A Note from John Pepper – December 2010
Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater!
What exactly does that mean, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”? I think it means there are many issues in our lives where when things get dirty and messed up, we sometimes have a tendency to discard everything associated with whatever has gotten dirty and in the process we end up throwing out the rationale that got the issue going in the first place – and sometimes that rationale is something precious like a baby.
I know in the past, and sadly on more than one occasion, I personally have gotten angry with a friend and in the process I have lost the friend over it. Those are cases where I have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Similarly, when I took a severance package from my last company I was fed up with their greed and to some it might look like I did the same in that case. I don’t believe I did because I’m not totally cynical towards all businesses but I do believe there are major problems with our current business priorities.
I believe we UUs sometimes have a tendency to do this as well with certain religious language. We feel we have been burned by certain “language” in the past so we “delete” that religious language from our church vocabularies which we find offensive. Unfortunately, we may also “delete” some of the true value behind the language. For instance, I’m not allowed to marry but I don’t believe we should throw out the concept or language of marriage simply because of my experience. There is value in the concept of marriage and in the language of marriage.
For some the word “Worship” needs to be done away with and many UU churches have done just that. Worship can mean the following: “The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object.” That definition doesn’t describe us at all! But worship can also mean this: “Excellence of character; dignity; worth; worthiness.” Worship for me means “Things of Worth.” In my worship services I generally try to focus on one main thought that I value and that I believe worthy of discussing and then I attempt to incorporate that thought into most or all components of the service. I believe we can do that with every topic we deem of worth and someone chooses to explore during a Sunday morning at TWUUC.
In our churches anyone is free to object to “Worship Service” language while others are free to embrace it. Since UU churches are democracies, whether or not we use the term will be up to the individual congregation. By the way, I am a member of the Houston Unitarian Fellowship and the Fellowship does not often use the term “Worship Service,” even though I do. In our Orders of Service we call it the “Program.” But no one seems to object when I personally call it a Worship Service, or at least they haven’t told me so.
Sacrifice is another term I consider abused by religions. I will not use it often, but families often sacrifice for their children and that is a good thing. I may use the term in a worship service, but it won’t be in a typical “Christian” context.
One of my favorite religious words is “Sanctuary” and I hope we never eliminate this particular word from our vocabulary. For me that is exactly what our churches need to be, sanctuaries – places of safety, and our UU sanctuaries can and should be places where people are free to express their thoughts and beliefs without fear of condemnation.
Often the most controversial of religious terms is the word “God.” I often use it but I also try to use other words which may have similar meanings for people who object to its use. In my prayers I often say, “Father, Mother, God, Ground of All Being, to that which each of us deems Holy …”
There are no perfect answers to the problems we have with religious language. But if we exclude all religious language, especially that language that is offensive to anyone for any reason, then we won’t be able to effectively converse with the world around us, and then what will we have achieved? Please, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is often something very valuable in the bathwater, but we have to look for it.
A Note from John Pepper – November 2010
Lost In the Process
Many engineers love logic charts. (If this happens, then proceed to step 2. If this does not happen, then proceed to step 3. If yes, turn to the left. If no, turn to the right.) Many cooks love recipes because following recipes makes for a more likely outcome – a good meal. With a good procedure or logic chart or recipe we are often able to reproduce a desire end product over and over again.
Lawyers and law officers like regulations. If you speed and you get caught, you get a ticket. If you get a ticket you must pay your fine. If you don’t pay your fine you go to jail. If you go to jail you stay 30 days. If you break a rule you suffer the consequences.
And religions are no different. Work six days a week and honor God on the seventh. Earn a living and give 1/10th of what you earn to God. Believe the “right” things and heaven will be your reward. Believe the “wrong” things and heaven will not be your reward.
If we will only follow the process, whatever that process may be, all will surely be well. There is just one tiny problem. No process takes into account all the possible variables and therefore no process is perfect. And the most important variables are usually people. Remember, processes are created for OUR benefit – not the other way around. Life simply can’t be defined and implemented by a process. Going through the defined process won’t ensure anything. You could achieve a perfect meal and lose your friends in the process.
