Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Review of a Progressive Christian Easter Service

by Elayne Clift
{written for the Keene (NH) Sentinel}

As a Jew, I'm not accustomed to attending church. (A secular Jew, I don't even go to synagogue very often.) Most of my experience with churches has occurred in relation to weddings, funerals, and Christmas Eve caroling. But a recent experience bears sharing not only because it was unique and wonderful, but because it just might give us all something to think about in a time of growing polemics, political extremism and murky church-state relations.

In Florida over Easter, my (Christian) husband and I attended services with our son who goes to the "Sunshine Cathedral" in Fort Lauderdale. My husband, who had attended services there before, told me it was a special place of worship but I had to experience it to really see what he was talking about. I got it the minute the service began. My first clue was that the second service of the day was packed with people who were all smiling and greeting each other. They ranged from aging bikers of the Harley-Davidson variety to a Caribbean family with two little girls decked out in white dresses and Mary Jane shoes; from gay and lesbian couples in shorts and T-shirts to proverbial "little old ladies" in flowered dresses.

My second clue was that the two lead ministers, both men, approached the front of the sanctuary wearing ab-fab Easter bonnets while the ushers sported bunny ears. The choirmaster, a woman, wore a long white backless gown such as you might see at a prom. Clearly, this church had a sense of humor and loved a good party!

And yet the service, the music, the homily were so moving and so meaningful that I could barely get through it without sobbing.

Sunshine Cathedral is a Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Part of an international movement now active in nearly two dozen countries, it was founded in California in 1968 by Troy Perry, a Pentecostal minister who was defrocked because he was gay. Its core values are inclusion, community, spiritual transformation, and social action. Each of those values was clear and present in the Easter service, not only in how the minister interpreted the Easter story but in how he asked his congregants to "apply what you believe to your own personal resurrection." It was clear in his message to "go forward rather than dwelling in the past," and in his reminder that Sunshine Cathedral focuses on the "progressive, the positive, and the practical." It was present in his emphasis on the universality of "hope, acceptance, joy, and possibility."

With music ranging from jazz and gospel to Beethoven's "Hallelujah," inspirational quotations from sources as varied as the Bengali poet Tagore to Winston Churchill, spiritual heroes that include Catherine of Sienna and Oskar Schindler, large-screen visuals of seascapes or clips from Walt Disney's animated film "Cinderella", and the closing admonition, "[Our worship has] ended; Let our service begin," this is a church like no other, it seems to me. Irreverently reverent, humorously relevant, wonderfully welcoming, it manages to be magically meaningful in very mixed up and troubling times.

In a way, it explains why many Jews have chosen to identify with Universalist Unitarians ("UUs") because of their emphasis on social activism, their genuine inclusivity, and their message of hope and humanity. Others are working toward "Jewish Renewal", an attempt to make Judaism more meaningful and socially conscious in a 21st century world.

Whatever one's religious affiliation, what was clear to me on an Easter morning in the Sunshine Cathedral, where the word "sin" was never uttered, is that despite our various diversities, the universe is full of people striving to find their place in the world - on common ground -- without judgment, and free of simplistic polemics, meaningless rituals, and "thou shalt nots."

To that end, I am glad to have stood among bunnies and bonnets, listening to Beethoven, hoping for, and believing in, a better, more generous and genuine world.

# # #

Elayne Clift writes about politics, social issues, and contemporary life from Saxtons River, Vt. (

The Jesus Way

The Jesus Way
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins
Ps 33.1-5; 1 Pt 2.2-3, 9-10; Jn 14.1-12

Preached May 22, 2011 at Sunshine Cathedral’s 10:30 AM service, the day after “Judgment Day”, so called by evangelical broadcaster Harold Camping. Camping predicted “the Rapture” would occur on May 22; he was apparently mistaken.

Well, I see I’m not the only one who got left behind. I hate to seem selfish, but I have to admit feeling a sense of relief yesterday that the pilot flying our plane wasn’t beamed to Glory in mid-flight. They can tell you about oxygen masks and life jackets, but mostly in the case of a crash, you’re just hosed.

