A Bunch of Skeptics Walked Into a Bar….

This week Northern New Jersey Skeptics in The Pub met for the first time. This group, organized by me on behalf of the Humanists of Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, NJ, is an opportunity for Skeptics, Freethinkers, Humanists, atheists, and agnostics to get together for beverages and good conversation with other secular-minded people. 

For this first event we were pleased to welcome Dr. Brian Regal as our speaker. He shared with us about his research into the Jersey Devil. Far from a cryptozoologist, he is a historian who does what a responsible professional in his position should do: he goes to the primary sources.

His talk took us through the background of the legend of the Jersey Devil, providing the larger historical context before revealing his thoughts on the source of this fiction. It was a fascinating and engaging look at the social, religious, and political scenario of the pre-revolution American colonies.

Though this was billed as ‘a toast to the Jersey Devil,’ after hearing the talk I thought it more appropriate to toast Daniel Leeds. More than that I won’t say, preferring to leave it to you to read Dr. Regal’s articles online or – even better – to buy a copy of his book when it is published later this year or early next year (I’ll share where to purchase a copy and most certainly write a review later).

The next meeting of Northern New Jersey Skeptics in The Pub will take place in December, although I have not yet picked a date. We all greatly enjoyed being at Marco Polo, and hope to meet there next time as well. What will be the theme of the December meetup? FESTIVUS, of course!

Keep an eye on the Beacon Humanists Meetup page, as well as the Facebook page and Twitter feed of Northern NJ Skeptics in The Pub for upcoming events. 

The Relief of Unbelief

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There are so many Bible passages that once seemed profound to me, and now feel irrelevant. One of these is Hebrews 2:14-15, which in the New International Version reads as follows:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

These verses are talking about how the death of Jesus on the cross is supposed to have delivered people. The key takeaway for me was always that as a Christian I had nothing to fear in death, something that for everyone else in the world is The Great Unknown. The trouble is, it didn’t work like that. I still feared death. I’d pray before a long journey, anxious that I’d have a car accident along the way. In darker hours I was uneasy about my faith, wondering if it was strong or good enough to really save me. Occasionally I worried that I might be believing the wrong things, as I thought I had earlier in life, first as a Catholic and then as a faith-only evangelical.Then there was uncertainty about exactly what happens after death. The popular view, not well supported by the Bible, is that people die and then go to ‘heaven’ and hang out with God and his angels and saints. Others belief in ‘soul sleep,’ where people who ‘died in Christ’ are unconscious until Jesus returns to earth and the dead are resurrected.

As you can see, there is abundant cause for Christians to feel insecure about life after death, leaving aside the fact that there’s no way to directly test and verify what people claim happens after death.

The first few days after my faith ended were a time of shock for me. I suddenly felt very alone. Then, clarity set in. I realized that all those times I thought ‘God’ had gotten me through, it was me surviving and overcoming…if not entirely on my own, with the help of friends and family. Then, after reflecting on the idea of returning to the non-existence that preceded my conception and birth, the fear of death fell away.

Mind you, I still fear dying and worry that if I were to die now it would complicate the lives of my children. Also, there are many things I still want to do before I die. However, being dead holds no fear for me, as it will simply be nothing. There won’t be a ‘me’ to know that I’m dead.

Although my values have become considerably more progressive since my faith ended and reason kicked in, I’m still fundamentally the same person. I haven’t become a rapist, murderer, or wanton glutton. However, I have become more accepting, and with that has come a sense of peace.

For me, unbelief is very truly a relief.

The Cloth on the Communion Table

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[Note: Though some details may have been lost over time since this was first told to me, what follows is a true story and the broad strokes of it are accurate, to the best of my memory.]

Nearly two decades ago a professor at a Midwestern Bible College told me a story that illustrated the dangers of taking any tradition too seriously. This professor was frequently called upon to consult for congregations going through internal conflict. He facilitated conversations and mediated disputes, attempting to maintain unity while upholding a Bible-centered approach to Christianity. So, it wasn’t unusual that he was asked to help Southern Illinios a church in crisis one weekend. From the sound of it, the situation was critical and assistance was urgently needed to keep the congregation together.

He arrived to find the church hall packed and people embroiled in fierce arguments. Angry glares and red faces on either side of the aisle, with one side representing those wanting change, and the other that wanted things to stay the same. The issue, as it was then presented to this professor, was as follows.

During the church service every Sunday there was communion. This is a traditional ceremony wherein plates with pieces of bread and others with little cups of grape juice are passed around after a Bible reading referencing the death of Jesus, perhaps with comments and most certainly with prayer. While this is a normal event in most Protestant churches, in most denominations this “Lord’s Supper” is celebrated once a month or else once per quarter. In this fellowship of churches this is a weekly practice.

