Thoughts from Rev. Jim Burklo Simi As I Am.

February 29th, 2024

Lent is a good time to ask each other, and ourselves, the pithy and transformative questions that Jesus asked his followers.

The questions are presented here as “koans” – spiritual “monkey-wrenches” tossed into our minds to break us loose from habits that get in the way of Divine Love. There are no right answers.  It may be enough to contemplate the questions rather than trying to answer them!  How can these questions bring us closer to the true Divine Nature within, and draw us closer in loving community?  After each question, I offer some prompts for reflection….

1.  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? (Matt 6:27-28) (What are your worries?  When and how do they arise?  How do they manifest physically?) 

2. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Matt 7:2) (What are the logs in your own eyes?  What prejudices and assumptions and judgments get in the way of your ability to see things as they are, on their own terms?  How clearly can you see these “logs”?)

3.  Why are you afraid, you of little faith? (Matt 8:26)  (What are you afraid of?  What is the root of your fear?  When/how do these fears arise?  How do these fears affect your life and the lives of others?  How do your fears manifest in your body?)

4.  Do you believe that I am able to do this? (Matt 9:28)  (What do you need to do?  Do you believe you can do it?  Examine your beliefs about what you can and cannot accomplish.)

5.  What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? (Matt 11:8) (When you go out into nature, what are you seeking, if anything?  What do you find in the wilderness?)

6.  Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? (Matt 12:48) (Who matters to you?  For whom would you lay down your life, and vice-versa?  What kind of relationship do you have with the people most important to you?  Does change need to come to these relationships?)

7.  How many loaves have you? (Matt 15:34) (What do you have to work with – what are your resources to deal with the challenges before you?  Are they sufficient? Can you “make do”?)

8.  But who do you say that I am? (Matt 16:15) – What is your name? (Luke 8:30) (Who are you, in your essence?  If you lovingly observe yourself in prayerful, mindful contemplation, who/what is it that is doing the observing?)

9. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? (Matt 20:22)  (Are you ready/willing to suffer, or serve others who are suffering?  How can you make yourself ready to do so?)

10.  What do you want me to do for you? (Matt 20:32)  (What kind of help do you need?  Are you willing to ask for it?)

11.  So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? (Matt 26:40) – Simon, are you asleep? (Mark 14:37) – Why are you sleeping? (Luke 22:46) (In what ways are you “asleep”, spiritually/emotionally/mentally?  What would help you come “awake”?)

12.  My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? (Matt 27:46)  (Is there any part of you in despair?  What is the root of that despair?)

13.  Who touched my clothes? (Mark 5:30) (Do you feel drained of energy, spiritually or physically?  What drained you?  How can you be revived with energy?)

14.  Can you see anything? (Mark 8:23)  (In what ways are you blind – unable to “see” important aspects of life within and around you?)

15.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? (Luke 22:27)  (In what ways are you a servant, and in what ways are you a master?  What is it like to be in each of those roles?  Are there situations in which those roles should be reversed for you?)

16. What are you discussing as you walk along? (Luke 24:17)  (What chatter is going on in your mind right now?  What are you thinking right now?  What kind of inner dialogue is going on in you right now?)

17.  What are you looking for? (John 1:38)  (What do you want?  Is anything missing in your life?  What do you want to do about it?  What are you willing to do about it?)

18.  Do you want to be made well? (John 5:6)  (In what ways are you not well?  What is your level of desire to become well?  What difference might it make if your desire was stronger?)

19.  Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? (John 18:34)  (In what ways do you just “go with the flow” of other people’s expectations for you?  How much should you resist that flow?  What are ways in which you need to be more authentic about your own choices and views?)

20.  Do you love me? (John 21:16)  (Is there love in your life?  Whom do you love?  Do you love yourself? Do you experience divine love, and what is it like?)

Onward on our journeys of Lent!


February 22nd, 2024

Ten Ways to Know God
A practice for Lent

1. Watch your thoughts and feelings and urges. Close your eyes, stay quiet for at least 20 minutes, and observe what is going on in your mind and your body. What claims your attention? What emotions and bodily sensations do you feel? What ideas and plans and memories bubble up? Simply be present for your experiences, like a trusted, caring friend, without trying to judge or change what you observe. God is the one within you who observes all with loving attentiveness and acceptance.

2. Look at an everyday, unremarkable thing – anything at all – for several minutes, until you notice something beautiful about it that you never saw before. That out-of-ego moment of wonder is an experience of God.

3. Look at another everyday, unremarkable thing for several minutes, very closely and intently. Then release your attention to it, and notice what you experience. That moment of expanded awareness is an experience of God.

4. Find somebody you don’t like, and listen to them for at least half an hour.
As you listen, observe and then release any attachment you have to your opinions of this person. Show love to this person, without needing to like or become a friend to this person. But act as if you love this person, until the moment comes when you begin to feel like you really do. This love is God.

5. Choose one public policy issue that has an important direct or indirect effect on vulnerable people: the young, the elderly, prisoners, the sick, immigrants, people with low incomes. You probably don’t have time to go deeply into every issue, so just pick one. Seek information about that policy issue from the most reputable, objective, in-depth sources you can find. Stay on top of current debates or events that relate to this issue. Inform your friends and family about it when the right occasions arise. Communicate with your elected officials and other policy-makers about your views on this issue, on a regular basis. Every so often, show up at public events that may have a strategic effect on making things better for people affected by this policy. The deep concern you feel for those people, expressed through your learning and your activism, is God.

6. Immerse yourself in nature. Take a walk in the wilderness, or at least in your neighborhood. One word per stride, ask yourself: “What… is… here….?” over and over, until you begin to feel present in the moment, noticing and appreciating all that is around and within you, instant by instant, item by item. The moment you can say “I… am… here…” as you walk, you have arrived at God. (This is my primary daily form of mindfulness practice.)

7. Watch a small child play. Observe the child trying to do something he/she cannot yet accomplish. Observe your urge to help the child do the task, and let go of that urge. Let the child know you are there, paying attention, but don’t intervene in the play until, and if, you sense a clear invitation to do so. Imagine what the child is thinking and sensing, and begin to play with the child in the way that the child is playing. The moment you give up your adult perspective and take on the child’s perspective in play, you are playing with God.

8. Draw a picture. Then look at the picture. Observe what’s there, but also observe your reactions to your picture. Do you judge it somehow? Do you have opinions about it? Do you wish it were different? Notice these experiences as you look at the picture. Then draw another picture slowly, and do the same thing as you are drawing it – noticing your feelings and opinions about it as you go. Look at the finished picture and again observe your reactions to it. Do it again and again until you feel liberated from your opinions about it, and simply enjoy the process of drawing it and looking at it. When that happens, you have drawn a picture of God.

9. In a house of worship – of any faith – sit and listen to the liturgy or prayers. Instead of focusing on the words being said or sung, or on their meanings, focus intently on the silences between the words and the sounds. Notice and savor as many moments of quiet – some extremely short, others longer – as you can. Let the silences be the focus of your worship. Let the silences become the source of meaning for the sounds in the worship service. When you are enthralled by the sound of sheer silence, you are hearing God.

10. Take a walk in a familiar environment: one you see every day. Look at everything around you and name it. “Tree” – “house” – “car” – “dog”. Then start to do it another way: “My idea of tree” – “my idea of house” – “my idea of car” – “my idea of dog”. Then, in the same way, start naming your emotions and feelings and thoughts alongside naming the things and events in your environment: “My opinion of dislike for that car” – “my feeling of pain in my foot” – “my thought of trimming that tree”. Do this until you are awakened to the fact that so much of your inner and outer experience is based on your ideas of things, rather than the real essence of them. When you are awake to the possibility that the world around you has an essence that is beyond your ideas and opinions, you have awakened to God.

Onward on our journeys of Lent!

February 15th, 2024

Contemplating Lent

This is the lectionary Gospel reading for the start of Lent:

Matthew 6: 5-8  (Words of Jesus)

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

This past weekend, as a way to enter the season of Lent, I led a “Desert Contemplatio” retreat in Topanga Canyon.  Before and since my retirement from USC, I’ve been leading students and church folks in “Desert Contemplatio” day-long retreats, where we follow the practices of early monastic Christianity in silent contemplative prayer among the rocks and caves. 

In these retreats, and in the ongoing weekly Wed 5-6 pm Christian Contemplative Practices zoom group I lead, my approach is to ground Christian mysticism in secular mindfulness.  If we go deep into mindfulness practice, we get to a point where we wake up and realize that what we observe in and of ourselves – our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, assumptions, egos, ideas of who we are and who others think we are, etc, etc – is not the observer.  This can be jarring and disturbing for beginners in mindfulness practice.  Who or what is practicing mindfulness?  Different religions have different, but clearly related, answers to this question.  The Christian answer is that the inner observer is the Christ, or God.  “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me,” said Meister Eckhart, the 14th century mystic.  This is the bridge between secular mindfulness and Christian contemplative prayer.  This experience is available both to adherents of various forms of Christian “orthodoxy” as well as to progressive Christians and to those who have no particular religious affiliation.

The thesis of my own short 2017 book on the subject, MINDFUL CHRISTIANITY: “Mindfulness has been liberated from religion.  Now is the time to liberate religion with mindfulness.”   Instead of belief in God as an abstract mental exercise, mindfulness-based Christian contemplation offers a direct, inner experience of God.  My videos on mindfulness-based Christian contemplative practices can be found HERE.

May our inner Lenten journeys begin!

 

February 8th, 2024

I’ll initiate a conversation among us about what it means to be of service to others.  I wrote this “manifesto”, below, when I was the executive director of the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto.  Our organization served thousands of people experiencing homelessness and other very low-income people every year.  This was the first page of the manual we developed to train our volunteers.  It is a meditation on what it takes to be emotionally and spiritually available to people in a helping relationship:

Are you willing…. to listen to homeless and other people in crisis, allowing for silence, tears, joy, anger? to view material assistance (food, clothes, housing, referrals, etc.) primarily as a means to the end of having an ongoing relationship?

To let go of your agendas for other people’s lives, and to accept and respect people who do things you wouldn’t do? to be honest and firm about limits, to be realistic and clear about what you will and will not do in a helping relationship? to be more than to do? to be a witness to the unfolding of the lives of people on the street, letting them know that their stories are supremely valuable? to explore the roots of your own need to be needed? to be transformed in unpredictable ways by the power of love given and received?

February 1st, 2024

(I wrote this poem last week, after leading a session of our Wednesday 5-6 pm zoom group on
Christian Contemplative Practices – to which you’re all invited, by the way! We were focusing
on the 13 th c. mystic, Mechtild of Magdeburg, who wrote this beautiful line about contemplative
practice: “The deeper I sink, the sweeter I drink….”)


The Christening
a poem by Jim Burklo – 1-26-2024
(Matthew 26: 6-13, Mark 14: 3-9, Luke 7: 36-50, John 12: 1-8)
 
At a party,
when a woman,
without giving notice,
anointed Jesus with perfumed oil,
his fellow guests objected to its expense,
which could have been put to use serving the poor.
But in that extravagant act,
Jesus was made Christ, the Anointed One.

 
Men were made kings of Israel
with coronations of oil poured over their heads
by other powerful men in pompous ceremony.
Jesus was ennobled by surprise
by a powerless woman
of questioned repute
with fragrant oil
poured over him to excess.
 
And from her,
as profligately as with the oil,
love flowed out and over and into him.
Love without viscosity,
sinking into him
between and around and into his every pore and cell,
lubricating away every point of friction
between him and the world he was meant to serve;
loosening him from the rust of dogma and convention,
releasing his heart and mind
into unbounded empathy
for the sufferings and yearnings of others.
 
So the fine oil of love rises out of the hidden depths
through cracks in the hard strata of the world,
so subtle we cannot see, but only feel it
when, drawn to us, it finds its way
and seeps in.
 
At all costs, let us receive it
and share it
with abandon.

January 25th, 2024

(This is a piece I wrote recently for “Progressing Spirit”, the e-magazine of ProgressiveChristianity.org, for which I write a lot of articles and content.)
Question from Jeff:  
What exactly is ‘spirituality’? Is there a separate realm that exists alongside our physical world? Do we have spirits? How is spirit different to emotion or imagination?
 
Dear Jeff:
 
This is a really interesting and useful question.  And a timely one, because brain and behavioral science is starting to have answers to it. 
 
We are now able to observe the physical neural pathways of spiritual experience – or what is technically called “religious phenomenology”.  We can now describe it and begin to understand it as inseparable from what we call the “physical world”.
Dr. Lisa Miller, professor at Columbia University, is a leading researcher into the new scientific field of “natural spirituality”, which she describes in her 2015 book, “The Spiritual Child”.  There are now separate neurophysiological metrics for the human relationship with the transcendent, a realm that until recently was folded into psychology and sociology, and codified by religious doctrines.  Miller has popularized awareness of spirituality as a distinct, universal developmental process – related, yet independent from emotions and imagination – to be taken as seriously by parents and scientists as physical and psychological growth.  “Our findings show that natural spirituality exists as a human capacity – just as EQ and IQ are commonly acknowledged human capacities – and is associated clearly with life success and satisfaction,” she writes.
The new field of developmental natural spirituality may result in secular replacements for the functions of religion.  At the same time, this scientific field may serve religions by encouraging them to liberate themselves from dogmatism that gets in the way of natural spiritual development.
Meanwhile, other research is revealing the neural pathways and brain processes of healing.  Research demonstrates that the “placebo effect” works even when the subjects of the research are told that the medication they are taking is indeed a placebo.  Believing that the pill is real medicine, even when it is not, is not required.  It appears that the “active ingredient” of the placebo effect is going to the doctor, getting attentive care, getting a prescription, and taking the pill.  “This is the specific effect of the ritual of medicine,” says a researcher, Ted Kaptchuk, at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston.   It is fair to extrapolate from his findings that there can be similar positive practical, “real-world” effects from the rituals of religion. 
Science is just now confirming what we’ve always known:  religion, when practiced wisely and deeply, is good for us.  At least some of our spiritual practices actually, objectively benefit our natural spirituality and thus enhance our mental and physical health. 
Brain science is beginning to explain or at least describe and confirm our spiritual experiences.  We’re at a point where we can isolate the neural pathways that correspond with mystical religious awakenings.  Atheists may conclude that this is proof of that God is nothing more than a human construct built around our genetic propensity to create meaning out of our experiences.  The discovery of a discrete developmental process of the unfolding of universal natural spirituality might suggest that religion is optional, unnecessary, and perhaps even a hindrance to this process.  We may be able, finally, to explain religion away as a product of our innate spirituality. 
But why do we have this propensity?  How was it etched it into the very structure of our brains?  If we’re hard-wired for transcendence, doesn’t that suggest that the experience of union with Ultimate Reality is hard-wired into the cosmos?  Holy awe appears to be a feature of our human nature.  So what does that say about the nature of Nature as a whole?  Through us and other sentient beings within it, is Nature in awe of itself?  The science of natural spirituality is just getting started… let’s look forward to further amazing revelations!

