Archive for November, 2013

To Create a Dynamic Community the Celebrates Life and Searches for Truths

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 17th 2013.)

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

Many of you know that before I went into ministry I had a career in science.  I trace this back to my childhood, when I first found a fascination with machinery.  Well, to be precise, it came from a children’s television show that was set in an antiques store and featured a cast of toys who came to life after hours.  The toy mice were typically the troublemakers in every episode, and in one they tricked the other toys into thinking they had a machine that made cookies.  The mice emptied small sacks of flour and sugar and other ingredients into one end of the machine, and a nice round cookie came rolling out of the other end.  It turned out that the mice were just taking the one cookie and bringing it around the back of the machine and sending it rolling out the front again, and soon enough the other toys figured out that it was all a trick.  But I liked cookies, at least the ones my mother baked, and I thought to myself that it must be possible to build a machine that really took flour and sugar and other ingredients and actually make cookies.  It was just a matter of figuring out how to build such a machine.

A couple of years later I was introduced to chemistry, and that seemed even better.  For one thing, I think I’d realized by then that you could simply buy cookies that were made by machines, and that took away of the challenge.  But chemistry!  You could take this little glass tube of something blue and heat it up over a flame and it would turn white.  And then, you could add a little water, and what had been this white ashy stuff would turn a brilliant blue again.  It was like magic!  The possibilities seemed endless for transforming substances into one another, for making things that would change color or burn with bright flames or give off strange smells.  I wanted to find out more, to find out what could be done in a chemistry laboratory.  When my parents gave me a chemistry set that Christmas, I asked about using a storage shed at the back of our garden to do experiments.  They agreed, perhaps wanting to encourage this budding interest of mine, perhaps thinking that at least I’d be outdoors.

Some time in high school, though, we were introduced to organic chemistry, and some of the attraction wore off.  We were expected to learn about these techniques for bringing about certain reactions, but the catalysts that were used and whether something actually worked or not, well, it all just seemed so random.  In the mean-time, I’d been learning about physics, about laws and forces and particles and space and time.  Chemistry, we’d been taught, was a consequence of physics, so physics was more fundamental, and it opened up whole new vistas of imagination.  I had started reading science fiction, too, and the mere chance it might be possible to travel faster than light, to explore other star systems, well, I wanted to find out everything I could about what really makes the Universe tick.

I think I took that about as far as I could.  In graduate school I worked with a professor who developed an alternative formulation of quantum mechanics, and though I helped him flesh out some of his ideas a little further, I was reaching the limits of what I was able to do with the mathematics.  It wasn’t much consolation that other professors working on the bleeding edge of physics were saying things like how five new fields of mathematics would have to be invented just to capture some of the concepts then being proposed.

After graduate school, I was fortunate to have research work that paid me enough to maintain a frugal lifestyle, but I was at something of a loss for a few years.  I did some teaching, which I enjoyed, but otherwise found myself back where I started, figuring out how to make machines that did particular things.  Not make cookies, I’m sad to say.  No, I was building microscopes that could look at biological processes in living cells.  The professors for whom I worked got their funding on the basis of the potential applications for diagnosing certain diseases, for understanding the mechanisms of such diseases, and perhaps even for therapeutic treatments in some cases.  So having been to the frontiers of our understanding of reality, so to speak, I now found myself drawn to finding ways to help people, even if only indirectly by figuring out new tools and techniques that others could use in their research of better diagnostics and treatments.

Though some have wondered how I moved from physics to ministry, I don’t see it as such a big leap when I look back at it.  Ministry is considered a helping profession, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to accompany someone as they try to figure out what’s going on in their lives, to help them find creative, compassionate ways to respond to the struggles that they face.  And when it comes to religion, to understanding what it means to be human and how we can be our best with one another, well, the challenges and the possibilities are even greater than they are in science.  Though my career, my vocation, my calling has changed, I’m still searching for the same truths.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life

July 19th will be one of the most important days of each year for the rest of my life.  It was the day last year on which my daughter was born, and so July 19th will always be for me, first and foremost, Olivia’s birthday.  I shall never forget her first cries as she was delivered; I held tight to Allison’s hand and the world stood still in that moment.  Someone took a picture of the three of us; I don’t remember who — it doesn’t really matter — but I’ll treasure that picture forever.  Many hours later, after a long day in the hospital, busier than any we had known before, and having shared our happy news with family and friends, we were finally able to sleep, filled with joy for this precious gift of a child in our lives.

Unfortunately July 20th woke us with decidedly unhappy news.  We noticed that some of our friends had posted on Facebook their reassurances that they were okay, and we wondered what had happened that might have caused them to not be okay.  Turning on the news, we learned that a man had opened fire at a movie theater in Colorado, killing a dozen people and wounding dozens more.  And our hearts sank when we recognized the theater, not far from where we had lived in Aurora just a few years ago, and where we had ourselves watched movies.  A couple of our friends had even planned to go to the movie showing where the shooting had happened, but thankfully decided in the end to go to a different movie theater.

