Archive for January, 2013

The Messiah Is Among You

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 27th 2013.)

There was once a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  As the years passed there were fewer and fewer novices and some of the younger monks began leaving in dissatisfaction.  Few people from the surrounding villages would even visit any more.  Eventually only a handful of elderly monks remained and they argued amongst themselves, each blaming the monastery’s decline on the faults and failings of the others.  Their leader, the abbot, didn’t know what to do.

Now an old friend of the abbot’s was a rabbi who had recently retired to live in a small cottage near the monastery.  After years of only seeing one another when the abbot had cause to travel into town, they were able to renew their friendship with more regular visits.  The rabbi and the abbot would sit together, drinking tea and remembering the good old days back when they were both students.

On one of his visits to see the rabbi, the abbot brought up the problems at the monastery.  This was not the first time the rabbi had heard about the situation that so troubled his friend, but this time the abbot specifically asked for advice, particularly something that he could share with the other monks that might encourage them and perhaps even stop them from fighting with each other.

Hearing the abbot’s question, the rabbi was quiet for some time, sipping his tea as he thought.  As the silence stretched on, the abbot couldn’t contain himself.  “Don’t you have some advice that might save my monastery?” he begged his friend.

“Your monks will not listen to my advice,” the rabbi replied, somewhat sadly, “but perhaps they would benefit from an observation.”

“Yes?” said the abbot hopefully.  “Have you noticed something about the monastery that we ourselves have not?”

“I think so,” answered the rabbi, “and it is this: the Messiah is among you.”

That abbot was initially lost for words.  It seemed an outrageous claim, but he trusted his friend, so when he regained his composure he asked, as respectfully as he could, “The Messiah is among us?  But who is it?”

“As to that,” the rabbi replied, “I cannot say.  But I know that it is true beyond all doubt.  The Messiah is among you.  Share this with your monks and in time the truth will be revealed.”

Well, the abbot couldn’t wait to get back to the monastery.  Taking one last gulp of tea, he thanked his friend profusely, jumped up out of his chair, grabbed his coat and, without even taking the time to put it on, ran out of the cottage and across the meadow.  Arriving breathlessly back at the monastery, he managed to convey to the first monk he saw that he wanted everyone to meet in the chapel.  By the time they arrived, he had recovered enough to address them.

“My brothers,” the abbot said, “I have incredible news.  I have just been told, without any room for doubt or question, the following.  The Messiah is among you.”

The monks immediately started talking.  “One of us?  Here?  But who?  How can that be?”  Raising his hands to quiet them, the abbot explained what the rabbi had told him, and then instructed them to be about their work while they reflected on the amazing news.  And as the monks did their chores, each wondered to himself.

“It couldn’t be Brother Samuel, could it?  He always forgets when it’s his turn to do the washing up after meals.  But then, he brings such lovely flowers to decorate the tables.”

“Surely it’s not Brother Albert!  He’s always muttering to himself, and when he’s not muttering it’s because he’s being rude.  But then, he’s always the first there to look after us if we get sick.”

“What about Brother Leo?  He’s always dirty, and he smells bad, too.  But then, that’s because he works so hard in the field, growing the most delicious vegetables.”

“And I can’t believe it’s Brother Thomas!  He always spills ink all over the desk where we write out the scriptures.  But then, his drawings and decorations of the scripts are so vivid and beautiful.”

The monks continued to try to figure out who amongst them might be the Messiah, but none of them came to any conclusions.  Still, they realized that they could sometimes see the Messiah in one another’s faces; they could sometimes hear the Messiah in one another’s voices.  And they began to treat one another more kindly and more fairly, just in case.

And as time passed, the villagers noticed that something was different about the monastery, and they began visiting more often.  And more of the young men who came to inquire about training as novices decided to stay.  And the elderly monks and their abbot found themselves at peace, content to enjoy their golden years doing what they loved while all about them the monastery thrived.

[This is one variant of the same story found in many places, including Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World by Elisa Davy Pearmain.  Some story-tellers give credit for the original story to Francis Dorff, O. Praem, of the Norbertine Community of Alberquerque NM.]

I first heard this story a few years ago and it stuck with me.  It speaks to what we all want in a healthy community, I think, which is people treating one another kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, the kind of spiritual health that is not only good for the community itself but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world.  The story does use one idea that is specific to Christianity and Judaism, though it can always be re-told in different cultural settings.

That idea of the Messiah comes from the Hebrew word “mashiach”, which literally means “anointed one”.  It refers to a king or a high priest traditionally annointed with holy oil, and in the Hebrew Bible is used to refer to a number of people, including the non-Jewish king, Cyrus of Persia, who released the Jews from their exile in Babylon and commissioned the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.  More often, though, the Messiah refers to a future Jewish king, of the line of David, who will rule the reunited tribes of Israel and usher in an age of world peace.  As such, there are many passages in the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Isaiah, that describe the qualities and actions of such a leader.

Now somewhere in the third century Before the Common Era, scholars in Alexandria began the process of translating the Torah into Greek, since, as legend has it, the Jews living in Egypt at the time were not fluent in Hebrew, whereas Greek was spoken throughout the eastern Roman Empire.  By the time of Jesus, that Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which became known as the Septuagint, was already in wide use by Jews all around the Mediterranean, including those living in Palestine, which is unfortunate because the Septuagint has a number of mis-translations.  One of those, for example, is the sentence in Isaiah that, in the Greek, refers to a messiah being born of a virgin, whereas in the Hebrew the word translated “virgin” doesn’t mean virgin at all but rather means a young woman of child-bearing age.

In any case, the Hebrew word “mashiach” was translated into Greek as “khristos”, which also means “anointed one”.  So when a new religion started to emerge around the idea of Jesus as the anointed savior, he was given the honorific “Christ” and his followers called themselves “Christians”.  And yet, since Jesus hadn’t fulfilled many of the expectations of the Messiah, those early Christians assumed that he would soon return to complete all of the prophecies.

In other words, while the rabbi and the abbot in the story could both come together over the idea of the Messiah being hidden in their midst, the difference was that for the abbot it would be the Messiah’s second coming whereas for the rabbi it would only be his first.  Either way, as the story goes, the possibility that any one of the monks might be the Messiah causes them all to pause before judging one another, to focus more on the good aspects of each other’s character and behavior, something that would be nice, of course, if we could all do it all of the time.

Now in Unitarian Universalism there is no Messiah concept as there is in Judaism or Christianity.  I don’t know when it dropped out of our common theology, though I’m guessing that the Universalist side of our religious tradition held onto it longer, given that the Unitarian side emerged from Christianity around the primary faith claim that Jesus was, in fact, fully human, rather than God incarnated in human form.

Perhaps, though, we don’t need to believe in a Messiah as such to arrive at the place where we can treat one another kindly and fairly in spite of our faults and failings.  There are, after all, other faith claims — or, at least, other religious metaphors — that might work just as well.

For instance, one of the things I remember a former minister of mine talking about was the idea that there’s a spark of the divine within each of us.  Actually I remember hearing that idea from a local rabbi, too.  It’s a more Universalist idea than it is Unitarian, another version of the claim that we are all children of God, and the beauty of that, for me, is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a literal faith claim or a religious metaphor.  What does matter is how we treat one another, and if we can see something of good, of value, of worth, even of divinity in one another, then maybe we’ll treat one another accordingly.

Actually, the same faith claim is already familiar to us, just in more humanist language.  Rather than referring to the spark of the divine within each of us, we can speak of “the inherent worth and dignity of each person”, but it’s just another version of that same classical Universalist claim that we are all children of God.  And it’s no accident that the promise that goes along with that Principle is to “listen actively and speak and act respectfully to others”.

So why did I end our Responsive Reading with what is otherwise the First Principle, and thus the First Promise, rather than putting them, well, first?

There’s a school of thought within and beyond Unitarian Universalism that, out of all Seven Principles, the one that is truly theological is the seventh, which speaks of the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Some people have suggested that it should actually be listed first, since it’s the foundation and context for the other six principles.  That’s why I listed the Promises in reverse order, moving from the interdependent web of all existence, the grandest scale of being imaginable, down to the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

For as I have claimed before, our inherent worth and dignity only makes sense within the larger context of our interdependence, calling us to relate to one another in life-affirming ways.  So I was glad to see that the promise that goes along with the Seventh Principle is to “live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community”.  But what does that mean?