   

January 18th, 2024




How to Read the Bible

 
This coming Sunday, I’ll get us talking about our relationship to the Bible.  Have you ever read the whole thing?  If not, I’d be the last to wag my finger at you!  Reading the whole Bible is daunting – and not just because it is a long book.  So here’s a selection of passages that give a feel for the whole thing, and can whet your appetite for reading more of it.  I recommend strongly the NRSV – New Revised Standard Version – particularly the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV), which has scholarly, non-dogmatic notes that are really helpful for understanding the texts.  There are lots of other versions of the Bible that stray from close translation and instead are interpretations based on evangelical theology.  I suggest you avoid them (NIV, Phillips, Good News, etc, etc)  because they insert fundamentalist theology into the text, and often they have “inserts” that supposedly explain the text but really are dogmatic glosses.
I recommend this order of reading the Bible:  First, the first letter of John in the Christian New Testament.  Then the whole book of Genesis and Exodus through chapter 20 in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) – the New Testament makes many references to these books.  Then read the gospels of Luke and John, the book of Acts, and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in the Christian New Testament.  Then, continue in the Hebrew Scriptures by reading the book of Ruth, the book of Job, Psalms 8, 23, 46, 92, 95, 100, 118, and 121, Proverbs chapter 8, Ecclesiastes chapter 3, the whole Song of Solomon, and selections from the prophets:  Isaiah chapters 2, 11, 40, and 61, Amos chapter 5, and Micah chapter 6.  Then in the New Testament read gospels of Matthew and Mark and the letters of Paul to the Romans and the Ephesians, the letter to the Hebrews, and Revelation chapter 22.  From these passages, work outwards to finish reading the whole Bible.
Or, sample the Bible this way:
 Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):
Genesis (whole book – essential to comprehending the whole Bible)
Burning Bush:  Exodus chapter 3
Ten Commandments: Exodus 20:1-4,7-8,12-17
The Aaronic Benediction: Numbers 6:24-26
Ruth’s Promise: Ruth 1:16-17
Elihu’s Speech: Job 37:14-24
Psalms: 8, 23, 46:1-2a, 10, 92:1, 95:1-2, 100, 118:24, 121
Holy Mother Wisdom: Proverbs chapter 8
There Is a Season:  Ecclesiastes chapter 3
Celebrating the Sensual:  Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) (whole book)
Prophetic Justice: Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:1-3a, 11:6-9, 40:1-11, ch’s 27-31, 61:1-2 – Amos 5:21-24 – Micah 6:8
 
New Testament:
 
Jesus: Beatitudes: Matthew 5:3-10
Jesus: Light: Matthew 5:16
Jesus: Love Enemies: Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus: Lord’s Prayer: Matthew 6:9-13
Jesus:  Do Not Be Anxious: Matthew 7:25-34
Jesus:  Asking: Matthew 7:7-12
Jesus: With You Always: Matthew 28:20
Jesus: Children: Mark 10:13-16
Jesus: Communion: Mark 14:22-25
Mary:  Magnificat: Luke 1:46-55
Simeon’s Blessing: Luke 2:29-32
Jesus: Golden Rule: Luke 6:27-31
Jesus: Law of Love: Luke 10:27
Jesus: Parables of Mustard and Leaven: Luke13:18-21
The Word: John 1:1-5
For God So Loved the World: John 3:16
Jesus: Love One Another: John 13:34-35
Jesus: Lay Down His Life: John 15:12-13
Paul: Hope: Romans 8:18-28
Paul: Hold Fast to the Good: Romans 12:9-12
Paul: God of Hope: Romans 15:13
Paul: The Body of Christ: 1 Corinthians 12
Paul: The Love Chapter: 1 Corinthians 13
Paul: Be Kind: Ephesians 4:25-32
Paul: Armor of God: Ephesians 6:10-17
Paul: Put on Compassion: Colossians 3:12-17
James: Doers of the Word: James 1:19-25
John: God Is Love: 1 John 4:7-12
John: He First Loved Us: 1 John 4:19-21 
John of Patmos:  River of Life: Revelation 22:1-5
   

January 11th, 2024





Act, Don’t Fret!

 
What We Can Do To Save Democracy
 
 
Obviously, American democracy is in enormous danger in 2024.  And with it, our religious freedom is at stake.  MLK Day is a really good moment for us to commit to doing our part to protect our Constitutional order from being replaced by tyranny.  Elections themselves will be on the ballot.  If Americans vote one way, it might be the last time our votes matter ever again.  If we vote another way, democracy has a chance to survive the current onslaught against it.  
 
Here are three very do-able, simple things we can do right now – and I hope you’ll urge your friends join in.

1)     Make a list of friends, relatives, and acquaintances who are the on the opposite political spectrum from yourself.  Initiate kind, friendly, curious, open-hearted and open-minded small talk with them, in person or online… without bringing up politics at all.  Be nice to them, even if you are upset with them.  Especially if you’re upset with them.  Make it obvious that you are not the “vermin” that certain people accuse you of being.  Demonstrate to them that you are a decent, caring human being.  This injects cognitive dissonance into their minds, which they won’t be able to reconcile with what they’re hearing in their media echo-chamber.

2)    Start waving the US flag.  Put one in front of your house, put a flag sticker on your car bumper, etc.  Do it now.  I get it that a lot of you will find this hard.  A lot of folks will assume you are of a certain political stripe because you wave the flag.  But that’s the point!  Later, when campaign season gets fully into play, put up a sign for the candidates of your choice, under your flag.  Surprise!  Again, this sets up powerful cognitive dissonance in the minds of those whose most cherished assumption is that progressives are not patriots.  But YOU are the patriot!  If you wave the flag, as a progressive, you give other flag-waving folks implicit permission to change their minds without giving up their patriotism.  Remember that many people marinating in the toxic stew of Fox “News” are essentially disinterested in public policy issues.  For them, it’s all about culture, emotions, and grievances.  By waving the flag, you bridge the culture gap and make it easier for them to move in the progressive direction.  The more of us who reclaim the flag, the more powerful it will be for our cause.  

3)    Wave your Christian identity, online and in person!  Make it clear that the way you vote has everything to do with your commitment to following Jesus’ way of compassion and justice.  Again, this sets up powerful cognitive dissonance in the minds of those who are convinced that crude and cruel political positions are somehow rooted in their Christianity.  It gives them cover to keep their Christian identity while changing course about politics.

4)    Every vote counts, every voice counts, in saving democracy.  Like it or not, ours is a binary, two-party system.  We must remember that Al Gore would have been elected President if Ralph Nader had not run as a third-party candidate in 2000.  In Florida, the swing state in the Electoral College, Bush won by only 537 votes. Nader received 97,421 votes in Florida, almost all of which would have gone to Gore if Nader had not run.  So we must have gentle but firm chats with our frustrated progressive friends who are threatening to vote third-party, or not to vote at all.  Let them know you care about the issues that anger them.  And engage with them about the fact that making things right in the Middle East, dealing decisively with climate change, and addressing ongoing racism, all depend on the survival of democracy in America.  And that, whether we like it or not, today our system of government leaves us with only two real choices in a presidential election.  This is not a time to demand the perfect.  It is a time to save America from tyranny, so that it will be possible, over time, to make peace, do justice, and protect the planet.

Beyond these actions, there are of course many more ways you can join the mobilization to save democracy with your time and money.  You’ll get plenty of invitations to do so.  But let’s start now with these.  Instead of doom-scrolling on our smart phones, instead of wringing our hands and panicking, let’s take action now!  It’s the cure for despair!
   

January 4th, 2024

Letting Go

What does it take to change your life?  -when it is clear that you need to change it?

Tis the season for making resolutions.  Plans for change in our lives.  Goals, objectives.  But I am going to guess that a lot of us are more than a bit skeptical about making resolutions, because so often they get put by the wayside, ignored, lost in the shuffle.  Resolutions that seemed shiny and compelling in January begin to fade and wilt in March.  Or maybe even in January…

Perhaps another way to making changes in our lives would be to look at its process.  And making resolutions or declarations is only one piece of it.

One of my very favorite sayings of Jesus is found in Matthew 12.  And I think it is useful for stimulating deeper consideration of the process of making changes in our lives.  He made this statement in an era when pretty much everybody believed that invisible spirits could enter into a person and take control of them.  It was a folk explanation for mental illness and spiritual distress.  Jesus got a reputation as a healer partly because of the stories about him driving evil spirits out of people, bringing afflicted people back to spiritual and emotional and social wholeness.  So this passage has to be understood in that historical context:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it returns, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order.  Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
Such a rich and even funny description of how life goes, eh?  Anybody who has suffered from addiction understands this story right away.  So you get clean and sober.  Then what?  How do you fill the space that drugs or alcohol used to occupy?  If you don’t fill that space, relapse is more likely – a relapse maybe worse than the mess you were in just before you got clean and sober.
The image of the first evil spirit inviting seven others to occupy the house – familiar, isn’t it?  Like the house down the street where the owner left town and let a deadbeat relative move in, and that person decides to bring in a bunch of sketchy pals as roommates, and the next thing you know, the house is a public nuisance. 
In this earthy, vivid story, Jesus lays out a path for us to follow in making needed changes in our lives.

Step one, get clear about the change you want to make.  The resolution, the goal, the objective.  But make that resolution at the very same time that you commit yourself to making room for it.  Your resolution has to have a corollary.  A companion resolution that you’ll do what you need to do to make the ultimate resolution possible.  And usually that involves exactly what Jesus described in his pithy story.  It involves housecleaning.  It involves letting go.  Making room.  And letting go is usually just as hard, if not harder, than achieving your resolution!  So you resolve to take art classes in 2024 – great!  But in all likelihood, the reason you haven’t taken art classes already is because your life is full.  What activity, what existing engagements, will you commit to abandoning in order to make room for the art classes?  Get specific.  Count the cost of your resolution, factor it in. 
And likewise, if your resolution is to clean your spiritual or physical house, what’s your plan for filling the hole that will result?  You retire because you’re worn out from working at your job.  But what will replace that job?  What will fill the void that opens up?  You don’t want the devil’s roommates to move into the empty spaces in your life.  You gotta have a plan for what to do with your life.

So our new year’s resolutions have to have companion resolutions.  A resolution to give something up needs to be accompanied by a resolution about how to replace it.  A resolution to do something new needs to be accompanied by a resolution to let go of something else in order to make room for the new commitment.  Otherwise our January resolutions will get left in the dust by Valentine’s Day. 
So what do you resolve to give up in 2024, and how do you resolve to replace it?  And what do you resolve to take on in 2024, and what do you resolve to give up in order to do it?

December 27th, 2023

Good Intentions

When as an adult I read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, I wished I had read it when I was a teenager. Franklin was an inspiring character for so many reasons, but the one that stood out for me was his intentionality. As a young man, he came up with a plan for his life, and as best he could, he followed it. He set goals for himself, and reached many of them.

But even in Franklin’s charmed life, there were major interruptions to his plan. Franklin didn’t foresee his involvement in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, nor in the establishment of the United States of America. Nor did he count on the tragic death of his beloved young son. He became one of the “founding fathers” of this country despite the fact that it was not one of his goals.

Yet his seriousness of purpose had everything to do with the many things he achieved without ever intending to do so. Having goals focused and energized him in ways that readied him for the unpredictable events in his life. He is much more famous for the way he took detours than he is for following the road he planned for himself.

There’s a major reason that the Soviet Union no longer exists: its obsession with goals. That empire fell because it became enslaved to its “five year plans” instead of being empowered by them. The Soviets tried to control everything, right down to the style of shoes that would be produced years in the future. The result was a corrupt, backward economy.  And lots of ugly shoes! 

A good goal is one that liberates us, rather than one that gets in the way when circumstances change, as they do inevitably. A good goal gives us energy that can be re-directed to positive purposes when roadblocks appear ahead.

Intentionality gives us power we can use to help others and ourselves, even if particular goals become unrealistic. Setting and seeking after goals fills our sails, and as long as we prayerfully keep our hands on the tiller, usually we can go to good places no matter what obstacles arise.
This is a good time to make such goals, or to dust off the ones we’ve already set for ourselves. May we be freed and empowered by our best intentions in this new year of 2024!
                         

 December 21st, 2023

                                 

Theology of Christmas

Jim Burklo – 2023

God’s the whole

God is none

God is three

God is one

God’s a me

God’s a you

God’s absurd

God is true

God’s “I Am”

God’s “You Are”

God is near

God is far

God exists

God does not

God is all

God’s a lot

God is small

God’s a thought

God’s a man

On a cross

God is grief

At God’s loss

God’s a babe

In the hay

God is Love

Here to stay

December 14th, 2023



This Sunday, I’ll be preaching on “The Road to Christmas”. We’re all
on it, yes? And the destination is drawing near.
The image above is a creche that my granddaughter Rumi and I made
about ten years ago together. As we know, a creche is a set of figurines
depicting the birth of Jesus. Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men from
the east, and angels – all contemplating the baby Jesus in a manger.
You could hardly call them “action figures”. Rather, they are “looking
figures”. Not just “looking”, but “just looking”.
My daily prayer practice aims at the same experience.
Most of the time, if I am looking at all, I’m looking for something.
Looking up something. Looking into something. Most of my looking has agendas, preconditions, prejudices, assumptions. There’s something I want, and I’m using my senses to find it.
Looking without preconditions, looking without the intention of seeing
any particular thing in a certain way, looking only for the sake of
looking – that’s a very different experience.

Every day I walk at least three miles, aiming to take a God’s-eye-view of all that is present within and around me. I love rocks, fossils, native
plants, grand vistas. I find myself looking for these things along the
steep trail. And that quest has its own charms and satisfactions. But far
greater and deeper is the satisfaction of observing this impulse to “look
for”, then letting it go, and focusing on “just looking”. Looking without
any purpose or goal or aim. Just observing what is, as it is, in the
moment that it is, then moving on and just looking at what is next, as it
is, in the moment that it is. Without naming or describing or presuming
anything about what is. And then being aware that the One within me
who looks is beyond observation, liberated from temporality and
judgment and opinion and evaluation and description. This kind of
looking leads to awe and wonder and discovery: it’s the wellspring of
creativity. It makes it possible for us to see human needs that might
otherwise have escaped our everyday attention. After a while of
practicing this way of looking, I began to appreciate what I was seeing
on its own terms, not just my own. I enter into “visio divina” – divine
vision.
Such is the looking of the figures in the crèche scene at the birth of
Jesus. The creche is a window into the eternal quality of the now, an
icon of the divine point of view. It is slack-jawed, timeless, aimless, free, worshipful Awe that is Love that is God.
Maybe the wise men came to Bethlehem looking for the newborn King.
But when they got there, and laid down their gifts, I like to think that
they ended that quest and just looked at a little baby lying in the hay.
Without believing anything about him, without assuming anything about him, without defining him. Just looking with full attention, total
presence, and pure love.
So, too, the shepherds looked. They had been “keeping watch” over their sheep. Then they were “keeping watch”over Jesus. Just looking.

So it was with the angels who were present in the myth of Christmas.
The biblical Greek word for angel means “messenger”. Somebody who
reports on what is, as it is. Not on what is supposed to be. Not on what
we wish it was. Angels “watch over”: they just look, and then report
what they see. The Greek word for “gospel” is related: “euangelion”or
“good message”. The gospel is what we see when we just look at what
is, as it is, when and where it is, without filters or interpretations or
preconceptions. Abba Bessarion, one of the early Christian “desert
fathers” who spent their lives in contemplative prayer in the wilderness, offered up this admonition on his deathbed: “The monk should be all eye, like the cherubim and seraphim.”
It’s an epiphany – the biblical Greek word for a sudden appearance or
manifestation – to discover the difference between “looking for”and
“just looking”. When I’m “just looking”, I can see an incarnation of God that I might miss when I’m “looking for”. And that incarnation is whatwe celebrate at Christmas.

So I invite you to join in this spiritual practice of visio divina. Get a
creche, or a picture of one, and join the angels, shepherds, wise men, and parents in “just looking” at the baby Jesus for several minutes in
meditatio. Then in contemplatio, close your eyes and wait for the
“echo” of that meditatio. What emerges?
See you on the road to Christmas!
—Jim

December 7th, 2023

This Sunday, December 10, we’ll celebrate Hanukkah – the Jewish festival of lights – and also celebrate the divine feminine in the many faces and forms of Mary, mother of Jesus.  Stick around after worship to make Christmas ornaments of her image – as you imagine her!

There’s no such thing as a nobody. 