Our complicated lives function much better with processes than without, but I have a caution, a warning. Don’t worship the process. That’s Idolatry. And just like the prophets of old believed, I too believe practicing Idolatry of almost anything can be bad. Where people are involved, and they are usually involved in everything, the people are always more important than the process. People’s feelings, their needs, their hopes and their dreams may be more important than the actual outcome. Please, don’t get Lost in the Process.
A Note from John Pepper – October 2010
I’m not moving on from Huntsville, but I am with regards to a couple of other issues in my life. We sold the lake house near Livingston and now all of the discussions of “where we might retire” have been decided (at least for now). When or if we ever get the opportunity to retire, we’ll be staying in Houston. I’m happy with that decision. We loved our lake house and our time at the lake, but it was time to “Move On.”
We have also recently realized that when we bought our home five years ago, we bought in the wrong neighborhood. All of our friends are half way across town and in Houston that poses a big challenge. And if and when we do retire, we’d like to be closer to our friends. So we are probably going to put our house up for sale after the first of the year and look for a different home in the Heights and nearer to our friends. It is time to “Move On.”
Recently I was reading a theology book and I was simply “plodding” through it, not enjoying it at all. For some reason, I expected myself to finish the book and get something “meaningful” out of it. At some point I realized that I didn’t like the book and I could stop reading it. I put it down and I don’t intend to ever pick it back up or finish it. The problem is I was planning on it being the basis for a future sermon. Well, now on to plan B for that particular sermon! Life is too short to read boring books so it was time to “Move On.”
I’ve also realized I can’t do everything. I recently declined to teach RE at Huntsville, not because I’m not interested in the kids – I love the kids, but because I simply don’t have time to do everything I would like to do. Preaching three times a month (twice in Huntsville and once in Houston), being a supervisor to eight employees and successfully taking on other tasks with my job, and maintaining a relationship with Randy is more than enough to keep me busy. I simply can’t take on more responsibilities and do them justice. Moving on is not required, simply saying “No” often is.
I don’t know what is going on in each of your lives, but I strongly encourage you from time-to-time to reevaluate your life situations and “Move On” when and where appropriate and learn how to say “No” if you need to. At the same time, recommit to your priorities and give them the attention they deserve. Only you can make these decisions.
A Note from John Pepper – September 2010
I don’t get to read as much as I would like, which is something I love to do. Preparing for worship services these days I usually have to rely on books or articles I read long ago or on sources I’m familiar with. Early mornings are devoted to writing or editing sermons, days are spent at work, and evenings are committed to home life and recuperation from the busy day. So there’s not much time for reading.
Currently I’m travelling a lot for work so there is time to read on planes and sometimes in hotel rooms. At present I’m reading a fascinating book which reminded me of one of my passions. The book is part history and part religion. Looking back upon our history and seeing various aspects of how we got where we are theologically is absolutely fascinating to me. The book I’m reading, and which I’m sure will surface in many future sermons, is Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. The book tells the story of one of the first Unitarians, Michael Servetus, and his death mostly due to the machinations of John Calvin. I’m a little over half way through the book and I’ve learned a lot about our UU history, broader religious history, and even medical history.
Learning in the context of religion reminds me of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each new ‘learning’ or piece of the puzzle helps to clarify the overall picture, but with religion, the puzzle is so immense no one person will ever see the whole picture.
I continue to learn about religion and religious history because I want to learn, because I’m fascinated by the subject, not because I have to learn. As the new school year begins, our youth once again get on the learning treadmill and I use the somewhat negative analogy of the treadmill because many of our youth don’t enjoy the experience. They have to go to school, they are compelled to learn, and not about subjects they have much interest in. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of coercing them to learn, we determine exactly what it is they are passionate about and then design programs and schools around those passions so that they would be excited to learn? Well this concept is nothing new. Those schools already exist and we call them Magnet Schools. These Magnet schools weren’t in existence when I was growing up, or at least they weren’t around my home town, to help me discover my passion and then focus on it and pursue it. Nor or these types of schools available to all of our youth today.