A unique aspect of this congregation’s take on the ritual was that a white cloth was placed over the elements on the communion table, and after the reading and prayer by one of the Elders, a couple of Deacons would go up and remove it. It was somewhat like the ceremony around taking down a flag, with a Deacon on either end of the cloth, and they would fold to the center. Only after this was complete would the trays with bread and juice be picked up and passed around those gathered.

This odd little ritual, unseen in any other known congregation, added a couple of minutes to the time it took to have the Lord’s Supper. A group in the church was campaigning remove the cloth from the ceremony, while others fought to maintain the tradition. One side saw it as a waste of time, and the other as an act of reverence.

Hearing both sides out, the professor thought it over, then asked who among those gathered had been a member of that congregation the longest. All heads turned to an elderly woman in her 80s, a senior citizen who had grown up in the church. He asked if she knew anything about how this tradition had started, and why.

“Well, I always thought it was strange that we still used that cloth. When I was a little girl we met at a different location, in a rural area. In the summer it was terribly hot, and since we didn’t have air conditioning, we opened the windows. Flies from the hog farm across the road were attracted to the bread and juice, and so one of the families donated a cloth to cover them and keep the flies off. After the church moved to this new building with central heat and air conditioning, we just kept using a cloth to cover the bread and juice, even though we didn’t need to any more. I never understood why.”

Silence fell over the congregation. Then a few nervous chuckles.

What had been seen as a non-negotiable aspect of worship by some was revealed as a necessity that had become an ingrained and unnecessary tradition.

Earlier in my life I did some church planting mission work in Brazil. One thing I often reminded my team members of was that whatever we did, be it order of service, holidays celebrated or ministries started, would likely become traditions. It was unavoidable. The regular practices of any group become a part of its history and culture. While we could make openness to change a theme, with distinct communities of people this only goes so far. It wasn’t possible to avoid tradition-making, so I asked everyone to think carefully about what kinds of traditions we wanted to pass down.

Our best efforts in that direction could, I’m afraid, be entirely undone by something as simple as a cloth on a communion table a generation or two later.

Stay flexible, people.

Ross Llewallyn Talks About Sunday Assembly on The Freethought Prophet

Ross Llewallyn is an organizer with Sunday Assembly Atlanta, and he was recently a guest on The Freethought Prophet to talk about it. If you’re unfamiliar with Sunday Assembly, a secular community that gets together to celebrate life, this could serve as your introduction.

Also, if you live in New York City or its surrounding environs and would like to see Sunday Assembly here as well, you could volunteer to join our organizing committee and help us relaunch. Just let me know.

Upcoming Course: The Humanist Life Stance

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This coming January I’ll be taking the first course toward becoming a Certified Humanist Professional. The course, ‘The Humanist Life Stance,’ is a prerequisite for the other courses available to obtain this certification. It will be taught by Rev. David Breeden, the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society, and it will be held in that congregation’s facilities. I very much encourage Humanists who take their outlook seriously and want to go deeper in understanding and articulating it to sign up for this course.

For more on this course and to register: http://humanistinstitute.org/register-for-the-humanist-life-stance-now/

A New Phase For An Old Blog

There’s a story about a man who boasted he had George Washington’s ax. His friend was quite skeptical, and challenged him on it. The man was insistent: “This is his very ax! The head and handle have both been replaced a few times, but outside that it’s the same one!” I feel almost like that man when I talk about blogging here since January 2006. What do I mean by ‘here’?

When I began blogging regularly I was going through a tough period in my life. I’d quit full-time ministry the year before – the same year my father died unexpectedly – and was struggling to make ends meet for my family after a move to New Jersey. Blogging was an outlet for me, a way to organize my scattered thoughts while also connecting with other people who read and commented on my blog. In those days before Facebook and Twitter, blogging was the way adults networked socially online. Teens, for their part, were all into MySpace. Yes, that’s how long ago it was.

After a period of brainstorming before starting my blog I came up with the name: Igneous Quill. Phil Wyman once referred to it as my ‘fiery feather pen,’ and he got it right. My inspiration was the phoenix, a mythical creature I’ve identified with since I was a small child. Through my blog I reflected, ranted, and speculated as I sought my voice in a troubled time.

That blog started out on Blogger, and then after I bought the top level domains for ‘igneousquill’ I split it into three blogs on three different platforms with a specific set of topics for each. Ultimately finding this arrangement unsatisfying, I pulled the content of all three back together on a single site on Blogger. I bought the top level domains for ‘adamgonnerman’ and (I now think quite foolishly) let the igneousquill domains go.

