” elements that were explained in pseudo-scientific terms, like the energy existence of the Organians, but there was also real science, and the portion of that increased through the Next Generation and beyond.

Now a movie is made with no science at all.  And we wonder why Kansas schools and others are trying to present religious ideas like Creationism (AKA “intelligent design”) as if they were good science!

May 2, 2009

Welcome Back

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:17 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

I am back.  I have been away from my blog for quite a while.  I went on a little trip to Paris, Prague and Rome, and I decided not to blog while I was there, but instead to write more personal reflections and to take lots of pictures. But now I am back to writing here regularly.

Today I was listening to the wonderful “This American Life” and it reminded me of my plan to return to blogging.  One of the things I love about that show is that it thrives upon the same power that nurtures great preaching, the simple power of the human voice and the truth of stories well told.  Most of the pieces shared there are also written down, so blogging can share the same power.

Anyway, the piece I listened to today was by Dan Savage, the gay sex advice columnist.  He spoke about his relationship with the Catholic Church, especially as it has been changed, first by his coming out as a gay man and then more recently by his mother’s death.  It was a beautiful piece, evoking the power and vital importance of religion. At one point he talked about finding a “Welcome Back” card encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to the ritual and community.   Of course I wanted him instead to become a UU, or at least mention the possibility.  The closest he came was quoting his mother who said, whenever the pope or a archbishop spoke of the evils of birth control, “It is like they are trying to make us all become Lutherans.”

But more than that he spoke about the power of the sacrament of last rights to sanctify a difficult and very painful moment, and he spoke of the beauty of an old church and ceremony with their sense of well worn sacredness, and he spoke of the comfort of certain beliefs, all of which are rare or impossible to find in UU congregations.  I was glad that the piece ended with him still searching, longing for and yet not finding fully the Beloved Community.  Perhaps someone will invite him to the right UU church that helps him bridge his longing to the reality of a community that affirms him as a gay man, and affirms a more inclusive, universal, and small ‘c’ catholic spirituality and faith.

January 8, 2009

The End of Transcending Mystery and Wonder?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 3:16 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

This week the UUA board will decide whether to place the Commission on Appraisal’s (COS)proposed changes to Article 2, the famed “principles and purposes.”  If you have not read the Commission’s report you can find it here <<http://www25.uua.org/coa/>&gt; along with links to the Board’s agenda, etc.  (By the way, I love the transparency of the Board Agenda.  Anyone can read the reports they will be reading and know the issues they will need to discuss.  I will work with my Board to be as open and well organized. )

It is very striking that no change whatsoever has been proposed to the seven principles.  We seem to like those just as they are.  Other sections have been reworded in some ways and reordered.

However, we are facing major change in the language of the “sources” section of the bylaws.  In 1961 all references to sources were part of the principles.  One sign of the genius of the 1985 rewrite was the separation of these statements into two paragraphs, principles and  sources (and strangely confusing the sources with the oft forgotten “purposes” in common practice.)

Now the sources section is to be turned from a six point list into three paragraphs.  The first is a summary of our Christian (and Jewish) roots.  This reflects our decades long process of reclaiming our historical roots and, in my humble estimation, that is good.  Some persons may be shocked that the statement includes  “God” twice, but if they have not made some peace with this word yet, this is their chance.  That train has left the station and all one can do now is jump off or wait very long for the next station.

The second paragraph is a dryly worded summary list of all our other sources, including our non-creedal stance.  It does list “direct experience of mystery, wonder, beauty and joy’ as sources.  It also includes “the creative power of the arts” along with “the guidance of reason and the lessons of the sciences.”  The paragraph is not dull, but it is not poetic either. I understand some of the reasons for going this way but my first reaction was that I really miss the dynamic theological language of the older statement including: the entire “transcending mystery and wonder” section, the entire “words and deeds” section, the phrase “heed the guidance of reason and the results of science,” the phrase “idolatries of the mind and spirit,”  as well as “to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”  I would have liked new poetry.  I am certain that there will be come controversy about this at GA.

The final paragraph warns us against misuse of cultural practices.  Much has been said about this section elsewhere, basically that this warning is not clear as to exactly what it refers, and thus could easily be used in unsavory ways by purists of all sorts.

