Archive for March, 2013

Finding Courage Together

Don’t be afraid of some change.
Don’t be afraid of some change.
Today will be a joyful day;
enter, rejoice, and come in.
— Louise Ruspini

Have you ever had someone tell you to not be afraid?  Or to not be sad or to not worry or, conversely, to be brave or to hope for the best?  If so, you’ll know that such things are easier said than done.  I’ve found, at least, that I can’t simply will myself into happiness or optimism.  I can find distractions, of course, or I can do things that make me feel better: spending time with loved ones; enjoying a good meal with friends; listening to (or, even better, singing) uplifting music.  But changing one’s attitude is something that takes time and effort.

I don’t know for sure why Louise Ruspini included the verse printed above in her song “Enter, Rejoice, and Come In”.  She wrote both words and music for this popular opening hymn in the 1960s and 70s, when congregations of all denominations were exploring new music for services in a more contemporary style.  The song was inspired by Psalm 100, which calls on people to give thanks, to make a joyful noise, to sing and be glad, but the idea about not being afraid of some change was apparently Ruspini’s own addition.

In a way it makes sense.  Change is an essential part of life, and without change there is only death.  So part of being joyful, of opening our ears to the song of being, of opening our hearts to other people, is having the courage to face the changes that life inevitably brings.  That’s particularly the case since, as the saying goes, the word ‘change’ is for many people spelled L-O-S-S.  But courage isn’t something that just happens because we want it or need it to happen.

Now courage isn’t acting when there is no reason to be afraid.  Rather, courage is doing what must be done because we know it’s right even though we’re afraid.  Courage is about working through pain given the conviction that, by doing so, we will be transformed for the better.  Courage is about taking the risk to blaze a new trail, trusting that the destination is worthy and that others will follow.  Courage is about being willing to leave the security of thinking of paradise as only a future possibility and instead recognize that we never left the Garden of Eden.  Courage is about taking a stand against oppression, even if we ourselves are not being oppressed.  Courage is about challenging those who would keep us afraid.

But courage doesn’t just happen because we want or need it to happen.  Rather, courage happens when we know — not just intellectually, but deep in our hearts — that we are not alone.  This is one of the most important purposes of Unitarian Universalist congregations.  For there are lots of reasons to be afraid in today’s world.  Some fears are natural and serve, thanks to our evolutionary history, to increase our chances of survival.  Other fears are manufactured and serve the profit-making and power-mongering of others.  But if there is one vital message that Unitarian Universalism seeks to convey, it is this:  You are not alone.  None of us is individually called to solve the world’s ills all by ourselves.  None of us is individually responsible for fixing our community’s problems all by ourselves.  Together we can — and, indeed, must — take on these challenges, and when we remember that, then we find our courage.

Take courage, friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high.
But take courage, friends; for deep down, there is another truth:
You are not alone.
— Wayne B. Arnason

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Riding on a Donkey

(A sermon for Palm Sunday delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 24th 2013.)

As with the “nativity” story of the birth of Jesus, each gospel that starts the New Testament describes the events of Palm Sunday in different ways.  Just as the accounts of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth are blended together in the popular imagination to form the usual Christmas story, so are the four versions of Palm Sunday often combined into a single narrative.  Here is one way that might be done.

When they were approaching Jerusalem, they first reached Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives.  Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you and, as soon as you enter it, you will find tied there a donkey that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it to me.  If anyone questions what you are doing, just say this, ‘The Lord needs it but will return it.’”  For as it was said by the prophet Zechariah, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion!  Rejoice greatly, for your king is coming to you!  Triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

The disciples did not understand at first, but they went ahead and found a donkey tied in the street, near a door.  As they were untying it, some bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying that donkey?”  The disciples told them what Jesus had said, and the bystanders allowed them to take it.  Then the disciples brought the donkey to Jesus.  They threw their cloaks on its back and he sat on it.

Now many people had gathered for the festival.  Hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, they spread their cloaks on the road and others cut branches from palm trees and spread them on the road as well.  And as they took the path down from the Mount of Olives, all of the disciples began to speak loudly of the deeds of power that they had seen.  Soon the crowds that went ahead of Jesus and those who followed after him were shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”  But he answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  And the Pharisees said to one another, “You see, we can do nothing.  Look, the world has gone after him!”

As Jesus came near and saw the city of Jerusalem, he wept for it, saying “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.  They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

Then Jesus entered Jerusalem, and the whole city was in turmoil, with people asking, “Who is this man?”  Others from the crowds answered, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  And Jesus went into the Temple.