Of course it’s easy to make fun of the doomsday predictions, especially since they are always wrong; but there is also a sadness to them. One wonders what pathology is at work to make people long for an apocalypse, and to have such delusions of grandeur that they think they can both predict and escape it.

I suspect that what gives life to these apocalyptic fantasies is the fear of change. Fear of losing privilege, fear of losing dominance. As gay marriage gains steam, as immigration changes the demographics of our communities, as Islam grows at a faster pace than Christianity, as women now hold high office in church and state, and in a country that has often been torn apart by racism an African American president now sits in the White House. I suspect that for many people they aren’t really hoping for the end of the world, they are just mourning that the world where they felt they were in charge has already ended, and so they want the new world to be punished, and they want to be whisked away to a place where they will once again be part of the ruling class. Rather than embracing change and celebrating progress, they mourn the loss of power and privilege and they dream of magical ways they might be restored to an elite status.

Well, the world has ended many times…the world that was thought to be flat, the world where Christians thought they could hold slaves, the world where flight and organ transplants and space travel were only the wild ideas of the most creative of imaginations…yes, the world has retired and given way to new worlds many times, and will many more times. So, let’s not ever get too upset about the misguided prophets of doom; let’s just do what we can to make our world the best that it can be now and always.

Psalm 33 tells us that Justice and Love are what God is about.

The psalmist also mentions the harp and lyre…stringed instruments that are to be accompanied by shouts of joy.

Working for justice, sharing love, and celebrating our lives with great enthusiasm is the divine way, or path.

The writer of 1 Peter, quoting two verses from Exodus 19, tells us that we have sacred value and enormous potential.

And the gospel shows us the way to acknowledge and embrace our sacred value, to celebrate and share the divine power within us.

In the gospel lesson, the writer imagines Jesus saying, “Where I Am, there YOU MAY BE ALSO!” Thomas needs some kind of GPS system. He says, “How can we know the way?” And Jesus answers, “I AM the way!”

I think what John is having Jesus say to us is: Where I AM in my understanding of God you can be also, and you can have that by following the way I have followed, the way of fearless exploration, trust, hope, and intimacy with the divine.

First of all, remember that Jesus is executed in the year 29; John is being written about the year 96, almost 70 years later. This is being written long after Jesus ever said anything. Also, this passage saying, “I Am the way” only occurs in this late gospel. An isolated verse in a late gospel has been given far too much weight in the way it has been used to exclude and insult people of other faith traditions. God forgive us.

We must remember “the way” doesn’t mean a belief; the way is a path, and a path is traveled on during a journey. The Way isn’t a narrow, myopic, self-serving dogma; the Way is an on-going path of exploration and discovery. It isn’t exclusive, it is infinitely inclusive. And before the words “the Way” are the powerful sacred words, “I AM.”

In Exodus 3.14 the story says that Moses comes to understand God in a new way. Moses’ new discovery is that God is “I AM.” Yahweh is more a verb than a noun, more precisely a “to be” verb.

The divine name means “I Am” or “I Am Who I Will Be” or “I Will Be What I will be” or “ I Am the One that causes things to be”…in any case, God is Pure Being and the source and substance of all being and becoming. “This is what you are to tell the people” (Moses hears), “I AM has sent me to you.”

I AM sends…The Infinite To Be Verb sets in motion Action Verbs…Theologian Paul Tillich called God “the Ground of Being”…This Ground or Substance of All Being calls us To Be our best and sends us out to do our best…I AM calls us to action, to movement, to journeys…the path, the way is one of forward movement, not freezing time nor going back, not even of all pretending to believe the same things, but daring to move forward.

I AM the way…The name of God is a path we follow, a path of exploration and growth and evolution and change. This way is the life-giving truth: the way, the truth and the life.