That’s the message of Mary.
Until her immaculate conception, until she howled out the Magnificat, she had become accustomed to being treated as a nobody.
Then came the miracle.  Quite suddenly she was fully aware, from the top of her head to the tips of her toes, that she was a somebody.  A divine consciousness was implanted within her.  Call it Christ consciousness.  The consciousness that she mattered, that everybody matters.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” sang out Mary, a peasant, and a woman, at that — considered a second-class citizen in that time in that backwater of the Roman Empire.  She sang out a world turned upside down – in which the rich would be sent empty away, the hungry would be filled with good things.  In magnifying the Lord, Mary magnified her microfied self. 
Hers was the new and electrifying concept that her life really and truly made a difference.  As handed down to us, her Magnificat is a political document — it’s the immaculate conception of the principle of democracy, of the equality of all human beings.  Read the Magnificat and you’ll get a hint of the Bill of Rights that followed from it, long afterward.
Mary’s Magnificat ought to give rich and powerful people the shivers.  But they aren’t shaking, because in their churches they’ve paid for stained-glass windows of a Mary meek and mild.  Find me a stained-glass image of Mary howling out the Magnificat, instead of just looking quietly beatific while hovering over the manger.  The rich and powerful have curated Mary’s image, they’ve hired publicists to sanitize her.  Did you know that there is an office for the Virgin Mary at the Vatican?  The brother of an Italian friend of mine is in charge of it.  Need we say more?  A man is in charge of the way that Mary is presented to the world. 
 
Let’s change that – on Sunday!
There are two distinct ways to magnify people.  One is to lift everybody up, at the expense of no one.  The other is to lift up some folks by pushing down others.   Lifting up everybody is democracy at its best.  Lifting up some by pushing down others is populism:  those vermin, those coastal elite people (except for one very “special” coastal elite person), those socialist communist Democrats, they are your enemies, they are the reason you feel one-down.  They mock you for living in flyover states, they think you are nobodies.  They are the bad guys.  You are the good guys, the real Americans.  Vote for me because I’m your defender.  Through me, you are a somebody, not a nobody.
This is very powerful and effective rhetoric.  It’s also incredibly dangerous and destructive rhetoric that pits half the people of this country against the other half.  So it is time we listened to Mary’s rhetoric, which distinguishes 99% of the population from the less than 1% who held the levers of power at the time, but does so without demonizing anybody – she just says they’ll be brought down from their thrones to mix with the 99%.  Welcome to the real world, King Herod!  Welcome to our world. 
Through her Magnificat, Mary ceased to be a subject of King Herod.  Likewise, you are nobody’s subject but God’s.  And to be God’s subject is to be your own subject.  Because God is the loving relationship between you and yourself and other people and all other beings in the cosmos.  That loving, accepting, forgiving relationship ennobles you as a crown of creation.  By magnifying that relationship of divine love, you are magnified, and you magnify the others around you.  Not half of them.  All of them. 
We’ll have a merry Mary time on Sunday!  Spread the word!
Happy Advent!
 
Jim Burklo

November 30th, 2023

Dear UCC Simi family:
 
This past week, I read an inspiring article in – of all periodicals – Vanity Fair, highlighting the efforts of Senator Chris Murphy to address the epidemic of loneliness and isolation in America.  He made a name for himself not long ago when he relentlessly and successfully pushed through a rare piece of gun control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting.  But such a modest improvement through public policy was only treating the symptom, and not the root causes of the epidemic of gun violence.
“There are just real practical impacts to people feeling lonely and disconnected,” he said.  “Political instability and polarization are driven by be people feeling upset and angry when they can’t find positive connection and they go find it in darker, more dangerous places.”  He has gone on a quest to learn all he can about why people have gone to those dark places, and how they might be brought to better ones.  His mission, in his words: “diagnose and treat the metaphysical state of America.” The epidemic of loneliness is not something that he believes can be fixed by “self-help”.  It’s what he calls “structural unhappiness”, and it has to be addressed at a social-structural level.
As a consequence of his mission, Murphy finds himself attending church again – after leaving it as a teenager.  “All our other temples (besides faith communities) – social media, consumerism, a ‘me first’ individualism – are just telling you to be you.” 
Our church tells “you to be you”, too.  But not just “you to be you”.  We teach each other to be a “you” that includes “us”.  And an “us” that includes “you”.  We teach each other how to belong, how to be curious about each other, how to care for each other, and to care for others beyond our circle.  The fruits of this teaching?  Kindness, compassion, and positive civic engagement.
So simple!  But for so many Americans, belonging is a lost art.
Chris Murphy does not believe that connection and community can be revived in America by federal legislation.  But he does believe that legislation could help, alongside the efforts of citizen activists across the political spectrum. 
Just by existing, our church is part of the movement that Senator Chris Murphy wants to build.  Just by existing, we are connectors, community-builders, a cure for isolation and loneliness.  Let’s celebrate our vital role in diagnosing and treating the messy metaphysical state of America!
Happy Advent!
Jim Burklo 

November 22nd, 2023

Dear UCC Simi family:
 
During our time of “oratio” – spoken prayer in worship this past Sunday – I lifted up the people of Israel and Palestine.  They’ve been weighing on our hearts and minds lately.  The conflict there has spilled over into this country, opening fissures in all directions, setting friends and foes alike against each other.  And it sets off conflicts not just among ourselves, but within ourselves as well.  How do we hold empathy for everyone who is suffering, while thinking clearly about how the conflict ought to be resolved?  There’s nothing simple about it.
 
Our country is so implicated in the conflict that we cannot pretend that it is somebody else’s problem.  So as citizens, we have a responsibility to know what is happening and to let our elected representatives know where we stand. 
 
So once again, I’m emailing my member of Congress, Senators, and the President to urge them to press for an immediate cease-fire, for humanitarian aid to flow freely into Gaza, and for an immediate and sustained international effort to establish a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.  For better or worse, our country has decisive influence in the region and now is the time for us to exercise it fully.  Today, the Biden administration is half-heartedly calling for a break in the conflict in order to allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.  But the catastrophe in Gaza today demands that our country take much more decisive action.
 
What I’m urging is messy.  A cease-fire today would likely leave Gaza under the thrall of a weakened but still functioning Hamas, a terrorist organization.  That is a consequence that rightly frightens the people of Israel.  Israel has every right to defend itself from forces that do in fact intend to commit genocide against its people.  But there is no way for Israel to root out Hamas completely without even more staggering loss of civilian lives in Gaza, which will inevitably result in further radicalization and recruitment for another generation of terrorists.  There is no practical military solution to the conflict on either side.  Immediate negotiation for a permanent peace between Israel and Palestine is the only path.  And it won’t be an easy peace to achieve.  The leaders of the Palestinians are either fanatical or hopelessly corrupt, and Israel has carved up the West Bank with settlements.  Achieving peace is going to require the United States to apply strong and steady pressure on all parties to make painful sacrifices.  It won’t be a pretty process, and it will strain the internal politics of our own country even further.  But inaction on our part will have even worse consequences for our country, for Israel and Palestine, and for the planet. 
 
I hope this stimulates conversation among us! 
 
May peace prevail –
 
Jim
 

November 16th, 2023

Dear UCC Simi family:
 
I wrote this poem a few years back – celebrating the season.  Enjoy!
 
—Jim
 
Interlude for Gratitude
Thankfulness is the fruit of humility
     and gratitude plants the seed of deeper humility
         that opens hearts and minds to more
              for which to be grateful

Giving thanks to another human being
      ennobles the giver and the receiver
        dignifies everyday exchanges
             and clears the way for love

Giving thanks for what is received
     from a source beyond human beings
        invokes a personal relationship with the universe:
           humanizes the cosmos
              divinizes the human

Thanksgiving transforms –
     transubstantiates –
        that which is given and received:
           dead matter
               expresses living spirit

The first “thank you”
        marked a revolution…
           a turning point
              in the evolution of consciousness:
                  the moment when “it” became “you”

Because
          there is no “thank”
                     without “you”….

November 9th, 2023

Dear UCC Simi Family:
Thank you, all, for your outpouring of kindness toward me at the death of my Dad last week. He lived well, and died peacefully.  I and the rest of my family adored him.  He adored us.  I’ve shed a lot of tears, but good ones:  tears of gratitude for having the most loving father one could hope to have had.

‘Tis the season for giving thanks.  We’re hosting the annual Simi Valley Interfaith Thanksgiving Celebration on 11/21, Tues, 7 pm.  See you there!

But just what is the nature of gratitude? I have unholy wants.  Some things I desire are not so good for me, or for others.  Even when I want good things, I sometimes want too much of them, harming myself and others.  Or I want good things at bad times and in wrong places.   What I hope for isn’t entirely pure.  Some of my hopes are tainted by my selfishness and bitterness.  I don’t always wish the best for others, though I wish that wasn’t the case.   What I worship isn’t so holy, either.  Because my religion, like all others, is a human creation.
 My idea of God is just that – my idea, colored by my prejudices, shaped by my preferences.     But in gratitude we come as close to divinity as we humans can get. We cannot fail by giving thanks.  We fail only in forgetting to do so.  To be sure, we are not thankful enough for enough of what we are and what we have.  But every little “thank you” directed to other persons and beings and to the Divine Source of all – every silent or spoken expression of sincere gratitude – is perfection itself.  It is an instant, if only in an instant, when we go beyond our limited, mortal selves and participate in the existence of a Source outside our egos.  
Sincere gratitude is the very definition of holiness.  It is the purest prayer we can offer.  In gratitude, all people and things are equal. Perhaps I can muster thankfulness only for my most prized and valuable material possessions.  It doesn ‘t matter.  It’s still gratitude, just as much as if I had been grateful for something supposedly more virtuous.  Divine gratitude overwhelms you when admiring all the signs of whatever wealth you have.

  Divine gratitude overwhelms you when looking at a beautiful fall-colored leaf on the ground.  It’s all the same.   God makes no distinction.  Gratitude is gratitude.

 Thanksgiving brings everything up to a heavenly level.  Thanksgiving creates spiritual equality for all beings and things.  In thanksgiving, we can know what it means for all to be one. Because in thanks, what once had been an “it” suddenly becomes a “you”.  We don’t say “thank it” – we say “thank you” – recognizing implicitly that there is a transcendent YOU, blessing us with unspeakably wonderful gifts, none more wondrous than each breath we take and each beat of our hearts – as we gratefully contemplate the gift of life itself. There is purity in gratitude.
Thank you, Dad.
Thank you, UCC Simi family! —- Jim

November 2nd, 2023

This coming Sunday, November 5, my sermon will be shown as
a video in worship. I’m in Oregon, having come up here to be
with my father for the last day of his life. He died peacefully on
Halloween morning, joining all the “saints” of our family who
have gone before.


Don Burklo was the most loving and devoted father we siblings
could have dreamed to have. He adored us, and we adored him.
I’ve shed a lot of tears in the last few days – all of them
springing from a deep well of gratitude.

Some years ago, I asked Dad about his theology. “It’s been a
while since we talked about such stuff,” I said. “Tell me, what is
your perspective on matters religious these days?”
“You’ll have to ask me that question on a starry night,” he
answered.
That was all the answer I needed. An answer I’ll cherish for the
rest of my days. Christianity, religion in general, spirituality in
general, reduce ultimately to his answer. It’s all about awe.
And ahhhh. Whenever I look into the heavens at night, I
remember Dad. And will remember Dad. And will sigh with
awe. And with ahhhhh…..
I’ll be in worship online with you all on Sunday, from afar!
Love always,
Jim

October 25th, 2023

Dear UCC Simi Family:

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with concern for my father and my brother, who recently were in the same hospital at the same time with serious conditions.  Both are home now, but in precarious health.  Last week, I went up to Oregon for five days to be with them.  Between visits with them, I found myself pondering the human condition, moving me to write this little poem:

The Angel’s Bargain

 
For a walk along a tumbling stream foaming in golden light,
Congestive heart failure.
 
For enjoying the aroma of a juniper berry pinched open with fingernails,
Cancer of the bladder.
 
For fascination with the pattern of migrating birds flying high,
Parkinson’s disease.
 
For basking in sunshine while leaning against a smooth boulder,
Lewy body dementia.
 
For the sight of a single strand of spider’s gossamer floating in the breeze,
Macular degeneration.
 
For the sound of a toddler squealing with joy, both arms in the air,
Rheumatoid arthritis.
 
For the privilege of existing in order to reflect the glory of the Universe back to itself, 
Bargain accepted.

—- Jim

October 19th, 2023

Dear UCC Simi family:
 
With trepidation, I’m weighing in here about the current Israel-Gaza conflict.  I welcome conversation about it among us on Sunday!
 
As a citizen of the United States, I am implicated in today’s horror in Israel and Gaza.  The pain and heartbreak and fear and suffering are overwhelming.  I voted for the president who is now supplying weapons for the conflict.  So I have a responsibility to know what is going on, and to exert my small measure of influence for the cause of peace and justice.
 
Hamas murdered hundreds of Israeli citizens point-blank and fired thousands of missiles indiscriminately.  Israel is now killing hundreds of civilians in Gaza from the air, while aiming at Hamas leaders and fighters. 
 
There is no way to justify what Hamas did.  Of course there is justification for Israel to defend itself from the perpetrators.
 
But the question is how.
 
St. Augustine, the Christian theologian of 4th – 5th century Rome, came up with a moral calculus to apply to war.  Obviously, he said it should be assiduously avoided.  But where that was not possible, it ought to be proportional to the threat and should only be pursued if there is a reasonable probability of success.  Otherwise, it devolves into mayhem to no good end.
 
And that’s the real risk in Israel/Palestine today.  We as Americans are party to this conflict, because of our very close alliance with Israel.  So we have a responsibility both to defend Israel and to press vigorously for humane treatment of civilians. 
 
It is justifiable for Israel to defeat utterly the forces that inflicted such genocidal barbarity on its people.  But is that possible to achieve fully without a huge number of civilian deaths and injuries?  Asking a million people to leave their homes in a very short time means death for many of the most vulnerable.  Rooting out militants dug into a densely populated area could kill countless civilians and cost a disproportionate loss of life on the Israeli side as well.  And would it solve the problem in any case?  Or just sow the seeds of spite that would grow into another terrorist organization, perhaps even worse than Hamas?
 
There’s a very real danger of flunking St Augustine’s just war test. 
 
Calling for the US government to put strong pressure on Israel to exercise restraint, and on all parties to the wider conflict to seek a lasting peace, does not mean that we are taking the side of Hamas and abandoning our alliance with Israel.  On the contrary, it is a recognition of a practical reality and the humanitarian imperative. 
 
On October 6, the day before the Hamas attack, the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians was unacceptable and unsustainable.  The Palestinians lived under two separate un-democratic regimes: a hopelessly corrupt one in the West Bank, and a fanatical terrorist one in Gaza.  Israel’s new radical, right-wing government encouraged more Jewish settlements in the West Bank and condoned mistreatment of the Palestinians there.  Gaza’s residents effectively lived in a prison, cut off from the rest of the world.  Anyone observing the situation and thinking critically about it could see that eventually it would explode.  This doesn’t justify the manner in which it exploded.  But that it would explode was a foregone conclusion.
 
By October 6, the world should have taken the problem a lot more seriously and assiduously pressed all parties toward a lasting peace agreement.  But people got tired of the ongoing dispute, weary of its lack of resolution, and so they pretended it didn’t exist.  Well, today, we can’t pretend anymore.  Not just the Israelis and the Palestinians, but the people of the whole world cannot afford for this conflict to continue to fester.  We all know that what happens in the Middle East doesn’t stay there.
 
What should be done after October 7 is the same as what should have been done before October 7.  Let that be the starting point for Americans in our public conversation about this conflict… so that we do not become complicit in the pointless killing of civilians, and so that we are not complacent about our role in settling the conflict for good.  For better or worse, we Americans have much more power than anyone else to bring peace to the Middle East.  Let us use that power wisely, humanely – and relentlessly. 

October 12th, 2023

This Sunday, we’ll get introduced to Brother James – the stage name of Justin James Sinclair.  Worship will be different!  He’ll sing, he’ll get us to sing, and he’ll engage us in a conversation together.  Don’t miss it!

“Love cannot be stagnant and will always create more…”  So sings Brother James in his tune, “I Had to Dig.”  His spiritual quest led him to dig his way out of fundamentalist Christianity and then to excavate his own soul and the mysteries of the universe.  “And I’ll give all I have in search of freedom, live to set other prisoners free…”  There surely are other meanings to make of it, but I hear his song as an anthem for progressive Christianity.

