Category Archives: Ministry

REPOST–Cabaret Church: Could this be Cabaret Church?

(The Amanda Palmer House Party Experience)

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by T Palmer

People often ask me how I ended up being a minister— which is a long story, but always begins the same way–I was fascinated by the whole idea of church. I loved that there was a place we went to be inspired to become better people. I was intrigued by the sense that being human is a kind of project that we can work on together. This started when I was very young, maybe four or five years old, yet last night at the splendid Chicago house party, when it was Amanda Palmer asking the question, that fascination is still where my answer began.

But before I get to that, I have to admit that the night did not begin as I hoped. If you know anything about me, you already know that means we were late. I hate being late. In spite of the fact that I woke up at 4 a.m. feeling like it was Christmas morning, and we fretted and timed everything  in order to arrive right on time and before Amanda, a number of things (including Chicago traffic) conspired to make us almost an hour late.

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by T Palmer
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by T Palmer

Even so, we were greeted by our gracious hosts and given directions about how things would work. People were already spray painting on a giant canvas and filling their plates from an enormous table, and I hurried through the crowd to add our food the the potluck.  I was frazzled and rushing; not at all how I wanted to be.

As I was trying to navigate the crowd, I saw Amanda and she looked up and broke into a big smile. I was unprepared  to be recognized. I had been carefully managing my expectations and practicing casually telling her my twitter handle and explaining who I was. To be suddenly face-to-face with her and to be known was a complete surprise. I managed to give her a startled look and a freaked-out smile and scurry away.

After getting my bearings and taking care of the required details, I worked my way back to  the food. As I stepped into the garage (where the feast was laid) there was Amanda. She smiled and said something like, “Hi! I want to sit my ass down next to you and talk.” I sputtered out, “Okay, that would be great,” and added, “Give me a couple of minutes to get through…this…” My words trailed off.  How does one name the profoundly strange combination of anxiety and joy that makes your entire vocabulary disappear? Luckily, she seemed to understand.

After we got our food, we found a place to sit in the grass and talk. I told her a little story about the last time we’d met and how I forgot to look at anything but my shoes. That led to a moment of intentional eye contact. And then, amazingly, it wasn’t awkward any more. That’s when she asked me how I became a minister. Or did she ask how I became me?

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by T Palmer
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by Carl Frederick

All I know is that I unwound the  strands of my story, laying them out in rows, trying not to leave too many  dangling or  tangled. Amanda listened and  I felt a genuine connection, not to Amanda-Palmer-the-rock-star, but to Amanda-Palmer-the-human-being.  For those few minutes not one person interrupted us–not with words or bodies or impatient eyes–and I felt like we were inside the fairy circle in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, protected by old magic. (Ocean is the most recent  book by Neil Gaiman, who is married to Amanda, and it is a book I already cherish. A post about that will happen when I can find the words.)

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by T Palmer

When it was time to move on, I ended up with the task of keeping Amanda’s kimono from harm, which somehow felt important. (It was the very same kimono featured in her recent musical retort to the British tabloid The Daily Mail.) Later, when she needed the kimono for photos, she asked me to hold her phone and take some pictures. That led to me becoming the “official” cell phone photographer, trying to capture candid moments happening before, after, and around each person’s formal picture with Amanda. I had great fun balancing two, three, and sometimes four cell phones, trying to catch the sweet, poignant, and happy moments of connection between Amanda and her fans.

Watching those connections allowed me to notice and observe the spirit of the night, quietly and beautifully shaped and guided by Amanda: a transcendent mix of art, conversation, hugs, tears, and courage.  In a recent blog post Amanda wrote about the power of  the house parties and the atmosphere of pure connection that pervades them. Last night, fifty strangers chose trust over fear and created something real together. What we created was the very thing that fascinated me as a child and started me dreaming and writing, curating and creating Cabaret Church. 

Even now, long past childhood, I am fascinated by the possibilities of the human project I first saw in church. I still long for a community where people support and challenge each other to break free from a culture that wants us to exhaust and anesthetize ourselves with conformity and consumerism. I’m still determined to spend my life trying to create and support spaces where people can grow and become more authentic, courageous, and kind. I saw that happen last night, around and within me.

There’s a lot to be learned from these amazing gatherings that could help make church more relevant, meaningful, and fun. And there are and will always be things we can learn from old spiritual wisdom, tradition and practice.  As Amanda told me last night, “We suffer from the separation of church and art.” Maybe it’s time for a reunion.