Notice that there are in John, 7 “I Am” statements attributed to Jesus: I Am Bread of Life (Jn 6), I Am Light (Jn 8 & 9), I Am the Gate (Jn 10), I Am the good shepherd (Jn 10), I Am Resurrection & Life (Jn 11), I Am the Way, Truth, and Life (Jn 14), and I Am the true vine (Jn 15).

I AM is always used in a positive way. To say I Am is to invoke God’s name, and to follow God’s name with something positive is the word of truth, the word of hope, the word of healing, while to follow God’s name with something negative is to take God’s name in vain. John isn’t having Jesus arrogantly sing his own praises; he’s showing that Jesus so related to the God of the universe that he felt at one with God, and he affirmed that unity. And as followers of Jesus, we too are to recognize our unity with the divine and affirm the truth of that unity in our speech, in our prayers, and in our daily living.

Even if we don’t feel that those statements accurately portray what we know of ourselves so far, we can at least trust that those statements are true of God. And so when we say I AM something good, we are affirming the Goodness of God, and as we trust that goodness more and more we will trust our relationship to and with God more and more and those I AM statements will become increasingly accurate portrayals of how we know ourselves to be in this world. John’s Jesus is showing us the power of a positive I AM statement held in mind and repeated with conviction.

I don’t have to fear the future, I don’t have to fear change if I know that I AM something good, something divine, someone of eternal significance. The person who can say, I AM something good can say with complete integrity, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” In God, all is well.

John intended his audience to identify with Jesus. John’s community is meant to do what Jesus does, follow in his footsteps, say what he says, and be in the world what he had been in the world. So, when Jesus says, “I Am”, each member of John’s community was meant to say, “And I Am too.”

That hypothesis is in agreement with what we notice by comparing Jesus’ statement in John’s Gospel, “I AM the light of the world” with Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s gospel, saying, “You are the light of the world.” Matthew has Jesus say, “you are.” John has Jesus say, “I am.” They are both saying the same thing. They are saying Jesus is divine light, and so are we.

We see in Jesus a person so filled with the presence and power of God that people felt closer to God because of their encounter with him. But then we remember that God breathed the breath of life into ‘adam, the earth-being; that God has breathed Her spirit into all human-beings. We are all God-filled persons; Jesus isn’t the only one. Jesus is the model, the example reminding us what is most deeply true about each of us, about all people.

So, what is the way of Jesus that is true and life-giving, the path that is the way we can best experience the power and presence of God in our lives? Well, rather than literalizing a statement that is made only in John’s gospel some 67 years after Jesus’ lifetime, let’s look at the way Jesus demonstrated time and again throughout scripture:

We see Jesus engaging with respect the Samaritan Woman at the well…The Way of Equality (Jn 4).

We see Jesus responding kindly when the rebel being crucified with him said, “Remember me”…The Way of Compassion (Lk 23).

We see Jesus telling his followers to get to work, saying the harvest is ready but the workers are too few…The Way of Challenge (Mk 9).

We see Jesus saying that the greatest commandments are simply to love God and love people (Matt 22), in fact, we see him saying that to treat others the way you’d like to be treated is the whole message of scripture (Matt 7)…The Way of Love.

We see Jesus praising the poor widow who gives her best gift. She gives absolutely all she can. Others give more, but this woman gives her all and does so not to get anything in return but simply for the joy of doing all she can…the Widow’s Mite remains the ideal image of faithful stewardship and spiritual commitment…The Way of Generosity (Mk 12).

We see Jesus praying in a very affirmative way at Lazarus’ tomb: Abba I thank you for hearing me, I know that you always hear me!...The Way of Affirmation and Positive Thinking (Jn 11).

The way of Jesus isn’t to make him into an idol, or an afterlife insurance policy, or a bouncer to keep people out whose faith experiences have led them in a variety of directions. After all, in God’s house there are many rooms…we are each bound to find the one that is right for us.

