A Merry, Mystical Metaphor for Church

This week, instead of a video, I have some text to share with you: three pages from my next book.  I’ve been working on this chapter for several weeks, but I think I need your input.  I’m using an extended metaphor for institutions — including churches.  Please read:

siphonophore excerpt

There’s a lot more, of course, but that’s the church metaphor I start with:


Now, here’s the wider context.

I am an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, and the church I now serve as pastor is a part of that denomination.  The motto of my denomination is, “That they may all be one.”  This is a quotation from the Gospel of John, from a passage known as the Farewell Prayer (John 17:1-26).  The UCC got its start back in 1957, when two previous denominations united: the Evangelical and Reformed Church, and the Congregational Christian Churches.  And each of those two parent denominations was itself formed from the unions of two grandparent denominations, twenty some years before that.  So we’re not just the United Church of Christ — we’re the Uniting Church of Christ, we’re all about uniting, and Jesus’ prayer, that they may all be one, has long been part of our dream.

But personally, I’ve always been a bit conflicted about that motto.

It can be a great thing, unity; it can be a great thing when people can transcend their differences and work together.  There’s a feeling of unity, sometimes, in corporate worship.  It’s a great feeling to be part of a team, in sports or in business, when that team is really working together and firing on all cylinders.  It gives you motivation, and a sense of purpose, to be part of something bigger than yourself.

But on the other hand, people in Nazi Germany had that same sense of motivation, that same sense of being part of something bigger than themselves; and there is a drive for unity behind white power movements like the Klan; and there was a drive for unity behind some of the most evil and intolerant parts of Christian history, like the great inquisitions.  Those things are not just historical oddities; they’re so common that I would say they’re typical of the way humankind has expressed the drive for unity.  Typically, we seek unity by enforcing conformity, by policing dissidents, and by turning against outsiders.  The drive for unity can be totalizing and destructive; it can be just a tool of the basic institutional drive to survive, eat, and grow.

So here’s a problem: unity can be a great good, or a great evil.  It can be one of the most uplifting human experiences, or one of the most degrading.  And so I’m conflicted about the motto, that they may all be one.  It needs careful thought.  We need to be very careful about the kind of unity we seek.

In this chapter of the book I am trying to cast a vision — two visions, really.  First, I want to cast a cautionary vision about the siphonophoric nature of institutions; second, I want to cast a hopeful vision about a different way to understand Jesus’ prayer, that they may all be one.  Not one in race or caste or language; not one in national or political affiliation; not one in church or creed.  I don’t think that God desires that any part of our beautiful diversity should be erased.  I’ve written a hymn about this, and I’ll share it with you another time.

But now, leave a comment, and tell me something: what kind of unity should we be seeking?

The Inn of God’s Forgiveness

With a Disturbing Version of the Prodigal Son Parable by The Merry Mystic

In this issue of The Merry Mystic, I start by sharing a disturbing version of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son.  But don’t worry: I make up for it by singing a reassuring hymn, “The Inn of God’s Forgiveness.”

The hymn began as a dream.  As I explain in the book:

In the dream, I was traveling a rough country trail on foot, carrying a heavy pack. Coming over a ridge at the end of day, I saw an inn below me, with a golden light shining out of its windows. I walked on toward it. But the closer I drew, the more timid I felt. Would I be welcome there, travel-stained as I was? Would there be many strangers? Could I afford it? I hesitated in the yard before the door. I thought of traveling on.

But the door opened, and the innkeeper stepped out to welcome me, and his strong son took the pack off my shoulders and carried it up to my room. “There’s your table, right over here,” they said, pointing to just the kind of quiet corner table that I like. And they were so beautiful, and the serving staff all so beautiful and bright, and I so dusty and tired. Why are all these beautiful people serving me, I wondered? How do they know what I want, before I ask for it? And why do they laughingly refuse any payment?

Sheet music for the hymn can be freely downloaded here, and may be freely copied (for non-commercial use).  The book can be ordered here.  (It isn’t free.  What can I say?  One must eat.)

Be True

Advice for Children from The Merry Mystic

In this issue of The Merry Mystic, I share the story of my children’s baptism, and I sing the song I wrote for that occasion.

There’s a live version and a studio version of that song on my album, Smackdown.

Got a baptism story to share?  Scroll down and tell us about it below.

Clear Fountain

The Merry Mystic Returns to the Fountain

One of my favorite symbols for God is the fountain.  I wrote about this in my book, The Inn of God’s Forgiveness:

This clear fountain became for me a symbol of God: a symbol of the mysterious, unceasing source of love and joy and energy.  If I could choose one symbol to stand for my church, it would not be a cross, but a fountain.