Christian churches around the world are today celebrating Palm Sunday, re-enacting the triumphant arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem for the observance of Passover, and looking ahead to the unfolding of Easter in a week’s time.  In those churches there’s usually some sort of procession, whether that’s just the children or the clergy and other worship leaders or even the whole congregation, everyone holding palm branches and singing solemn music appropriate to the day.  Palm branches — or, in colder climates, branches from trees such as yew or willow — are also used to decorate church sanctuaries.  Having been blessed with holy water, the branches are then carefully stored until the next year, when they are burned to make ashes for use in services on Ash Wednesday.

The story that’s told on Palm Sunday comes from the Bible, of course, specifically from those four books at the start of the New Testament that are known as the gospels.  The word “gospel” comes from Old English, meaning “good news” or “glad tidings”, and came to describe a particular form of early Christian writing that includes those first four books of the New Testament.  There were other gospels that weren’t chosen for inclusion in the Bible, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and though there was strong opinion within the early Christian community that there ought to be four and only four gospels, it took a few centuries for the list of books in the New Testament to be officially recognized by the Church.

Now each of the four official gospels tells more or less the same story.  It’s perhaps not that surprising that the gospel accounts are different from one another, of course, since each gospel was apparently written with different purposes in mind.  Some of those differences may surprise you, but in each case, the story is rich in symbolism, including signs that perhaps Jesus was not to be the kind of king the people were expecting.

The oldest of the four gospels is named Mark.  Like the other names attached to the gospels, we have no idea who Mark actually was, or if that’s even the name of the person who wrote it, but the book itself is believed to have been written around the year seventy of the Common Era, which is thirty-some years after Jesus’ death.  Chances are, in fact, that the gospel was written in immediate response to the Fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which would explain, in that time when it was particularly dangerous to challenge the Roman authorities, why Mark seems to aim for maximum obscurity.

Unlike the later gospels, Mark has Jesus say very little about his identity or his role as a messiah.  He heals people and drives out demons, but he always tells the people he heals and the demons he drives out to keep quiet about what he did and who he is.  Jesus uses many parables in his preaching, and though Mark notes that Jesus explains the meaning of those parables to his disciples in private, it’s clear that they still don’t understand, at least not until after his death.  It’s almost as if Mark is really written for people who already understand who Jesus is, so the gospel only needs to serve as a reminder of certain details, rather than as a book that can be read by anyone.  It’s not surprising that, though the oldest gospel, Mark is placed after Matthew in the Bible, since anybody reading Mark first would be pretty mystified.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is short and to the point.  Jesus sends two disciples to fetch a donkey that’s never been ridden before, then he rides that donkey while people put their cloaks and branches on the road ahead of him, calling out “Hosanna!” and blessings on the coming kingdom.  This gospel’s account of Jesus’ arrival ends rather abruptly, though.  “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.”  All that fuss, and he just turns around and leaves again!  As I say, pretty mystifying.  The next day Jesus comes back to the city, stopping on the way to curse a fig tree for not having any figs on it before driving the money-changers and the vendors out of the Temple.  The cursing of the fig tree — all the more bizarre because “it was not the season for figs” — is one of the few destructive miracles attributed to Jesus in the official gospels — the unofficial gospels have more — and is explained — to the extent that Mark explains anything — as foreshadowing the destruction of the Temple.

Matthew’s account is clearly based on Mark, but with a few differences.  Now this gospel was written a decade or two after Mark’s gospel, incorporating much of Mark as well as some other source material called “Q” that also shows up in Luke’s gospel.  What distinguishes Matthew is that it was apparently written for a specifically Jewish readership, perhaps one struggling for power amongst other Jewish groups following the destruction of the Temple.  As such, the gospel rarely explains Jewish customs but goes to great lengths to connect the events of Jesus’ life and death back to Hebrew scriptures, particularly the writings of the various Hebrew prophets.  Matthew really wants to prove that Jewish history had been pointing to Jesus as the Messiah all along.