It was hard to wrap our minds around both the great joy of Olivia’s birth and the great sorrow of so many pointless deaths in Aurora.  There was, of course, very little we could do about the latter, other than to reach out to our friends in Colorado, to say that we were thinking about them, that we were with them in their grief.  As for here in Newport News, we had a baby to look after, we had to get ready to go home, and we had to take the plunge into our new lives as parents.  Through it all we were reminded of what really matters in life, something that is both precious and all too brief.  We were filled with gratitude to the doctors and nurses who looked after both Allison and Olivia, to our parents for all of their love and support, and to the members of this congregation who helped us in so many ways both before and after Olivia was born.  And we found ourselves filled with hope, hope for Olivia’s future, hope for all of us, hope that even in the midst of tragic events we would always be able to find the courage to celebrate life.  For how do we truly respond to tragedies — from the man-made evil of the Boston Marathon bombing to the natural devastation of Typhoon Haiyan — if not from a place of celebrating life?

That’s a big part of what being here is all about, of course.  Joy and sorrow, reasons to celebrate and reasons to grieve, life gives them to us together.  Often we can’t do much about that, so it’s what we do with it that makes all the difference.  And it can be a really big difference.

Three years ago, for example, a few of us decided that we wanted to start observing Transgender Day of Remembrance here at the Fellowship.  I can say without reservation that it is one of the hardest things we do.  The main element in it is the reading of names, the names of people who were transgender or did not conform to gender stereotypes and who were killed by others out of fear and hatred.  Hearing what happened to each person, many of whom were not just violently killed but cruelly mutilated as well, your faith in humanity is called into question.  Reading aloud what happened… well, it’s hard to do that.  And yet we’re doing it again this afternoon, the third year we’ve observed Transgender Day of Remembrance, refusing to give in to the sorrow, to the shame of what some people are willing to do to others.  We do it, paradoxically, as a celebration of life, accepting the sorrow but standing resolutely against the fear and the hatred, lifting the small lights of faith that beckon us all onward into a world where all of us can be fully human, fully realized and, most importantly, fully loved.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community

When I first went to seminary, I took courses part-time while I continued to work in my research job full-time.  I spent five years, in fact, doing a third of the coursework I’d ultimately complete, and at the end of that time, when I was about to move from Connecticut to Colorado in order to complete my studies, I gave a farewell sermon at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, thanking them for their support and encouragement, describing some of what I’d learned, and sharing some of my hopes and plans.

Something I noted was that, in at least eight out of the ten courses I’d taken, I’d come to address the meaning of community, the importance of religious community, not just in courses on congregational studies but in courses on topics from environmental ethics to the letters of Paul to the Corinthians.  I’ve since realized, though, that this was more than just an academic interest to me.

When I was a child, about the time I started to get interested in science, I got my sister and the boy next door together to organize the other children on our street into our naïve idea of a gang.  Our base was the shed at the back of my parent’s garden that I was using as a chemistry laboratory, and perhaps a wise observer might have guessed I was destined for church work when our main activity was holding committee meetings.

A few years later my school bought its first computers, and a another student and I thought it’d be a good idea to learn more about how to use them, so we organized a computer club to teach ourselves what we thought we needed to know.  In high school I started a science society, to bring in local speakers to talk to us about topics that added a real-world dimension to what we were learning in classes.  Or, in the case of yours truly, to give a talk about time-travel.  At university I joined a host of student organizations on topics from physics and astronomy to music appreciation and learning to sing Russian folk songs.  Perhaps you can see something of a pattern emerging here.

Things changed when I came to the United States. I didn’t participate in many official clubs or societies in graduate school, but I found a fairly close-knit group of friends amongst the mathematicians, who for whatever reason were much more sociable than my fellow physicists.  And, thanks to my girlfriend at the time, I went up to New York a couple of times a week to sing in a large college choir.  It wasn’t until I was living in San Diego that I really found myself part of an organized community again.  At first that was with a group of students and university alumni who met for dinner each week to talk about science fiction and go to the movies.  And then it was when I organized the Pantheists of Southern California, bringing together for meals and talks and hikes a variety of people who saw divinity in the Universe and sacredness in Nature.  And when I moved back to the East Coast — and having finally heard about Unitarian Universalism after nearly a decade of living in this country, which was way too long not to have heard about Unitarian Universalism — one of the first things I did was join the Unitarian Society of Hartford.

So looking back, it’s really not surprising that in all those seminary courses, I found some way to bring the course material to bear on the subject of community.  I wanted to find out what community means; I wanted to find out what makes a community tick; I clearly wanted to be part of a community, no matter my age, occupation or place in the world.  I’m still figuring it out, of course.  Being here at the Fellowship for three-plus years has been eye-opening, that’s for sure.  And in a good way!  You may not realize what a gift it truly is to be immersed in such a great community as thrives here.  I know I’m blessed to be a part of it.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

In the last month I preached three sermons that all had the word “church” in their titles.  I’d intended for the first two to be a pair — though I hadn’t realized that it would lead to a bidding war at the auction over who would get to select a topic for one of my future sermons!  But the third sermon turned out to be a part three, so I’ve been referring to them, when people ask about being able to read them and share them with others, as the “church” trilogy.