Justin James Sinclair is a young man on a mission.  He made retreats at the St Andrew’s Abbey and New Camaldoli monasteries in California, where, to his astonishment, he discovered a strand of Christianity that no one in the evangelical churches he attended, nor at Biola University where he studied, had revealed to him before.  Above Big Sur, he sat at the feet of Cyprian Consiglio, a monk and musician with deep reverence for the contemplative traditions of the world’s religions.  Justin discovered a radically different way to understand and practice Christianity, in silent contemplative union with the Divine.  While powerfully attracted to it, he realized he was not meant for the monastic life.  So he put his musical career where his heart had arrived, taking on the stage name of Brother James.  He aims to serve souls through his music.  “I find multiple meanings in the word ‘brother’”, he says.  “The monastic, contemplative identity, but also the idea of being there for other people, like a brother.”  And he chose his middle name, James, because it is what his dad calls him.  For him, it is a name of sacred endearment.

His process of “deconstruction” from fundamentalist Christianity has not been without pain.  In “Witness” he alludes to the loneliness and confusion along that path:  “As you push into light and can’t step back, friends wonder why, but don’t know how to ask…”  But the song also offers brotherly comfort:  “I’ll take your hand, I’m by your side, I’m reaching out… You need to know you’re not alone…”

Brother James wants his songs to be conversation-starters.  And he wants to be part of the conversation.  “I don’t want to play in bars!” he says.  “Put me in a living room with a circle of people, and I’ll play, and then we’ll talk.”  That’s exactly what we’ll be doing on Sunday!

He was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck.  In his song, “Safety Net”, he chords that precarious moment with the time he told his parents he was leaving the version of the faith in which they had raised him.  “I need to find the truth, but I don’t know how, so if I cut the cord, would you hold me like you did, if I couldn’t call him Lord, would you still love me now?”

Whether or not it keeps us from breathing, all of us must cut the cord so we can follow the Spirit wind where it leads us.  Brother James, with tunes both gentle and compelling, shows us the way.

October 5th, 2023

AI and You and I

Psalm 8:4–5

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
 
The futurist Stewart Brand wrote in 1968:  “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”  It was true then, and truer now.  We have god-like creative power that we have used to create artificial intelligence that itself is gaining god-like power.  We’d better get really, really good at being godlike, before artificial intelligence gets more godlike than us! 
 
On Sunday, I’ll be exploring with you the impending flood of disruptions that are about to inundate us as a consequence of the rapid rise of AI – artificial intelligence.  My sermon will contain a surprise – so brace yourself for it!
 
Close to home here in Simi Valley, we’ve just experienced the dramatic receding of the water at the shore that precedes the tidal wave.  Neither the WGA writers’ strike nor the SAG actors’ strike, which caused so much economic damage in southern California, would have happened except for the AI revolution.  Computers are now able to create entertainment content at a level that only a few years ago seemed unimaginable.
 
It’s time to get spiritually and morally prepared for the conundrums and quandaries that AI will place in our way.  Let us invite our friends and neighbors to step away from their screens and show up in church – because we are the higher ground on which people can stand as the AI tsunami roars onto our shore! 
 
See you Sunday!
 
— Jim

September 28th, 2023

There is a long list of countries in the world where the Bible is banned in many contexts or otherwise is made hard to access.  You’d think that given this grim reality, all Christians in America would rally behind the right to read.

But alas, that’s not the case in this country today, as right-wing (and often fundamentalist Christian) people have waged a culture war on books.  Their rubric for banning them includes sexual content they believe to be inappropriate for children.

Somehow they fail to appreciate that according to this rubric, children should not be allowed anywhere near a Bible… a book full of graphic sexual content and outrageous violence.  

Of course, we are not going to read Nabokov to our children and grandchildren at bedtime.  But we must stand up for the right to read gnarly stuff, including the Bible.  In a democracy, we must err on the side of the freedom to crack open any book we want… even if doing so lands us at Psalm 137:  “O daughter Babylon, you devastator!  Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!  Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”  In any of the books that the anti-liberty “Moms for Liberty” want to take off the shelves, it doesn’t get any gnarlier than this biblical celebration of brutal infanticide. 

For a while, through Leslie Kearney’s dedication, we’ve had a “Little Free Library” posted in front of our church.  Take a book, read it, bring it back, bring more to share.  She reports the magic that happens through our Little Library, as she notes trends in the reading choices of its patrons.  She noticed that an apparently un-housed Spanish-speaking person was making regular use of it, clearly to improve his English.  The Little Library is a lovely gift to and from the community around our church.

Next to it, as a sort of “annex”, I have built and installed a “Little Library of Banned Books”.  Leslie and I are gathering up books to stock it.  Including Bibles!  If you’d like to help, below are some lists you can use to choose books to contribute.  

When we get it set up completely, we’ll throw a bit of a party after worship and invite the press! 

Love, 

Jim

American Library Association’s 100 most banned and challenged books of the last decade: 

https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/decade2019

A list of banned books for older kids, put together by Cal State University:

https://csulb.libguides.com/childrens/banned

A list from the Evanston IL Public library of banned books for younger kids: 

https://www.epl.org/booklist/shhhh-these-kids-books-have-been-banned-or-challenged/

September 21st, 2023




Patient Persistence

 
Recently, I took the blue and pink trans flag down from the inside of our sanctuary and hung it on a pole at the right end of our banner at the front of the church.  Last Sunday morning, I discovered it had been stolen – see the picture above. 
 
This isn’t the first time that such vandalism has happened with our signage in front of the church.  I’ve put up other signage indicating our commitment to LGBTQ+ full affirmation, and on a couple of occasions it has been knocked over. 
 
It is my prayerful hope that whoever did this will look deeper within themselves, over time, and observe what motivated them to do such a thing.  Fear? Hatred? Anger?  A combination of all three?  Conversion from hate to love and acceptance often takes time…. but it happens.  Think of how relatively quickly Americans came to accept same-sex marriage overwhelmingly – when only a few years before, legalization seemed unimaginable!
 
I count this vandalism as a cost of our discipleship, a price we pay for changing hearts and minds… which requires patience and persistence. 
 
The sign is back up, by the way – and we’ll put out more flags soon!

This Sunday we will hear an amazing story from our guest Rev. Andrew Kovalev-  “A Great God: Our Journey From Russia” 
 
—Jim

September 14th, 2023

The Tao of Jesus
 
One of my favorite artists is Georgia O’Keefe, not the least because she did a lot of her painting in one of my favorite parts of the world, northern New Mexico.   She lived near Mount Pedernal, the big mountain above Abiquiu, New Mexico.  She once said that God told her that if she painted Pedernal enough times, the mountain would be hers. 
 
The mountain has a flat top, but the flat top isn’t level.  It’s at a rakish angle, sort of like the way the French wear their berets.  It’s a dark mountain, covered with pines, surrounded by a landscape of barren red-orange-yellow canyonlands.  So it sticks out from the earth around it in a spectacular way. 
 
Jesus said, “I am the Way.”  In Chinese, the word Tao means “way”.  On Sunday I’ll be exploring the Tao of Jesus.
 
A major theme in Taoist literature is equanimity.  Balance.  Incorporation of the yin into the yang, the yang into the yin.  Hence the flowing shape of the yin-yang symbol.  But to be in balance, to achieve equanimity, does not mean that both sides of the picture look the same, or are equal somehow.  The equanimity of the Tao is a blending of many kinds of opposites, a rough but real peace-making of opposing forces. 
 
Coming soon, on Sept 22, is the Autumnal Equinox, when the darkness is equal with the light, but it is an equality with a difference.  We call it the autumnal equinox because it is a balance with a tendency, a balance that is moving to imbalance, a moment when darkness begins to prevail over light, until the vernal equinox, when winter turns toward summer at spring.  Just as Mt. Pedernal has a lovely symmetry but it is tipped in a certain direction.
 
“True straightness seems crooked.  True wisdom seems foolish.  True art seems artless,” says Lao Tsu in the Tao te Ching.  A good composition hints at symmetry, displays symmetry, without ever being fully symmetrical.  Georgia O’Keefe painted a picture of Mt. Pedernal, but didn’t put the mountain the focus of the picture.  She arranged the composition to make the eye move to it, because in the movement the mountain comes to life.  The artist does not force you to see what she wants you to see.  “The Master allows things to happen,” says the Tao te Ching. 
 
The artist can do what Jesus said you and I can do through faith (Matt 17): “truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain,  `Move from here to there,’ and it will move.”  You can make it move just by placing it in such a way that it is not the focus of the picture.  Through faith, as the Tao te Ching says, “the soft overcomes the hard.  The slow overcomes the fast.  Let your workings remain a mystery.  Just show people the results.”
 
Equanimity is not static, rigid, at right angles.  You can’t stand if your knees won’t bend. 
 
So let us go with the good flow, follow where the Way leads, and keep our knees bent as we go!
 
See you on Saturday for the epic Patio Sale, and on Sunday for worship!
 
—Jim

 

September 7th, 2023

Beyond “Big Fundy”

There’s a lot of criticism about Big Pharma, Big Government, and Big Business.  And there’s been plenty of talk for decades about the dangers of the military-industrial complex.  

What about Big Fundy?  

The time has come for us to name it for what it is: the fundamentalist-industrial complex.

And the time has come to replace it with a form of Christianity that is kinder, gentler, more compassionate and just.  

That’s just what we’re doing here at UCC Simi Valley.  And we’re having fun doing it!

Big Fundy is a long-established alliance between conservative Christians and big business interests.  It formally got off the ground in 1935 with the founding of the “Spiritual Mobilization”, led by Rev. James Fifield, pastor of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles.  (I should note that this church has morphed into a theologically and socially progressive congregation of the United Church of Christ.)  A long list of major corporations contributed financially to Fifield’s organization, devoted to making Christianity an instrument for promoting capitalism and attacking communism and the “socialist” programs of the New Deal.  Fifield was theologically progressive.  But later, Billy Graham, bankrolled by big-money donors, became the face of the widening movement: he was groomed to deliver a smoother, more culturally acceptable form of fundamentalism than the rural, unsophisticated version that prevailed up to that time – and they freshly branded it as “evangelical Christianity”.  His “crusades” filled stadiums from coast to coast, and he became a power player among conservative politicians.  His organization was the precursor to that of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority”, which went much further into open alliance with the Republican Party.

Big Fundy is an enormous industry consisting of a network of corporate interests, wealthy donors, and grass-roots contributors supporting a large number of well-established organizations.  A recent grand-scale manifestation of it has been the HeGetsUs.org campaign to rehabilitate the image of Jesus in America through massive buys of air time, billboards, and other media.  It portrays Jesus in an innocuous manner, but the campaign funnels viewers into the hyper-conservative media universe of fundamentalist Christianity, linked strongly with right-wing politics.

Big Fundy is right here in Simi Valley, in the form of megachurches in fundamentalist-industrial complexes, looking more like box stores than spiritual sanctuaries.  They are physical manifestations of twisting the gospel of Jesus into worship of money, power, and backward social values.

Big Fundy is a big business with a long-term strategy that has paid off handsomely.  Its tentacles have reached into every nook and cranny of American culture and institutions.  But it is in big trouble right now, as religious affiliation goes into steep decline and more and more Americans are disgusted by the unholy matrimony of conservative Christianity and Trumpism.  Blending the faith and example of Jesus with a dogma of untrammeled capitalism never made sense in the first place.  But today, the dissonance is becoming impossible to ignore.

In the business world, it is trendy to talk about “disruptors” – entrepreneurs and technologies upending established markets with fresh inventions and creative business models.  Today, Big Fundy is threatened with spiritual disruptors known as progressive Christians, who are flipping the narrative of the faith in the direction of love and justice.  Today, our movement has nowhere close to the financial and organizational horsepower of Big Fundy.  But we have the winds of change at our backs.  And we now have lively churches, advocacy organizations, and clever and creative media to attract folks who are fleeing evangelical churches.  Progressive Christianity has evolved and grown quietly in the last 25 years.  Now we present an engaging alternative to the millions of Americans who seek something very different than what Big Fundy has to offer.

Now is our David moment to confront the Big Fundy Goliath.  But not with a stone in a sling: rather, with compassionate words and deeds that serve as healthy antidotes to the toxic brew of regressive politics, backward theology, and stunted social values of the religious right.  So let’s let our community know just how different we really are!

We are in a uniquely remarkable historical moment. We have the opportunity to redefine the dominant paradigm of Christianity in America.  Let’s take it and run – right here in Simi Valley!

August 31st, 2023



Dear Ones at UCC Simi:

My wife, Roberta, found this – and I think it’s hilarious.
And also very true.
Because, for me, there is a huge difference between being your “guest preacher”  – which I was, on occasion, for 15 years – and being your day-to-day, Sunday to Sunday pastor.  A difference I greatly appreciate and enjoy.

Ideally, for me, what I talk about on Sunday reflects our ongoing dialogue, you and I, about life and the soul.  Ideally, what happens on Sunday is an organic outcome of what happens among us on the rest of the days of the week.  And on Sundays prior.

I had a chat with one of you recently in which I found myself saying that the purpose of church community – at least in part – is that here we “triangulate” with each other.  Here we test our personal experiences and conclusions with those of others in our church.  Here we get to share what we feel and think, and here we get feedback from others that might change our perspective or give us needed grounding in reality.  And out of that ongoing dialogue, we can grow in spirit and wisdom.  

We’re a fitness center for good living and straight thinking!

I encourage us all to participate in this dialogue, from which sermons flow, and in which we serve as mirrors for each other, reflecting back on our opinions and perspectives and considering them critically.  I encourage us each and all to speak truth to each other, to err on the side of sharing, to trust each other with gnarly realities, and to receive them with grace and respect and forbearance. 

Pastor Warning:  Anything you say or do could be used in a sermon.  (Though rest assured, without explicit permission, I won’t attribute what you say or do to you in a way that would violate your confidentiality!)

Tomorrow, Sept 1, is Samvatsari, is the holiest day of the year in the Jain religion of India.  On this day, Jains greet each other with these words:  “micchami dukkadam” – which translates roughly as “forgive me for anything I’ve done that caused you harm”.  Good religion, eh?  Something worth practicing every day, of course – but to make a ritual of it once a year is a wonderful reminder.  

I learned “micchami dukkadam” from Shradha Jain, a student at USC when I worked there.  She and I got to know each other very well because she was the president of our Interfaith Council, to which I was the advisor.  Like hers, most Jains have Jain as their last name.  It’s a small religion in India, and in the world, in terms of numbers of adherents.  But its influence is wildly out of proportion, because it is the source of the tradition of “ahimsa”, or non-violence, in India.  Gandhi’s concept of “satyagraha”, or nonviolent “truth force”, was inspired by the Jain faith.  The Jain religion is one of the oldest in the world, predating and influencing much of the Hindu tradition.  Jain monks practice “ahimsa” in very radical ways.  They often wear white masks over their noses and mouths – not to protect themselves from bugs, but to protect bugs from them!

Growing up in India, Shradha’s relationship to the faith of her upbringing could be summed up as “meh”.  But when she came to the US for college, she took increasing interest in it, and ended up in seminary after she graduated!  I have no doubt that she’ll spread all that is good in Jainism to many, many people in America.

Starting with us!  Let’s join with Shradha tomorrow – and on Sunday, too – bowing to our friends, neighbors, and relatives, and prayerfully asking for forgiveness… to start over with a clean slate in our relationships.  

मिच्छामि दुक्कडम्

Micchami dukkadam!

–Jim

 

August  24th, 2023

Roberta and I share our property in Ojai with two donkeys. She has always loved donkeys and
wanted to have them, and that’s why we moved to the country. Every morning and evening,
Sisar and Sespe cavort together in the corral, chasing each other, nipping at each other, raring
up at each other.
Pretty much exactly what my two grandsons, aged 2 and 3, do whenever I visit them. Rolling on
the floor, rassling, giggling, howling, being monsters together.
Animals mean all sorts of things to us, but a big one is that we relate to them and find ourselves
in them. They are us, except they are a lot easier to deal with, even if you have to feed them a
lot of alfalfa and hay and muck their corral every day. Donkeys are people without the
baggage. Oh, they have some baggage, challenging stuff we have to deal with, but nothing to
compare to the load of stuff that comes along with the actual people in our lives.
This coming Sunday, let’s reflect on our relationship with animals – and how those relationships
can lead to better relationships with other humans!
See you then!
Jim

August 17th, 2023

Dear UCC Simi Family:

So far, so good!  with our experiment in worship – there seem to to be positive feelings about it.  Any comments you have, or suggestions, please pass them on to me or to Council members: Greg Elliot, Colleen Briner-Schmidt, Leslie Kearney, Virginia Christy, Carla Ritter.