It hadn’t, of course.  Being a prophet is about challenging authority and speaking truth to power, not about making predictions regarding future events.  And most Jews are naturally offended to be told that the only point of their religion was to pave the way for Christianity.  Still, Matthew was written before Christianity as such existed, with the gospel’s purpose apparently being to convince an existing Jewish community that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

As such, it’s not enough for Matthew that Jesus has the disciples run ahead to find a donkey that’s never been ridden before, a reference to Jewish sacramental practices that require clean and unblemished animals.  No, Matthew also needs to explain that this took place to specifically fulfill the words of the prophet Zechariah.  The weird thing is that Matthew misunderstands those words.  You see, the actual lines from the book of Zechariah (9:9) are as follows:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Now there’s a structure in Hebrew poetry known as parallelism, where the same idea is expressed in a couple of slightly different ways for emphasis.  The prophet Amos, for instance, spoke of “justice roll[ing] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” as two sides of the same coin describing a community based on fairness.  Zechariah was emphasizing the nature of the animal — a lowly donkey that had never before been ridden — an animal that in Eastern traditions represented peace, as opposed to the horse which represented war.  In the context of describing God’s inevitable victory over Israel’s warring neighbors, Zechariah really wanted to make clear that this would come about through peace and demilitarization, rather than through the escalation of violence, so the symbolism of the donkey as an animal of peace is really important.

Unfortunately, all of that is simply lost on Matthew, who only sees Zechariah’s words as a Nostradamus-like prognostication that just needs to be fulfilled in order to prove a point about Jesus.  Perhaps worse, Matthew fails to understand the poetic device of parallelism and instead takes Zechariah literally!  Matthew actually has Jesus send the disciple to find two animals, a donkey and a colt, which they do, and then he rides them both at the same time, presumably like some sort of circus stunt-rider.

Somehow Jesus makes it to Jerusalem without falling off and breaking a hip.  Matthew, unlike Mark, has people identify Jesus as the prophet from Nazareth, after which Matthew has him enter the Temple and immediately drive out the money-changers and the vendors.  Matthew has Jesus curse the poor fig tree the following day.

Luke’s gospel was written about the same time as, or perhaps up to a decade later than, Matthew’s.  Like Matthew, Luke expands on Mark, incorporating the “Q” material shared with Matthew as well as some unique to Luke.  We get a clear idea of the purpose of Luke’s gospel in its opening verses, which set up the book as an orderly account of events that the author claims to have carefully investigated, dedicating it and Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, to somebody called Theophilus.  That may have been the author’s patron or, since the name simply means “lover of god”, it may have been anybody looking for the sort of theologically sound, historically accurate account that Luke claimed to be.  As such, Luke is the longest and most detailed gospel, apparently written in ways intended to be appreciated as much by struggling Jewish communities as by emerging Christian groups, which would have included Roman citizens who had become followers of Jesus.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem initially follows Mark’s very closely, and does not quote Zechariah.  As the people are calling out their blessings, though, Luke has the Pharisees ask Jesus to tell his disciples to stop.   He refuses, saying that if the people were silent, the stones would shout out instead.

Then Luke includes an extensive lament by Jesus, weeping for the city of Jerusalem and its refusal to recognize the signs of peace, namely Jesus — the heir of King David — riding a donkey — the royal animal of peace.  Luke has Jesus speak of an assault on Jerusalem as punishment for its failure to recognize him as God’s emissary.  Jerusalem had, of course, fallen and its Temple destroyed by the time Luke was written.  Like Matthew, Luke has Jesus then immediately enter the Temple and drive out the vendors, but unlike both Mark and Matthew, Luke does not include anything about the cursing of a fig tree.

Finally, we come to John.  With Mark, Matthew and Luke sharing so much material with one another, they’re known as the synoptic gospels, meaning that they can be seen together, or read in parallel.  The gospel of John, on the other hand, is substantially different, missing some of the characteristic elements of the synoptics such as the parables and the exorcisms.

John is believed to have been written last, perhaps with knowledge of the other three and yet without copying anything from them.  This gospel may have been written for a Christian community that was trying to separate itself from Jewish society, having difficulty in particular with antagonistic synagogue authorities, given John’s portrayal of hostility between Jesus and other Jews.  Still, John is sometimes described as the spiritual gospel, in part because it presents Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos or Word, the divine principle of the Greek school of philosophy known as Stoicism.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is preceded by his raising of Lazarus of Bethany from the dead, a story that isn’t found at all in the other three gospels.  For John, the raising of Lazarus from the dead is one of the most important signs that convinces people to follow Jesus.  John reports that, out of fear of what the Romans might do to them and the Temple, the priests and the Pharisees plot to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus, too.

John explicitly notes that it is a week before Passover when Jesus comes back to Bethany and then heads into Jerusalem.  John is the only gospel that specifically mentions palm branches, giving Palm Sunday its name.  Palm branches were traditionally used as a symbol of triumph and were probably meant to recall the victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks a couple of centuries before, representing the people’s hopes that Jesus would similarly defeat the Romans.  Like Mark and Matthew, John has the people calling out “Hosanna!” which rather than meaning “Hooray!” is actually from the Hebrew for “Save us, we beg you!”