Here is my hope and prayer, something we can all engage in, if we only take the time. If you have an opportunity to help a young person discover his or her passion who otherwise isn’t being encouraged in that direction, I hope and pray you will take the opportunity to help him or her focus on and realize his or her passion in life. Learning because you love it is much more fun than learning because you are forced to learn.
If no one helped you with your passion when you were young, I’m here to tell you it’s never too late. Take on your passion and you’ll love the experience. It could be religion or history, but it could also be music, art, gardening, or any of a thousand other possible interests. As Nike advertises, Just Do It!!!!
And if you were lucky enough to identify your passion early on and actually follow that passion, please know that you are indeed lucky and I believe quite rare. Most of us are not in your shoes. You could be the spokesperson for people following their passions.
So as we enter the new school year, let’s be mindful of others and ourselves. Encourage others to follow their passions, and by all means possible, follow your own passions. It is never too late!
A Note from John Pepper – August 2010
I believe in some areas of our lives we are destined to work on them all of our lives. One of those “areas” for me is with Patience. Almost every day I read a daily devotional called Daily Word. On my birthday in 1987, I read the following devotional and it remains as true for me today as it was back then.
February 6, 1987
I Choose To Be Patient
Patience – Do I find myself wishing I had more patience with myself, my family, my co-workers, or my friends? In truth, I know that having patience is a matter of choice. When I choose and I-will attitude instead of an I-wish one, I find that I have patience to extend to myself, to others, and to time and events.
To better understand that patience comes in the same degree that I am willing to express it, I think of how five minutes spent patiently watching a beautiful sunset unfold can seem like only an instant, yet five minutes spent impatiently waiting in a line can seem like an hour.
Today I choose to be patient. In being patient I am blessed with peace and with a better understanding of myself and others. I patiently allow the time for the development and fulfillment of good in my life.
Patience is a choice and I believe I have to make that choice each and every day.
I choose to be patient with my ministry.
I choose to be patient with my job.
I choose to be patient with my family.
I choose to be patient with my friends.
I choose to be patient with myself.
In patience and with Love,
A note from John Pepper, July 2010
Summer in Texas can almost be unbearable. If you have an opportunity, maybe you can escape for a week or two on vacation to some place a little cooler, maybe somewhere north of here. If not, maybe you’ll be able to find a cool pool or get to the beach. Or maybe you’ll just stay indoors hoping the A/C doesn’t go out.
Regardless of where you might go or not go, maybe it’s time to sit back and reflect on the busy times just past or plan for the busy times ahead. Maybe now is the time to simply sit back and collect your thoughts – OR NOT!
We don’t always have to be reflecting and planning. Sometimes we just need to take a break and have some fun. This summer I strongly encourage you to have some mindless, harmless, recreational fun – whatever that might be for you.
Collect your thoughts later, but for now, just CHILL!
A Note from John Pepper – June 2010
“A Very Special Month”
Thank You! Thank you for including me in your church family. Thank you for allowing me to participate in these exciting times at Thoreau Woods. Thank you for formally acknowledging my ministry by voting to ordain me. I believe mine is a somewhat unusual ministry. I’m not exactly a shepherd and you are definitely not sheep. We are all much more than sheep. Years ago someone asked me to write down my purpose in life and here is what I came up with.
The purpose of my life is to know, understand, and experience my God-given potential, by learning from, being available to, and sharing with others, so that we will all have the opportunity to know, understand, and experience our own God-given potentials.
Thank you for allowing me to experience some of my potential and grow as a person and as a minister. And it is a joy to watch all of you grow as individuals and as a religious community. What you have accomplished together in such a short time is an inspiration to us all and is a testament to your own potential. Thanks for inspiring me. – John Pepper
A Note from John Pepper, May 2010
That is my new “buzz” word for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, commitment is the lifeblood of a fully functioning church. Without commitment from many different people to grow the Church beyond sermons and interesting talks, church merely becomes a social gathering on Sunday mornings. Your Huntsville Church is becoming so much more.