Mark your calendars!  Sept 10 Sunday for “Homecoming” celebration, as we return from travels and breaks… Sept 16 Sat 8-2 for PATIO SALE!  – organize your stuff for donation to the sale… Sept 17 Sun for the first SOULJOURNING event for kids (of all ages)… and Oct 28-29 for a big event at our church, open to the community:  REMEMBERING OUR MIGRANT ANCESTORS…. “Day of the Dead” with a focus on the migrant experience…. Gonna be a full and rich Fall at UCC Simi!

I’m sure a lot of us know a lot of folks whose minds we wish we could change! – particularly about matters political.  How much luck have you had in this quest?  Most of us, I’ll wager, have had very little.

Before we try to change the minds of others, we might do well to consider what it takes for our own minds to change. 

That’s the conversation I hope to start with my sermon on Sunday!

See you then!

August 10th, 2023

This Sunday, let’s ponder this “mustard seed” for contemplation: what is the difference
between loneliness and solitude?

I have been “entired” (my new euphemism, hardly fitting the definition of retirement,
describing what I’ve been doing after starting my Social Security benefits) for almost a year
since I left my job at USC. It is only now that I’m waking up to the fact that my day-to-day level
of direct, face-to-face contact with humans has dropped precipitously. All the more reason that
I’m grateful to minister among you, and enjoy your face-to-face company! — as well as face-to-
screen company.

At USC I was awash in direct proximal human contact, given that the university is downtown in
Los Angeles, with swarms of students and other humans swirling around with every step I took.
And our Office of Religious and Spiritual Life was alive, day and night, with students hanging out
and dropping by.
Much as I loved it, I knew deep down to my bones that it was time to move on. And I’m glad I
did. It was time.

But it is only now, as the school year begins again, is it dawning on me how different my life is
today. And at one level, I’m beginning to grieve the change. I suppose this is a very normal
experience for the newly retired – as well as the newly “entired”.
But it is also a time to reflect on the enormous opportunity this change affords.

I was hiking up Stewart Canyon above Ojai early this morning, pondering all this, when it
dawned on me that I have been given the great gift of solitude. Time alone from other humans
when I can enter into very deep relationship with the Divine.
Last week I preached on the virtues and prospects of friendship, the virtues of which I
commend to you and everyone.
This week I will preach on the virtues of being all alone – all alone without other humans
around, that is.
But hardly alone from the primary and essential relationship of our lives: our relationship with
God, or Ultimate Reality, or the Universe, or Love him/her/itself. As Gregory of Nyssa, an early
Christian mystic, wrote “the one thing truly worthwhile is becoming God’s friend.”; Though it
may seem a contradiction, this is a kind of friendship forged in solitude.

Let us together consider how we can each and all embrace solitude as a spiritual practice,
putting it to use as a means of maintaining the most important friendship of all: our friendship
with Love itself….
See you Sunday!
Jim

 

August 3rd, 2023

August Worship Experiment!
Let’s conduct an experiment in worship!


How can we keep what is precious in our congregation’s tradition of
worship, root it more deeply in the timeless contemplative/meditative
tradition of Christianity, and at the same time bridge it to contemporary
culture?
As I said when I first came to our church as pastor nine months ago, my
intention in worship is to offer “good news you can use”. For me,
Christianity is not about believing anything. Instead, it is a set of
practices we can use in order to be more conscious, aware, awake, and
compassionate toward ourselves, toward the people near us, and toward
the wider society and planet. We come together on Sunday to recharge
our spiritual batteries so we can go forth and practice this activist
compassion the other six days of the week.

Our worship already serves this purpose well. I’ve always admired the
Sunday service at UCC Simi, since I started guest preaching here 15
years ago. There is already a meditative, contemplative aspect to our
Sunday service. I’d like to propose that we take it a step further.
So for the month of August, let’s give a new worship format a try. And
then have a conversation among us about how to proceed!
You might call this worship structure “contemporary monasticism”…
ancient Christianity brought up to the 21st century. (By the way, there is
a lot of interest in the Christian monastic, contemplative tradition among
“ex-vangelicals” who are looking for a way to nurture their Christian
spirituality without having to go with the dogmatic, right-wing program
of fundamentalist churches. I think our church is exactly the right kind
of landing-pad for such folks! – and there are a lot of them.)

The August format is a contemporary interpretation of the “Lectio
Divina” (Latin for “divine reading”) system of contemplative
observance practiced from the earliest days in Christian monasteries
through the present. It begins with “lectio” – a sacred reading. Then
“meditatio” – a quiet time of letting the “lectio” sink into the soul
without imputing interpretation to it. Then “oratio” – spoken prayer.
Then “contemplatio” – in which the soul enters into union with the
Divine.

Here’s the worship order for August:

 We start with a music video or slide show with music – 5 minutes
or so – related to the worship theme and lectio. The music would be
contemporary and eclectic: rock, pop, folk, classical, jazz, etc.
This would serve as a “bridge” between contemporary culture and
Christian tradition. (Ex-vangelicals are accustomed to “Christian
rock” or pop music in mega-churches. When they come to
churches like ours, they are ‘fish out of water’ when it comes to the
music. I don’t see us offering that kind of live music. But we can
play music videos of contemporary recording artists, whether
secular or faith-based, whose music is compatible with our
spirituality.)

 Piano prelude
 Welcome – announcements – (including background on current
“Hope Shall Bloom” giving)
 Hymn/song
 Peace candle, pass peace, greet each other – piano solo to gather us
back together in our seats
 On screen: “Lectio Divina: we now engage in the ancient
Christian practice of lectio (reading), meditatio (meditating on the
reading), oratio (praying aloud), and contemplatio (silent
contemplative prayer in union with the Divine).”
 Lectio: scripture or other passage read aloud
 Meditatio: rain stick, then silence for 3 minutes, then a piano solo
while people light prayer candles, make offerings. (Text on
screen: “Meditatio begins with silence to let the lectio sink into
your soul, as you release preconceptions of its meaning. How does
the lectio speak to you or for you today? Then as the piano plays
you can come forward, if you wish, to light candles as signs of
your prayerful intentions for yourself and others, and you may also
come forward to make offerings for the church (basket) or for our
monthly “Hope Shall Bloom” offering (bowl).”
)
 Oratio: Shared prayers of joy/concern/discovery, pastoral prayer,
Our Common Prayer (unison),
 Prayer chant (sung in unison)
 Contemplatio: Silence – 3 minutes – ends with bell rung by the
pastor (Text on screen: “Contemplatio is a time of silence in which
you can watch your thoughts, emotions, and sensations until you
are aware of your union with God, who is the loving, forgiving
Watcher within you.”
)
 (Monthly communion/eucharist here)
 Sermon/message
 Hymn/song
 Closing circle – “Shalom”
See you on Sunday – for the roll-out of this experiment!
—Jim
 

 

July 27th, 2023

Dear Ones at UCC Simi:

I’m very happy to be home after a two-week stint Back East, and then in Oregon for my dear Dad’s 95th birthday!  I look forward to seeing many of you on Saturday at church at 11 am for the celebration of the life of Bobbi Agor, a beloved member of our community.  And I’ll see you Sunday in worship, which has “Wild Goose” as its theme.  The Gaelic word for “wild goose” was used as a name for the Holy Spirit in that language.  It referenced the biblical image of the Holy Spirit manifested or represented as a descending bird.  In North Carolina, I spoke (see the picture) at the Wild Goose Festival, a sort of Woodstock (with no nudity) for progressive Christians, many of them recovering evangelicals.  It was a high-energy long weekend of Holy Spirit-filled music, speakers, food trucks, creativity, and conviviality.  I was there speaking alongside the noted activist/author Brian McLaren to promote and recruit for ZOE: Progressive Christian Life on Campus.  We made wonderful new allies for our cause!  Well worth the trip. 


Brian McLaren also spoke at The Goose alongside Bill McKibben, the foremost activist fighting human-caused climate change in the US.  It was sobering to hear Bill recount the disastrous consequences of the climate crisis, which the country and the world are far behind in effectively addressing.  And what made his talk intensely potent was the fact that all of us in the tent were sweating from every pore in our bodies, in the roaring heat and humidity.  Bill McKibben is from Vermont, which just experienced terrible flooding clearly exacerbated by climate change.  On the spot, Diana Butler Bass, another well-known progressive Christian author and speaker at the Goose, passed the hat among the crowd and we raised over $1,500 for flood relief.


Brian followed Bill’s talk with profound spiritual insight about how to approach the climate crisis.  He said that the situation is hopeless.  We’re already in the throes of a disaster that was predicted long ago.  (I had the opportunity to chat briefly with McKibben afterward and tell him about the encounter I had with the Republican US Secretary of the Interior when I was a high school kid in 1970.  In school I’d just learned about the “greenhouse effect”, early language for global warming caused by increased CO2 emissions.  I asked him: “Shouldn’t we be taxing oil products at a high rate to reduce the greenhouse effect?”  He answered:  “Young man, you’re absolutely right.  But what you propose is politically impossible!”  What Republicans deny today, they admitted was true 53 years ago!)  Brian McLaren sagely advised that we continue the climate struggle with full effort, while recognizing that preserving the environment as it existed only a few years ago is now impossible.  We must act without hope, because that’s what we are called to do through faith – and by doing so, we may be able to preserve at least some of what otherwise will be lost to climate change.

So in the Holy Spirit of faith and activism beyond hope, let us gather together again on Sunday!

Love!


Jim

July 13th, 2023
 
I’m really pleased that Tina Datsko de Sanchez will be in the pulpit this coming Sunday, 7/16.  And that our beloved Dave Birchman will preach for us on 7/23.  I’ll be in North Carolina to attend a convention of Methodist campus ministers, and then speak at the Wild Goose Festival, a big gathering of progressive Christians.  I’ll give you a full report!
 
Tina is the poet in residence at the First Congregational Church of Long Beach.  I think you’ll be enchanted by her on Sunday!  Here’s what I wrote about her and her work, as the foreword to her book of poetry:
 
 
“…Blow into me, great soul, though I am but a
hollow reed, let hidden truths sing through me…”
 
            For about a decade, the ears of my eyes have listened to ineffable music channeled through Tina Datsko de Sanchez’s poetic instrument.  As an itinerant preacher, I found myself in the pulpit of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Long Beach, and met Tina at coffee hour after worship.  I urged her to send me her poems.  Upon receipt of the first installment, I immediately recommended them for publication on the website and e-news of ProgressiveChristianity.org.  Liberal churches, in their efforts to be fully inclusive, often stumble into using painfully stilted language.  Sometimes we’ve tossed the mystical baby Jesus out with the bathwater of bad theology and politics that claim his name.  So we thirst for fresh poetry to infuse into our liturgy, hymns, and preaching.  In Tina we have discovered a wellspring of contemporary contemplative expression.  She condenses perennial spiritual insight into elegant and accessible form.  Her poetry resonates with the core commitments of our movement.

            Her work gives voice to souls, Christian and otherwise, around the world.  Her poems have become invocations, blessings, and benedictions uttered in unison in progressive congregations and other settings.  I can’t, and we can’t, get enough of what she creates. 

            The Beloved manifests as the reader enters into Tina’s experience.  Her poetry induces encounter with the divine.  Tina’s poetry draws us down to the root of spiritual phenomenology, to a place deeper than dogma and doctrine, where the tendrils of the mystical traditions of the world’s faiths intertwine.  She echoes not only the distant voices of the early Christian desert fathers and mothers, but also those of the Sufis and the Buddhists.  It is through intimacy with the Beloved that religion makes sense or nonsense.  Tina’s poems invite us to a rapturous encounter that eclipses any catechism in significance. 
            Where Tina has gone, may you go.  Whom she knows, may you know.    
 
                                                                                   
                                                                        Rev. Jim Burklo






Tina Datsko de Sánchez is an author and filmmaker whose work won fourteen Hopwood Awards
and the Los Angeles Arts Council Award. Her writing appeared in magazines and books in
several countries, including Michigan Magazine, Nimrod, Psychological Perspectives,
Sojourners and The Heroine’s Journey Workbook.

Her bilingual poetry book, The Delirium of
Simón Bolivar, published jointly by Floricanto Press and Berkeley Press with a foreword by
Edward James Olmos, won the Phi Kappa Phi Award and a Michigan Council for the Arts Grant.
Swimming in God and Dancing through Fire are part of her four-book series of spiritual poetry
inspired by Rumi and Hafiz published by The Pilgrim Press.

She wrote and produced the feature
documentary Searching for Simón Bolívar: One Poet’s Journey, which premiered at the 30 th
Festival of Latin American Cinema in Trieste, Italy. Her poetry films aired on Sundance
Channel and CNN Showbiz Today. She taught creative writing at The University of Michigan
and screenwriting at California State University, Long Beach. She serves as Poet in Residence at
the First Congregational Church in Long Beach, where she resides.

July 6th, 2023

I want to thank, on behalf of us all at UCC Simi, those from our church who represented us at the Simi street fair and at the Simi Pride event!  We got a lot of good feedback from those who came to our booths.  This sort of “representing” in our community has a long-term effect of spreading awareness about what is distinctive about our church.  Word gets out, and over time, that makes a difference in attracting people to us.

Likewise, signage in front of our church has a short-term, but more importantly, a long-term effect on letting people know what’s special about us.  I put out a sign in front of the church reading:  “Jesus Wore a Dress”.  This past Sunday, we had a young visitor show up in worship because of that sign. 

My friend and colleague, Adam Erickson, pastor of Clackamas UCC in Oregon, is brilliant at signage for his progressive church.  Have a look at his work!  Let’s get a discussion going among us about messages we want to project – and also about how to improve our front signage… which today is “make-shift”, but is also proving the value of letting the world know who we are – and just as importantly, letting the world know who we aren’t!

See you on Sunday!

Jim

June 29, 2023



Savoring the Silence

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.”  From “Advices and queries” of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain

Tucked back on a narrow plot, on the winding high street of a lovely tree-lined neighborhood in London, sits the Hampstead Quaker Meeting House.  Two Sundays ago, I entered and took one of the chairs in the circle inside the simple 1907 Edwardian building.  And sat for an hour, with people of diverse shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities. 

At first, I practiced mindful contemplation: closing my eyes and observing lovingly my thoughts and emotions and sensations until I began to recognize that the inner divine Knower was the one doing the observing.  Then, to put it in Quaker terms, I was prompted by the Holy Spirit to open my eyes and look at the people around me.   Each was doing silent worship in their own way.  Yet I had a powerful sense that the silence of each permeated and supported the silence of all.  After looking at the people for a while, I found myself settling into a state of simple presence.  No urge to be anywhere else.  No urge to make plans or devise schemes or even to gain new insights.  Not much sense of the passage of time.  Just being there with the others, in the now.  Unperturbed by the cell phone that rang loudly in the pocket of the old man with the scraggly beard near the door.  Unperturbed by someone’s cough, or by the sight of a woman checking her text messages. 

Some Quaker communities are self-deprecatingly called “popcorn meetings”, where, moved (hopefully) by the Spirit, many people stand up, one after the other, with silent pauses between, and share aloud what the Light has revealed to them.  Such utterances have always been part of Friends worship.  In all other Quaker meetings I’ve attended over the years, at least one or two people have stood up to speak.  But this meeting was quiet for the full hour, which I found to be positively delicious.  I was at a loss to imagine what anyone could have said that would have been more profound than our shared silence.

It reminded me of a passage from the Wisdom of the Desert Fathers, a collection of aphorisms from the earliest Christian monastics in the 3rd and 4th century.  One particularly revered hermit, Abbot Pambo, was visited by a notable bishop who sought wisdom from him.  Likely as not, the bishop also sought a measure of “cred” that would come from having associated with the famous hermit:  “…the brethren coming together said to Abbot Pambo: “Say a word or two to the Bishop, that his soul may be edified in this place.”  The elder replied:  “If he is not edified by my silence, there is no hope that he will be edified by my words.””   