Now John has Jesus finding the donkey himself, and then quotes a simplified version of Zechariah that avoids confusion such as  Matthew’s over how many animals were actually involved.  Perhaps in subtle criticism of the earlier gospel-writers, John comments that the disciples didn’t understand this at first, but only figured out what it meant later on.  Then John has people speak about how they’d seen Lazarus raised from the dead, something that grows the crowd even more.  Finally, the Pharisees complain to one another in resignation that there’s nothing they can do.

John does describe how Jesus drove the vendors and the money-changers out of the Temple, by the way, only as an event very early on in his public ministry, around the time of a previous Passover.  Scholars debate such differences between the gospels, of course, and what they might mean for the chronology of Jesus’ life.

There are lots of questions that, without some sort of time machine, will never be answered when it comes to ancient texts such as the Bible.  Like it or not, though, it’s such a part of our culture in this society that it’s important for all of us to have some level of biblical literacy, whether or not we consider ourselves Christian or even Jewish.  Most Unitarian Universalists do not, of course, and have long since rejected the Bible as unhelpful or even untrue.

In a time when “religion” is all too easily used to oppress rather than to liberate, though, it’s particularly important to understand the Bible and what it says and where it came from so that others can’t use it against us in support of their own bigotry and small-mindedness.  The four stories about Palm Sunday are, I think, a good place to start, given the similarities and the differences between the stories as well as the important symbolism.

There’s the fact that all four gospels agree that Jesus was riding on a donkey, for instance, an animal of peace rather than an animal of war like the horse.  Given cultural traditions, including the writings attributed to Zechariah, the gospels agree that Jesus’ mission was all about peace.  This was not supposed to be a triumphant celebration of the victory of armed might, but a plea for peace, whether that’s between the world’s nations or between the various factions within Judaism itself.

Three of the gospels have the people calling out “Hosanna!” which comes from the Hebrew meaning “Please save us!”  Someone arriving in great power, with swords and other weapons, and certainly riding a big horse rather than a donkey, would have seemed a much better candidate for Messiah, I’m sure.  Perhaps the people were too wrapped up in their stories of how Judas Maccabæus had defeated the Greeks, driving them out of Jerusalem and restoring the Temple as a Jewish holy site.  Perhaps they were thinking of how King David, who was said to be Jesus’ ancestor, had even as a young boy defeated much stronger soldiers like Goliath.

For me there are eerie parallels with some of the ways that, even in our modern world, we tend to pin our hopes on people we single out as special, casting them in the models of our heroes of the past and then, when they inevitably fail to deliver the miracles we demand of them, we crucify them.

By the end of that Passover week, of course, the Romans had executed Jesus, betrayed and abandoned by his own followers.  The triumph of Palm Sunday turns into the tragedy of Good Friday.  But let’s resist the urge to jump ahead to Easter.  Without that time machine, of course, we can’t know if any of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem are remotely accurate accounts of actual events or are, as some people claim, complete fictions.  For me, it doesn’t really matter either way.

I can still learn something and find inspiration in the stories.  What I read in them is a message about the importance of loving one another and living in peace, or at least trying to.  Unitarian Universalists believe lots of different things about Jesus, but we can at least think of him as someone who said some important things about being kind to one another, about treating one another fairly, about standing up for what we believe in without giving in to violence, and about the power of love to conquer everything, even death.

This Palm Sunday, may that be the “good news” we remember in the days and weeks ahead.

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Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

(A homily delivered as part of a shared sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 10th 2013.)

If you’re familiar with our typical Order of Service, you may have noticed that the Offering was not in its usual place this morning.  And if you’re not suffering too much from the effects of losing an hour of sleep last night, you’ll know that this is a second Sunday, which means that we’ll be sharing the offering with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.  And you may also have noticed that the Sierra Club is the subject of our service this morning, in which case that’s all too much to simply be a coincidence.

I actually credit the Sierra Club — and its state chapters and its local groups — for the fact that I’m not only a Unitarian Universalist but also a minister.  Right out of graduate school and starting what I thought was going to be my career as a research scientist, I shared a house with five other vegetarians, all of whom knew a lot more about environmental issues than I did.  Wanting to learn more, the Sierra Club was one of the first environmental organizations I joined, and the one I’ve been a part of the longest by far.  (I became a life member in 2001.)