Yesterday, I picked up my Daily Word (my daily devotional), the text for the day was the following:
“When we work as a team, we give expression to our inner divine qualities and unite our creativity and inventiveness. The result of what we accomplish together is greater than the sum of our individual efforts. Synergy arises and energizes us as we collectively apply our hearts and minds to the task. Whether at home, at work or in the community, our cooperation is evident. Everyone benefits from these interactions. Cooperation enhances all ventures, keeping confrontation and impatience at bay. As we express our higher spiritual natures, we enliven the work of our hands and our minds. We get the job done, and we do it well.” Daily Word Monday April 26, 2010
As you take on committee assignments relative to the tasks of the Church, I offer these observations:
- Don’t be afraid to take on something you’ve never done before. Conversely, don’t be too critical of someone trying something new. Have patience!
- Define your committee’s mission and then stick to it. Conversely, don’t be afraid to contract or expand your mission as the needs of the Church grow or change.
- Don’t second guess a committee’s output when you are not on that committee. Committees, be willing to take input from others outside your committee.
- Accept the decisions the Committees make. If you don’t like those decisions and want your voice heard, join the committee at the appropriate time of the year or let it go.
- Don’t take on too many tasks, but don’t take on too few. Whatever you take on, do it well.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help or guidance on hard decisions from the broader Church.
- Trust and Respect! If someone volunteers to be on a committee, trust them to do their job and accept the job that they do. Remember, we are all volunteers. We’re here because we want to be here, not because we have to be here. Make being here rewarding and fun.
- Thank people for their efforts.
Good luck as you go about building your Beloved Community!
Namaste! (The divine in me, greets the divine in you!)
John Pepper, UUA Candidate for the Ministry
A note from John Pepper, April 2010
I love the following prayer. I’m sure you know it.
The Serenity Prayer
God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.
It is not only a beautiful prayer, it also provides profound wisdom. I don’t know about you, but I constantly strive to change and improve some of my own personal traits. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not. And sometimes I slip back into old habits I truly wish I could get rid of.
But there are other traits I have that I have no real desire to change. I could probably function better, but then I wouldn’t be me. These are things I simply won’t change, so don’t bother asking.
With regard to all of these traits, the ones I want to change and the ones I don’t want to change, they all affect the quality of my ministry, which I’m diligently striving to grow and improve. First, the things I’m working on.
Humor – Sometimes my humor gets away from me and I say something trying to be funny and clever and it is neither funny nor clever. If my humor gets away from me from time-to-time, please forgive me. I’m working on it.
Memory (or lack thereof) – I wish I had a photographic memory, but I don’t. If I did you wouldn’t know me because I would have stayed in pre-med and today I’d be Dr. Pepper. This poor memory that I’m afflicted by affects me in a couple of ways. First, I’m terrible with names. I generally remember faces and personal characteristics (like the fact that you are a swimmer) but your actual name may elude me for quite some time. Please wear your name tags and please pardon me if I don’t immediately address you by name. I’m working on it. The second way my poor memory affects me is with my inability to memorize my sermons and talk to you directly without reading them and from my heart. Often people mention to me how much better I’d be if I didn’t read my sermons. In the not too distant future, I plan to try a sermon based on talking points or bullets. I give speeches and presentations at work all the time like this and they go really well. So when I am comfortable with the subject I plan to try it on you. It will take me a while to muster the courage to do this, but I feel it is something I should try.
Procrastination – The final trait I’m working on is the fact that I am really good at procrastination. I am really good at putting things off till later. I circumvent this trait by keeping lists of things I must do and deadlines to do them by. If you have any creative suggestions for dealing with procrastination, I’d love to hear them.
Now for some traits I will not attempt to change.