Well, in the words of welcome that our lay leader spoke at the start of the service, you heard one meaning of that.  “The Fellowship is working to integrate reverence, gratitude and care for the living Earth into everything we do.  By committing to sustainable lifestyles as individuals and as a faith community, we are on the path to official recognition as a Green Sanctuary congregation.”  Doing the intentional, soulful work required to become a Green Sanctuary is indeed one way that our own church community aspires to live lightly on the Earth.

But there’s another side to what it means to be a church community living with awareness of the interdependent web of all existence, and that’s to recognize that we, here, in this congregation, form our own interdependent web in miniature, and awareness of that relates directly to how well we truly believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

This was brought home to me in a particularly clear way about a year ago, when the Board was evaluating me as part of the final phase of assessing my fellowship as a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The UUFP Board included this comment in their evaluation: “Rev. Millard needs to continue to remind each of us about the larger mission of the UUFP and that our individual interests can only be met if the UUFP itself is vibrant and healthy and functions as an integrated organization.”

“Our individual interests can only be met if the UUFP itself is vibrant and healthy and functions as an integrated organization.”  I think that’s what the monks in the story discovered for themselves.  They didn’t have any understanding of their interdependence, so they needed someone to point them in the right direction so they might discover it for themselves.  The rabbi’s observation that “the Messiah is among you” prodded them into being more careful in the ways they related to one another, and ultimately that allowed them to be more caring, too, finally able to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of one another, no matter their apparent faults and failings.

The monks had a big advantage, though.  They were already on the same page theologically in terms of what they believed about the Messiah and what would be appropriate behavior toward the Messiah.  The rabbi’s observation, then, was all that was necessary to help them behave in those same ways toward one another.

I think a similar case can be made for us on the basis of our Seven Principles, but it’s not nearly so simple.  Belief in an anointed savior figure who will return in glory to bring peace to the world is, for many people, very compelling; for some people, in fact, it may be the only thing that keeps them going in life.  Our Seven Principles, however, are not nearly so compelling.

Oh, intellectually they’re very reasonable.  The ideas they contain are certainly big and important, but at face value they’re also mostly abstract.  The words themselves are hardly poetic.  As promises that congregations make to one another in order to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, and even rewritten as promises that we make to each other as individual Unitarian Universalists striving to grow the Beloved Community, we need to find ways to internalize them, to truly make them part of our souls, rather than leaving them as rather abstract ideals with which we agree intellectually but don’t always live.

And I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to Charles Wesley’s hymn, “I Want a Principle Within”, quite apart from the great tune to which it is usually sung.  Because, aside from Wesley’s eighteenth century obsession with sin and temptation and more sin and the blood of Jesus, he really was expressing a yearning for the strengthening of his own moral compass to help him find the good at those times when his own heart and mind would wander away from his best self.  I like to think that one of the most important things we can do as Unitarian Universalists is cultivate such a principle within ourselves that helps us to figure out right from wrong.  Yes, these written Principles, these mostly abstract and regrettably unpoetic words, speak to important truths, but reading them, even saying them out loud together, is only the first step in a journey together, a long journey that involves removing the splinters from our souls.

And how do we do that?  Well, only at each and every moment of our lives.  Let me give you a simple example.

Within the first few months of living about a mile the other side of Warwick Boulevard from here, I became convinced that I knew where, one day, I would die.  And that’s because, on those days when I drove to work, I had to get across the intersection on Warwick to get here, and then to get home again.  And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the turn lanes on the side streets either side of Warwick don’t quite line up, and not having any signals on is, I have discovered, an indication to most other drivers that I intend to turn right.  Or left, for that matter, but definitely not straight, and cars would regularly cut across the intersection in front of me — or screech to a halt when they noticed that I was actually going straight through.  After a while, the urge to honk was too much for me to withstand, and often there was swearing involved, too.

Well, sometime last year I realized that I ought to be better than that.  Rather than getting angry and impatient, I decided to try compassion instead.

If someone didn’t understand what my lack of signaling meant, well, I could wait patiently until I knew what they were going to do first.  If they really had to cut across the intersection in front of me, well, I could hope for them that they reached their destination safely.  If it took me a few more seconds to get to the office or to get home, or even a couple more minutes if I missed the light, well, I could be grateful that my commute was barely one mile.  And maybe it’s just me, but it has seemed to me lately that more of the people coming to that intersection from both side streets, most of whom are turning left or right onto Warwick, are better at letting cars go straight across, and, for that matter, better at signaling their own turns, than they were a couple of years ago.

I’ve tried the same change in attitude in other settings, too — when I’m on the telephone talking to someone in customer service about some frustration, for instance.  I don’t always succeed — I’m the first to recognize that I’m no saint — but whenever I can, I remind myself to look for the spark of the divine in the other person, and to treat them accordingly.

This is something that we can all do, at each and every moment of our lives.  You can start by picking one person with whom you interact and, without telling them, imagine what it might mean if they were the Messiah.  Try looking for that spark of the divine in them.  Think about what it would really mean to truly believe in their inherent worth and dignity.  See how it changes your behavior toward that person if you can see them in that way.  And if you notice that you’re treating that person more kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, try it with other people, too.

For this is the soul work that we are called to do.  In our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, we are called to cultivate a spiritual health that is not only good for our congregation but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world.  Everything we say and do is a chance to grow the Beloved Community, bringing the interdependent web of all existence into our hearts and minds and hands so that we might know one another’s inherent worth and dignity.

So may it be.

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“I Want a Principle Within”, adapted

During his life as an Anglican and then Methodist minister, Charles Wesley wrote the words for about eight thousand hymns.  I’m not actually sure how that’s possible and still have a life.  In any case, many of his hymns are still sung in Anglican and Methodist churches, but perhaps not as he had intended them.

Wesley was a curious combination of somber seriousness and evangelistic pragmatism.  He preached and wrote hymns about sin and temptation and more sin and the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus, drawing upon and in turn feeding the message of the Great Awakening, the Christian movement that was then sweeping across the American colonies.  And yet, when he realized that his public sermons were competing with the popular but raunchy songs of the local taverns, he cleverly wrote new words, conveying his desired theology, that could be sung by unlettered sailors and farmhands to the already familiar tunes.

In other cases, though, Wesley fully expected that his serious words would be set to appropriately somber music.  A case in point is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, one of the most popular Christmas carols there is thanks to the fact that, over a hundred years after Wesley wrote them and in spite of his wishes, his words were set to the joyful and stirring music of Felix Mendelssohn.  I’m guessing that something similar took place for as hymn I recently discovered, too.

We’re singing it today because a few weeks ago, a congregant generously gave me a CD of instrumental arrangements of classic English hymns.  Looking down the playlist I noticed one called “I Seek a Principle Within” and the word “principle” caught my eye.  I hadn’t heard of such a hymn before, and I wasn’t familiar with the tune, but I loved it as soon as I heard it.  The music — which is in 6/8 time, so it’s essentially a dance — is by Louis Spohr, who was a great composer and musician in his own right but is largely forgotten today because he was so overshadowed by his friend and colleague, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Then I looked up the words to this hymn and found that they’d been written by Charles Wesley, and written perhaps as much as a century before Louis Spohr wrote the music that eventually accompanied them.  Wesley’s words were, as usual, about the fear of sin, the pain of temptation, the ever-present danger of sin, and the need to return to the blood of Jesus.  Beyond his words — which for many of us in today’s world, whether we’re Unitarian Universalists or not, are rather a turn-off — I saw a message about the importance of cultivating something within ourselves that helps us figure out right from wrong, so I decided to adapt Wesley’s words for Unitarian Universalists, and adapt I did, heavily.

This is perhaps the longest introduction I’ve ever given to a hymn, for which I can only apologize by saying: I love hymns.

I want a principle within
that lifts my heart from fear,
a sensibility wherein
life’s goodness draws me near.
Discerning how I think and feel
in all things I require,
to guide the wand’ring of my will
and grasp that holy fire.

From trust that I no more may stray,
no more time’s promise grieve,
to hear that still, small voice, I pray,
to tender conscience cleave.
Quick as the apple of an eye,
that inner wisdom make;
bestir, my soul, when trouble’s nigh,
and keep my heart awake.