As Google has apparently abandoned new development for that platform, a couple of years ago I migrated my content over to Tumblr. It could well be that Verizon/Oath/Yahoo will kill or let die this platform, in which case I am prepared to migrate on to SquareSpace or elsewhere. In any case, I have no intention of giving up on my blog.

This week I’ve set out on a new trajectory with my blogging. It has long seemed to me that the domains bearing my name should be associated with my current profession in Enterprise Agile implementations, rather than with musings on Unitarian Universalism, Humanism, and other such topics. Still, since I intend to return to ministry someday, and I have quite a bit I want to say on a variety of subjects, I decided to press on under a new name, distinct from my own. Thus, here we are with Icarus Invictus.

This blog, different from but continuous with what came before, is named in honor of a poem by Jack Gilbert that is like a secular psalm to me, one that I feel aptly describes my life, and which also informs my outlook. I’ll leave you with that for now, and let you find the meaning. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Making Sunday Assembly NYC Sustainable

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Sunday Assembly NYC had a good run, holding assemblies from early 2013 through June 2016, and then that was it. While the organization still exists legally, complete with a board of directors, there is no longer an organizing committee. The only regular event is a small ‘Live Better’ group that meets monthly to work on self-improvement. So, what’s the problem?

The core issue, as I see it, is that Sunday Assembly depends heavily upon volunteers. There’s no concept of a formal, paid staff that organizes things, much less any type of clergy. There’s nothing I know of that says we can’t have paid staff, and I’m under the impression that some assemblies have at least part-time people, but it isn’t the norm. 

The trouble with volunteers is perhaps two-fold. On the one hand, they are easily distracted. In New York it seems like everyone always has one or two personal projects going on at the same time, and the pull to get more involved in one of those than in continuing to labor away at Sunday Assembly organizing can be pretty strong. On the other hand, there’s the issue of burnout.

When I was in Bible college I knew a guy who dropped out, despite having said throughout his teen years that he was going to become a minister. It turned out that once he was in college he discovered how much thankless work is involved in being a minister and realized that wasn’t for him. At one point in my last full-time ministry I calculated that I was working an average of just shy of 60 hours a week. Pay was shabby, there was no health insurance offered, and everyone was a critic. Who needs that?

Being a volunteer does not protect you from criticism. While working hard to make Sunday Assembly NYC as good as possible I would speak with visitors who had nothing good to say about us. There was even one person who came in bright-eyed and thrilled that such a group existed, and then left halfway through grumbling and shaking her head because the music wasn’t to her liking. Any attempt to ask people to join us to make it better and more to their taste was greeted with some variation of “oh I don’t have time.”

Aside from the lack of committed volunteers, there are other issues we faced:

  • Infrequency – Sunday Assembly on met once a month, and that is not enough. If someone missed the monthly gathering and didn’t attend a Live Better group or a Help Often volunteer initiative, it mean going 60 days without another opportunity to connect. Without people seeing each other regularly there is no way to build cohesive community.
  • Distractions – There’s a lot to do in the city. The Natural History Museum has great events, there meetups, bars, nightclubs, etc. This is the only place I’ve lived where I’ve heard of people ‘breaking up’ with friends because they were taking up too much time.
  • Competition – Many churches are VERY progressive. Some mainline Protestant congregations, such as Middle Collegiate Church, even welcome atheists fairly uncritically. Besides that, Unitarian Universalism and Ethical Culture welcome secular people looking for community. If that’s not enough, there are many little factions of atheists with their various gatherings.
  • Demographic – There seemed to be a pretty heavy focus on trying to form a community out of the existing pool of atheists and agnostics in the city, those people who already participate in one group or another and who clearly think of themselves as Humanists, Skeptics, Freethinkers, and the like. Sunday Assembly, to be successful, needs to have a broader appeal. NYC is certainly brimming with people of all ages and from all walks of life who don’t have any particular interest in religion but could benefit from a healthy social connection.

As I see it, Unitarian Universalism and Ethical Culture would do well to learn from the upbeat, secular approach of Sunday Assembly. At the same time, those two traditions seem to have a better handle on what it takes to make something sustainable. 

In Corporate America, It’s a Good Idea to Have a Side Hustle

In the Fall of 2008 I took my first job in New York. I worked at a startup there for two years before everyone was laid off and operations were transferred to the Boston area. It was at that startup that I learned the basic skills to be a web producer, which got me along to the point where later at a major magazine company I became a project manager. I’ve been laid off from every job I’ve ever had in NYC, and I don’t take it personally. Startups, publishing, and media are very unstable, with moving targets that shift priorities rapidly. In each and every job I’ve had I’ve learned skills and obtained certifications that have moved me along in my career, putting me in a good place every time lay-offs come around. Someday, however, this will not be the case, and I need to be prepared.