The way of Jesus is the way of living in relationship with God, of trusting God’s presence within us, of sharing hope and goodwill with others, of learning to love more, of forgiving ourselves and others when we have failed to love deeply enough, of allowing ourselves to experience and express more and more light as we grow and learn and move forward on our journeys of faith. This is the way of Jesus, the truth he demonstrated, the life he lived, this is the way that will help us live truly in communion with God. Few of us are there yet, but we can grow toward the goal, empowered by grace every step of the way…the way, the truth and the life of constantly growing and evolving faith. And this is the good news. Amen.

© Durrell Watkins 2011

"The Way is not in the sky; the Way is in the heart.” Buddha

I Am a child of God.
I Am a person of conscience and character.
I Am a person of generosity and goodwill.
I Am a person of peace and purpose.
I Am a miracle worker.
I Am God’s Word made flesh.

Judgment Day

Q&A with Pastor Durrell

Question: I hate to admit it but the recent hoopla about May 21 being "Judgment Day" has really unnerved me. Do you believe that May 21 is Judgment Day? - N.F.

Answer: Life is filled with uncertainty, surprises, and unanswered questions. Part of being sentient beings is to wrestle with the complexities and ambiguities of life. However, some individuals (as well as some political, social, and religious organizations) lack the emotional and spiritual maturity to accept these simple realities. And so they pretend to have answers that can't be known in an attempt to feel more in control than they ever could be. This is one of the symptoms of the pathology known as "fundamentalism."

The problem with treating life as if it were so easily and completely predictable is at least twofold: (1) Such a view is delusional, and; (2) such a view is incredibly selfish. It suggests that in all the vastness of the universe, our sense of power, control, or importance is what matters most. Such a view could hardly help us live into our potential nor could it improve the condition of our world.

I honestly haven't paid much attention to the "Judgment Day" propaganda, but I do know that history is full of doomsday predictions that never came to pass. And I must admit having less than positive regard for ideologies that suggest a special class of people can escape the trials and difficulties of life by being beamed to another world mere hours, days, weeks, or months before the rest of creation is destroyed by some horrific force attributed to divine wrath. I think a more realistic understanding of life could probably be found at any given comic book convention.

Now, we certainly have the capacity to do great harm to our planet. Weapons of mass destruction, environmental neglect, even random natural disasters could possibly cripple our earth home, but none of that is inevitable, nor is any of that predictable. The bible isn't a crystal ball, religion isn't a substitute for living life, and whatever else God is, God must be more than a safety net for those who belong to the "right" club.

So, I fully expect that May 21 will be full of opportunities, challenges, rewards and disappointments much like every other day is for most people. And even if I am wrong, that still doesn't change how I would live my life. There is a legendary story about someone approaching St. Francis while he was gardening. The person asked St. Francis what he would do if he knew the world would end in an hour. St. Francis said, "I would finish my gardening." That is the example of mature faith.

I have no idea what will happen on any given day in the future, but I trust that whatever happens, God is with us and hope and joy will always be available to us no matter what else may be happening. And if you are reading this after May 21, then, well, case closed.

This was from the May 22nd "Sun Burst", the weekly newsletter of the Sunshine Cathedral. The online version of the Sunday newsletter is emailed out on the previous Thursday each week.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday 13th Reflection

Friday 13th Reflection
by Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins

There is apparently no written evidence for a Friday 13th superstition before the 19th century.

Friday 13th may have developed its bad reputation by two older traditions, Friday being an unlucky day and 13 being an unlucky number, getting mixed together.

Friday has been associated with back luck because it was the day of Jesus’ execution. Stock market crashes and various disasters have also happened on Friday (but of course, difficult occurrences have happened on every day of the week as well).

13 may have been considered unlucky because 12 was considered good. 12 was the number that
suggested completeness/wholeness/perfection. We see 12 being used to suggest goodness or completion by there being 12 tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles, 12 Olympian gods, 12 hours on the clock, 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, etc. Additionally, in numerology, when there is a double digit number, one adds the two digits together to come up with a single digit. When we add 1 + 2, we get 3 which ancient Greeks thought was a divine number representing completeness (beginning, middle, and end).