O source of life, of hope, of love,
to me thy pow’r impart;
the splinters from my soul remove,
the hardness from my heart.
O may compassion now entrain
my re-awakened soul,
and lead me to that spring again,
which makes the wounded whole.

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The Seven Promises: a Responsive Reading

When Unitarian Universalists talk about our Seven Principles, we like to think of them as a set of values that define our faith.  We like to note, of course, that there’s little in them that most reasonable people, whether they’re Unitarian Universalists or not, would reject, but we hold them up as, in some way, defining what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

In fact, the Seven Principles are part of a covenant that Unitarian Universalist congregations make with each other.  As printed in large capital letters on one of the opening pages of our grey hymnal, the Seven Principles are actually prefaced with these words: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:”  So these are actually values that Unitarian Universalist congregations promise to uphold.

Of course, those same values can be affirmed and promoted by individuals, too, so in many Unitarian Universalist congregations the language of the Seven Principles has been adapted into what is often called the Seven Promises, a covenant that Unitarian Universalist individuals make with each other.  The Fellowship made its own version of the Seven Promises some years ago, and I’ve adapted it for use as a responsive reading.  I start it with what is essentially an eighth promise, based on our Fellowship’s own mission, and the Seven Promises follow, only in reverse order for reasons that I explain elsewhere.

Let us create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths,

for we honor minds that question, hearts that love and hands that serve.

Let us live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community,

for we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Let us embrace others both near and far in hope and compassion,

for we lift up the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Let us remember that everyone bears responsibility for the health of our congregation,

for we affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Let us remain open to new ideas, knowing that we need not be afraid of change,

for we trust in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Let us respect individual religious paths, even those we do not understand,

for we aspire to accept one another and to encourage spiritual growth.

Let us treat others as we would like to be treated,

for we desire justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Let us listen actively and speak and act respectfully to others,

for we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

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When the Spirit Says Do!

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 13th 2013.)

Reading: from “Get Religion” by Peter Morales

Anthem: “When the Spirit Says Do!”

A year or more ago an article by Congregationalist minister Lillian Daniel went viral amongst ministers on Facebook.  I saw it reposted by a number of my fellow graduates of all denominational stripes from the Iliff School of Theology as well as by Unitarian Universalist ministers.  Apparently she hit a nerve.

Daniel had evidently been on one too many airplane flights where the people sitting next to her had found out she was a minister and immediately needed to explain to her why they don’t go to church.  Now I can imagine this sort of thing happening to people in other professions during air travel — doctors who are asked to look at suspicious lumps, stand-up comedians who endure bad knock-knock jokes, and so forth — but perhaps it doesn’t happen in quite the same way — and quite so predictably — as it does to ministers.

As Daniel explained in her article, “when I meet a math teacher, I don’t feel the need to say I always hated math.  When I meet a chef, I don’t need to let it be known that I can’t cook.  When I meet a clown, I don’t admit that I think clowns are scary.  I keep that stuff to myself.  But everybody loves to tell a minister what’s wrong with the church — and it’s usually some church that bears no relation to the one I serve.”

In many cases, Daniel observed, the precursor to someone’s non-church-going testimony is a declaration of an identity that has become so well-known in the last few decades that it has its own acronym: SBNR or “spiritual but not religious”.  And while, perhaps as recently as fifty or sixty years ago, it might have been genuinely countercultural and shocking to any religious professional to encounter someone openly declaring themselves as spiritual but not religious, that’s hardly the case today.

After all, what religious group is the fastest growing in the United States?  Anybody know?  Yes, it’s the “nones”, by which I do not mean women who live in convents and come armed with wooden rulers.  The “nones” are those who have no religious affiliation and today they represent about a fifth of the American population.  And, as those of you who took part in last Sunday’s Adult RE discussion know, there’s a strong correlation between age and religious affiliation.  For instance, according to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, the “nones” make up between a quarter and a third of the generation known as the Millennials, who were born after 1981.

There are other generational correlations, of course, some of which are amplified by whether people have a religious affiliation or not.  Adults born before 1928 are almost twice as likely to pray every day as Millennials, for instance.  Now the Pew Forum found that age doesn’t make as much of a difference as religious affiliation in some things, such as whether someone believes that the Bible is literally the word of God or not, while on social issues such as prayer in public schools and LGBT rights there are very big differences.  If you enjoy survey statistics, by the way, all of the data is on the Pew Forum’s website.

Now it’s interesting that there’s no particular correlation between the “nones” and those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religions”, and for that matter there are more SBNRs tend amongst Generation X and the Baby Boomers than the Millennials.  Of course, while the SBNRs tend to be, as indicated by Lillian Daniel’s article, something of a source of frustration for religious professionals, the “nones”, within liberal religion at least, tend to be viewed more positively, as potential new members, particularly the younger “nones”.  I know that this is a conversation that’s been going on within Unitarian Universalism — just look through some of the recent issues of UU World, for instance — and I’m pretty sure our cousins at the United Church of Christ have been talking about it, too.  To my mind, though, both the “rise of the religiously unaffiliated”, as PBS titled their three-part program about the “nones”, and the popularity of SBNR, to the extent that it’s become its own cliché, are symptoms of how most people understand — or, perhaps more appropriately, misunderstand  — religion.  And, not to be accused of promoting religious exceptionalism or, for that matter, jumping on the “the nones will save us” bandwagon, but I believe that there’s an emptiness in the soul of our society that Unitarian Universalism is especially well qualified to fill — in part because we’ve become aware of that hunger within ourselves.

Let me back up a bit before I explain what I mean by that.

When someone calls themselves “spiritual but not religious”, what do they really mean by “spiritual”?  I think it’s generally implied as being whatever life attitude is diametrically opposed to organized religion, particularly if organized religion is solely characterized by its worst excesses, such as rigid hierarchy and gender roles, antiquated dogmatism, and all manner of bigotry.  Well, there are plenty of things that are the opposite of the worst features of human nature, but that doesn’t mean they’re spiritual.  In her article, for instance, Lillian Daniel jokes about some people’s claims to be spiritual by seeing God in the sunset or in small children, at least when they’re saying cute things about God.  Her point is that spirituality isn’t just a matter of aesthetics or parental oxytocin.

Twenty years ago I may well have identified myself as SBNR.  I came to the United States with a suspicion of religion, not that I really knew anything about religion beyond the vague Anglicanism we’d been taught in school, including the distrust of Catholicism we’d been taught in history classes.  I had a similarly low opinion of what I considered to be religion in the US, which wasn’t based on much more than what I’d heard in the UK about American televangelists.  Similarly, if I had claimed to be “spiritual but not religious”, I’m not sure I could have told you what spirituality was either.

During the five years I spent in graduate school, though, my education included a lot more than physics.  From my Indian class-mates I learned something about Hinduism and Buddhism, and from a girlfriend I learned about Judaism.  Somewhere along the way I realized that maybe religion was bigger than what I’d been taught.  That by itself wasn’t enough to make me want to join a church, but it was at about that time that I converted to environmentalism.

Starting with the Sierra Club I learned about the problems afflicting planet Earth — by which I mean the problems facing human beings, because the Earth, by and large, would do just fine without us — and it quickly became overwhelming.  I couldn’t understand why more wasn’t being done about pollution and species extinction and climate change, and then I learned about the political process in this country and I just got angry.  I shared what I was learning with friends and co-workers, but few of them seemed to care much.

I realized I needed to find people who were motivated to really work on these problems at the same time that I needed to find people, a community, that would help me withstand the weight of my growing awareness.  Actually, I’m giving myself too much credit.  I never articulated such needs to myself, but looking back, I realize they were there, and in my searching there were  two different paths — one following environmentalism and one following science — that both ultimately led me to Unitarian Universalism.

I was skeptical at first.  I never thought that, as an adult, I’d choose to join a church.  (I certainly never anticipated becoming a minister, but life’s funny that way.)  But the people I met at the Unitarian Society of Hartford were generally friendly, they certainly seemed to think and care about the same sorts of things I thought and cared about, and I really was looking for a choir where I didn’t disagree with the words we were singing too often.

After being there for a while, attending services, going to a few potlucks and committee meetings, it was time for me to go deeper.  I became a facilitator in the Small Group Ministry program, which is like our Fellowship Circles program here.  The topic of the very first session was “Spirituality” and one of the first questions asked the people in the group what spirituality meant to them.  It quickly became apparent that most of them were thinking about it in similar terms, describing spirituality as a deep sense of connection: to other people, to community, to something larger than oneself, to something within oneself, to the natural world around us.  Spirituality as a sense of connection to the natural world was mentioned more than once, perhaps because we were in a chapel with large windows overlooking the woods behind the church building.