In planning for this service, I realized I didn’t want to do what would essentially be part four of the “church” trilogy.  Yes, our mission is important, and it’s something that we all need to keep in mind as the true owner of this Fellowship.  Our “bottom line” as a congregation truly is, as Dan Hotchkiss asserts, the degree to which our mission is being achieved.  Yes, I want you all to read the UUFP Planning Committee’s report, and to re-read it if you’ve done it before.  It’s on the website, and the Planning Committee wants to know what you think, too, with a survey that is going out to everyone this week; please do take the time to respond.  And yes, how we achieve our mission and realize our vision and implement a strategic plan for doing both hinges critically on leadership and on leadership development and on the willingness of every member and friend of this beloved community to engage, at some level, with the life and ministry of this congregation.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t convince anyone of any of that by preaching a part four of the “church” trilogy.  If you think you might be convinced by reading those three sermons, great, I can tell you how you can do that, but this morning I thought I’d try a different approach.

So I told you about myself, about some of my own personal history when it comes to searching for truths in science and religion, when it comes to celebrating life in both joy and sadness, and when it comes to the pursuit of a dynamic community where I could belong.  But I know I’m not the only one with such narratives, with similar stories about growing up and finding friends and discovering what really matters in life.  And that is why we are here.  It’s why our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths is the true owner of this congregation, because it reflects what has brought us here and who we already are.

Let me finish with this request.  I want to hear your stories.  I want to hear your stories about your searching for truths and your celebrations of life and your need for a dynamic community where you belong.  So send me an e-mail.  Write me an old-fashioned letter.  Post something on your blog and give me the link.  Invite me for coffee at Starbucks or Aroma’s.  I want to hear your stories, and for that matter I want you to share them with one another, too.  Because our mission and everything that comes with it reflects what has brought us here and who we already are, so your stories matter.  And it’s in the telling of them that we’ll create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

So may it be.

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How to Listen

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 4th 2013.)

Reading: “Deep Listening” by Mary-Elizabeth Cotton

Sermon: “How to Listen”

About ten years ago I worked in a university research group that met at lunch-time each Friday for a presentation.  The food — usually pizza — was provided and the presenters were often people from inside the group but were sometimes researchers visiting us from elsewhere.  The typical format had the presentation itself lasting around forty-five minutes and then there’d be time for questions and general discussion.

The room where we met was perhaps half the size of this Sanctuary, a simple rectangle with a screen on one side and tables arranged in a squared-off ‘U’ shape so that people could sit and eat and listen to the presenter.  Maybe it was the intimacy of the space, as distinct from the anonymity of, say, a big lecture hall, but it wasn’t unusual for people to interrupt the presentation by asking questions.

After being in this research group for a while I noticed something.  Sometimes the questions were simple requests for clarification or for the presenter to repeat something.  More often, though, the questions were more involved, and either distracted from the point of the talk or pre-empted what was going to come next anyway.  In those cases it was clear that the person asking the question wasn’t really listening to what the presenter was saying, and was instead thinking about the question they were planning to ask.

Now this sort of thing is to be expected in an academic setting, where ideas are supposed to be debated and tested and compared so that bad ideas can be weeded out and good ideas can be made better.  And in everyday life, we’re used to the back-and-forth of conversation as a dialogue, where giving advice or making suggestions is usually okay, and where whoever is not speaking at any given time is more often than not thinking about what they’re going to say next.  This is what might be called “regular listening”, though it’s really characterized by the basic sensory experience of hearing rather than the intentional, conscious act of listening.

Then there’s what is called “active listening”, which is what is supposed to take place in a classroom or a learning circle or during counseling or therapy.  Here the focus is on particular subject matter or issues.  The content of what is being said is evaluated by the listener, and may be reframed or reflected for clarification.  There is also a concern for the consequences of the conversation, in that its purpose may be to teach something or to develop understanding.  It’s called “active” listening in contrast to a passive activity where what is said is simply heard; rather, the hearer becomes a listener by actively engaging with what is said.

That’s all well and good.  Both regular listening and active listening have their value.  In a congregation such as ours, for instance, regular listening is the casual conversation that takes place before, between and after services, right outside the Sanctuary doors.  It’s the “small talk” that comes into the building with us as we arrive for a meeting, letting us catch up with what is going on in one another’s lives, helping us to feel connected to the people we know and like and love, and conveying in whatever words are actually spoken a simple yet essential reminder: “You are human and so am I.”

Active listening, meanwhile, takes place in RE classes and discussions, in presentations and workshops, in committee meetings and planning sessions.  Active listening is essential if information is to be conveyed, if knowledge is to be gained, if action is to be taken, or if decisions are to be made.  Active listening, in other words, is essential to the success of the business of the congregation, whether that’s providing hospitality on Sunday morning or developing programs for advocacy and outreach or funding a healthy budget that enables our mission and ministry.