Moving to California not long after that, I connected with the Sierra Club’s chapter in San Diego, going to the talks they held — in one of the meeting rooms at the San Diego Zoo — and going on the hikes they led — in the gorgeous mountains and deserts further inland.  It was thanks to that chapter of the Sierra Club, in fact, that I first visited a Unitarian Universalist congregation, given their publicity for a workshop on Voluntary Simplicity that was taking place at the First UU Church of San Diego.

Back on the East Coast a few years later, my involvement with both the Unitarian Society of Hartford and the Greater Hartford Group of the Sierra Club developed in parallel.  When I was asked to be responsible for hospitality at the Sierra Club’s monthly meetings, for instance, I agreed if we could switch to the Fair Trade coffee, tea and hot chocolate that, thanks to the UU Service Committee’s partnership with Equal Exchange, I was already providing for social hour after services at the Meeting House.

It seemed to me that there were other opportunities for synergy, too.  I witnessed the effectiveness of a local interfaith group when it came to tackling environmental justice issues such as the hours-long idling of buses that filled school yards — and the lungs of the small children playing in them — with diesel fumes.  And I realized that if we were to truly solve environmental problems from local pollution all the way up to global climate change, then we needed to motivate people to change themselves and their society not out of fear of doomsday scenarios or personal guilt — both of which actually result in paralysis rather than action — but by cultivating both individual morality and social ethics, areas where religion — for good or for ill — has always had great power.  Carl Pope’s essay on building bridges between environmentalists and religious communities had a lot of influence on my thinking in that regard.

So I’m very pleased that sharing the pulpit with me this morning are Glen Besa and Tyla Matteson from the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, which is one of our Share-the-Basket partners this year.  Glen has a degree in law and a long history of leadership with the Sierra Club in the mid-Atlantic states.  He is currently the Director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.  Tyla has a strong background in peace work and political activism.  She is curently one of the chapter’s Environmental Action Chairs as well as the chair of the Sierra Club’s local York River Group.

[Tyla and Glen spoke about the origins of the Sierra Club and the work of the state chapter and local group.  Glen referred to his column about energy policy, published the day before in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.]

Thank you, Glen and Tyla, for being with us this morning.  I hope you’ll take the opportunity to talk with them after the service, particularly about ways that you might get involved with the work of the Virginia Chapter or the York River Group.  But we also have an opportunity to get more involved as a congregation, and that’s because this Fellowship is in the process of becoming a Green Sanctuary.

Following services today, there’ll be a workshop here in the Sanctuary where we’ll put together the action plan that we need to become a Green Sanctuary.  That action plan needs to consist of twelve projects in areas such as worship and celebration, religious education, environmental justice and sustainable living.  And at lease one of the environmental justice projects must be “a major, on-going collaboration with another organization” that “actively promotes justice for those affected by environmental problems” — I think it would be great if that other organization could be the Sierra Club: one such environmental justice issue, as Glen described, is the disproportionate impact of Global Climate Change on those people who have contributed to the problem the least.

All of our Share-the-Basket partners this year were selected not only because they are worthy causes that actively promote what we recognize as Unitarian Universalist values, but because they offer opportunities for participation and hands-on involvement by members of the Fellowship and by the Fellowship as a whole.  The money from the offering that we share with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club each month is a vital part of supporting their mission to “to build healthy, livable communities, and to conserve and restore our natural environment” by thinking globally and acting locally.  I hope you will take this opportunity to find out how you can offer your mind and heart and hands to play a part in that work, too.

So may it be.

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I am an immigrant.

I was born in England and grew up there.  At twenty-one I moved to the United States and have lived here since.  I am now a citizen of the United States, but my proof of that is a Certificate of Naturalization, not a Certificate of Birth.  By my Oath of Allegiance I must serve the United States when required, but under the Constitution I may never serve as President.  I am, and shall always be, an immigrant to this nation.

The Summer before my final year as an undergraduate, I came across a poster about scholarships offered by the Fulbright Commission.  I hadn’t really thought about studying abroad before that.  I had thought about post-graduate studies, but everything I’d heard about how that worked, whether at Cambridge or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, turned me off.  Seeing that poster, though, I had one of those “If not now, then when?” moments.  If I didn’t at least look into the opportunity of going to the United States at that time, I think I knew I never would.