I’ve since realized that a deep sense of connection to either — or both — something larger than oneself and something within oneself allows for a broad spectrum of personal beliefs, including a variety of worldviews based in theism and atheism, naturalism and dualism.  Beyond any deliberate attempt to be theologically inclusive, which I don’t think was the case in our small group, everyone talked about spirituality in ways that focused on human awareness as a subjective experience.  We talked about the basic human urge to take our experiences and find ways to describe them so that we might understand them and make sense of the world around us, something that precedes any particular set of beliefs or ethical prescriptions.

Okay, so that’s one way to think about the “spiritual” part of being “spiritual but not religious”.  To claim to be SBNR, then, is to express a distrust of so-called “organized religion”, something that might be based on personal experience or on an awareness of other people’s experiences, where such religion has inhibited spirituality by stifling that sense of deep connection to something larger than oneself and/or within oneself.  Step back for just a moment, though, and it’s obvious that any true religion ought actually to foster spirituality.

Let me give you a couple of different analogies, then, as to how I think about this.

In the language of my past career as a research scientist, for example, our lives are like experiments, constantly generating results that we’re challenged to interpret and explain.  It’s nice when those results confirm the theories we’ve already developed, of course, but it’s only the unexpected results that have the potential to lead to new ideas and the growth of understanding.  A congregation, then, should be like a laboratory, providing the equipment needed to conduct those experiments, the tools to analyze the results, and the co-workers who help one another figure it all out.

The other analogy for the relationship between spirituality and religion occurred to me a few years after that small group ministry experience, when I was in seminary.

I imagined a tree, perhaps an ancient oak that had witnessed the passage of centuries.  I could see its roots, sunk deep into the fertile soil of the Earth, and in the folds and crevices of its trunk and branches I knew that it was providing shelter to countless smaller creatures.  Its limbs stretched toward the sky so that its leaves could better drink of the sunlight that shone upon it.

I considered how spirituality might be like that oak tree.  Growing forth from the eternal mystery of being, spirituality expresses our yearnings toward transcendence, all the while nourished by powers beyond our understanding.  Spirituality does not demand recognition for what it does or is, but quietly encourages wonder, reverence, gratitude, creativity and imagination.

Since I was in seminary to become a minister, my task was clear: to carefully and diligently tend the tree of spirituality.  It would be necessary to fertilize it and water it, yet also prune it as necessary, honoring it even as I remained aware of the limits of my comprehension.  And while some religion might be as mistletoe, sucking the life out of the tree on which it grows as a parasite — effectively creating people who are “religious but not spiritual” — I realized that the task of true religion was quite clear: to be a splendid garden in which magnificent trees of spirituality might flourish.  Those who dwell and work in that garden, then, are both “spiritual and religious”.

Looking back to that time when might have identified myself as SBNR, I recognize now that I was, in fact, neither spiritual nor religious.  I was waiting for the laboratory of a congregation that could provide me with the equipment, tools and co-workers to help me interpret and explain the experiment of my life.  I was looking for a religious garden that could provide the shelter and the nourishment and the tending that my fragile sapling of experience and yearning needed to grow into a real tree of spirituality.

And I’m far from unique in that.  I’m a member of Generation X, rather than being a Millennial, but we Gen-Xers aren’t too far behind the Millennials in terms of being religiously unaffiliated.  And had I continued to think of religion only in terms of that vaguely well-meaning Anglicanism or that laughable stereotype of American televangelism, had I never managed to stumble upon Unitarian Universalism, then I would have continued to be one of the “nones”.

And, really, it’s not surprising that there are so many “nones” within Generation X and the Millennials.  For when they reject religion, they’re rejecting rigid hierarchies that tell people what to believe, they’re rejecting gender roles that demean women in order to protect men’s egos, they’re rejecting antiquated dogmatism that’s so clearly at odds with what we know about the world, and they’re rejecting all manner of bigotry against their lesbian and gay friends, their multiracial friends, their Muslim friends.  Well, guess what?  Unitarian Universalists reject those rigid hierarchies and gender roles, the antiquated dogmatism and all manner of bigotry, too.

So what’s holding us back?  Why aren’t the “nones” becoming Unitarian Universalists in droves?  Why aren’t our congregations booming the way religious scholars and even the leaders of other religions say we should be?

My friend and colleague, David MacPherson, who preached here a few months ago, has many stories that he loves to tell, but one of them concerns “the nineteenth century newspaper editor, reformer, failed presidential candidate and Universalist lay leader, Horace Greeley.”  I won’t attempt to mimic Dave’s style but Greeley, as he tells the story, “was asked to suggest to a group of fellow Universalists some new device for financially supporting their struggling congregation since the fairs, festivals and suppers they had tried did not succeed.  His answer to them was short but definitely not sweet: ‘Try Religion!’

Well, a century and a half later, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, is suggesting the same thing, that it’s time we “get religion”.  We have “to take ourselves seriously as a religion”.  We have to remember “that religion is more about what we feel and experience than about our opinions.”  And we have to understand that “religion is relational because we are relational beings”, that “religion is something we practice together.”

Fredric Muir, who is minister to the UU Church of Annapolis in Maryland, elaborated on that third point in his Berry Street Lecture, delivered last year to the UU Ministers Association and printed in condensed form in the current issue of UU World, when he talked about moving from being the church that worships individualism — or “iChurch” for short — to being the church that embraces deep relationality through covenant as the way to the Beloved Community.

Because, as paradoxical as it may seem, the single most effective thing we can do to appeal to the “nones”, to the religiously unaffiliated, to the “spiritual but not religious”, the single most important thing we can do for ourselves, is for us to “get religion”, to actually act like the religion we claim, at our best, to be.  The “nones” are already with us in spirit.  They just need us to show them — and, in many ways, to show ourselves — that religion isn’t only what they’ve rejected, but also what they hunger for.

Let me give you, as I bring this sermon to a close, one specific example of this: social justice.  Many UU congregations — and I know, because I’ve seen it first hand — have a social justice committee that is largely ignored by the rest of the congregation and is made up of a handful of people who each feel very passionately about their own particular cause and who are each trying to convince everybody else to give up their passionate cause in favor of their own.  Two seconds of thought will tell you how well that generally works, and I know because I’ve been there and done that.  And most of the time, attending a meeting of such a committee, you’d have no idea they were part of anything larger, let alone a congregation.  And yet social justice work — really anything we try to do within a congregation, but particularly social justice work — must be grounded in spirituality and nourished by religion if it is to be effective.  To do good social justice work, we need to get religion.

So I was delighted to see another article in the current issue of UU World, right after Muir’s article about escaping from the cult of individualism, about how social justice activism can only be sustained by community, particularly by religious community.  That article is by Tim DeChristopher, the member of First Unitarian in Salt Lake City who is now famous for bidding on federal oil and gas leases at an auction in Utah in order to protect lands near national parks and for that was sent to prison for two years.  DeChristopher writes that “By its very nature, activism is an act of faith in our fellow human beings.  The greater the risk and sacrifice involved in the activism, the greater the faith required in each other.”  “And I’m convinced”, DeChristopher explains, “that the spiritually grounded activism of Unitarian Universalism holds the potential to not only make the [social justice] movement more principled, but also make it more pragmatic.”

And that, if I may finish with a plug, is what J— and I will be talking about next weekend at the Social Justice Workshop we’re running here at the Fellowship.  I urge you to attend.  Why?  Because by our fruits they will know us.  For if the true purpose of religion is to nurture the spirituality of both individuals and community, and if spirituality is that deep sense of connection to something larger than ourselves and something within ourselves, then the result, the fruit of the trees of spirituality, the harvest of the garden of religion, is an active striving for love and justice, spreading the seeds of the spirit that will grow into the Beloved Community.

So may it be.

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Doing Justice as Faith-in-Action

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 28th 2012.)