Special thanks to Andy, Siouxi, Dave, Kate, Amanda and all the other wonderful people who made last night possible.

REPOST–Cabaret Church: Why Amanda Palmer Makes Me Think About Church

AFP MKE PridefestI am a minister. Maybe that is why people give me strange looks when I tell them I am a big fan of Amanda Palmer. I guess the word “minister” conjures an image of uptight, scowling old men with nostrils permanently flared from sniffing out the faintest scent of the carnal.  When confronted by someone as free-spirited as Amanda—who is prone to displays of public nudity; uses the word “fuck” with both ease and power (it is, after all, her middle name); writes, sings and screams songs like “Do it With a Rock Star” and “The Killing Type;” and uses social media to share much of (if not every corner of) her mind—I guess I am supposed to immediately condemn her or run away screaming.

I may be expected to condemn, but instead I find myself drawn to Amanda Palmer’s work and her world. Her songs, her TED talk, her blog, her insistence on connection with her fans and even with her haters have all reinvigorated—resurrected, really—my passion for ministry and my vision of what liberal religious community can be.

Truth be told, I love all of it: the uninhibited self-expression; the nakedness of body, mind, and soul; the unabashed insistence that the power of art can change us and therefore change the world. “We are the Media!” Amanda Palmer sings.  I want to add: “And we are the Church!” Or maybe: “We are the Sacred! We are the Holy! We are Everything That Matters and everything beautiful and ordinary and amazing…

Amanda Palmer makes me think about church.  Yeah, church: the place where, for centuries, power and greed and transcendence and sin and art and ritual and life and death have been playing their parts in a grand mythic drama. Church: the place where people try to work out what it means to be human and how to make life more graceful and meaningful.  Church: the one thing that has both  saved my life and broken my heart so completely that I ran away screaming in pain and fury. And yes, church. The community that always draws me back and helps me recognize and serve something larger than my own ego, something like Hope.  Even though I am often frustrated at the forms the institutional church takes, I can’t shake my conviction that if we don’t despair, we can return the church to being a catalyst for empowerment, inspiration, justice, and liberty in our own hearts and in the world.

Alfred North Whitehead called God “the poet of the world.” The central story in every religious tradition is always the story of creation: God dividing light from darkness, the Goddess giving birth, or Turtle rising from the primordial ooze with the muddy earth on its back.  These primal stories are the centerpiece of religious myth not only because we humans are eternally curious about our origins, but because the ability to create is and has always been considered sacred.  For centuries, if you were looking for art you went to church, where poets, painters, sculptors, musicians and composers were lauded for their ability to make a way for the sacred to enter the ordinary world. Beauty and creativity were portals to the holy.

Amanda Palmer’s work is a torrid, sweaty, sex-in-public affair with creativity.  In the Punk Cabaret story of creation, creatrix and creature refuse to be separated by theological hierarchies, and are instead consenting partners in an ecstatic and slightly dangerous bump and grind. Bodies are celebrated, even flaunted, without embarrassment.  After all, if it weren’t for our bodies, how would we create or experience all this beauty?

This, for me, is an awakening. For decades I have struggled with the ugly dichotomy that separates body from spirit and declares the material, the physical, the carnal to be dirty and sinful.  I was moved to tears when I read Walt Whitman’s declaration, “If anything is sacred, the human body is!”  That sacredness is too easy to forget, yet listening to Amanda Palmer’s music I feel the urge to move rise up in me and am reminded that my earliest spiritual or religious memories are of dancing.  In dance class or at home alone with my record player, I experienced my whole heart and body absorbed in one transcendent “Yes!” I knew, as a child, that both the dance and the dancer were holy. I knew that I was inseparable from The Sacred.

I know, of course, that religion—especially Western Christianity—is responsible for much of this denigration of the body. I know that the unholy desire for power and empire led to the creation of systems and theologies that dismiss some bodies—brown bodies, female bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies—as worthless and only to be controlled. I see the results of this thinking in policies that demean and punish those who wear these bodies. I see this and I know that many will be unable to believe that religion, complicit in so much evil, is worthy of anything but disdain. I know. I see. I tremble.

And yet I cannot just walk away. I keep being drawn back. Or, to use an older term: I keep being called back.