At the hour, the clerk shook hands with the people on either side of him, and we all did the same.  And then proceeded to coffee and tea time, where I really enjoyed meeting some of the members.

“When you are preoccupied and distracted in meeting let wayward and disturbing thoughts give way quietly to your awareness of God’s presence among us and in the world. Receive the vocal ministry of others in a tender and creative spirit. Reach for the meaning deep within it, recognizing that even if it is not God’s word for you, it may be so for others. Remember that we all share responsibility for the meeting for worship whether our ministry is in silence or through the spoken word.”  (“Advices and queries”)

Silence is a great leveler.  Keeping it, together, reminds us that we’re all in the same boat on the sea of life. 

(I highly recommend reading the “Advices and queries” as a profound and useful guide to worship and community life, not just for Quakers, but for us here at UCC Simi!) 

 

June 15, 2023

 

Dear UCC Simi Family —

Roberta and I are having a great adventure in London and Portugal!  And we send warm greetings to you all.

In Portugal, I discovered an early 20th c poet named Fernando Pessoa.  His aim was to be selfless… to experience the world directly as it is, apart from names and definitions and opinions about it.  Reading his poetry put me into a mystical reverie.  Join me in it –  by having a look at my latest “musing”:  The Empty Self. 

We’ll be back on 6/22 – so I’ll see you in worship on 6/25!

May 18th, 2023

This past Sunday, I reflected on the spirituality of
non-religious people – a fast-growing
demographic of people who should be included in our
pluralistic approach to religion. Being
non-religious can be as good for the non-religious as being Christian is for us.
My relationships with many non-religious folks have led me to ask a question:
how can I share my faith with them, in non-religious language? How can I translate progressive Christianity into
purely secular terms? It’s a worthy challenge that awakens me to something important about my own faith.
Evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity can’t
be translated into secular terms because its
starting point is distinctively religious. For its followers,
it begins with the circular assumption
that the Bible is the Word of a supernatural God, because the Bible says so.
No wonder, then, that in an increasingly secularized culture, people have a hard time understanding what
Christianity is all about when it is introduced to them in specifically
Christian lingo. But progressive Christianity starts and ends with unconditional love, which can be expressed both in secular and in religious language.
We don’t have to use the G-word in order to share
the core message of our faith.

What is most essential in Christianity is not confined to Christianity.
Our tradition mirrors the
nature of nature itself. The richly profound narratives and rituals
of the faith reflect the
universal structure of the human psyche.
What is true in Christianity is not true only because of
Christianity. Christianity is one of many possible
expressions of an underlying essence. When
we engage in contemplative prayer, when we
participate in the sacraments, we are communing with a reality that supersedes Christianity itself.

We can talk about it in language that pretty
much anyone can comprehend, and then, if they care to go further, we can translate that description into Christian terms.

So here is my paragraph, briefly describing the underlying essence
of Christianity in purely secular language:

Out of billions of years of the universe churning with creation and destruction, a breathtaking reality has emerged: love. On earth, love has evolved from the bond between family members into a deeper love that is unconditional and universal.
The emergence of this love marks a
profound turning point in natural history. This love flows through deeply attentive, open, all- embracing consciousness. This love lifts people out of selfishness and shallowness and into lives of selfless compassion, creativity, service, and activism for justice. This love manifests in humble
awe and wonder. This love is more extraordinary and beautiful than everyday prose can describe. It inspires poetry, music, ritual, and mythic narrative, and it brings people together in community to celebrate and practice it more fully.


The Christian church is one such community. Welcome to it, here at UCC Simi!

May 11th, 2023

MANDALAS


On Sunday, May 14, our after-worship Souljourning event will be a time to make mandalas in the sand together.

It is a contemplative practice in religions and spiritual traditions globally.

The word “mandala” is Sanskrit for “circle”.   It is a tool for meditation and prayer in many different world religious traditions.  Generally, mandalas are visual portals into contemplative spirituality, facilitating the integration of inner experience into a harmonic whole.  In the Vedic religious traditions originating in India, it takes many forms, including Tibetan Buddhist
“thangkas” and sand mandalas.  In Christianity, the rose window of a cathedral is a form of mandala.  Christian mystics like Hildegard of Bingen created mandalas to constellate visually the spiritual states to which they aspired.  Navajo Native Americans use sand to create mandala-like
images to invoke healing and inner harmony.  A similar practice is found among the Aboriginal people of Australia. 

 The Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung studied mandalas and painted them as
part of his own spiritual practice, and Jungian transpersonal psychology continues this tradition.
At USC, my office hosted a group of Tibetan monks, who made a mandala in the sand in our building. I watched them create it over the course of a week, and then watched as they ritually destroyed it in an elaborate ceremony.  I wrote this poem to mark the moment: Rasping a brass stick across grooves on a narrow brass funnel full of colored sand, A monk, leaning over a table, listening to a recording of deep, throaty Tibetan chants, Deposits a few grains at a time onto an emerging symmetrical pattern,
Ordering the souls cosmos into an intricate mandala.
Across from him, another monk in a robe of cardinal and gold
Rasps out a tiny line of a different colored sand, reflecting a
pattern etched in memory.

It takes a week, or an eternity, depending on how and if one counts,
Moving from the inside out in four directions bounded by a circle. 
Students arrive on their beach-bikes, lock them up outside,
And give themselves a minute to observe the monks,
But end up staying longer – half an hour?  an hour? – lost in the sand,
Vibrated away from assignments, test anxieties, computer screens,  
Smart-phones, schedules, and expectations.
The mandala focuses them on the universal here and the eternal now, 
On a constant indefinable center surrounded by change.
Reaching the outermost circle, the monks lay down their brass funnels,
Don their golden crescent head-dresses, Lift ornate brass horns to their lips, 
Close their eyes to chant from the bottom of their voiceboxes,
And wave their whisks through the ordered sand in spirals of release: 
A creation including its dissolution, 
A creativity embracing its impermanence.

May 4th, 2023

About 20 years ago, I started an annual event called Pluralism Sunday,
on the first Sunday of May – for progressive Christians worldwide to celebrate the idea that other religions can be as
good for others as Christianity is for us. And to discover more about our own faith by comparing and contrasting it with other faiths.
At an interfaith gathering I attended, the subject turned to the question of what people of different religions do when they lose things.  A Muslim spoke up right away.  “When I lose my keys, or something else, I do what other Muslims do.  I repeat the phrase “yaseen” forty times. 
And then very often I find what I lost!”  I couldn’t help asking:  “What does ‘yaseen’ mean?” The young woman answered “We don’t know.  In the Koran there are three words for which there is no known meaning.  Yaseen is one of them.”  “You mean even Arabic speakers don’t
know what it means?”  “Yes,” she answered.  There’s a passage in the Koran called the Surah Yaseen.  I’ve read it, at least in English, and for the life of me I cannot see what it has to do with losing keys.  So I speculated.  “So you use a word that has lost its meaning to find things that you
have lost?”  I asked.  “Hmmm,” she said.  “Maybe that’s it!”  

The group thought about it some more and we made another guess.  Repeating a mysterious couple of syllables over and over and
over may have the effect of distracting one’s mind from obsessing about where the lost item was left.  You know how it goes:  you think about something else for a while, and then, unbidden, out
of nowhere, the answer bubbles up on its own,
and you remember where you left your keys.
 
And then a Catholic Christian spoke up to inform us that in his tradition, one prays to St. Anthony for divine intervention in finding things that are lost.  I asked why Catholics don’t pray
to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, to find lost things.  He shrugged.  Another religious mystery.
 
It’s mystery all the way down, folks!  Because if I’ve learned anything about world religions, it is this: the more you know about the religions of the world, the more keenly aware you are of
your ignorance about them.  You start praying to St. Jude in earnest, because really understanding all the world’s religions in any depth is a lost cause.  I’m a Christian pastor, not a real scholar but with a scholarly bent.  I’ve steeped myself in the history and spirituality of Christianity, but I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of my own tradition.
 
So many lost keys to religion, so little time!  
“Yaseen, yaseen, yaseen, yaseen, yaseen….”
So it’s all the more bewildering to a person in my position when I hear Christians claim that Christianity is the only true faith, that nobody can get right with God except by accepting Jesus
as their personal Lord and Savior.  To such folks I want to say: “Woah, dude, you know all there is to know about all the world’s religions?  You’ve read all the uncountable pages of even the most obscure scriptures of the most obscure sects of all the faiths of the world?  You’ve
prostrated in submission to Allah, not just with Sunni Muslims but also with Shias and Alawites and Ismailis and Sufis?  You know what is in the heart of a Sikh woman as she closes her eyes in the gurdwara and listens to the soulful kirtan music of praise to God, to the beat of tablas and the
reedy sound of the harmonium?  You know enough about the spiritual status of a Hindu bowing reverently as waves the smoke of the aarthi flame over his head with his hands, enough to know that God will condemn him to eternal hellfire for following the wrong religion?  You’re really
quite sure that the devout Jewish nurse who sings sweetly to her elderly patient while very carefully changing the dressings on her decubitus sores is a lost soul until she believes Jesus is the only begotten Son of God?”

I surely do not know anything close to all there is to know about my own religion, much less that of others. But I want to know. And I invite you into that desire to know, as well. So for the next
month ‘o Sundays, let’s explore the world’s religions together in worship…. because by doing so, we’ll go deeper into our own! Our series will close on Sun May 28 with a sermon delivered by local Muslim leader Ryan Kompanik, who is active in our Simi Valley Interfaith Council.
See you Sunday!
Love,
Jim

April 27th, 2023

Dignity and Respect
It seems to me that a large percentage of the interpersonal,
political, and international conflicts
that rage around us are the consequences of disrespect –
whether real or conjured.
Why do people vote for candidates who work against
their own practical interests? Because
these candidates rant in anger on their behalf against the
actual or imagined ways they’ve been disrespected.

Why did Putin order the invasion of Ukraine?
Based on all I’ve read, it appears that he feels like
Russia has been disrespected. It lost its dignity as a great
power with the collapse of the Soviet
Union. And to restore respect and dignity, it needs to reassert
its primacy over its former vassal
states like Ukraine. And a lot of Russians seem to share
this sentiment – enough to give
support for the horrifying war they have started.

Why do poor teenagers in America’s inner cities
slaughter each other at a horrific rate?
Because they believe they’ve been “dissed” by each other.
They want respect, and feel like
they’ve lost it. So they lash out at the nearest people
whom they perceive to have shown them
disrespect. Even if the worst disrespect against them is
the consequence of a much larger
systemic problem. Could their loss of a sense of being
respectable have anything to do with the
long and deep legacy of racism?

For those of us who don’t suffer from a sense of being
disrespected, it can be hard to relate to
folks who walk around with the proverbial chip on the shoulder.
But if that chip is there – no
matter how it got there – we all do well to do our best
to show respect to those who feel
they’ve been “dissed”. It’s a disregarded but critical
element of peacemaking at every level,
from our neighborhoods to our global community.

That’s what I’ll be talking about on Sunday.
I look forward to a conversation with you about it!
Respectfully yours,
Jim

 

April 20th, 2023


Joshua Tree

Every so often, I write a psalm – based on one from the Bible. 

I thought I’d share this one with you – as a way of wishing you a happy Earth Day!

—Jim

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to Diablo
looming over San Francisco Bay, a diadem of gold and green
spreading its dun folds down to its urban skirts

I lift up my eyes to Tamalpais
a sharp jut of rock wrapped in chapparal
and wreathed in fog that burns away in summer sun

I lift up my eyes to Pedernal
black mesa lifted high above pinon forest
and red rock desert
holding up the grand sky of New Mexico
underlining ever-changing moods of color and shadow

I lift up my eyes to Whitney
a dark wall on the east side of the Sierra
the granite teeth of its peak catching the setting sun
that casts a faint effulgence over their shadows

I lift up my eyes to the Minarets
The cathedral ridge of Mount Ritter and Mount Banner
Spires and organ pipes in silhouette
Against a sky thick with stars.

I lift up my eyes to the hills
And see that there is something — Someone —
infinitely more powerful and mysterious than I am
forcing them up from the plains
And I remember that this same Someone
creates and keeps me
and thrills me with this urge
to lift up my eyes to the hills.

 

April 13th, 2023

The Swedes and the Hawaiians have something in common, besides enjoying fish. They both have a deep understanding of the idea of “enough”.

The Swedish word that roughly translates as “enough” is lagom. Lagom means exactly in balance,“just right”, and the Swedes say it all the time, much more than we say the word “enough”. Their culture ennobles the search for lagom. There’s a minimalist quality, after all, to Swedish design. And while it’s a very prosperous country, with a lively capitalist economy, there is much less imbalance in it between the rich and the non-so-rich. A young Swedish couple at Stanford, with whom my wife Roberta and I became close, explained this to us. I asked Jenny and Peter to teach us one word in Swedish that was most important to know, and lagom was the one they didn’t want us to forget.

And if you ever go to Hawaii, you’ll quickly learn the word pau. If you’ve had enough to eat, you say, “I’m pau.” When you’ve worked enough, or partied enough, you say, “Pau hana” which roughly means, “I’ve had enough of this activity and now I’m going home.” Native Hawaiians and white haoles alike use the word “pau” constantly. Maybe it gets used so much because there is so much to be satisfied with in Hawaii. It’s a reflection of that culture, too – one that focuses on simple pleasures, one that accepts all shapes, sizes, cultures, and styles of people. A friend of ours in Hawaii used to snitch a few avocados from his neighbor’s tree now and again. She was an old Japanese-Hawaiian lady. One day he came home and there was a big sack of fresh avocados on his doorstep. On it was a note from the neighbor lady that said, “No need steal!” There’s pau for everybody.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” The Sermon on the Mount might be all the Christianity that anybody needs. We make it complicated with beliefs and theologies, when Matthew chapters 5 through 7 might be lagom, might be pau, might be enough to occupy our faithful attention for our whole lives.

God within us can look at human beings living harmoniously, in simple sufficiency, with themselves, with each other, and with the earth. And then God within us happily can say, “Pau hana” and roll over and sleep sweetly on Cloud 9.

Enough for now —

Jim

April 6th, 2023

 Dear Easter People at UCC Simi:
See you Sunday for our resurrection celebration!
In worship, we’ll process, chanting the ancient Greek words of joy
from the early Christian church: Christos anesti! Alithos anesti! –
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
We’ll pray and sing and remember the meanings of the sacred myth of Easter,
for ourselves and for our time.

And then after worship, we’ll have a look at our responses to
the 14 Questions of Jesus we pondered during Lent –which we’ll have posted on the inside sanctuary wall.
And we’ll go out in the back patio to enjoy coffee hour and make dorodangos – magic mud balls. It is our monthly “Souljourning” event for all, with a special invitation to families with kids. We’ll be Godlike – and make little “worlds” out of nothing but dirt, water, and the work of our own hands. It’s a Japanese art form that is meditative and entrancing…. It’s amazing to see
beautiful smooth orbs form out of nothing but mud.
And we’ll have an Easter egg hunt!
See you then!
Love,
Jim

Read what Rev. Jim said to National Scripps News last week HERE

             If you’d like to subscribe to my weekly blog, “musings”, email me at jtburklo@yahoo.com                           and I’ll put you on the list!

  In addition to being your pastor, I’m also the (volunteer) Executive Director of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org .  I’m leading its main project, a new global network of progressive Christian ministries at colleges and universities called ZOE…  zoeoncampus.org 

I look forward to seeing many of you at Sunday worship! 

March 30th, 2023

Dear Ones at UCC Simi:

I was much moved by the outpouring of kind words you offered this past Sunday.  But again, you ought to expect your pastor to do what you’re glad I’m doing!  And we ought to expect our church to do what it is doing – modeling the radical inclusion and welcome and compassion inspired in us by the Christ.
  We’re in it together!