So I submitted an application.  Of course I also had to apply to some graduate schools and take the GRE test, but the Fulbright Commission’s office in London was very helpful to me in figuring out how to do that.  In the end the Commission offered me a minor scholarship.  It was modest, but it would have paid for some of my travel expenses and I was grateful to have been offered it.  However, it came with a big condition: a ‘J’ student visa.  I was told that such a visa was issued only for a limited number of years and would require me to return to the UK after I graduated.  Since I wanted to keep my career options open, I declined the Fulbright offer.  By that time I’d been accepted by Princeton’s Physics Department and that offer included an ‘F’ student visa, allowing more flexibility once I graduated.

My first year in New Jersey, though, I almost fell afoul of that visa’s conditions, when I made plans to go home for Christmas and didn’t realize that I needed the school’s dean for foreign students to sign a particular box on the back of the approved visa application form.  Thankfully an advisor pointed that out to me and I managed to get hold of the dean for her signature the day before my flight.

A couple of years later I actually lost my visa paperwork and was in a panic until the school could replace it.  We foreign students had been strongly advised to keep it with us at all times, given the risk of detention and perhaps deportation even for those of us on legitimate student visas, so I carried my documentation folded up in my passport in my pocket everywhere I went.  At the time I was singing in a choir at Hunter College in New York, and after one rehearsal I noticed my passport lying on the floor near where I’d put my coat.  It looked like my passport had simply fallen out of my pocket, but to my horror I realized that my visa paperwork was missing.  Thankfully nobody challenged me on my immigration status because I wouldn’t have been able to prove I was in the country legally.

After I graduated and I was set to do some lab work while I looked for post-doctoral positions, but I needed to go back to the UK to renew my visa.  However, they were in the middle of changing their visa application process from requiring an in-person visit to doing everything by mail.  Since the Embassy wouldn’t guarantee a turn-around time for the application, which involved mailing in my passport and waiting for it to be mailed back, I had to change my return flight to the US, losing a month of work.  It was actually easier to get a new visa, a few years later, as part of a trip I had planned to India, except that the information on the US Consulate’s Web site was completely out of date so I had to redo all of my paperwork and get new money orders for the fees.  Then there was the visa I had renewed in Vancouver, except that to get information about the Consulate there, I had to call a particular number from a coin-operated pay ‘phone and have enough quarters to listen to the whole message at a rate of four dollars per minute.  A co-worker noted that he never knew the US Department of State used the same technology as ‘phone sex chat lines.

After over a decade of visa-related headaches, I was finally in a position at the University of Connecticut Health Center where I could apply for the holy grail, a green card.  The application paperwork took more time and filled more pages than my doctoral thesis.  The fees were more money than anything I’d spent on myself in my life until then.  It required a doctor and a lawyer.  I even contacted the office of US Senator Chris Dodd, who was a big supporter of the University of Connecticut.  I’ll never know of it’s anything other than a coincidence that the day after the Senator’s letter was sent to Immigration Services, my green card application was approved.

For all that the seventeen-year-long process of going from that first student visa to naturalization and citizenship was complicated, confusing, frustrating and expensive, I’ve been lucky.  The process gave me headaches, not nightmares.  I was never challenged to prove that I had the legal right to be in this country.  I had access to financial and educational services.  I have pension plans and I get statements in the mail accounting for the money I’ve paid to Social Security.  I could call campus safety or the police and never worry that they would be more interested in me than in the reason I’d called them.  Portions of the Patriot Act aside, I need not live in fear of unreasonable government intrusion.  I can go to Prince William County or to Arizona and the color of my skin will not prompt anyone to ask to see my papers; even my accent would be considered charming or cute, not cause for concern.  I look just like the majority of white Americans, but I am, and shall always be, an immigrant.

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Transformation in the Sharing

“In our community of caring we take time to share with one another what is in our hearts — our joys, our sorrows, and important milestones.  I invite you to receive and light a candle, tell us your name, and briefly share what is changing your life.”

Each Sunday these familiar words introduce what our Order of Service names as “Sharing Joys and Concerns”.  For many people, such sharing is an important part of the service, an opportunity for members whose lives are being changed by either joy or sorrow (or, sometimes, both at once!) to speak briefly about that personal transformation.  It’s important because heart-felt sharing develops and deepens fellowship in a way that nothing else can.

What we call Joys and Concerns was introduced into Unitarian Universalist worship during the 1960s and 70s.  It’s generally a combination of the candle-lighting remembrances of Catholicism and Judaism with the personal confessions or petitionary prayers of Protestant churches.  From what I’ve seen, though, it’s done differently in just about every UU congregation.