Reading: from “When Love Speaks in Public” by Kate Lore, from A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists

My sermon theme this month has been “Works”, given the simple message expressed in the Biblical Letter of James that “faith without works is dead.”  For me the takeaway message from James is that “faith should be neither quietly hidden nor displayed ostentatiously, that salvation isn’t something that happens privately, individual by individual, but only happens when faith leads to service to the greater community and when such service is a natural expression of that faith.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

For its part, “Unitarian Universalism[ …] draws a distinct contrast between deeds and creeds[ precisely because, when you get into the nitty-gritty,] everyone believes something different, [and yet] it is possible to come together with common goals such as clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.”  Moreover, if we are able to live our “commitments to see past the specifics of creedal differences and to participate in good deeds,” we find that “Unitarian Universalism doesn’t really distinguish between faith and works.  We recognize that it goes deeper than the truth that ethical action must be based on faith for it to be effective, so we speak of the hyphenated ‘faith-in-action’ instead.”  “This is neither faith as a list of prescribed beliefs nor works as a set of empty observances,” I said, “but faith-in-action that calls us all into salvation in this life, bringing heaven into being here on Earth.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

Well, that’s all well and good.  It sounds nice, it rings the right bells, but how do we actually do it?  “Justice is what love looks like when it speaks in public” makes a nice bumper sticker, but what does it mean for how we actually live our lives, how we work together as a congregation, how we grow the Beloved Community?  It needs to be fleshed out, and put into practice, to actually make a difference.

Now Kate Lore is right that “a set of best practices”, an extensive collection of detailed recipes for what has worked in some other place, isn’t much use outside of the congregation in which they were developed, any more than the weather forecast for Portland, Oregon is helpful for deciding what to wear here in Newport News, Virginia.  (And vice-versa: nobody in Portland should be preparing for a hurricane!)  There are ways, though, in which we can think about faith-in-action that can help congregations and their social justice committees to figure out their own practices, without trying to shoehorn in some other church’s policies and procedures.  There are, as it turns out, some types of ways of putting faith into action that, when congregations take a balanced approach to all of them, can help produce the sorts of social justice programs that make First Unitarian, Portland the envy of the whole denomination.  There are, in fact, six such ways, and I remember them using the acronym S-E-W A-C-T, only “so” is spelled “S-E-W” not “S-O”.

The “S” stands for Service, something that generally comes pretty naturally to churches and other religious organizations.  Service is about meeting the immediate needs of people facing hardship.  It’s about the obvious ways in which we can alleviate the symptoms of poverty, such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, things that we do here at the Fellowship through the Weekend Meal Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as well as the Winter shelter program known as PORT organized by the Living Interfaith Network or LINK.

Service also includes efforts such as after-school tutoring, teaching English as a second language, and visiting the elderly, hands-on activities that address a particular social need while also affirming the inherent worth and dignity of those we are serving.  For that reason, the most effective forms of service are those where the people providing services are accountable to those being served, as is the case at both St. Paul’s and LINK where past and present clients are involved in running the programs.

What’s more, service not only meets the immediate needs of people facing hardship, but it also meets many people’s need to feel useful, that they can make a difference in the world.  I’ve seen time and again, in congregations of all shapes and sizes, that while visitors and new members are cautious about joining committees — and understandably so! — they will happily sign up to help out at a food pantry or a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  They do it not out of any fanciful expectation of recognition but simply to feel good about doing good.

And there’s nothing like the hands-on engagement of service to gain a much better understanding of social problems.  Spend even a little time with a veteran who’s unable to find work or a homeless person who can’t pay for diabetes medication or a single mother who works two minimum wage jobs but still needs to line up at a food bank to feed her child and, if you’re fortunate never to have been in such a position yourself, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation of the strength of the human spirit in spite of disadvantages and even oppression.

The next way of putting faith into action, then, is education.  Well, this one seems to come pretty naturally to Unitarian Universalists.  Our religious education for both children and adults lends itself quite readily to talking about social issues, and as well as classes we have fairly regular services on topics from marriage equality to environmentalism.  Over the last four months alone, we’ve had sermons on religious freedom, compassion, war and peace, slavery and civil rights, LGBT equality and immigrant justice.  Include M—’s sermon on compassion, which is another form of faith-in-action, and more than a third of our services since July have been about some aspect of social justice.

That trend will continue next month, with services honoring the commitments and struggles of our military service personnel and families, services about the work of the UU Service Committee and a special service in observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.  Then in 2013 I’m going to be doing some joint sermons with our Share-the-Basket partners, including the Sierra Club, LINK and Planned Parenthood.  We’re also planning a Friday evening and Saturday daytime workshop on Social Justice in mid-January, so keep an ear open for more information about that as it develops.

So imagine you’ve been exposed to the daily reality of some injustice through your involvement in hands-on service and then through classes, sermons and workshops you’ve educated yourself even more about the issue.  What’s next?  Obviously talking about a problem can only take us so far, and there comes a point when we must take action on it.  That brings us to the next way of putting faith into action, which is witness.

Witness is a way of taking what we know about a social issue and expressing our desire to change it.  Going to demonstrations, holding vigils, writting letters to newspaper editors, creating short YouTube videos for Facebook — all of these are ways of bearing witness to our values and speaking up about an injustice that we believe needs to be addressed.  If the media takes note, so much the better.

The more obvious examples of witness, of course, are the rallies and protests that take place each year at General Assembly, particularly the Phoenix GA’s massive vigil at “Tent City” that J— talked about last Sunday.  It’s hard to come up with an image that appeals more to the media than thousands of people wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts!  Closer to home, the Fellowship has been a part of public demonstrations on issues such as women’s rights and health care reform and has held vigils right here in response to problems such as global climate change and violence toward transgender individuals.

Now rallies and protests and demonstrations and vigils are great for raising the wider social consciousness, but sooner or later any group that wants to bring about social change must engage in the next way of putting faith into action, which is advocacy.  This is a matter of direct engagement with legislative processes in order to impact public policy, something that is particularly effective when lawmakers receive letters and even delegations from churches that can provide a clear theological basis for their moral positions.  (And, for that matter, when those lawmakers realize that not all people of faith stand for regressive, oppressive social policies.)

This is, though, an area where both congregations and ministers need to be careful, given the considerable privilege that has already been extended to us in the form of religious freedom.  While we, as a church, are free to discuss social issues and to promote particular positions on those issues within our own membership, we are only free to engage in advocacy for or against specific pieces of legislation as an “unsubstantial” portion of our overall activities.  (The IRS doesn’t define “unsubstantial”, but in cases where they have ruled on the lobbying activities of non-profits, the rule of thumb is no more than five percent of money, staff time and volunteer effort.)  In no way shape or form, of course, may we take positions for or against candidates for public office, something that we need to remember at around this time of year every four years!

There is, of course, only so much that any individual person or any individual congregation can do by her-, him- or itself.  And that’s why the fifth way of putting faith into action is community organizing or, equivalently, coalition building.  We can be much more effective in just about every effort, from service and education to witness and advocacy, if we can work with others who care about the same issues of neglect, injustice or oppression.  We don’t have the resources to help every person who comes to our office door asking for, say, money to buy food, but we can help by combining our resources with other congregations in supporting LINK.  We don’t have the resources to do much advocacy for policies that promote environmental sustainability or women’s reproductive health just by ourselves, but we can make a difference by partnering with the Sierra Club and with Planned Parenthood.  There’s power in numbers, but there’s also synergy that comes when different people and groups come together around a common cause.

I’ve now described service, education, witness, advocacy and coalition building.  The sixth way of putting faith into action is the T in S-E-W A-C-T, namely transformation, by which I’m referring to the transformation of ourselves, or our own house of worship.  This is a necessary result of humility — which tends to be forgotten as one of the often core virtues in just about every religion — in that we can’t assume that everything that’s wrong and unjust in the world is only outside our own walls.  So we are called to transform ourselves to live up to our own standards, to walk the talk with integrity.

That’s why we worked to become a Welcoming Congregation a few years ago, to begin a process of being more intentionally inclusive toward LGBT individuals, and it’s why we’re working to become a Green Sanctuary, to build environmental awareness into everything we do.  There are two more examples of transforming ourselves that I want to mention as well, both of which touch on matters of accessibility.