My guess is that if this statement of sources is adopted as is (which is very unlikely) it will be supplemented by many new attempts to creatively rewrite new versions of the old statement.  I don’t know if this is best, that our poetic work is done outside of Association Bylaws.  If so it would be like the flaming chalice, never mentioned in any bylaws yet the practice and words of chalice lighting have developed on their own into a rich and largely unquestioned element of our tradition.  Should our statements be likewise?

No matter what, every UU should read the proposal so as to understand the actions of the Board and the resulting conversation and action at General Assembly and wonder, is this the end of UU churches affirming that our faith draws from “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life?”

August 15, 2008

On the Other Hand

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 10:04 am by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

As I preached from the pulpit this last sunday I quoted the Knoxville, TVUU, website on how they had worked for “desegregation, racial harmony, fair wages, women’s rights and gay rights” and I read that their current minitries involve emergency aid for the needy, school tutoring and a cafe that provides a gathering place for gay and lesbian teens.  I read this because my own congregation has served the same causes. 

Yet, what ran through my mind at that moment (wich I did not speak out loud) is that the role we play and the people we serve are usually those on the margins, those oppressed by convention, those who are not affirmed by the mainstream culture.  I wonder if we grow as a movement if we are going to have to learn how to serve those who are in the mainstream too?  Or perhaps that will never be our calling. 

Sara Robinson, on her Orcinus blog on the Knoxville shootings, opened with the idea that “We are an odd group, we Unitarians.  Conventional wisdom says that we are soft in all the places our society values toughness”  (I wonder if we are less odd if we include the Universalists…)  She went on to affirm our solidity and toughness, but she never countered the idea that we are odd.  In fact, though we are often at the forefront of progressive movements, and we may even help progressive ideas become mainstream, we are not those who make progressive ideas conventional.  Could we be, or will that never be our place in the world? 

One of the significant moments in my life was when my eldest daughter came home from school with a new vocabulary word that had provided a revelation.  “I just realized why our family is so different” she announced, “It is because we are ‘intellectuals.'”  Ah yes, it was so true.  Later that day I remembered when I was a teen and a young woman left UU-ism in tears after proclaiming (at the end of a youth retreat weekend) that we proclaimed we were so tolerant and open minded, but we were intolerant of people like her who liked shopping for the latest fashions, and cheer-leading, and pop music. We did not accept a girl who wanted to wear makeup at a youth retreat and who was smart enough but not at all intellectual. 

So it is that Unitarians have always been associated with a small group of people; a group limited by education level, economic level, and social status.  Often we are very powerful people, movers and shakers, but that is a minority nonetheless.  This makes us distinctly capable of empathising with other minorities, and less comfortable with the conventional (even though we are terribly conventional in many ways.)  In contrast I think of how my Universalist congregation built its first building in the center of town, held famous revivals, and one year won the city-wide Sunday School attendance contest. 

Currently we serve those who are soft where conventional society is hard, and thoughtful where conventional society is thoughtless.  Even if we were to grow ten times larger we would still be a small minority in this world.  We still serve religious atheists and neo-pagans, and intellectuals above all. I hope we do not lose sight of that purpose, but I also think we are at our best when we speak our purpose in a way that even the most conventional can understand.

August 8, 2008

Flaming Identities

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:44 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

When I began interfaith activities I never thought about the Flaming Chalice needing to be included as a symbol among the rest.  My daughter, a life-long UU says she finds it odd to see a collection of religious symbols without the chalice. 

Some time ago our local Interfaith group began a practice of beginning large events with a ritual, adapted from Rabbi Joseph Gellman, of lighting one central candle to represent the “one truth” and then to light an “interfaith menorah.”  Each votive in the menorah represents a particular religion; the Star of David for Judaism, a nine pointed star for the Bahia tradition, a quartered circle for “Native American Traditions,” and even a Yin-Yang circle to represent the Taoist Tradition.  As we lit each one we say, for example: “We light a candle for the the Sikh tradition.  We welcome its wisdom.”  Or words to that effect. 

When my friend George Wolfe first introduced this practice I remembered a Muslim friend who once told me that some Muslims don’t like the Crescent and Star image because it is associated with the Ottoman Empire and is a little too much like an idol.  I asked him what he would prefer and after a bit of thought he wrote down the word ‘Allah’ in Arabic. 