I’m bummed that I’ll miss the amazing Passover Seder that Joan Thompson is organizing for this coming Fri 3/31, 7:30 pm at the church.  Party on, people!  On Friday night, I must attend the memorial service for a dear friend of mine and fellow member of Mount Hollywood UCC in LA, Ron Taylor.  For years, Ron worked to bring equity and inclusion into the film industry – gracefully and respectfully, breaking down resistance with kindness and wisdom.  And he was a talented Hollywood figure in his own right, writing screenplays.  He grew up at Mt Hollywood Church, going to Sunday School with Bonnie Raitt.  Mt Hollywood was one of the very first churches in the country to be racially integrated.  It defended Japanese Americans during the 2nd World War.  It stood for peace and justice through the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War.  And it modeled progressive theology in its embrace of the spirituality of the mystical traditions of the world’s religions.  I grieve Ron’s sudden passing and lift up his memory to celebrate everything good about progressive Christianity.

This coming Palm Sunday, we’ll be waving palm branches and “ringing in” the love who is God into our lives.  We’ll have a short congregational meeting after worship, and we’ll also have time to respond to the 14 Questions of Jesus that we’ve been pondering through Lent. 

On Easter Sunday, 4/9, after our worship celebration, we’ll be Godlike and make “worlds”!  We’ll make beautiful orbs called “dorodangos”, for our monthly Souljourning event (offering special welcome to families with kids).  This is a Japanese art form that “resurrects” mud into beautiful, shining balls using nothing but dirt, water, and our bare hands.  Bring aprons or wear grubbies and join the fun!

Yours in the Light,

Jim Burklo

March 23rd, 2023

Dear UCC Simi family:

I would like to introduce you to a cherished friend of mine: Father Ricardo Elford.

Since 1967, Ricardo, a Redemptorist priest, has been serving migrants and native Americans on both sides of the border between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.  He is now 85 years old, living at the Redemptorist Renewal Center outside of Tucson, and still at work, managing Clinica Amistad, a medical clinic in the barrio staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses, and practitioners serving people without insurance – most of them undocumented migrants. 

I met Ricardo in 2001, when I went to Tucson for a visit with Jim Corbett, the co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement, which smuggled Central American refugees into the US and housed them in churches and temples to protect them from death and abuse during the civil wars in those countries in the 1980’s.  Corbett was a Quaker, a cowboy, and a self-taught Hebrew scholar with a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard.  Ricardo was deeply involved in the Sanctuary movement from its beginning, and was a close associate of Corbett’s.  Based on that work, together they wrote “The Servant Church” (Pendle Hill, 1996), which has haunted my practice of ministry ever since I first read it. “The crucial, turn-around choices posed by the gospel are about service, not rewards – service that isn’t coerced and for which there’s no pay-off.  Having discovered that communion is universal and unearned, one is free to choose.  Having chosen, however, the members of a covenant community must be able to count on one another to walk the hallowing way they profess, to act as a covenant community.”  (p 34) 

Early in Ricardo’s ministry in southern Arizona, he served as a priest to the Yaqui tribe, which has communities on both sides of the US/Mexico border.  He performed the mass in rural churches in Sonora, as well as in the Yaqui reservation near Tucson.  As enforcement of the border on the US side became more intense, he became focused on assisting migrants caught in the consequences.  Every time I visited him in Tucson, his cell phone was constantly ringing.  Ricardo was the “fixer” for migrants in various kinds of trouble:  facing deportation orders, trying to get asylum, trying to communicate with relatives across the border.  It seems as if everyone in the Tucson barrio knows him.  I walked down 4th Avenue in Tucson with him one afternoon, and a couple of Spanish-speaking people accosted him adoringly along the way.  He has relationships with the Border Patrol, with doctors, lawyers, non-profits, and a network of trusted church members and other volunteers he can mobilize on the spot.  A woman broke her leg while crossing the desert and was apprehended by Border Patrol agents who knew they could not deport her in that condition.  They knew to call Ricardo, and in minutes, he found a family to house the woman until her leg was healed.  The Border Patrol delivered her straight from the desert to their door.

While Ricardo will be the first to rail against the inhumanity of US border policy that has generated so much of the misery his work addresses, he doesn’t let it get him down.  He is a joyous soul with an outsized smile and a ready laugh.  A progressive Christian down to his bones, he makes the Catholic church look better than perhaps it deserves! 

In America, a lot of folks think that being a Christian is a personal preference, and that to join a church is to show up on Sunday and contribute time and money to its organization.  Ricardo demonstrates, with his life, that it means something much more.  The church is a body of people with a vocation, a calling, to serve the world beyond itself: to stand with the most vulnerable, to struggle for systemic justice, to heal and to feed and to clothe and to house those left behind by social, economic, and political structures.

Roberta and I visited Ricardo last week, and we savored every minute with him.  His health is rather frail but his spirit is strong.  We shared and reflected together as we walked past the saguaros and chollas on the grounds of the retreat center.  What a gift to be in the presence of a person who embodies the call of the gospel, in word and deed!

 — Jim

March 16th, 2023

Dear Ones:
There’s a new movie out – The Jesus Revolution –
and I am proposing that we watch it, whether
in clusters of us or separately – and then have a conversation about it.

It’s about the “Jesus
People” of the late 60’s and early 70’s,
when glassy-eyed young hippies wandered the California
coast, gathering on the sand to sing praise songs.
For a short while, in Santa Cruz, CA, I was
part of this scene, which we called “God at the Beach”.


The entertainment in the film derives
from the unlikely encounter between the wild-haired leader
of that movement, Lonnie Frisbee,
and a buttoned-up pastor in Orange County, Chuck Smith.
The movie illustrates the process by
which an earnest “Jesus Revolution” of young folks
at the beach transformed into right-wing
fundamentalism in the suburbs.


The film lies by omission: it was produced by
evangelical Christians who conveniently left out
the fact that Lonnie Frisbee was a self-loathing gay man who died of AIDS. He was a victim of the form of religion that this film propagandizes.

So why do I recommend that we watch it?
Because in Simi Valley, not far from the beach,
we’re surrounded by the toxic consequences of the events
that the movie illustrates. I believe
our church offers an antidote: a form of Christianity that keeps alive the
real Jesus Revolution of peace and love in our valley and in our world.
Let me know if you watch the film!

And in the next month or so I’ll convene us for a
conversation about it after worship – more to follow.
Our faith leads us to make a real, positive difference in this world,
for the sake of compassion and justice.

But I believe that the Christ inspires us not only to act, but to act effectively.
So on Sunday 3/19, I’ll be preaching on the topic of “Doing Good Better”.
To get a head start on it, have a look at the EA movement: Effective Altruism. It is a really popular thing these days among young folks who want to maximize their positive effectiveness in making the world a better place. For some years, I taught a unit about it at the USC medical school, and it always
initiated some really rich conversations among students.
Let’s get the discussion started at
UCC Simi!

Love to all,
Jim

March 9th, 2023

Dear Ones:
It was a joy to sing chants with you this past Sunday!
Let’s keep chanting our way to divine compassion!

This coming Sunday, look forward to a sermon by our
very own Moderator at UCC Simi, Greg
Elliot. I’ll be on Catalina Island speaking at a USC student retreat,
and then Roberta and I are
going to Tucson until 3/18. We’ll be meeting up with some of
my long-time border justice
activist colleagues there. One of them is the artist Valarie James –
see her powerful work here.
(Someday I hope we can display some of her work in our church!)

On Sunday 3/19, I’ll be
preaching on the topic of “Doing Good Better” –
to get a head start on it, have a look at the EA
movement: Effective Altruism. It is a really popular thing these
days among young folks who
want to maximize their positive effectiveness in making the world
a better place. For some
years, I taught a unit about it at the USC medical school,
and it always initiated some really rich
conversations among students. Our faith leads us to make a real,
positive difference in this
world, for the sake of compassion and justice. But I believe that
the Christ inspires us not only
to act, but to act effectively. Let’s get the conversation started at UCC Simi!
Love to all,
Jim

March 2nd, 2023

Dear Ones at UCC Simi:

This coming Sunday, March 5, the focus will be on the global tradition of chanting as a spiritual practice.  After worship, we’ll do a SOULJOURNING time together, learning and practicing chants – many of which we’ll be using in worship in the future.  

In Christianity, chants became a way to practice St Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing”.  We all know how short bits of music get stuck in our heads – which is why advertising uses “jingles” that go into our brains and keep playing there, over and over.  The early mystics of the church understood this, and came up with chants that would become inner prayer repetitions, on auto-loop in their minds, enabling them to pray subconsciously all the time.  The most famous was the Prayer of Jesus:  “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me”.  In Greek, the language of early Christianity, it is “Kyrie eleison”. 

My favorite version of it is the one – in all places – in the movie “Easy Rider”.  Listen HERE….  The Kyrie is the great-grandma and grandpa of all Christian chants, still sung today in the Catholic mass.  There are a lot of ways to interpret the prayer.  I make sense of it this way:  the mercy we ask God to give us is God…. a present awareness of divine love.   It’s not groveling before a scary supernatural God.  It is welcoming God – who is healing, affirming, embracing compassion – fully into our hearts.

 

Have a look here at a list of wonderful chants from the world’s spiritual traditions.  We’ll be singing a bunch of them on Sunday.  Till then – chant on!

 

Love (is God),

Jim

 

 

 

February 23rd, 2023

Beloved ones:

In front of our church, I’ve taken the liberty of putting up a sign that says “He Gets Us – To End Systemic Racism”. It reflects my effort at a national level to respond creatively to the enormously expensive “He Gets Us” ad campaign that is attempting to rehabilitate the image of Jesus in America – a campaign paid for by the same folks who wrecked his reputation. (This morning, I was interviewed by Scripps Media for an upcoming national TV report on the campaign.) The phrase on our sign is one that the “He Gets Us” folks would never use – but surely it reflects the trajectory that Jesus set for us to follow.

What would it mean for you and me to “end systemic racism” in America? This Sunday, I’ll get a conversation going about this question. I’ve been pondering deeply the fact that the five police officers accused of the recent pointless, needless killing of a Black man, Tyre Nichols, were Black themselves. This fact ought to lead our country into some profound self-examination of the nature of racism, so that we can work more effectively toward eradicating it.

Our country is going through a fresh and very messy reckoning with racism from the past that pervades our present moment. Racism is what St Paul called a “power and a principality” – a force that infects individuals, but is at the same time pervades whole societies and social structures. It is personal because it is systemic, and it is systemic because it is personal. It can exist within us, and shape our behavior, without any conscious malicious intention by us as individuals. Few of us intend to be racist. Few of us have any overt desire to think or act in a racist manner. So there is no utility in wallowing in guilt and self-blame about it.

Instead, we need to carefully diagnose the problem, understand its perniciously subtle nature, and then work at both personal and systematic levels to heal from it. We need to think of it as a depth-psychological, spiritual public health problem. Those words might seem strange to string together in one sentence. But I think they point us in the right direction. (More on that on Sunday!)

Right-wing propagandists in America are pushing the narrative that making a big deal about racism is un-patriotic. They’re trying to un-write the history of this country, to downplay the devastating effects of racism from 1619, when slavery began in America, through the present day. Conservative “snowflakes” are afraid of making white people today feel guilty about an old problem that they didn’t create. But anti-racism isn’t about making anybody feel bad or embarrassed. It is a movement aimed at healing a wound, inflicted long ago, that festers to this day – among us all, and within us all. Let’s be brave Americans and deal with it, as we’ve dealt with so many other huge challenges in our history!

What makes America great is patriotic Americans putting 2023’s rights to 1619’s wrongs. To love our country is to address actively its present reality of racism. And Christianity has much to contribute to this cause. Our work is to see, pray, and act! I look forward to rich conversation among us about this profoundly important challenge.

Love (is God),

Jim

February 16th, 2023

Dear UCC Simi Valley beloveds:
See you at Game Night this Fri, 7 pm – bring your board games and anything to share by way of
dessert, and join the fun here at the church!
And mark your calendars for another party –
PUB NIGHT on Sat Mar 25, hosted by Diane and David Birchman.

And to carry on the party mood, be here Sunday 2/19 for 10 am worship – with the theme of MARDI GRAS – swinging beads and rocking the rafters as we mark the moment before Lent.
Let all the saints come marching in!

Years ago, I began an annual practice of writing what I call “Word Jazz” for Fat Tuesday and Lent. Here’s one of my early ones, from the grim days of recession in 2009. An excerpt, riffing off the gospel myth of Jesus making water out of wine at a wedding in Cana:

The bride and the groom
Came out of their room
Emerged from their gloom
And shared a glass…
And told the guests:
“This isn’t normal!
It isn’t formal!
This big faux pas
On Mardi Gras
Has changed the rules
And made us fools…
How did this come to pass?
Give us another glass!
The wine that’s best
Was saved for last!”
It was the Merlot of mindfulness
It was the Syrah of sincerity
It was the Cabernet of kindness
It was the Chardonnay of social change
It was the Zinfandel of fidelity
It was the Rose’ of righteousness
It was the Pinot of patience
It was Jesus’ Juice of Justice….

So get ready for this year’s version of Fat Tuesday Word Jazz – which I’ll share as the sermon on Sunday!

In the playground by the patio in front of the church, come in and walk the 14 Questions of Jesus through Lent until Easter Sunday. You can take cards and write your responses to the 14
questions and put them in the slots on each station. 

See you Friday – and Sunday – and…..
–Jim

14 Questions of Jesus:  Meditations for Lent

For Lent 2023 at UCC Simi Valley, all are invited to engage with 14 of the questions that Jesus asked his followers during his ministry.  From this Sunday through Easter, they will be on display in 14 “stations” on the front patio of the church.   Participants can take slips of paper and write responses to the questions, and put them in the boxes at each station, as they choose.  In 10 am Easter Sunday worship, 4/9/23, we will display these responses on the wall inside the sanctuary. 

This selection of questions of Jesus is intended for open-ended, contemplative, prayerful personal meditation and group conversation.  Here, the questions are presented out of their contexts in the gospel narratives.  Those contexts are well-worthy of study and consideration.  But here, you can fit Jesus’ questions into your own contexts, imagining how they address or challenge your own life-experience.  The questions are presented here as “koans” – spiritual “monkey-wrenches” –  tossed into our minds to break us loose from habits that get in the way of Divine Love. There are no right answers.  It may be enough to mindfully contemplate the questions rather than trying to answer them!  How can these questions bring us closer to the true Divine Nature within, and draw us closer in loving community?  After each question, I offer some prompts for reflection and response.

 

February 9th, 2023

Dear UCC Simi community

This week I’ve started a national effort to respond creatively to the HeGetsUs.com ad campaign, which will be prominently featured in the Super Bowl next Sunday.  This campaign will continue all over the country for months to come.  

It is an effort to make Jesus look good – funded by the same fundamentalists who have trashed his reputation. 

It aims to be a billion-dollar campaign paid for by a shadowy entity called “Signatry” and its front organization, the Servant Foundation, which is funded by the likes of the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby – major right-wing political and “culture warrior” donors.  The campaign website funnels readers into the fundamentalist media universe.  (See a piece about HeGetsUs on NPR here.)  


So, through ProgressiveChristianity.org and ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org, I’ve mounted an effort to flip the right-wing agenda behind HeGetsUs – by shifting it to
“He Gets Us To…”:

HE GETS US – to stand up for women’s right to choose
HE GETS US – to celebrate same-sex marriages
HE GETS US – to welcome immigrants
HE GETS US – to save the earth from human-caused climate change
HE GETS US – to embrace other religions
HE GETS US – to end systemic racism
HE GETS US – to resist the right-wing agenda of the funders of HeGetsUs.com.

 

Ironically, a bunch of fundamentalist Christians are very unhappy with HeGetsUs, because it portrays Jesus solely as a relatable human being.  The marketing wonks who put this campaign together rightly determined that the way to attract people to Jesus is through his human approachability.  So they portray him pretty much the way we progressive Christians portray him!  Which disturbs fundamentalists, because what matters much more to them is their belief that Jesus is supernatural, almighty God.  To portray Jesus as just a human is indeed a “slippery slope”, leading right into the viewpoint of us – progressive Christians – whom they warn their followers to avoid!