But here’s where we run up against an important truth.  All of that business is in support of something other than itself.  And reminding one another that we’re human is a start, but not an end.  If the living tradition that is Unitarian Universalism is based on the truth that we are most human when we are in right relationship with one another and with the world around us, then we need more than either regular listening or active listening can provide.  We need what we call “deep listening”.

As doctor and author Rachel Naomi Remen puts it, “I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give one another is our attention.  When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them.”

Deep listening is different from regular listening in that there is no conversation.  Dialogue, in fact, tends to get in the way, because when you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next you’re not actually listening.  And deep listening is different from active listening in that what is heard is not evaluated or judged, but simply accepted with attentive compassion.  It focuses on individuals and their experiences and their feelings about those experiences, and it is never, ever about offering advice or making suggestions or trying to “fix” the other person.

Now I’m more than willing to admit that this doesn’t come naturally to many of us — and that certainly includes me!  But it is something that, like most things, we can practice and get better at doing.  So I’d like us to do just that, right now.  Actually I’d like you to practice “active listening” first, since I’m going to give you some instructions I’d like you to follow, but I want you to hear the instructions in full before you start following them.

In a moment I’m going to ask you to pair up with someone sitting near you.  Whether you already know them or not doesn’t matter.  And if you don’t want to take part in this, that’s perfectly fine; just make that clear to the people around you.  Once you’ve found another person, decide between the two of you who will be speaking and who will be listening.  Then the speaker should start speaking, and what you’re going to speak about is something at least reasonably meaningful that happened to you during the last week.  Talking about something emotional is okay, but if the only thing on your mind has a particularly strong emotional charge, you should probably be the listener for the purpose of this exercise.  The listener, then, should simply listen.  No questions, no verbal responses, no conversation.  Just listen, deeply and compassionately.

After a minute or two, I’ll ring the bell.  (That may not seem like a whole lot of time, but remember that the point of this is not to convey information or an entire story about your daily life.)  At that point, the speaker should stop speaking, and now the listener will name the feelings that came across.  Was the speaker sharing a happy experience?  Or a sad one?  Was there regret or joy or fear or hope in what was spoken?  Simply name the feelings that you heard.  If there’s only one to name, that’s fine.  Then I’ll ring the bell again, and we’ll continue the sermon.

So now, please get into pairs and begin the exercise.

[The exercise took place!]

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has explained that “We hear with one aim only; we don’t listen in order to criticize, to blame, to correct the person who is speaking or to condemn the person.  We listen with one aim, and that is to relieve the suffering of the one we are listening to.”

Now unless those of you who were speaking were sharing a recent experience that troubled you, you may not feel that you had any suffering that needed to be relieved.  But I hope, at least, that in speaking you felt affirmed and sincerely heard.  I also suspect that, for more than a few of you, this may be the first time you have had someone else simply listen to you, without judgment or agenda.

As President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, has noted, people are now more isolated than ever before.  A 1985 survey asked participants how many people they knew in whom they could really confide; the most common answer was three.  Repeating the survey in 2004, the most common answer was zero.  Morales has called this “our greatest challenge”, that, in this age of text messaging and Facebook and Twitter, we are, in his words, “the most emotionally isolated human beings who have ever lived on this planet.”

As part of our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, we offer facilitated opportunities to engage in deep listening, to bring people together simply to listen to each other, accepting one another’s words with compassion and without judgment, in the form of small group ministry that we call Fellowship Circles.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.  I have invited some of the participants from last round of Fellowship Circles to share their experiences with you this morning.

[Read on the UUFP e-Flame the testimonials offered by four UUFP members: “Why I Am a Member and Supporter of Fellowship Circles”, “Turning Strangers Into Friends”, “The Quiet Heart of Our Beloved Community”, and “A Deeper Perspective”.]

Small group ministry affirms right relationship as a basic practice of life together, a way we live our faith that goes beyond petty pride and vanity to allow joy and pain to be genuinely shared, striving to be our best selves in fellowship with one another.  As we prepare to begin another round of Fellowship Circles this Fall, my question to you is not, “Do you have time to be a part of this?”  Rather, my question is, “Do you have the time not to be a part of it?”

I remain convinced that small group ministry is one of the most important ways we can save ourselves and our world.  Participants in our Fellowship Circles offer one another a safe space where they can share what is truly in their hearts, and that is the greatest gift that we can give one another.  As writer and behaviorist Margaret Wheatley declares, “I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again.  Simple, truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well.”

May it be so.

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Soul Repair: a Social Practice of Love

(I preached this sermon for Memorial Day at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 26th 2013.  Other than where indicated, my source for this sermon was Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury after War by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini.)