Superficially, a fountain is a pleasant sensual experience.  You see the dancing sunlight on the water, and you hear the soothing splashing of the water, and the laughter of children and the singing of birds around the water, and you smell the cool water falling through the hot air, and you can take off your shoes and feel the water washing the weariness from your feet.  But at a deeper level, a fountain is a powerful symbol.  It’s so inexplicable—and so wasteful!  It just throws water up into the air.  It doesn’t irrigate crops, doesn’t turn a turbine, doesn’t move commerce down the canal.  It just gives itself, whether anyone is there to receive it or not.

This is my song “Clear Fountain.”

“Clear Fountain” is from my album As a Deer Longs; I’m singing and playing all the instruments, but the angelic background vocals are provided by Kelly Autrey-Webber, my wife.  I couldn’t think of a suitable fountain nearby to film for the visual background, but the little river near my home is just as good—better, in some ways, because it’s not human-made.

Do you have a symbol for God that is particularly meaningful to you?  Please tell me about it below.

Judgement Day Blues

The Merry Mystic Sings the Blues

Hello, friends.   Today I have a comic song to share with you.  It’s about the apocalypse — which is always good for a laugh.  It’s called “Judgement Day Blues.”

(Sorry that the performance is a little rough.  I only wrote the song this week, and I haven’t found enough hours to polish it up.  But you’ll get the idea.)

I’m laughing at the apocalyptic here, but seriously: I think this is one of the most harmful parts of our received tradition.  I’m an experienced preacher, so I can almost always find some way to put a positive spin on those passages of scripture.  But I get tired of doing that.  I feel strongly that this part of our tradition has done a lot more harm than good.  It just isn’t a healthy way to think about God.

I hope that a little laughter will be good medicine for that.  Please share this post with someone who needs a laugh.

As Long as You’re Falling…

The Merry Mystic Shares Some Martial-Arts Advice

Hello, friends.  I’ve a little song to share with you today — a piece of wisdom from my martial-arts tradition.  This is something every martial artist knows about what to do when you’re falling.

Please take a leap by joining the conversation: share a story or ask a question below.

P.S.  If you have another minute, I have a short essay you might enjoy reading as well.  It’s a guest post, as a “Monk in the World,” over at Abbey of the Arts.  It’s about karatedo as a spiritual practice.  I really like the virtual community there.   (Except that they don’t have much of our humorous, skeptical side — but you can always come here for that!)

Monk in the World guest post

May 11, 2016

I have a guest post this month over at Abbey of the Arts.  That’s Christine Valters Paintner’s site dedicated to “transformative living through contemplative and expressive arts.”

I am a member of the virtual community there, the Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks.  Check out the whole site while you’re looking, and the Facebook group.  These are good people to know.


The Merry Mystic Hears Five Words from God

Last week, a fellow Merry Mystic named Dudley asked me to explain something about my song, “Longs For You.”  Dudley wrote:

Such a beautiful thought, and feeling!
You declare that you know for sure that She longs for us, Adam. Can you elaborate a bit on HOW you know this for sure? When I meditate, I sometimes feel a sure Presence that carries me for hours. But I have considered this a result of my own longing; I’ve never really thought that God was “longing” for me! How can you be so sure of that?

Well, there’s a story behind this, but it takes a bit of telling, so I’ve put off answering until today.  But now, here it is: I once heard five words from God.

Please join the conversation by sharing a story or asking a question below.

P.S.  If you missed my song, “Longs For You,” you can still find it here.

Longs for You

A Humble Observation from The Merry Mystic

Well, this song is sort of sentimental.  It isn’t funny, or witty, or erudite.  It won’t be going platinum.  But  it’s one of those things about God that I know beyond doubt — and there aren’t very many of those, so I thought I’d better share it.  I hope it will speak to you.

I hope you feel it too.  If so, please share it with a friend.

Open and Affirming

An Evening Wasted with The Merry Mystic

Here’s a little satirical song about the unwelcoming “welcome” some of us encounter in church.

Please share your thoughts below.  And hey, please share this post with anyone you think might get a laugh.  Heaven knows we can all use one.

P.S.  As you can probably tell, Tom Lehrer’s music was a big influence on me. My parents had some of his albums—Songs by Tom Lehrer, More of Tom Lehrer and, of course, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer—and I listened to them eagerly, even before I was old enough to understand them. So the way I turned out is really his fault.