But as I looked at the eight symbols I felt that my issue was not to promote Muslim, but UU, awareness.  There was no Flaming Chalice.  For a few minutes I wondered if the chalice really was equivalent to the others, or fit just fine in that funny cluster of stars that represented “All other traditions present.”  But then I realized that the Yin-Yang does not represent an active tradition in Muncie so much as the religions of East Asia in general.  So I asked that we change that one with a Flaming Chalice. 

Now, in Muncie, we are flaming Unitarian Universalists and proud of it.

July 30, 2008

There is a Hell

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 9:35 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

This afternoon, sitting at a local Starbucks, I was reading chapters of Ahab’s Wife, purportedly written by First Mate Starbuck himself (actually written by UU author Sena Jeter Naslund).  Cool coincidence. 

A chapter or so later as the main character, Una, is having a last supper aboard the Pequod, she asks about religion in Nantucket, the town to which they are headed.  Of course, in their listing they mention the Unitarians (who Una’s mom had described as letting people believe as they wished.  “Only your behavior must be according to what is commonly held to be good.  You must be kind…”)  After Mr. Stubb calls one church “the Elephantists!”

Mr. Flask corrects, “Nay, it’s the Universalist Society.” 

“What is their belief?” Una asks. 

“That ye cannot be damned.  It makes no difference if ye worship elephant Hindu gods or the crescent moon.  There’s no hell, they say, and ye can’t go to it.  Salvation is universal.” 

At that moment Una’s husband, who is chained in the next room, crazy with grief and guilt and alcohol, cries out, “Hell.” 

The point is that Hell is real and very much a part of our experience.  We found that out in Knoxville this past Sunday.  When children  gathered before a UU congregation to sing “The sun will come out tomorrow,” a crazy man fired a shotgun three times, killing two adults in the audience and wounding five more. 

That must have been a bit of Hell. In Church of all places. Watching the people that they loved, trusted and identified with being shot; blood splattering all over.  I am glad the shooter still lives, to face what he did. To plumb the depths of his depression and insanity.  Perhaps, to wring some vision of salvation, forgiveness and healing from it all. 

It was the great American-Universalist theologian, Hosea Ballou, who insisted that freedom from Hell did not mean freedom from judgment for sin or from consequences of wrong belief.  Hell was for him, and is for us, very much a reality in this world, even if there is no place for it in eternity.  Hell is the world in which so-called ‘liberals’ are a scourge that is ruining this country and must be taken out with shotgun blasts.  Hell is a world in which a person is isolated, without community, without family, without work and about to lose his food stamps.  Hell is a crazy angry man with a gun in a church trying to end the worship of hope and love and courage.

  Hell was in the world of his own mind, and so he made it tangible and real in the world of others.

July 11, 2008


Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 9:48 pm by Rev. Thomas Perchlik

The wonderful thing about the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey results is that they proclaim for all to see that we are not that special.  Our attitude of tolerance as one religion among many for example: 70% of all respondents, and 57% of Evangelical Christians (!) say that there is more than one path to “eternal life.”  Now maybe some of those evangelicals were saying that eternal life means eternal damnation and suffering, but I think it means that most are open to the idea that there are many paths to God and Heaven.  Nationally most people have accepted that there are many ways to interpret their own religions.  So diversity and inclusively are everywhere.

What I have long maintained is that we UUs are wrong when we make no distinction between UUism and liberal religion in general.  “We” talk as if our commitment to “freedom, reason and tolerance” are “so unique,” and we do come up some 20 or more percentage points above everyone else on most liberal religious questions.  But we are not liberal religion, it is everywhere.

Now we can keep pretending that we are the “one true” expression of liberal religion, or we can continue the work we have begun of shaping ourselves into a faith, rather than the anteroom to faith.  We must struggle with these questions: “What is different about us?”   “What do we keep of our Channing and Murray roots and what have we given up?”  “What practices and rituals are truly ours and no longer mere liberal reinterpretations and borrowings from Protestantism (or Native American traditions, etc.)?”  What is the difference between a UU Buddhist and just a Buddhist, what is the difference between a UU Pagan and a Pagan, or a UU Christian and all other Xians?” And above all we should answer “Why should anyone be active in a UU church?” Since answering that question will answer why those 200,000 who say they are UU but aren’t in our churches, should be.