Trust – I am hopelessly trusting. When someone says something, I typically always believe them, unless it is totally counter to known facts (If you tell me the Earth is flat, I won’t believe you). Consequently, I never assume someone has a hidden agenda. This trait has often come back to bite me, especially at work where people often have ulterior motives and hidden agendas and thus they are less than totally honest in their dealings. With regard to trust, I simply refuse not to be trusting. I’d rather be trusting and hurt once in a while, than not trusting and cynical all the time. One final comment on my being trusting, just because I’m trusting does not mean I’m naïve.
Emotions – The final trait I won’t change relates to my emotions. I am emotional and I won’t try to deny that aspect of my being. Yes, I get a little weepy at sappy movies. But more importantly, I often tear up when someone is in emotional pain or when the subject is particularly moving or touching. This obviously presents problems in worship services. Some people tell me I’m just supposed to control my emotions. That’s easy to say and hard to achieve. But more importantly, my emotions are part of my very being, they are part of who I am. To deny them or attempt to control them so that they are “acceptable” is simply not right; at least it’s not right for me. My emotions actually enhance my abilities to both empathize and to care and as an aspiring minister, those are two traits I want to enhance and not limit. So please bear with me if I get too emotional. I am an emotional being.
In the meantime, I believe we should all accept and sometimes actually embrace the things we cannot change. We should look for courage and strength to change and modify the things we need to work on and in fact change. And most importantly, we need the wisdom and support of others to know the difference.
John Pepper, UUA Candidate for the Ministry
A note from John Pepper, March 2010
Where is the Magic?
When someone is in pain, I offer whatever support I can. I often say if there were some magic, I would gladly perform it to make it all better.
Wherever we are, every day people all around us feel pain and hurt for a variety of reasons. Some choose to hurt in silence, not letting others in to help ease the pain. With others, the pain is obvious for everyone to see but instead of reaching out, they lash out. Still others seem to enjoy their pain and don’t know how, or don’t want to move on, beyond the pain, possibly because they are familiar with it and are simply afraid to change. And there are still others who have no one to reach out to; they are alone, truly alone.
Each of us deals with life in our own unique ways and first and foremost we must respect each other and our right to be different. There is no one way to live, nor is there one way to hurt and to deal with that hurt. But there is something better than magic, and to be frank, I don’t understand it or know how it works. But it does!
There is magic when one of us is present and available to another who is in pain or who is hurting. I don’t know why our presence helps another, but it does. There is the knowledge that we are not alone in our pain and that someone cares, that someone is simply there for us, it all seems to make a magical difference. Possibly not right away, but over time the constant, assured presence, makes all the difference in the world. That presence, a simple touch, a kind word, an honest gesture, it all slowly and methodically wears down the mountain of grief and pain and hurt until the mountain is gone and we are left with something more bearable and endurable. And then life goes on as before.
That is what a religious community at its finest can do for itself. It creates a network of friends and loved ones to help each of us deal with our hurts and our pains in our own ways and in our own time, surrounded by people who simply care. And for those in our broader community, those who have no one, maybe we have what they need and maybe if we are lucky, we will find each other. With our doors held open, we are open to the possibility of helping one another. Metaphorically and physically, we simply need to open our doors and keep them open, our doors of compassion and love open to all who might need us or who we might need. The magic happens when someone steps through the door allowing genuine love and concern to work the magic of fellowship.
Where is the magic? We each possess it; we just need to share it.
John Pepper, UUA Intern Minister
A note from John Pepper, February 2010
Keeping It Within the Lines
When I was a kid, I was the proverbial “Goody Two-Shoes.” In Sunday School, I was always nice and polite, I used just the right amount of glue, I hardly ever made a mess, and I when I colored, I always kept it within the lines. I soon learned, keeping things within the lines was a prized trait.
Teaching children to stay within the lines is important, but what is more important is teaching children why it is important to stay within the lines. When standing in line, waiting your turn, it is important to stay within the lines. When learning to drive a car it is vitally important for everyone’s safety to learn to stay within the lines. Staying within the lines has its place in our society.