You see, I didn’t go into ministry because I wanted to reenact dusty rituals, all the while keeping my hair neat and my overcoat buttoned.  I didn’t go into ministry to write twenty-minute essays more conducive to checking one’s watch than to checking in with the state of one’s soul.  I didn’t go into ministry to be considered an employee with a three word job description: keep people happy.

I went into ministry because I long for transformation. I long for revolution. I am called to make this world better and to heal what brokenness I can.  I am called to help create communities that empower all of us to encounter and respond to the All that is bigger than any of us, bigger than all of us, and bigger even than anything we can imagine. I am called to look for and help create communities that are engaged in the work of the spirit together. Communities that are a lot like the crowds at  Amanda Palmer concerts or the people telling their truths and tweeting love and support for one another on a Friday night, tagging Amanda in every post.

I imagine a church where every sweaty, glitter-drenched, dancing body is welcome. I imagine a church that can be loud and bold and angry when necessary. I imagine a church where we notice the many who say, “No one sees me,” and take time to stop, look them in the eye and say, “We see you.”  I imagine a church where everyone is invited to not only attend the show, but to be part of it—to engage soul-deep in the art of living an authentic, embodied, meaningful life.

That’s the church I imagine, thanks to Amanda Palmer. That’s Cabaret Church.

Looking for the Love‬

news_loveandjusticeToday is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the second day of the “Thirty Days of Love” sponsored by our Association. I’ve waited until today to address something that happened just about a month ago.  I waited to make sure I wasn’t over-reacting. I waited, thinking maybe I’d feel better as time passed. I waited to give us all some time to calm down.  Just under a month ago,  the Unitarian Universalist Association posted a holiday greeting on Facebook that led to a long painful discussion.

At least, it was painful for me. So painful that I had to consider whether Unitarian Universalism is a place where I can or should continue to pour my energies, ideas, and hard work.  That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.

The words and image chosen for the greeting are not the primary issue for me. Yes, I understand the intention was to remind Unitarian Universalists that the most important thing about the holidays is not the gifts and materialism. But I also understand that those words and the accompanying image left some feeling painfully excluded.

Yes, Unitarian Universalists are, in general, well-educated and economically privileged. But there are those among us who do not have what they need. There are also people like the woman I sat with in my office on December 23 who wept because she could not find a way to give her children the Christmas she felt they deserved: no tree, no big dinner, and most painfully for her, not a single gift. She chose to pay the rent and keep the heat on, but doing so made her feel like a failure and she knew her children would be disappointed.

The greeting also uses language that assumes that all of us can see, hear, and embrace with arms of love.  Some say the language is simply metaphor, and it may be. But in a world where barriers to inclusion and microagressions are an everyday thing for folks with disabilities, exclusive metaphors still sting.

When they are coming from your faith community–a community that says it is working to be inclusive and counter-oppressive–the sting becomes a burn. (This is something I’ve learned from my experience as a trans* person and by listening to others in my beloved community who struggle to be included–let alone, celebrated–in their fullness as human beings with abilities and disabilities.)

But it was not the greeting that broke my heart.

After the greeting was posted, a few brave souls pointed out that it may have been hurtful and/or excluded some folks in our beloved community. They did so gently and carefully, being clear that they knew that whoever had posted the greeting did not intend to exclude or hurt anyone.

And then all hell broke loose. And my heart broke.

First, Peter Morales, the President of our Association of Congregations replied:

I am sorry you were offended by the UUA’s Facebook page posting… However, I believe you misread both the intent and the content of the posting and that your criticisms are misdirected and counterproductive.

(I’ve deleted a story from President Morales’ childhood about being poor and information about how the new UUA headquarters will be accessible to people with disabilities.)

…What troubles me about your letter is that it falls into a pattern of what I have called UU’s who arrive “pre-offended.” The result is a kind of bullying that ends up having people become so cautious that our discourse is trivialized. To say that we need vision is not to demean those who are blind. To say that we should stand on the side of love does not disrespect those who cannot stand. To say that we should listen deeply does not marginalize those with hearing disabilities. Are we to avoid singing “Guide My Feet” in fear that someone without feet might be offended?