Some do Joys and Concerns every Sunday while others only do it once a month.  Some have a limited number of candles or a limited amount of time for sharing or a limited number of chairs for people to occupy in advance of their sharing.  Some have candles lit or stones dropped into water, but no sharing.  Some have people write their joys and sorrows in a “book of life” and then they’re blended into a pastoral prayer offered by the minister or a lay leader.  One in seven congregations do not do Joys and Concerns at all.

There have also been debates about Joys and Concerns since it was introduced.  Aside from the amount of time it takes, which can vary unpredictably from two minutes to ten minutes or even more, just about every minister has at least one horror story of thoroughly inappropriate sharing.  Personally I value Joys and Concerns for the emotional warmth it brings to our community, and visitors often comment on how impressed they are that we take this time to care for one another.  For in our stressed-out, endlessly competitive lives in a culture that increasingly values what we have over who we are, Joys and Concerns is a rare time for sharing not what is on our minds but what is in our hearts, not what is happening in our lives but what is changing our lives.

When it comes to the joys, we want to hear about the new child or the new job — or the milestone of a major birthday or wedding anniversary.  When it comes to the concerns, we really want to hear about the family death, the loss of a job, or the illness of a sick friend whose name we should keep in our hearts.  We want to know what is truly changing your life, what it is that is transforming you such that, in the sharing, it can transform everyone who hears you, too.

And that’s because, when all is said and done, we are here to be transformed, to transform one another and our world.  Congregations, more than any other social institutions, exist to change lives.  Sunday services, religious education, small group programs, social events and even committee meetings are all means that serve the end purpose of transformation.  Our members and friends also pledge their financial support of our mission and ministry to change lives, from growing our individual souls and nurturing the life of the community to building the world we dream about.

On Sunday mornings, you’ll hear not only the joys and sorrows that are changing people’s lives, but also personal testimonials about how the Fellowship is changing lives.  These are stories of individual transformation and community deepening as well as stories of how we are changing the world for the better.  So, how have you been transformed?  What is your story of how your life has been changed by being a part of the congregation?  What is your story of how our Fellowship is helping to make the world a better place?  We want to know what is truly changing your life, what it is that is transforming you such that, in the sharing, it can transform everyone who hears you, too.

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We have the power!

“We have more power than we claim, but not as much as we need.”

One of the commitments that Unitarian Universalist ministers make is to continuing education.  Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm this as well by offering their ministers some weeks each year as “study leave”, time free of congregational responsibilities so that it can be spent in courses, workshops and seminars.  And both the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (or UUMA) offer a number of opportunities for on-going professional development, too.

A couple of years ago the UUMA shifted its emphasis for Continuing Education, Networking, Training, Enrichment and Renewal or CENTER from the pre-General-Assembly meeting known as Ministry Days to a separate, week-long, mid-Winter meeting named the CENTER Institute for Excellence in Ministry.  The first of these was held in California in 2011 and the second recently took place in Florida.  (The plan is to hold the Institute every other year, alternating between locations on the East and West coasts, and the California location has already been announced for 2015!)

I attended this year’s CENTER Institute along with almost five-hundred other Unitarian Universalist ministers.  Each of us chose one of eight three-day seminars in which to participate as the core of the meeting.  We also enjoyed uplifting worship services and wonderful times catching up with old colleagues over meals and watching the Sun set over the Gulf of Mexico — sometimes simultaneously!  A particular highlight was the closing worship at which the Reverend Doctor James Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus to the Riverside Church in New York, preached a powerful sermon about “a new anointment for a new appointment”, making the case that this country needs a religious re-awakening and that he (as a non-UU!) fully expects Unitarian Universalists to lead the way.

The seminar I chose to attend was “Power with Love”, led by Marlin Lavanhar and Tamara Lebak, Senior Minister and Associate Minister, respectively, to All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  (At almost 1,800 members, All Souls is the largest bricks-and-mortar congregation in the whole Unitarian Universalist Association, but it is perhaps best known for its radical embrace of multiculturalism when a few years ago it absorbed the remnant of an African-American Pentecostal church after their bishop came out as a Universalist.)  Noting that ministers are usually given little guidance in “how to identify and leverage their power effectively”, Marlin and Tamara aimed in their seminar to cover topics including “leading with vision, raising the money to achieve vision, collaborative leadership, power within a multicultural community, and effective Unitarian Universalist justice-making.”