When you become an adult, staying within the lines is called something else; at least it is within the religious world. It is called “being orthodox” or having right thought. We UUs are generally far from “orthodox” because we don’t like people telling us how to think, or more specifically, what has been deemed to be “right thought.” We could be better described as being “orthopraxic” or promoting right actions. We want our actions to be the right ones. For us, it is more important to actually keep our cars within the lines than to simply believe our cars are within the lines.
In UU terms, I am a relative newcomer having only discovered the UU world in 2001. One of the first things that appealed to me was the actual freedom of thought practiced within the denomination. There was no “right thought” so all thought, as long as it didn’t hurt anyone, was welcome. We were also much more concerned about “right actions.” That is why we were some of the first to decry torture, because no matter how you look at it, torture is not “right action.” At least it isn’t as defined by our societal norms. Those people only concerned with “right thoughts” simply twisted their thoughts to make their actions with regard to torture seem okay.
But we UUs have taken “right action” in many cases to the extreme. We can’t just say we are a Welcoming Congregation; we have to take the right steps to be deemed a true UU approved Welcoming Congregation. Those requirements would indeed be silly if there were an all gay and lesbian Fellowship or Church implementing them. What we often want to assure are right outcomes and they can’t always be process driven. At some point we may have to simply trust, or as other religious denomination might say, have faith.
The fact is we have to link both our thoughts and our actions. There are no “right thoughts” or “right actions.” Each informs the other and what is appropriate in some cases is either not enough or far too much in other cases. Thinking and discernment are always required and they require work, commitment, and the willingness to make decisions, even when those decisions might be outside the bounds of what is deemed as “proper.” We can’t always keep life “within the lines.” But we can be intentional with both our thoughts and our actions. Ours is not a religion full of easy answers. Ours is a religion full of many difficult questions and thank goodness we have each other to better inform our responses to the questions.
John Pepper, UUA Intern Minister
A Note from John Pepper
Happy New Year!
As a candidate for the UUA ministry and as a Unitarian-Universalist I find myself attempting to define exactly what the “Ministry” means to me. In the January 2010 issue of Sojourners magazine, I came across an article written by one of the most famous feminist theologians of the last, and this, century, Rosemary Radford Ruether. The article by Ruether originally appeared in the Sojourners magazine in 1984. Here it is in its entirety.
MINISTRY WITHOUT HIERARCHY
Clericalism is a model of leadership that disempowers those who are led or served, and turns them into clients and dependents. This is opposed to ministry, in which one uses gifts and powers of leadership to empower others, to teach them, to draw out their capacities, so that one can enter into a relationship of mutuality. …
This understanding of ministry does not mean that there aren’t structures, or that certain people aren’t chosen to lead at times; it simply means that the mandate of leadership is to nurture the community into mutual ministry, rather than to disempower the community and make its people into dependents.
The attempt of basic Christian communities to overcome this clericalism is relevant to feminism because what disempowers women in ministry is clericalism, which is built on the patriarchal model of relationships. Women will always be disempowered in ministry as long as ministry is understood in terms of patriarchal clericalism.
The most critical focus for feminism in the church is precisely the liberation of the church itself from patriarchy. Women in the church cannot really rest with a clerical, patriarchal church. They must struggle to convert the church to an understanding of its mission, which will include the full promotions of the humanity of women. The church must come to recognize that patriarchy is fundamentally contrary to the gospel and that the liberation of humanity from patriarchy is in fact an intrinsic aspect of the mission of the church itself.
– Rosemary Radford Ruether
In my opinion, UU Fellowships embody this model of ministry along with our cherished democratic principles. Unfortunately, these same concepts are often in direct opposition to patriarchal forms of church governance. Using Ruether’s eloquent words once again, our challenge is to use our own personal “gifts and powers of leadership to empower others, to teach them to draw out their capacities, so that (we) can enter into a relationship of mutuality” and that is what belonging to a Fellowship and being in Ministry means to me.
John Pepper, UUA Intern Minister