I do not believe we should ever give offense deliberately. And, yes, we should be thoughtful and sensitive. However—and this is critical—we should not take offense when none was intended. I rarely go to a major meeting of UU’s when someone does not come to me in righteous anger about some imagined offense. It is counter productive. Frankly, it is silly.
There are real issues we must confront together. I am convinced that economic inequality does enormous emotional damage and threatens our democracy. We need to work together to make our congregations and our society more open and accessible.

I look forward to working with you and others to confront real issues of injustice and marginalization that affect thousands. I suggest we spend more energy taking action and less taking offense.

The scolding, paternalistic tone of President Morales’ words was the first (and deepest) wound. Calling people “pre-offended” is to say that no offense was given and the critique  offered is a figment of the imaginations of those who are “too sensitive”–an age-old way of silencing people who dare to speak up and name oppression.

President Morales continues to  dismiss his critics (or critics of the greeting since the response to the greeting was never aimed at Morales personally) calling their critique a “complaint” that is misdirected, counter-productive, and a form of bullying. He admits that people approach him all the time in “righteous anger at some imagined offense.” Then he tells us what he really thinks: “Frankly, it’s silly.”

Sadly, President Morales is not the only one. After he posted his response, hundreds of people chimed in. It was like a floodgate opened and instead of compassion and love for those who felt excluded and hurt, what came pouring out was defensiveness, dismissal, and anger. And that was when I began to wonder, “Am I on the wrong team?” Are we so invested in our own culture, structures, and self-importance that we can’t even listen when someone says, “Hey, that hurt.  Ouch.”?

The holiday greeting was a relatively small thing: a picture and some words. Yes, those words were written by a beloved UU leader. And the picture is pretty and represents something we’re proud of: a grassroots effort to create images for social media that carry our values and message into the world.   When people critique  a well-intentioned greeting, it’s painful. When they point out that our words (and images) may have effects that we did not intend, it can be frustrating. But isn’t this exactly the kind of thing we have to be willing to do if we are to  live out our commitments?

Our Association has adopted Global Ends, which is a fancy way of saying Big Goals that are supposed to guide all that we do. One of those Ends is:

  • Congregations and communities engage in partnerships to counter systems of power, privilege and oppression.

I can’t help but wonder if we mean it.  Today, many of us are quoting Dr. King. But what about tomorrow? During the Thirty Days of Love, we’re studying up on multiculturalism, but is our beloved community truly welcoming to all? And if it is not, are we willing to change? Next time someone asks us to look at our words and consider that they might not be as loving as we thought, how will we respond? Will we accuse them of being the problem and dismiss them as silly? Will we tell them we’re too busy doing the real work of justice to be bothered?

Is that what we mean by Love?

The chance might be here already.  Today,  a Unitarian Universalist posted a lovely reflection called Love means it’s time to kill your darlings. How will we respond?

I am not sure if this blog is dead…

Somehow, I lost the inspiration to write here. I’m not sure why. Most of my online presence now is on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.  The thought of writing a post here feels like writing essays—-so many words–and that just seems dull. I’ve gotten used to the shorter formats and love the challenge of distilling my thoughts into 140 characters or an image. I save my long form thoughts for sermons in my beautiful congregation.

I also have a secret project. It’s secret because some might find it too edgy, even offensive. Mostly because it does not avoid “the F word.” In fact, it reclaims it with some joy and abandon. It is also an intentional effort to create a space that celebrates the intersections of art, spiritual community, and resistance.  And to bring the joy and pain and chaos and mess of those things together, hoping to find something beautiful and relevant there.

If you promise not to get angry about the language or the unapologetic interruption of oppression, or offended by  the celebration of all things embodied (including all kinds of bodies, tattoos, sex…) then come to The Cabaret.

Thoughts on Justice GA 2012 in Phoenix, AZ

One World UnborderedIt probably doesn’t go without saying that the following are my own thoughts and do not represent the UUA, the GA Planning Committee, the Arizona Immigration Ministry, The Accountability Group or anyone else.

People are beginning to notice and respond to the Justice GA Schedule and grid (available here.)

Since I was at the meeting where the schedule was created, I want to ask you to think about a few things as you begin to respond:

First, be gentle in your critique. This schedule is the result of a lot of good people working hard together to respond to a wide variety of needs and expectations.  We made a very clear decision to privilege the needs of the local community and let THEM tell us what they need. The form the schedule takes reflects that. It’s more about the local community’s needs than our hopes and expectations.