 

So as you watch the HeGetsUs ads, take it as an opportunity to reflect on who Jesus was, who he wasn’t, and what he inspires us to be and to do.  I look forward to engaging conversations with you about it!

Warmly,

Jim Burklo

February 2nd, 2023
 
This coming Sunday, we’ll hold our first “Souljourning” event – welcoming the whole church, and especially kids and their parents, to join in an activity that nurtures natural spiritual development.  Learn more about our new initiative here!  On 2/5, after 10 am worship, we’ll make necklaces and bracelets of beads – for use in meditation and prayer.  We’ll also enjoy a potluck meal.


The word “bede” in Anglo-Saxon means “prayer”.  Beads have been used in contemplative practice for millennia, all over the world, in many religious traditions.

The Hindu “mala” is a necklace of 108 beads.  Each bead is fingered while repeating a mantra.  The Buddhists use mala beads in a similar fashion.

The Muslims may have copied the use of beads from the Hindus and Buddhists.  They have a rosary of 99 beads, each one marking one of the names/attributes of Allah – with a head bead for Allah.  An alternative form is 33 beads, used 3 times to complete the 99 names.  The Bahá’í faith uses a similar rosary.


The Catholic Christians may have copied the Muslims in creating rosary beads.  “Praying the rosary” involves a series of prayers marked by five “decades” of ten beads each, with a cross at the head of the necklace.

Make your own necklace or bracelet, and use it as you wish!  Here’s a suggested practice, based in mindfulness meditation.

Make your necklace or bracelet with any number of beads, with a “head” or larger bead on it.  Hold the necklace in your hand.  Hold a bead next to the head bead in your fingers.  Get into a comfortable position where you’ll stay alert.  Practice mindful contemplation: observe, one at a time, each thought, sensation, emotion, or urge that arises – with compassion and releasing judgment about it.  As a new experience bubbles up into awareness, roll a bead in your fingers until that experience naturally dissipates.  As the next experience arises into your loving, curious, open-hearted and open-minded attention, move to the next bead and roll it with your fingers.  When you get to the head bead, hold it in your fingers and savor the experience of compassionate attention itself.  In Christian terms, this is the experience of Christ-consciousness – or what the mystics and contemplatives of the church called “union with the divine”.  Because prayer = attention = love = God! 

See you Sunday!  – and invite friends – in particular, young ones.

Love!

Jim

January 26th, 2023

This past Sunday in worship, we gathered ’round a fake, a virtual, and a real campfire – recalling the wonderful mythical story from the scripture about Jesus meeting his disciples at Lake Galilee after his resurrection. Waiting for them was a fire on which he had prepared a breakfast of fish and bread. We get to speculate about the kind of conversation that followed as they sat with him on the shore, gazing at the embers. Something about a campfire, eh? – to inspire deep sharing and connection.

So let’s have “campfires” together! — using this campfire video on our smartphones or computers or TV screens, to set the mood for contemplative conversations. By putting our phones in the middle of a circle of family or friends, and letting them run the campfire video, we turn our screens into tools for conviviality instead of their usual function of isolating us from face-to-face contact.

A great source of inspiration for campfire conversation comes to us in the form of the questions Jesus asked his followers. Here, his questions are presented out of their contexts in the gospel narratives. Those contexts are well-worthy of study and consideration. But here, you can fit Jesus’ questions into your own contexts, imagining how they address or challenge your own life-experience. The questions are presented here as “koans” – spiritual “monkey-wrenches” tossed into our minds to break us loose from habits that get in the way of Divine Love. There are no right answers. It may be enough to mindfully contemplate the questions rather than trying to answer them! How can these questions bring us closer to the true Divine Nature within, and draw us closer in loving community? After each question, I offer some prompts for reflection. Light a real or virtual fire, and see where Jesus’ questions take you!

1. And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? (Matt 6:27-28) (What are your worries? When and how do they arise? How do they manifest physically?)

2. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? (Matt 7:2) (What are the logs in your own eyes? What prejudices and assumptions and judgments get in the way of your ability to see things as they are, on their own terms? How clearly can you see these “logs”?)

3. Why are you afraid, you of little faith? (Matt 8:26) (What are you afraid of? What is the root of your fear? When/how do these fears arise? How do these fears affect your life and the lives of others? How do your fears manifest in your body?)

4. Do you believe that I am able to do this? (Matt 9:28) (What do you need to do? Do you believe you can do it? Examine your beliefs about what you can and cannot accomplish.)

5. What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? (Matt 11:8) (When you go out into nature, what are you seeking, if anything? What do you find in the wilderness?)

6. Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? (Matt 12:48) (Who matters to you? For whom would you lay down your life, and vice-versa? What kind of relationship do you have with the people most important to you? Does change need to come to these relationships?)

7. How many loaves have you? (Matt 15:34) (What do you have to work with – what are your resources to deal with the challenges before you? Are they sufficient? Can you “make do”?)

8. But who do you say that I am? (Matt 16:15) – What is your name? (Luke 8:30) (Who are you, in your essence? If you lovingly observe yourself in prayerful, mindful contemplation, who/what is it that is doing the observing?)

9. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? (Matt 20:22) (Are you ready/willing to suffer, or serve others who are suffering? How can you make yourself ready to do so?)

10. What do you want me to do for you? (Matt 20:32) (What kind of help do you need? Are you willing to ask for it?)

11. So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? (Matt 26:40) – Simon, are you asleep? (Mark 14:37) – Why are you sleeping? (Luke 22:46) (In what ways are you “asleep”, spiritually/emotionally/mentally? What would help you come “awake”?)

12. My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? (Matt 27:46) (Is there any part of you in despair? What is the root of that despair?)

13. Who touched my clothes? (Mark 5:30) (Do you feel drained of energy, spiritually or physically? What drained you? How can you be revived with energy?)

14. Can you see anything? (Mark 8:23) (In what ways are you blind – unable to “see” important aspects of life within and around you?)

15. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? (Luke 22:27) (In what ways are you a servant, and in what ways are you a master? What is it like to be in each of those roles? Are there situations in which those roles should be reversed for you?)

16. What are you discussing as you walk along? (Luke 24:17) (What chatter is going on in your mind right now? What are you thinking right now? What kind of inner dialogue is going on in you right now?)

17. What are you looking for? (John 1:38) (What do you want? Is anything missing in your life? What do you want to do about it? What are you willing to do about it?)

18. Do you want to be made well? (John 5:6) (In what ways are you not well? What is your level of desire to become well? What difference might it make if your desire was stronger?)

19. Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? (John 18:34) (In what ways do you just “go with the flow” of other people’s expectations for you? How much should you resist that flow? What are ways in which you need to be more authentic about your own choices and views?)

20. Do you love me? (John 21:16) (Is there love in your life? Whom do you love? Do you love yourself? Do you experience divine love, and what is it like?)

Campfire Video Link
https://youtu.be/E77jmtut1Zc
Jim Burklo

January 19th, 2023

 This week we celebrate a man by the name of Martin Luther King. As well we should, since he is a true American hero. But even more than the man, we do well to lift up our voices in celebration of his vision for America, one informed and mirrored by the Christian gospel that he preached.

A lot of folks in this country would much prefer just to remember the man as an iconic figure representing the end of overt legal segregation and racism. The anti-woke crowd would have us believe that with Martin Luther King, that problem was and remains behind us. But of course the man himself knew perfectly well that his life was going to be cut short in the middle, not at the end, of the struggle for civil rights for Black people – and in the middle, not the end, of his larger struggle for civil rights, economic justice, and peace – for everybody in America and the world.

His was a vision for the well-being of what he called “the beloved community” – a term that sprang forth from his commitment to the Christian church as a beloved community – but extended in meaning to include a protected and nurtured and peaceful and just beloved community of poor, rich, middle-class, Black, white, Christian, non-Christian, and every other kind of people.

Martin Luther King started out with a focus on a specific problem in America – the enduring scandal of racism. But the deeper he went in leading the movement to end segregation, the more clearly he saw that racism was connected to all the other scourges that afflict not just America but the other nations and peoples of the world. He saw that all Americans are connected, interdependent – and that the world is interconnected – and that an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. So a vision of the beloved community of peace and justice and compassion began to form in his heart and in his mind. He did not live long enough to express it fully, much less complete his part of the task of making it real in the world.

It’s up to us to express that vision, and turn it into reality. For those of us who identify as Christians, this is what we’re called to do: to lift every voice and sing that vision, and lift our hands to work to bring it to fulfillment. Our faith lifts each of us up to speak truth to power: remember the Magnificat of Mary that we read at Christmas!

For the anti-woke crowd, for the folks who wish things were like they used to be, in what they think were the good old days, MLK Day ought to be a wake-up call. Because we’re celebrating much more than a man. We’re celebrating a vision, and we’re committing to fulfill it. And it’s not about making America great again – as if how it used to be was as great as it ever ought to be. What makes America great is the vision and the tireless effort of Americans like you and me, making things much better than they are or ever were. More just, more peaceful, more in harmony with the earth, more compassionate. More beautiful!

So may the voices of each and every one of us be lifted up, to share with those around us a vision of the beloved community. I challenge you to come up with one – write it down, even – and repeat it to yourself so you will be able to repeat it to others. A positive vision – not a put down of the perspectives of others. A vision that rises above any kind of partisanship. Not that partisanship is a bad thing – it’s necessary, actually – but we need a vision that invites and inspires others, regardless of their preconceived notions and opinions. MLK’s emerging vision was bigger than those of either political party at the time. And challenging to them both, as a consequence!

Those of us who are Christian ought to follow his example, in terms for our time. Jesus had a vision of the beloved community, which he expressed succinctly in his Sermon on the Mount. Every generation must come up with its own.

Here’s my short version of such a vision:

Let us make America a city on a hill and a light to the nations. We protect the poor and the middle-class with a strong public “safety net” guaranteeing health and basic income, paid for by progressive taxation; we take effective action to fight climate change; we curb the power of moneyed special interests; we celebrate and protect our diversity in its many forms, assuring equality and dignity for all; we protect the right to reproductive choice; we protect democracy from its current threats in order to make it better reflect the will of the majority of people while assuring representation for differing perspectives; we regulate private enterprise so it can thrive on a level playing field while protecting consumers and the environment; and we avoid the use of military force unless it is absolutely necessary and only in concert with other democratic nations… so that we may form a more perfect union!

What’s your vision for the beloved community?

Jim Burklo

January 12, 2023

It was a delight to get to know you 14 years ago when I began preaching at UCC Simi Valley on occasion. To serve you now as your pastor feels like the natural consequence of a long friendship! One Sunday at a time, one conversation at a time, I feel our relationships deepening. So many more conversations I want to have with you! 

My main focus in the last couple of months has been on getting to know you better, learning the ways of our church, and making the church look as alive as it actually is. I enjoy doing physical work, so it’s been fun to do fix-up, clean-up tasks on the building and grounds, and put new and improved signage in front so that folks will know who we are – and that we are! Much more work to do… more to follow on that subject!

There are many folks in our community to thank for making me feel welcome, and for working alongside me as I begin my ministry here. I’ll lift up two folks in particular. Joan Thompson’s leadership – not just in her brilliant, eclectic music, but in general, has been invaluable to me. And Wendy Sengpiehl has been a delight to work with, proactively and creatively putting together our newsletters and worship slides, and educating me about the wider community. The list of folks to thank is a lot longer. So many of you have reached out to me about the folks I need to meet and serve, giving me gentle guidance and direction. Keep it coming, please!

Shortly we’ll embark on a new program for families with kids: Souljourning. The plan is to serve the big and growing universe of parents who are not religiously affiliated, or are only loosely affiliated, but realize that the nurture of their kids’ spirituality is very important. As a progressive church, we are ideally situated to offer resources and events that serve this need. So on Feb 5, after worship, we’ll get it going! We’ll have a celebratory potluck and a bead necklace making party – all are invited, but especially families with kids. For thousands of years, around the world, people have been making necklaces or wrist-bands of beads for use in prayer and meditation. We’ll make our own, and learn ways that folks of all ages can use them for spiritual centering. Bring your spare beads of any kind to church in coming weeks to prepare for this event! The plan is to offer monthly events that all of us can attend, but are especially aimed at families with kids 0-18. And to offer web pages and an e-news/blog for Simi Valley area parents to engage with ways they can support the spiritual growth of their kids. More to follow!

It is great that a bunch of our UCC Simi community members have returned to active participation in the church. There’s a good “buzz” here as a result! Let’s celebrate that, and also open our hearts to welcome folks who are new to our circle – and who haven’t found us yet, but should. Let’s go out of our way to welcome visitors (without overwhelming them, of course!), and to make our church a yet-more inviting community. I’ll be slowly but surely introducing new elements aimed at making our Sunday morning experience more accessible to “newbies” who don’t have any emotional connection to our current style of worship. In particular, I hope we become more attractive to “exvangelicals” – a big demographic, especially here in Simi Valley, of people who love Jesus but are undone by the regressive theology and politics of fundamentalism.

I have a special concern about burnout among the leaders and most active volunteers in our congregation. We’ve been through a tough couple of years, and the exhaustion of some of our folks is apparent. I am on a mission to help us simplify our routines as much as possible, so that we can avoid wearing out our precious, committed members who work so hard to keep our community together. Please join me in devising ways to reduce the burden on them. Let’s let go of stuff that’s not so important, so that we can all fully enjoy what is truly life-giving in our church.

I work half-time for the church, and the way I interpret this commission is to stay loose, for the sake of both you and me! I aim to preach roughly three times a month, because Sunday morning is the at the heart of our community. I usually show up in person at the church at least on Tuesdays, and more often as needed. Otherwise I’m talking and visiting with folks by appointment, and preparing for worship from home and taking care of church business as it arises. I don’t have a fixed “day off”… it works better for me, and I think for the church, for me to have a flexible schedule.

I’m stoked for a 2023 of deepening relationships among us, of creative new programming, and of stronger work and witness by UCC Simi in our community!

Yours always in the love who is God,

Jim Burklo

January 5th, 2023

This Sunday, I’ll be preaching on the topic of “Epiphanomics” – a word I just invented. Epiphany falls this Friday, January 6, marking the day that the three wise men showed up (late) at the manger to worship the newborn Jesus and present him with gifts. “Epiphanomics” is my word for a “gift economy” – which is how our church, at its best, functions. We freely give, we freely receive. Some years back, I got friendly with (the late) Larry Harvey, founder of the Burning Man festival that happens every September in the Nevada desert. We did a couple of speaking gigs together. While I’ve never been to Burning Man (it always happens when school starts at USC), I came to admire greatly the principles that Larry set forth to guide the festival experience.

So to get ready for Sunday, I invite you to read Larry’s ten principles – and ponder how they correspond to our values as a church community. See you in worship January 8!


The 10 Principles of the Burning Man festival:
Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Gifting
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

Decommodification
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on their inner resources.

Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Participation
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Immediacy
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

Groups

Guided Meditations

Thursday Evenings at 8 p.m. on ZOOM I think of God as a Presence that I can be in relationship with, one that I can draw wisdom from, who guides me, and fills me with peace and love. The spiritual practice of meditation helps bring me into that presence. Meditation reduces stress, cultivates a sense of

Read More »
Digging Deep

Worship Guide 3/3/2024

  Sunday, March 3rd, 2024 at 10 AM in the Church and Zoom Sanctuaries Worship Lent is a good time to ask each other, and ourselves, the pithy and transformative questions that Jesus asked his followers. The questions are presented here as “koans” – spiritual “monkey-wrenches” tossed into our minds to break us loose from habits

Read More »

Zoom Virtual Worship Instructions

In anticipation of our Virtual Worship Gatherings beginning on Sunday, March 22, we are sending out this message to help you navigate the virtual meeting platform, called ZOOM, that we will be using. ZOOM is very easy to use, and anyone can join the meetings (Worship Gatherings, or any other meeting, such as Council, Deacons, Mutual

Read More »

Latest Sermon

Upcoming Events

10 March 2024

Worship Service

United Church of Christ, United Church of Christ, 370 Royal Avenue, Simi Valley, CA 93065, United States

No event found!