Shortly after the end of World War II, United States Army combat historian S. L. A. Marshall published a report claiming that, of the U.S. troops engaged in actual combat, a full three-quarters of them never actually fired their weapons at the enemy, even when their own lives were directly threatened.  Marshall concluded in 1947 that “the average and normally healthy individual — the man that can endure the mental and physical stresses of combat — still has such an inner and unrealized resistance toward killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility. […] At a vital point, he becomes a conscientious objector, unknowing.”

Marshall recommended to the Army brass who were understandably alarmed by his conclusions that they should develop new training methods to overcome their soldiers’ reluctance to killing.  In the following decades, such “reflexive fire training”, as it is known, raised the percentage of soldiers willing to fire directly at the enemy from twenty-five in World War II to more than fifty in Korea to almost ninety percent in Vietnam.  In that sense, the training program was very successful.  Some veterans, however, have noted that reflexive fire training bypassed their’ own moral decision-making processes — and did so without providing any preparation for dealing with the emotional and spiritual consequences of having killed another human being.

While there is training to prepare for war, there is no equivalent process for returning to civilian life.  In generations past, going home would be a long process; today our soldiers go from active combat to the civilian world in fewer than three days — and then only to be deployed again.

During our Ministry to Military Families potlucks, this was a frequent topic of conversation. It’s also the subject of the book Soul Repair by Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini, which brings together the stories of veterans who experienced what they call “moral injury”.  Different from post-traumatic stress disorder, which “occurs in response to prolonged, extreme danger and is a […] reaction to danger [that] produces hormones that affect [the parts of the brain] that control responses to fear, as well as regulate emotions and connect fear to memory”, moral injury “results when soldiers violate their core moral beliefs, and in evaluating their behavior negatively, they feel they can no longer live in a reliable, meaningful world and can no longer be regarded as decent human beings.  They may feel this,” Brock and Lettini explain, “even if what they did was warranted and unavoidable.”  “Seeing someone else violate core moral values or feeling betrayed by persons in authority can also lead to a loss of meaning and faith.”  As combat-trained U.S. Army chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. discovered when ministering to soldiers in Vietnam, he would sometimes hear what amounted to confessions of “profound, searing shame” as well as feelings of betrayal by senior officers and the government.  “From these conversations, Herm concluded that something profound and soul endangering was the source of their suffering, not just ‘shell shock’ or what was later called PTSD.”

Let me back up and saying something about why I’m preaching on this topic.

Two years ago today, this pulpit was filled by Pat Owen, who is herself a twenty-two-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force.  She is currently Director of Membership for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond as well as a student at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, which is our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago.  Pat is amply qualified, then, to preach on the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and the military, and in her sermon she specifically charged us to “consider it part of our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.  As Pat said, with so many military facilities in this part of Virginia, not to mention the shipyards, “this congregation finds itself in the perfect position to create an exemplary program connecting with service members.”

We’ve spent the last couple of years trying to begin figuring out how to do that.  One of the first things we did was bring together a number of veterans, active duty personnel and military spouses who are members of the Fellowship, to ask them what they need.  A safe place to share stories and memories and experiences with others who would understand was one of the needs that was expressed, and so we began a series of regular potlucks to try to meet that need.  Something else that was mentioned was being better understood by members of the congregation who have no military experience, so last Veterans Day I invited some of our members to speak to us on what it means to be an enlisted UU, what it means to be a UU military spouse, what it means to be a UU and a veteran.

Now in that Veterans Day service I mentioned a program developed by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is the three-and-a-half-thousand member “congregation without walls” that includes Unitarian Universalists who have no local church to attend as well as many UUs who are serving in the military.  At first glance, this program seemed ideal, offering a way to bring together our members both in the military and not and engaging them in mutually enlightening conversation around topics of military service, peace, war and ministry.  As we took a closer look at the program, though, we realized that it was really intended for congregations experiencing conflict around these issues, and that’s not us.  One of the things I very quickly realized about this Fellowship is that while it certainly includes people holding widely differing opinions on matters of war and peace, there is a deep atmosphere of respect and appreciation and love that makes this, unlike some Unitarian Universalist congregations, a place where all of us can be proud of our military personnel and veterans and their spouses and families, where we can thank them for their service.  And it’s not hard to see how much these military families add by being here, so it’s always sad to see them go as and when they are transferred to other posts elsewhere in the country.

The question remains, then, as to how we can respond to Pat Owen’s charge “to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.  There’s no one way, of course, but I was struck by something that came up at that first meeting — and came up again and again at the subsequent potlucks — namely the fact that the move from active duty to veteran — from the structure and discipline of military life to the uncertainty and ambiguity of civilian life — can be one of the hardest transitions anyone is ever expected to make in their life.  It’s tough for those of us who have never served in the military to understand that, but journalist Sebastian Junger provides one insight we can appreciate.  He writes, “The classic story of a man throwing himself on a hand grenade — certain death, but an action that will almost certainly save everyone else — is neither a Hollywood cliché nor something that only happened in wars gone by. It is something that happens with regularity, and I don’t think it can be explained by ‘army training’ or any kind of suicidal impulse.  I think that kind of courage goes to the heart of what it means to be human and to affiliate with others in a kind of transcendent way.  Of course, once you have experienced a bond like that, everything else looks pathetic and uninteresting.  That may be one reason,” Junger concludes, that “combat vets have such a hard time returning to society.”