Last month, B— and J— installed in this Sanctuary a hearing-aid loop that S— had donated to the Fellowship.  It’s basically a wireless transmitter that allows anyone with the right sort of hearing aid to patch directly into our sound system.  The loop was installed in the overhead light fixture, so the best signal is in the center section of seats within the footprint of the light; then, activating the T-coil or telephone program on hearing aids will let the wearer pick up the signal and hear what’s being said more easily than relying on the loudspeakers.  This means that all of us really need to make sure we use microphones when we speak, not only for those sitting in the library and listening through the loudspeakers in there but particularly for those using hearing aids to listen to the service right here in this room.

The second example of how we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be is part of our effort to pay for the mortgage on the Office Building.  Rather than sensory accessibility, it’s about fiduciary accessibility.  You’re probably all aware that we’re selling mortage bonds, to raise the funds we need to pay off the short-term, high interest, interest-only, private loan on the Office Building, with the bonds being repaid over time at an interest rate quite a bit better than any bank offers.  In other words, we’re asking our members to collectively loan our congregation the money to pay the mortgage, with our congregation then paying that money back to our members with interest.  What you might not realize is that you don’t need thousands of dollars to participate in this.  (Though, of course, if you do have thousands of dollars to invest, you probably won’t find a better place right now to do that than the UUFP!)

You see, there are also bonds available in smaller amounts, amounts like ten dollars, amounts such as a child might get as a gift in a Christmas card from a grandparent.  I remember, when I was growing up, getting Post Office Savings Bonds from relatives, just five or ten pounds that would slowly accrue interest until I received the money a few years later, and it taught me important lessons about patience and the value of money.

When it comes to paying for our Office Building, though, these small denomination “participation bonds”, as they’re called aren’t just for children!  Any of us can be a part of owning our own property here at the Fellowship, since the feeling of satisfaction in being a part of advancing our mission and ministry should not depend on the amount of money we have.  Everything we do is an opportunity to grow the Beloved Community, and it’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.  In fact, compared with creating a dynamic community, being an investment bank would be a walk in the park!  But we’re a congregation, a church, a religious home for diverse spirits, and all of us have an equal right to participate in this community regardless of personal circumstances.  Making these participation bonds available is an important way in which we are transforming ourselves into the people we dare to be.

And, really, that’s the point of the whole shebang.  When we serve others, educate ourselves, witness to injustice, advocate for change, build coalitions with allies, and transform ourselves for the better, we are becoming our best selves, growing the Beloved Community, putting our faith into action, and showing the world what love looks like when it speaks and acts in public.  So let us bring the warmth of community, the light of hope, the beckoning of the holy, the comfort of companionship, the dancing of the spirit, the energy of faithful action, and the fire of commitment to a world that still waits for our good news, for our faith-in-action.  It’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.

So may it be.

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Finding Our Purpose

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 30th 2012.)

Kwanzaa was created, in the words of its creator, Dr. Karenga, as “an expression of the recovery and reconstruction of African culture which was being conducted in the general context of the Black Liberation Movement of the 1960s.”  Celebrated as an African-American cultural holiday between December 26th and January 1st, it fits nicely with the other seasonal holidays that occur at this time of year, and many Unitarian Universalist congregations have a kinara with candles that they light just as they do an Advent wreath or a Hanukkah menorah or a miniature Yule log.

There is, of course, much more to Kwanzaa than lighting candles, just as is the case for those other holidays.  A table is to be set with a beautiful piece of African cloth, on which is placed a straw mat and the kinara as well as a bowl of fruits and vegetables, particularly those that are native to Africa.  Also on the mat are one ear of corn for each child in the family, a unity cup used to pour libation to the family’s ancestors, and other African art and books and heritage symbols, including gifts for the children.  There are ritual greetings and responses, and a big feast is held on the sixth day of Kwanzaa which coincides with New Year’s Eve.  The seventh and final day, on New Year’s Day, is devoted to meditating on where we have come from and where we are going; it is, in Dr. Karenga’s words, a time for courageously asking the questions:  “Who am I?”  “Am I really who I say I am?”  “Am I all I ought to be?”

Now as Kwanzaa approaches its fiftieth anniversary, just about everybody in the United States has heard about the holiday.  If nothing else, the US Postal Service has been issuing Kwanzaa-themed stamps for fifteen years now.  There are, however, a number of myths about the holiday.  One of these I heard, not long after coming to the US, is that Kwanzaa was invented out of whole cloth, without any real historical basis or validity as a holiday.  Well, such a claim is obviously intended to question the legitimacy of this celebration of African-American culture, and it’s a claim that we as UUs ought to regard with suspicion, given that the same sort of thing is said about Unitarian Universalism, which technically came into existence in the 1960s, too.  Just as our faith has roots going back hundreds of years, however, Kwanzaa has roots in African traditions, particularly harvest celebrations known in ancient, classical and modern African cultures.

Three other myths about Kwanzaa are addressed by actress and producer Masequa Myers, in a series of videos she created on the traditions and customs of Kwanzaa.  The first myth is that Kwanzaa was created to replace Christmas.  This may have come out of the idea that Euro-American culture goes hand-in-hand with Christianity, which is unfortunately a common assumption even today, as shown by the unfounded arguments over President Obama’s religion and nationality.  Still, Dr. Karenga has clarified that Kwanzaa was not intended to be an alternative to Christmas, much less a replacement for it, and many Christian African-Americans celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas and, for that matter, New Year’s, too.

Myers’ second myth is related to this, namely that Kwanzaa is a religious holiday.  She responds to this one quite simply: “No, it is not.”  Though it has some of its roots in the religion of Yoruba, which provides some of Kwanzaa’s ethical positions, it is a non-religious holiday.  Or perhaps inter-faith would be a better word: Myers remembers with fondness a Kwanzaa celebration in Phoenix that was well attended by Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Jews, because it’s a cultural holiday that cuts across all religions.

The third myth Myers addresses, then, is, the obvious one: that you have to be of African descent to celebrate Kwanzaa.  Well, looking at the annual messages that Dr. Karenga sends out, it is clearly a holiday lifting up African culture and traditions, particularly as it is remembered, reflected upon and recommitted to by African-Americans.  Myers makes the point, though, that not everyone who celebrates St. Patrick’s Day is Irish, not everyone who celebrates Cinco de Mayo is Mexican, not everyone who celebrates Chinese New Year is Chinese.  Myers concludes by noting that “Kwanzaa is based on seven principles that anyone from any walk of life, any race, ethnicity or religion can benefit from.”

Now, we can question what it means to celebrate these holidays, particularly in terms of being authentic and respectful as opposed to what little most of us actually know about them.  Drinking green beer doesn’t mean you’re actually observing the Feast Day of Saint Patrick any more than commemorating the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on 5th May 1862 is merely about having dinner at Taco Bell.  And, as I said, Kwanzaa is about much more than lighting black and red and green candles.

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, for instance, are at one level, as Masequa Myers says, broad enough that anyone can benefit from studying them.  Unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith are universal values of communitarian ethics that parallel our own UU Seven Principles, for instance, as well as the Humanist Manifesto.  At another level, however, Dr. Karenga makes clear that each of Kwanzaa’s principles has a specific rôle in “building and reinforcing family, community and culture among African American people as well as Africans throughout the world African community.”  When it comes to his description of the fifth principle, Nia or purpose, for instance, which is “to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness”, Dr. Karenga’s use of “our community” and “our people” is clearly in reference to “the world African community” and “people of African descent”.

Now I know that studies of mitochondrial DNA that trace the maternal ancestry of modern humans show that we are all descendents of a single woman who lived, most likely in East Africa, around two-hundred-thousand years ago.  There were other women who were alive at the time, of course, but Mitochondrial Eve, as she has been nick-named, is the most recent ancestor from whom all humans living today are descended.  There was, similarly, a Y-chromosomal Adam, who probably also lived in Africa, though — in a blow to anyone who was itching to claim the Garden of Eden story was literally true — he was alive tens of thousands of years after Mitochondrial Eve was alive.  In any case, if you go back far enough in our family trees, we are all, in that sense, of African descent.

That, of course, is not at all relevant to the celebration of Kwanzaa, and to claim that we are all equally and identically entitled to the holiday is to cruelly discount many hundreds of years of colonialism, slavery, exploitation and oppression committed against Africans and African-Americans by Europeans and Euro-Americans.  Since most of us here are in the latter ethnic group rather than the former, we cannot participate in Kwanzaa’s call to Nia in the way that it is intended for members of the world African community.  We can be allies, though, and make sure that we have our own sense of purpose than includes regard for the value of cultural diversity even as we strive to remember that we are all part of one larger human family.