This month I turn 42, and professionally I am perhaps midway into my career. I manage one employee and and am responsible for a program with teams that are mission critical for the organization. This is not a senior position as such, but if I continue to work well and pursue further education I will find my way into a Director role and, perhaps, eventually into a VP role somewhere. If I should have the good fortune to reach that zenith of my career, I know my days will be numbered. Sooner or later cuts will be made, with the better paid employees being shown the door so that new people can be hired at lower cost for the company, or work will be redistributed among existing employees. I’ve seen it happen time and again. When that happens, I want to move on to something else.

Someone I know has opened a small brewery with a partner. This is a venture that started out small and then really grew, and they cut through a lot of red tape to obtain licenses to serve and then distribute their beverage. That man tried to step away from his corporate job but was convinced to stay on as a part-time consultant. Last I heard he was diminishing his hours at the office further, in favor of his new enterprise. He is wise, in my estimation, because now whatever work he does is directly for his own benefit and that of his business, since he can’t be laid off from his own company. Sure, the market can take a downturn, but I’d wager a brewery is a pretty safe bet, if operated well.

That’s only one example of several I have of people with a so-called ‘side hustle’ making that their main thing. As I already said, it isn’t foolproof, but it’s a virtual necessity in a time when the bottom line is removing senior professionals from their corporate positions before they can reach retirement age.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me or reads this blog that I intend to return to ministry at some point, perhaps 8-10 years down the road. This is something I deeply wanted to do in my youth and for which I pursued a college education, but that didn’t work out for a number of reasons. I haven’t remained inactive, though. For years after I quit full-time ministry I took a lay leadership and preaching role, and more recently I’ve been an organizer for Sunday Assembly NYC and the Beacon UU Humanists. Rather than ordination to the work of an evangelist, as I had before, I’m now an endorsed Humanist Celebrant.

Fates permitting, I want to help Humanist communities become established, growing, and active in Northern NJ and the city of New York. I still believe that Sunday Assembly NYC or something like it is viable, with the right team of volunteers, and wouldn’t it be great to get Camp Quest New York going eventually? This is how I want to spend the next decade or so. Then, I’ll pursue ordination and ministerial fellowship within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

That’s my ‘side hustle’ into which I plan to ‘retire.’ Yours could be a small business or something else. If you work in the corporate world, in any case, I urge you to begin preparing another possibility for yourself, before a faceless bureaucracy decides that you’re too expensive to keep on payroll. While your at it, might as well make your alternative something that you love.

Available to Officiate Weddings And Other Ceremonies in NYC

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If you plan to get married in the city of New York, but don’t want a particularly ‘religious’ ceremony, I can help. First, though, let’s consider your options.

It’s not uncommon these days for people who aren’t particularly ‘religious’ to have one of their friends get an online ordination to officiate their wedding. The Universal Life Church is famous for providing ordination freely upon request, but there’s also the Church of the Latter Day Dude, and others, if that’s what you want. The down side to this is finding a talented friend to fill the role who won’t be otherwise part of the wedding party. Depending on how involved the ceremony will be, there are details that require a certain amount of special attention. Beyond that, it would help if the friend had an idea of best practices when it comes to weddings (and there are pitfalls to avoid). Furthermore, in the city of New York there are special requirements for celebrants, and paperwork has to be properly filed ahead of time for any officiant to be able to validly sign a marriage license.

Another secular option is to go down to the city clerk’s office and get married in a chapel there. A city official will provide you with a completely non-religious ceremony. When I went there to file my endorsement paperwork I saw many couples doing precisely this, with brides in full gowns and grooms in their tuxedos. This could be great, but what if you want to have your ceremony in a nicer venue, and with less of an assembly line feel?

As a celebrant with an accredited Bachelor’s degree in Ministry and two decades of experience in both full-time and lay ministry in Brazil and the United States, I bring a unique level of preparation to what I do. Although my prior ministry was in a Christian context, I am now an endorsed Humanist Celebrant with the Humanist Society, and have also received specialized training from the Humanist Institute in working with people to create non-theistic ceremonies centered in progressive values and shared human culture.

If you are looking for something as simple as a certificate signing or elopement, I can be available between now (October 2017) and the end of this year. For more involved ceremonies from January 2018 on, we’ll need to start planning now. For a certificate signing I’ll ask only $50, for elopements $100, and for full wedding ceremonies it will range from $200 to $500.

There are other types of ceremonies that might interest you as well. For example, if you are expecting or have a new child, whether through birth or adoption, a Child Welcoming could be appropriate. To mark passage into more adult responsibilities, you could arrange a Coming of Age ceremony for your teenager. Really, a ceremony can be constructed for virtually any life passage, and I’d be glad to help facilitate.

Connect with me through the contact page on this site, and let’s start planning!