So how does the U.S. Army, for instance, help prepare its personnel for going home?  Well, here’s one comment on a debriefing as experienced by Iraq veteran Camilo Mejía: “A twenty-minute session centering on the admonition Don’t commit suicide doesn’t do much to ease the anguish of a soldier dealing with the horror, for instance, of having killed a child, just as a group session with a combat stress team isn’t much help if your life is at risk twenty-four hours a day.”

And how well do such debriefings work?  Consider the fact that veterans make up about seven percent of the U.S. population but represent twenty percent of all suicides.  The Veterans Administration estimates, in fact, that veteran suicides average one every eighty minutes.  And between 2005 and 2007 alone, the suicide rate among veterans under thirty increased by more than a quarter.  Veterans are also disproportionately divorced, unemployed, homeless and imprisoned.

Now while this is known to VA researchers, getting to VA services and benefits is another matter.  Brock and Lettini open their book by telling some of the story of Clay Warren Hunt, the “twenty-eight-year-old former marine corporal who earned a Purple Heart serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.”  In 2009 he was “a model to other veterans of a successful return home”, married, taking college courses, advocating for veterans’ rights and working in disaster relief.  In 2010 “the VA lost his benefit application papers and [his] payments were delayed for ten months.  Frustrated, he lobbied Congress on behalf of veteran’s benefits:  ‘You fight for your country,” he said, “then come home and have to fight against your own country for the benefits you were promised.’”  Then “his marriage ended, he left school, [and he] went into treatment for depression”.  In 2011 Clay killed himself.  “Over a thousand people attended his funeral.”

Clay’s experience with the VA is far from unique.  Pamela Lightsey spent time in the military, worked in civil service positions associated with her husband’s continued career in the military, and her son, Dweylon, joined the Army and was posted to Iraq.  Eight years after coming home, Dweylon had still not received the help he needed, and Pamela worries about him as only a mother can.  “What he has achieved at home,” she explains, “is especially miraculous in the face of VA services that are not only just awful but also require veterans to have to fight their own government for the disability support or financial compensation owed them from serving in war.  It can take many years going back and forth filing and responding to documents for disability pay. Some even have to hire an attorney to help them back their way through all the red tape.”

I’ve heard from some of our own members here about the problems with the Veterans Administration, particularly our local VA Medical Center in Hampton.  It’s even been a recurring segment on The Daily Show, which is not known for taking current events entirely seriously but has been reporting on the horrendous backlog of benefits applications at the VA, to the extent that the weight of hundreds of thousands of paper claim forms is buckling the floors of the building where they are waiting to be processed.

Unfortunately, even if the VA were able to process the applications in a timely manner, it is “not prepared to help [those] in emotional pain and deep anguish.”  As discovered by U.S. Marine veteran Mac Bica, “about all the help the VA offered [him upon his return from Vietnam] was some group therapy and heavy medication like Thorazine to ease depression and anxiety.”  Recognizing that he could not simply put the war behind him, as some well-meaning friends advised him, Mac found himself challenging “modern therapeutic approaches to the suffering of veterans as afflictions of stress and trauma, clustered under the umbrella of PTSD[, approaches that deem] moral and spiritual considerations irrelevant, or even a hindrance to restoring psychological health.”  As Iraq veteran Camilo Mejía explains it, “PTSD and moral injury are two different hidden wounds of war.”  “PTSD is a breach of trust with the world” — he found he could no longer trust roads not to explode nor trust children not to throw grenades at him.  “Moral injury, however, is the violation of a moral agreement he had with his own internal world, his moral identity.  Camilo broke that inner agreement by violating his most deeply held moral beliefs”,  killing unarmed civilians and allowing prisoners of war to be tortured.  The fact that he did those things under orders is of little comfort.

Now some of you may know that the Army has attempted to address the impacts of combat on its soldiers’ health and well-being by instituting a program called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness”.  Primarily directed at helping its soldiers to be resilient — in other words, to be able to “bounce back” after trauma and stress — the CSF program identifies five dimensions of resilience, which are physical, emotional, social, family and spiritual.  The spiritual dimension of fitness is defined as “strengthening a set of beliefs, principles or values that sustain a person beyond family, institutional, and societal sources of strength”, which makes it little more than an “everything else not included above” category.  Furthermore, the spiritual fitness part of the program has come under criticism as a back-door means to promote Evangelical Christianity, with non-Christians and particularly atheists experiencing discrimination.  And as Brock and Lettini note, the Army’s definition of “spiritual [fitness] fails to contain any moral content or to acknowledge the basic existence of moral conscience, which is the key to distinguishing a healthy person from a sociopath.”  The irony, in fact, is that the CSF program seems to promote a spirituality that would rule out empathy and ethical concerns, meaning that veterans with moral injury are actually stigmatized as being spiritually unfit.