And purpose, I think, is one of the critical aspects of our lives as individuals and as communities that gets taken for granted, or forgotten, or left behind.  It’s very easy, when struggling to keep up with our ever-growing “to do” lists, to forget why we even have those lists.  The phrase “rat race” has been part of our vernacular for at least fifty or sixty years, describing in particular the life of working for other people in stressful jobs to get enough money to buy things that we’re too stressed out to enjoy.  But that’s not living, and it’s the opposite of having a purpose, having a goal to achieve something meaningful.

Our society’s apparent sense of purposelessness may, in fact, be part of our fascination with the end of the world, whether that’s a religiously ordained judgment day or a zombie apocalypse, as I mentioned last week.  After all, if you believe the Rapture is coming, you now have a very clear purpose: to be ready for it and to make absolutely sure that you’re amongst the elect who will be taken up to heaven.  Or, if you prefer the idea of a plague of the living dead, your purpose is to stay alive while taking out as many zombies as possible; the advantage there is that you can quantify how well you’re achieving your purpose by keeping score, just like in a video game.

Now another part of our fascination with the end of the world, I believe, comes from our ability to try to make sense of the world by looking for patterns.  In fact, we’ve become so good at that, thanks to our evolutionary history, that we insist on looking for patterns, for order, when there is only randomness, whether that’s natural or the consequences of illness or selfishness or bloodymindedness.  Even if no order, no rhyme nor reason is apparent for given events in life, we convince ourselves that that’s just because we can’t see it, and so we come up with conspiracy theories.  And if we don’t seem to have much control over what’s going on, we tell one another, then surely the government or a secret society or space aliens or some supernatural power must actually be running the show.  The end of the world as a satisfying conclusion to that reality is one consequence of such thinking, but so is the idea that we need someone else or something else outside ourselves to tell us what our own purpose in life must be.

For as long as there have been beings with sufficient self-awareness to realize, first, that they exist and, second, that someday they won’t, they have been asking themselves questions such as, “What is the purpose of life?”  I’ve long thought that that’s not a very helpful question, and that if it has an answer, it’s something like “Our purpose in life is to figure out our purpose in life.”  I like that answer because it’s very deep while at the same time being very unhelpful.  I think we need to ask ourselves questions that might be more useful, questions such as: “Who are we?”  “Where do we come from?”  “What are we?”  “Are we really who we say we are?”  “Are we our best selves?”  We do need a sense of our own purpose as individuals, but we also need to figure that out for ourselves, based on who we think we are and who we want to be.

It’s a little easier to articulate purpose when it comes to free associations, communities that people intentionally create together.  After all, there must have been a reason for those people to come together in the first place.  Congregations are such free associations, and though we, here at the Fellowship, tend to lift up our congregational mission — “to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths” — most often, we also have a stated purpose, though it’s quite a bit more involved.  Here it is:

“The purpose of this Fellowship is to encourage religious tolerance and to support individual spiritual growth, further[ing] individual freedom, discipleship to advancing truth, the democratic process in human relationships, brotherhood and sisterhood undivided by nation, race or creed, and allegiance to the cause of a peaceful world community.  Relying upon reason and compassion as our guide, and giving freedom to our method, we seek to grow in understanding of ourselves and of our world, to promote and serve the Universal human family.”

Obviously there’s a lot in there to unpack.  Congregations are multi-faceted communities and as such can be involved in a lot of different things at the same time.  You might also have been wondering about some of the wording, particularly the phrase “discipleship to advancing truth”.  As it turns out, that language was contributed by A. Powell Davies, minister to All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington DC, as part of the effort to reform and reinvigorate the American Unitarian Association in the 1940s, and he proposed five principles that were common within Unitarianism at the time.

The first was “individual freedom of belief”, which has long been a hallmark of our faith.  It goes back at least as far as the 1568 Edict of Torda which was a decree of religious freedom issued by King John Sigismund Zapolya of Transylvania that, in part, legitimized Unitarianism in that country.  Then there’s that “discipleship to advancing truth”, which combines not only the idea that “revelation is not sealed” but also the idea that, as people of faith, we should continually update our own religious views based on the best understandings of the world around us and within us.  Davies’ third principle was “the democratic process in human relations”, recognizing that people should be free to determine their own fate, both in society and in congregations.  The fourth was “universal brotherhood [and sisterhood], undivided by nation, race or creed”, recognizing that we are all one human family, and the fifth, which follows directly from that, was “allegiance to the cause of a united world community.”

For me, this is where the rubber hits the road.  What we believe and how we arrive at those beliefs are all well and good, but it’s what we do with them that really matters.  Even how we govern ourselves and make decisions together is, while a reflection of our beliefs about the inherent worth of the individual, a means to another end, though I would note that our UU affirmation of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large” means that we should fully support Kwanzaa’s second principle of Kujichagulia, the value of self-determination that those of African descent may “define [them]selves, name [them]selves, create for [them]selves and speak for [them]selves.”

The rubber hits the road when we affirm universal brotherhood and sisterhood, for we are all children of Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromasomal Adam.  And yet, the fact that we are all part of one larger human family does not erase our differences, any more than I am the same person as my sister.  We have all come to our places in the world by different paths, not just as individuals but also as the groups that we call cultures, and we need to respect not only the different roots that feed those cultures but also the different branches that will flourish if only we nurture them.  A united, peaceful world community, then, will not be like a single cup that holds us all within its bowl; rather, it will be like a tree, growing in many directions and all of us as leaves growing from it.

The New Year seems like a good time to think about purpose.  It’s a good time to remember how we got to where we are now, to thank the people who made it possible for us to be here.  It’s a good time to reflect on our lives, to be thankful for our blessings, to evaluate how we are facing our challenges.  And it’s a good time to recommit to a brighter future, to declare our intent to bring good into the world.  As we light our candles to mark the promise of lengthening days and the turning of the year, let us remember, reflect upon and recommit to all that is good and beautiful.

So may it be.

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The Chalice and the Circle (and the Cross)

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 26th 2012.)

In today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations it’s not hard to find chalices.  They’re lit at the beginning of our Sunday services, just as we did this morning, but we also light chalices to open Religious Education classes, our Fellowship Circle sessions and even our committee meetings, where a chalice-lighting helps to remind us that we are not a social group or a debating club or a political party but a religious community.  You’ll find flaming chalice symbols in print, on websites and made into jewelry.  You’ll also find them in many different designs, enclosed in a circle or a sunburst, with a stylized flame or a realistic flame or a rainbow-colored flame, perhaps made up of letters that spell out a word or maybe including a peace sign, a recycling logo or a question markHere’s one that recognizes the importance of reaching out to Unitarian Universalists who serve in our nation’s armed forces.  Not only is the flaming chalice ubiquitous, a widely loved symbol of Unitarian Universalism, but lighting it is the single-most recognized ritual our faith embraces.

Now while the flaming chalice symbol goes back over seventy years, it’s only become a widely accepted part of our congregational life in the last twenty or thirty years.  There were no chalice lightings in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the 1964 hymn book.  The flaming chalice appeared for the first time on an official Unitarian Universalist Association document only in 1976.  And our current hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition published in 1993, has only nine chalice lightings, but there are many more than that in use today.  So, you can see that in the last couple of decades the flaming chalice has caught on in a really big way!

What’s more, as these various examples show, the chalice symbol is, more often than not, enclosed in some sort of circle, or sometimes two overlapping circles, which are usually taken to represent the coming together of Unitarianism and Universalism.  This morning I’m going to reflect on the origins of these symbols — the chalice from Unitarianism and the circle from Universalism — as well as a third symbol that dropped out along the way.

Many of you have probably heard the story of the flaming chalice, but it’s a good story that bears repeating from time to time.  This is how Unitarian Universalist minister Dan Hotchkiss tells that story:

The chalice and the flame were brought together to make a symbol for Unitarian use by an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch.  Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew political cartoons that were critical of Adolf Hitler, so when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Deutsch abandoned all he had and fled.  That was probably the right move!  He went first to the south of France, and then he went to Spain.  Finally, with an altered passport, Deutsch made it into Portugal, where Lisbon was the only open port remaining in Europe.