So, if 12 was the number of completion, then the number beyond 12 would disrupt the completion/perfection that 12 represented. Of course the number beyond perfection couldn’t be good (or so the reasoning may have gone)!

Now all this symbolism is fun and can probably be used toward positive ends, but in Reality, there are no unlucky numbers and no unlucky days. The Greek poet Epimenides believed that we were always “in God” and in Acts 17.28, Luke shows us St. Paul quoting that very belief. God, representing ultimate and infinite goodness, could not contain bad luck. Choices have consequences, and habits are bound to yield results (good habits, good results; bad habits, well, you get it…), so we do experience back “luck” from time to time, but we need not blame it on the calendar.

When we add 1+3 we get 4, which is the number of our gospels (“Good News”), which when multiplied by 3 gives us 12 (see above), which represented the four “corners” of the earth when the earth was thought to be flat (and therefore, 4 would have suggested wholeness and completion!). And Friday is when the fun or restful weekend begins for most people. Furthermore, May 13, 2011 reduces to 13 (so if we decide that 13 is lucky, then today is extra lucky!). Also, today is the only Friday 13th in this entire year (how special is that?!).

On this Friday 13th, let’s seize control of our destinies by making this one of the best days we’ve experienced in a long time!

Let’s spend today counting our blessings.
Let’s spend today expressing hope.
Let’s spend today recognizing what is beautiful in our lives.
Let’s spend today choosing to be generous.
Let’s spend today repeating this affirmation: “I Am blessed!”

I wish you a very happy Friday 13th! And if you are in the Ft. Lauderdale area on Sunday, May 15th, I hope to see you at Sunshine Cathedral.



Monday, May 09, 2011

Save Ugandan Lives

Dear Friends,

I just signed a petition demanding that Ugandan President Musevini veto the "Kill The Gays" bill should it be passed in Parliament.

We just learned the "kill the gays" bill - a death sentence for LGBT people in Uganda - could come up for a vote in the next 72 hours if we don't act now.

Conservative leaders are trying hard to push the bill forward before the millions like us who oppose it have a chance to speak out. If we can create a massive international outcry, there's a chance to stop this bill from becoming law.

This hateful bill appears to be a political diversion, a way to distract from the legitimate grievances of pro-democracy activists, who have been beaten, teargassed, jailed, and even killed in recent weeks.

There are only days left to make sure your voice is heard. Will you join me in demanding the Ugandan President Musevini veto the "Kill The Gays" bill should it be passed in Parliament? Sign and share this urgent petition (click the link below): .

Rev. Durrell Watkins, M.A., M.Div., D.Min.
Senior Pastor, Sunshine Cathedral

Monday, May 02, 2011

Prayer Responding to Death of Osama Bin Laden

Prayer in Response to the Killing of Osama Bin Laden
by Durrell Watkins, MA, MDiv, DMin

Dear God who places within our hearts a reverence for all life as well as a passion for justice: The teachers and preachers, sages and saints whom you have raised up to help raise us up have all taught the power of forgiveness, the divinity of love, and the possibility of redemption.

And so we find ourselves this week conflicted.

We have called Bin Laden our enemy; we have remembered with pain and anger the lives lost because of his terrorism. We may have wanted him to be captured to stand trial in a court of law, but that was not to be.

Perhaps his killing was a sad inevitability; and we, at least in some moments, have felt a desire to rejoice even while knowing that our higher Selves would require better of us. We wonder if we can prevail over our enemies without celebrating their downfall. We struggle to remember that even those we hate are loved by you.

We now give our complex and competing emotions to you, trusting that your grace will balance and heal them.

And as the rush of feelings begins to calm within us, draw us together as one human family to work together for peace in our time and for all time; for the sake of your goodness. Amen.

Progressive Religious Discussions

What Does It Mean to be Christian?

Could We Ever Be Lost?