What is to be done about all of this?  Well, there’s what might be called the “top down” approach, but that’s problematic.  Iraq veteran Kevin Benderman originally chose a career in the Army in order to defend his country, but, horrified by what he had already witnessed, he refused to redeploy as a way to uphold “the honor and integrity of military service, which taught him to respect the truth.”  His application for Conscientious Objector status was supported by a chaplain but was eventually denied, and he was court-martialed, demoted and sentenced to fifteen months in a military prison.  Studying the politics — and the economics — of war, “Kevin believes that ‘protest demonstrations to stop wars are useless.  People are still driven by their fears to believe propaganda rather than to challenge the lies that send people to war.”  Rather, the civilian public needs to “demand justice for those who fought and those who died.”  “Until the public demands an accounting, Kevin is certain that the country’s leaders, trusting in military power, mesmerized by weapons systems, and oblivious to the cost of war on ordinary people, will fail to use intelligence, moral reasoning and common sense in dealing with international problems.”

But there’s also a “bottom up” approach.

My reading this morning came from Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way, a work of fiction that described a nonetheless real Navajo practice known as “the Enemy Way”, an extensive, difficult process to purge the harmful effects of war, fatal accidents and other encounters with death from the soul.  VA hospitals in the Southwest even promote ceremonies such as the Enemy Way to help Native American veterans, so there’s some hope on that front.  Along the same lines, “Christian churches in the first millennium required anyone who ‘shed human blood’ to undergo a rehabilitation process that included reverting to the status of someone who had not yet been baptized” and required them to spend at least a year re-developing their faith.

Whether we consider the extinct practices of primitive Christianity or the continuing practices of the Navajo Nation, the work of soul repair is a deliberate, arduous tasks.  As Brock and Lettini note, “We must resist offering hasty forgiveness to absolve ourselves and others.  If we can take the time, instead, to listen to what veterans say to us, to befriend them as we journey together toward a different world, we can together discover how deep transformation leads us toward the moral conscience that is the deepest, most important dimension of our shared humanity.  In doing so, we can come to understand the honor and integrity of military service and the importance of the moral criteria for war, which the military itself teaches, and what it would require of everyone one of us to send any one of us to war.”  I think this is getting at what Pat Owen meant when she challenged us to “consider it part of our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans and military members”.

Now Soul Repair is not a “how to” manual.  There is, unfortunately, no program in here that we can simply adapt and adopt.  This is new territory — one barely appreciated by the Veterans Administration and still essentially denied by the military hierarchy and the government.  The Soul Repair Center, of which Rita Nakashima Brock is co-director, at the Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth is working on programs and materials for congregations, theological schools and community organizations that want to support the recovery of veterans and others from moral injury, but it’s still very new.

But I really dislike, if I can at all help it, ending a sermon by having described a problem and yet offering nothing about what we, as a congregation, might do about it.  To even frame the topic of moral injury in terms of the phrase “soul repair” is to imply that there’s a significant spiritual dimension to it, and that ought to align it with the bread-and-butter of every religious organization.

More veterans look for help from ministers than from psychiatrists, and it’s no accident that many of the veterans whose stories are told in Brock and Lettini’s book sought to deepen their faith as a way to repair their own souls, some becoming ministers.  Moreover, there’s clearly an important rôle for non-Christian faith communities, particularly Unitarian Universalist congregations when it comes to pagans, humanists, atheists and so on who feel excluded by the military’s capitulation to Evangelical Christianity when it comes to matters of spiritual fitness.

For example, Army veteran and chaplain Herman Keizer Jr. wants religious communities to create, in his words, “a place of grace” that supports recovery from moral injury.  When few “social institutions teach moral integrity, courage, personal discipline, humility, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and commitment to the lives others better than” — no, not churches — but the military, then “people of faith [are called] to wade into the complex moral questions of war and social responsibility and discern the meaning of spiritual life after war [so that we] can engage the conversations that matter deeply and, in doing so, save lives.”

So what would characterize “a place of grace”?  What is needed to support soul repair?  Brock and Lettini do describe a few requirements, and they fit right into the mission of any decent church.  First, there needs to be friendship.  “Friends,” they explain, “probe and question and challenge each other to make each other more complete.”  “With friends, we discuss intimate questions, hold each other’s confidences, learn to tolerate disagreements, support each other through life’s struggles and joys, and explore the profound questions of life’s meaning.”

Second, “conversations about moral injury require deep listening.  In being open,” they write, “we must be willing to take in what we hear as part of ourselves, to be moved, even by what is difficult or painful to hear, and to struggle to understand profound questions about moral conscience.”  “Deep listening requires us to set our own needs aside and to offer, simply, respect.”