Second, I learned at the meeting that there are not (at this point) a whole lot of ways that 3000-4000 UUs can be truly helpful to the local community. There are many ways that trying to meet OUR need to do something that we recognize as service/witness would tax the local community’s resources. We can’t just descend on them. And the amount of organization and resources that a huge service project would demand would actually be a drain on the limited resources of the very people we hope to serve. Knowing this, we’ve tried hard to find ways that  we can use our presence, power, and resources to do things that are truly helpful.  This GA will offer many ways to be of service, but they may not look like we may have expected.

Third, (and I’m not sure I know how to say this gently) we have A LOT to learn. The amount of education and preparation is very intentional and is also a response to the local community wanting us to truly understand not just the issues they face, but the history behind those issues. Education is perhaps THE very most powerful thing we can do to help–not only the Arizona migrants–but people back home, who also face the consequences of this history in ways both similar and dissimilar.  If we can get thousands of UUs to grapple with the history/theology of the Doctrine of Discovery OR to understand the basics of coalition building and community organizing OR to feel like they can help make a difference with the privilege and power they have…well, we’d have accomplished a lot.

Fourth, there will be a lot of choices built into this GA. People will be able to choose how much service they can do, how much history they want to learn, how many practical “take it home” skills they learn, etc.  The “grid” can’t reflect that very well. But what I heard among the very key people at the planning meeting was a deep desire to allow attendees as much flexibility as possible to learn, reflect, and act.  All of that, of course, takes place within the constraints of time, space, and available resources.

Truly, I was amazed by the commitment, dedication, realism, and vision of the planners. This GA won’t be perfect. It probably won’t be like you imagine it. But it will be a very heartfelt effort to create something that helps create justice and truly partners with the people who need us in Arizona.

One of our partners in this work, B Loewe , Communications Director at National Day Laborer Organizing Network, started our time together with a reflection on three goals we might share for this experiment we call “Justice GA”:

1. Build power for the local communities by using our resources, privilege, and access (especially to the media) to draw attention to the struggle in Arizona and the deeper inequities and injustices it reveals.

2. Shrink disbelief among our own people and among people throughout this nation who think and say, “I just can’t believe our government would do these things” or “I didn’t know it was so bad.”

3. Enlarge compassion.

He reminded us that we are not expected to do a Justice GA perfectly, but we are committed to doing it in partnership with the people who invited us, with the people who have taken the risk to make it happen, and with each other.

Love Will Guide Us,

Sean

Church Skills: (NOT!) How to Crush the Morale of Your Pastor

Please read this. The whole thing. The humor helps, it really does. I’m only weeping a little. Here’s an excerpt to get you to read the rest:

In the past most congregations’ attempts to demoralize their ordained leadership have been haphazard and ad hoc, although still surprisingly effective. In the interest of bringing more rigorous and systematic approaches to these efforts here are some of my modest proposals:

1. Schedule a weekly meeting for your pastor to sit down with the treasurer (or, better yet, the assistant treasurer) to “go over” every business expense. Be sure to inquire if certain expenses are legitimate, such as the purchase of a Marilyn Robinson or Gail Godwin novel from the pastor’s book allowance (“Should we really be paying for your chick-lit?”) Or a long-distance call to a neighboring pastor friend from seminary. Do such expenses really profit the church? And what about this big expense for 14 volumes by this Barth guy? Do you really need all of these? And his title sounds so, well, dogmatic!

Church Skills: “Congregations Gone Wild” (NYTimes)

If you watched the videos from the last post, thank you. And now you’re one step ahead.

The next step is to read this article in the NYTimes online.

Now, compare the two.  And think about how your congregation works.

Does your congregation ask and answer the Three Key Questions? If so, what is the role of your minister and other leaders?

Or, like the Times article says, do people in your congregation “increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them”?  If so, what is the role of the minister and other leaders?

All of this, really, is about mission.  Soothing and entertaining the members and visitors is NOT a sufficient mission for a congregation. It isn’t healthy for clergy or members or leaders or visitors or the world.  It is not what our congregations are meant to be or do.

And sadly, more and more, it seems the consumer culture is influencing churches rather than the other way around.  But we can change that. A church with a mission can be a counter-cultural force that encourages people to believe, remember, and live lives that have a higher purpose and a deeper calling.

And that will keep us all from burning out.