In Portugal, Deutsch met the Reverend Charles Joy, commissioner for Europe of the newly founded Unitarian Service Committee.  The Service Committee — a forerunner of today’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, including Unitarians and Jews, as well as artists, intellectuals and dissidents, to escape Nazi persecution.  From his headquarters in Lisbon, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents, helping to provide identification papers and travel documents that would allow refugees to escape to freedom.

Now Deutsch was most impressed with the work of the Unitarian Service Committee and was soon working for Joy.  Deutsch had never seen a Unitarian — or, for that matter, a Universalist — church, but what he had seen was faith in action, with Joy and the other members of the Service Committee willing to risk everything for others in a time of urgent need.  Deutsch wanted to help.

In 1940, the Unitarian Service Committee was an unknown organization.  That put them at a disadvantage in the war-time environment, when establishing trust across barriers of language, nationality and faith would mean life instead of death. So Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for the papers issued by the Service Committee, to make them look official, dignifying them while also symbolizing the spirit of the work.  Joy wrote, “When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the Unitarian Service Committee and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism.  With pencil and ink, he drew a chalice with a flame rising from it.  The design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom.  Unitarian Service CommitteeReporting to Boston, Charles Joy wrote:

“It represents, as you see, […] the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars.  The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.  In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts.  This was in the mind of the artist.  The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit.  We do not limit our work to Christians.  Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

Let’s move from the Unitarian side of the story to the Universalist side.

Back in the United States in the 1940s, the Universalist Church of America was struggling with its religious identity.  At stake was whether Universalism was genuinely a Christian denomination or whether it was (or should be) something more, something larger, something truly universal.  In truth, the Universalist Church had struggled with its sense of identity for most of its existence, and had just been denied membership — twice — in the Federal Council of Churches: the council decided that the Universalists were, first, not sufficiently Christian and, second, too much like the Unitarians!

But into the mixture of voices calling, on the one hand, for a stronger Christian witness and, on the other, for a transformation of Universalism to a more truly universal religion, there came a new voice.  It came from a small group of recent graduates of the Crane Theological School at Tufts University, and it proved to be a major force pushing the Universalist Church beyond Christianity.

The graduates took their name from a medieval religious order, the Humiliati.  The name means “the humble ones”, though few people thought the members of this new order were particularly humble!  The group was originally formed so that its members could continue to enjoy the friendship, intellectual stimulation and spiritual growth they had enjoyed as seminarians; they held annual retreats during the 1940s and 50s at which they discussed theology, worship and liturgy.

Committing themselves to the renewal of their denomination as a universalized Universalism, the Humiliati adopted the symbol of a small, off-center cross enclosed by a larger circle.Humiliati  The circle was intended to represent the all-embracing nature of Universalism; the off-center cross, of course, recognized Universalism’s Christian roots while at the same time implying that Christianity was no longer necessarily central to the faith.  When the symbol first appeared at the ordination of one of the Humiliati, it created something of a stir; then another member of the group caused a bigger dispute when he insisted on being ordained to the Universalist ministry rather than to the Christian ministry.  Although the Humiliati’s theological and liturgical innovations were by no means widely embraced, the idea of a universalized Universalism took hold and the symbol of the circle enclosing an off-center cross came to be widely used in Universalist churches.

It was at about the same time in the 1940s and 50s that the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association were once again talking about the possibility of combining their organizations and resources, a conversation that had been going, off and on, for almost a century.  The Unitarians had worked through the humanist–theist controversy of the 1920s and 30s and now, thanks in no small part to the Humiliati, the Universalists were moving beyond an exclusively Christian orientation.  The talks finally culminated, of course, in the legal consolidation that in 1961 formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.  And, a couple of years after that, the Unitarian Service Committee and the Universalist Service Committee merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which continued to use the flaming chalice in its documents.

Like our faith itself, the flaming chalice symbol has evolved over time.  Some years ago the UUA changed its logo to convey the idea of illumination emanating from the flame; more recently the UUSC changed its logo to hold the chalice in a pair of hands.  More often, the placing of the Unitarian chalice within the Universalist circle is a starting point for all sorts of  variations in design.  As Charles Joy noted almost seventy years ago, the shape of the chalice can be suggestive of a cross, but in some designs the cross is more explicit.  One painting, commissioned by First Unitarian in Albuquerque from New Mexico artist Robert P. Hooton, features a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right.  Here together are the three symbols we’ve been considering: the chalice, the circle and the cross.

The flaming chalice combines two archetypes — a drinking cup and a flame — that have been used in religious symbolism for as long as there’s been such a thing as religion.  From the wine cup of the Passover seder to the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the chalice represents community, sustenance, fertility.  The flame is an even older symbol, of course, and soon we’ll be in that season featuring a number of holidays involving candles, in Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras, where the flames represent hope, courage, witness.  With this wealth of meanings, it’s perhaps not surprising that the flaming chalice caught on within Unitarian Universalism and that it’s become so near and dear to our hearts.

Now there’s a joke that tells of a Catholic church, a Baptist church and a Unitarian Universalist church next to one another; one stormy night there’s a lightning strike and soon all three churches are on fire.  Some of the more dedicated church members risk their lives to save the church’s most prized possessions: the Catholics run in to save the communion host; the Baptists run in to save the Bible; and the UUs run in to save the coffee pot!  But the very next thing most UUs would try to save would be the chalice.

(Our own chalice has its own story, of course, which also involves a church fire, but that’s a story for another time.)

For me, the flaming chalice represents the relationship between the individual and the community.  The community holds the individual just as the chalice holds the flame, providing it with a home, a place to be, sheltering it from the winds that would extinguish it.  The individual, on the other hand, illuminates the community, just as the flame illuminates the chalice, shining its light, sharing its wisdom and warming with its love.  Last Sunday I introduced the word “autokoenony” from the Greek meaning “the self engaged in a group whose members have something in common”, and that describes what the flaming chalice represents to me.  In this interpretation, in fact, it teach us two simple lessons: without the community, there would be no place for the individual to stand; and without the individual, the community would go without illumination.

Another archetypal symbol is the circle.  With no beginning and no end, a circle goes on forever.  What most of us think of as the traditional wedding ceremony includes the custom of exchanging rings as a sign of our hope — even in this day and age — for everlasting love.  And yet a ring wouldn’t be a ring were it not for the empty space in the middle through which one’s finger passes, and a circle wouldn’t be a circle without the empty space in the center.  If the circle, in the symbology we inherit from the Universalists, represents the universe of existence, then perhaps the empty space in the center represents the mystery at the heart of existence.  We place our flaming chalice within the circle, but it doesn’t fill the circle: there’s still plenty of room for mystery.

And then we come to the cross.  Many Unitarian Universalists have some difficulty accepting the cross as one of our religious symbols, I’ve noticed.  Including it as just another symbol along with the Jewish Star of David, the Hindu Om, the Taoist Yin–Yang, and so on is okay, but most Unitarian Universalists would rather not focus on the cross, if we can help it.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross was, after all, an instrument of torture and death used by the Roman Empire against those it particularly despised.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross became a symbol justifying colonialism and oppression by Europeans against Africans and Native Americans.  We might object to it on the grounds that the whole emphasis on the crucifixion came, in any case, from the Apostle Paul and doesn’t really have anything to do with the ethical teachings of the human Jesus.

Well, those are valid objections.  However, there are two reasons why we ought to be okay with the cross as a symbol representing Christianity at its best.  First, both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved out of “traditional” Christianity.  As the Unitarian Universalist Association’s own Commission on Appraisal made clear:

“Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages.  Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions and experiences.  The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one.  The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God.  Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds.”

Second, given that heritage, we have a right to own the meanings of that heritage, to speak in favor of religion based on love rather than fear, to use the cross as a symbol for our purposes rather than let it be used against us.  We may not subscribe to the theology it is usually taken to represent and we may object to its history as a tool of conquest and subjugation, but strip away the distinctly un-Christian abuses of the cross and trim back the elaborate mystification surrounding it, and what we find is a simple call to love and to be loved.

The chalice, the circle and the cross, in fact, are reminders to us of those who went before us in our faith.  Let us remember those who were willing to risk everything, even their lives, to help others escape persecution.  Let us remember those who advocated for a larger faith, embracing freedom of belief and service to the whole.  And let us affirm our heritage in oneness and wholeness, carrying forward the symbols of our faith as we fill our lives with hope and courage, kindness and love.

So may it be.

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