During the three days of the seminar, we covered all of these topics and more!  (As well as handouts, I have pages and pages of notes that, since returning from Florida, I am slowly working through as a way to start using what I learned.)  Though there were, at times, challenges to our own comfort zones, I found the seminar a wholly fulfilling experience, covering so many different ideas and offering so many practical tools for using our own power and authority to reclaim the incredible promise of our liberal religion.  It gives me confidence that we are indeed turning a corner in our faith tradition, trying to live up to our potential — and certainly the potential that others like the Rev. Dr. James Forbes can see in us — where Unitarian Universalism can no longer be jokingly dismissed, as past UUA President John Buehrens put it, as “the largest, longest lasting, most widely dispersed therapy program for people with authority issues that American culture has ever seen”!

I’ll leave you with a recommendation to watch the video we saw at the very start of the CENTER Institute seminar.  I look forward to hearing from you what you think about its message!

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An Ever-Wider Circle

(A homily delivered at the Hampton Roads Unitarian Universalist Revival on February 24th 2013.)

Toward the end of the nineties I lived in San Diego and was friends with someone who worked at one of the many biotech companies in that part of southern California.  With its famously mild climate, there were always plenty of things going on outdoors, and one Saturday my friend invited me to join her and some of her co-workers who were going to play volleyball.

Now I’ve never considered myself a particularly sporty person.  As a child in school I would much rather have stayed inside with a good book than play sports; unfortunately, they were mandatory, at least at the schools I attended while growing up in England, even if it seemed to me that rugby was just a popular means of ending up on an operating table.

In this case, though, it was supposed to be about fun with friends, and there’d be a picnic and maybe we’d see a movie afterwards.  Now I’d never actually played volleyball before and I quickly realized how strenous it was.  Afterwards I was pretty tired, but on the whole I’d had a good time.

A week or two later I was at my friend’s house and I asked if her co-workers were going to be playing volleyball again any time soon.  Well, my friend got that look on her face that people get when they feel awkward about needing to say something they’d really rather not say.  Since there wasn’t any avoiding it, though, she just said it: her co-workers didn’t want me to play volleyball with them again.  Yes, I had been explicitly dis-invited, excluded because I wasn’t good enough or hadn’t taken it seriously enough or something like that.

Ouch!  If you’ve ever had something like this happen to you, you know the pain that goes with it.  And I’m pretty sure that all of us here this morning have experienced some form of rejection in our lives.  Perhaps you were trying to join a group and it was made clear to you that you didn’t fit in.  Maybe it was something you said or did, or perhaps the way you said or did it, or, who knows, even the way you look or sound.  Perhaps you’ve found yourself excluded because of the questions you asked or the beliefs you claimed or the person you love.  And perhaps you ended up blaming yourself simply for being what and you are.

Now at about the same time I being rejected for whatever heresy I had committed against volleyball, I was also finding out about this religion called Unitarian Universalism.  I attended a couple of different events at the local church and I noticed something curious.  They had a pagan group.  They had a Christian fellowship.  There were humanist discussions and Jewish seders.  Atheists listened to sermons on spirituality and they all sang hymns with familiar church tunes, only the words had been updated to be gender-neutral and theologically inclusive.  How was this possible, I wondered to myself?  How could so many people believing so many different things actually form a community together?

I’ve since realized that when it comes to community, what each of us believes doesn’t really matter.  What really matters is how we behave, how we treat one another and the world around us.  And whether we choose to exclude certain people or to embrace them says less about what we believe than about who we are as human beings and what we love about ourselves as human beings.

A few years ago I was standing in the social hall of a different Unitarian Universalist church where I noticed, in amongst a number of framed pictures displayed on the wall, another frame containing not a picture but some printed words.  Looking closer, I saw that it was the poem “Outwitted” by American poet Edwin Markham:

“He drew a circle that shut me out —
heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”

For me this captures, in a mere thirty-one words, the central challenge of that unusual religion known as Unitarian Universalism.  Our faith strives to draw an ever-wider circle, providing a spiritual home to everyone no matter the questions they ask or the beliefs they claim or the person they love.  For we are all in this together and everyone should be welcome in the circle of love and life and hope.

Oh, and I should mention that my congregation here in Newport News has a softball league that meets every Saturday morning during the warmer months, and to my knowledge they’ve never disinvited anyone, not even me.

So let us live into the promise that is Unitarian Universalism: that we are different people with different life experiences and different understandings of the world and our places in it, and yet we can nonetheless come together in a boldly shared endeavor to grow the Beloved Community not only for ourselves but for our whole world.

So may it be.

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