Gay Friendly Jesus

Letting God Be Bigger Than Our Prejudices

A Rabbi Responds to Bin Laden's Death

Bin Laden & Beyond
by Arthur Waskow on Monday, May 2, 2011 at 10:26am.How might we appropriately address the death of a mass murderer?

The Torah describes Moses and Miriam leading the ancient People Israel in a celebratory song after the tyrannical Pharaoh and his Army have been overwhelmed by the waters of the Red Sea. Later, the Rabbis gave a new overtone to the story: “The angels,” they said, “ began to dance and sing as well, but God rebuked them: ‘These also are the work of My hands. We must not rejoice at their deaths!’ “

Notice the complexity of the teaching: Human beings go unrebuked when they celebrate the downfall and death of a tyrant; but the Rabbis are addressing our higher selves, trying to move us into a higher place. (The legend is certainly not aimed at “angels.”) Similarly, we are taught that at the Passover Seder, when we recite the plagues that fell upon the Egyptians, we must drip out the wine from our cups as we mention each plague, lest we drink that wine to celebrate these disasters that befell our oppressors.

I myself would have been a lot happier to see Bin Laden arrested to stand trial, but assuming the report that he violently resisted arrest is true, I have no objection to his having been killed.

Yet I was dismayed by the quasi-sports-victory tone of the celebrations that arose around the country -- chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A," for instance.

What I myself felt was more like "Sad necessity" -- and I would have preferred a mournful remembrance of the innocent dead of the Twin Towers and of Iraq and Afghanistan -- a thoughtful reexamination of how easy it is to turn abominable violence against us into a justification for indiscriminate violence by us.

Can we now say, “Enough, enough!” -- refuse to drink the intoxicating triumphalist wine of celebration, and turn our attention and commitment to end these wars that take on a deadly “life” of their own?

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace --

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director
The Shalom Center

What Does It Mean to Be Christian

Response to the Death of Bin Laden

I received a New York Times news alert saying that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Within minutes, parishioners were emailing me to confess some pleasure in learning of Bin Laden's death, asking if it was wrong to be glad, and further asking how we should pray in response to this situation.

Here is my response:

The psalmist wrote, "With a complete hatred I do hate them. They have become to me real enemies" (Ps. 139.22). I don't think the Psalmist is speaking as an ethicist, a behavioral scientist, or even necessarily as a religious leader; rather, he is simply acknowledging, without judgment, how he is feeling in a particular moment. Some feelings simply show up for us and the first task in dealing with them is to acknowledge them. I think that is what the Psalmist shows us.

Of course, we aspire to be people of love, forgiveness, goodwill, and compassion, and yet we are complex beings with a wide range of emotions. Bin Laden orchestrated an act of terrorism in our country a decade ago that killed over 3,000 and wounded and terrified countless more. He has been accused of being the architect of many other acts of violence. Regardless of what we believe about violence or vengeance, we are entitled to our initial flood of emotions and we need not be too harsh with ourselves for experiencing some sense of closure at hearing the news of his demise.

Bin Laden may have been the face of organized Terrorism in recent years, and we may feel relieved that his involvement in terrorism is now over, and we may have concerns that more violence could follow. But we should be very clear that Bin Laden did NOT represent Islam. Bin Laden did NOT represent any nation or region. Whatever we feel about Bin Laden, we must be very careful to not transfer those feelings onto any group of people or religion. We must never use our feelings toward Bin Laden the individual to justify feelings of bigotry toward others.

So, how should we pray? Pray with gratitude that no Americans were killed in the operation. Pray with gratitude that special care was taken to not harm civilians. Pray to bless those who operated couragously from the White House to the battle field.

Pray also for healing in the human family. Pray for violence to be reduced in our world. Pray for the divine Presence to be made manifest in our midst: "Thy kin-dom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." And pray as we do every Sunday, "May peace prevail on earth."

Rev. Durrell Watkins, M.A., M.Div., D.Min.
Senior Pastor
Sunshine Cathedral