Third and fourth, “recovering from moral injury also requires a renewed sense of life purpose and service.  A society that ends a war with a parade and returns to its entertainments, consumerism, celebrity worship and casual commitments in order to forget its wars offers no purpose worth pursuing,” they argue.  “Whatever we think of a war, the crucial responsibility is to accompany the journey home of those who return and remind [ourselves] that, as a society, we don’t just leave wars [or our warriors] behind.”

First, friendship.  Second, deep listening.  Third, life purpose.  Fourth, service.  We enjoy and promote those here, don’t we?

Time and again I hear in the testimonials that our own members give from this pulpit how much they value the friends they have made here.  And many of our members enjoy the opportunities offered by Fellowship Circles to deepen existing friendships and make new friends through the practice of deep listening.  And if there’s anywhere that we can talk about life’s purpose and the values claimed and manifested by our society, it’s in church.  And as part of being people of faith, we encourage one another to engage in service, whether it’s within the congregation by being an RE teacher or by offering hospitality or beyond our walls by volunteering with LINK or St. Paul’s.  We may not have them perfectly, but all of the aspirations and skills we need are already here, gathered up in our Fellowship’s mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, bound together in our Unitarian Universalist covenant to walk together in the ways of love.

Addressing moral injury is a religious task and as a religious community we have a vital role to play in helping even those who may not consider themselves religious to find healthy ways to express themselves and engage in the arduous work of soul repair.  There’s important outreach we can do — that we must do — as part of a non-dogmatic faith tradition that speaks up for the rights of religious minorities and encourages the covenanted social practice of love.  For it is our calling and our privilege to serve as a guiding beloved community to veterans, to military families and to everyone who seeks spiritual wholeness, who seeks to transform themselves and one another such that this world may be filled with beauty, and we the fortunate souls who walk together in it.

So may it be.

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Bring a Friend to Church!

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 3rd 2013.)

A few years ago I did an internship as a hospital chaplain.  With some regularity I visited hospital patients who were quick to assure me, once I’d introduced myself as a chaplain, that they were already saved.  I guess they assumed that that’s the only reason I was there: to “save” them, to “convert” them, to “evangelize” them.  Perhaps they thought that telling me they were already saved was the quickest way to get rid of me, this stranger intruding upon them when they would have much preferred to be left in peace to recover from surgery.  I didn’t feel any particular animosity from any of them, and if I were in a similar situation today, more experienced and self-confident than I was then, I might respond by asking something like “Would you be willing to tell me what you mean by ‘saved’?”  I’m pretty sure I’d quickly find that what they meant by it, or what they thought I’d assume they meant by it, wasn’t the same as what I meant by it.

Our culture, of course, has a simple idea of what it means to be saved, namely that the person who has been saved will go to heaven after they die.  That’s actually a gross oversimplification of Christian theology — quite apart from the question of how it’s supposed to apply to members of other faiths such as Judaism and Buddhism — and it comes to us in large part from televangelists and television shows about televangelists.  When you’re trying to distill two thousand years of tradition into a few sentences that’ll fit between a praise song and another plea for money, I guess that’s what happens.  (Outside the United States, by the way, in places like England where I grew up, that’s what people think religion in the United States is actually like.)

So it’s not altogether surprising that most Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about being saved.  But that’s not because it’s a foreign concept, as it is in other non-Christian religions.  Rather, it is actually part of our theology, and it’s a big part of our history, but it’s been hijacked and abused to the extent that UUs don’t talk about it for fear of being misunderstood.  But this morning I do want to talk about it, because it’s time for us to reclaim it for a healthier and more spiritually mature cause.  Since our culture does have this simplistic idea of what it means, we really ought to know what we mean by it.  So I want to talk this morning about salvation.

Our religion gets half of its name, Unitarian Universalism, from people who had a very particular idea about salvation.  They were the people who believed in universal salvation.  This was a belief that was present in the very earliest days of Christianity, a belief that people didn’t need to do particular things or satisfy particular requirements or be chosen in some particular way in order to reach heaven; no, everyone, in the end, reached heaven.  As the early Christians organized themselves, the belief in universal salvation was deemed a heresy, and the people who believed in universal salvation, who came to be known as Universalists, were cast out as heretics.  And yet Universalism persisted, cropping up here and there throughout Christendom’s extent in space and time, and does so even today, whenever people stopped to think about what it really means for God to be capable of infinite love.  As the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou put it some two hundred years ago, “Your child has fallen into the mud, and her body and garments are dirtied.  You wash her and dress her in clean robes.  The question is, do you love your child because you washed her or did you wash her because you love her?”

Universalism was not, of course, without its critics.  One story about Hosea Ballou comes from the days when he rode between towns on horse-back, preaching at a number of churches on a circuit.  One day he was riding with a Baptist minister, and they were arguing theology as they traveled.  At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, “Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven.”  Ballou looked back at him and said, “My friend, if you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you.”

There were, of course, more serious objections to the idea of universal salvation, such as the question of how to reconcile it with justice.  As UU minister Mark Morrison-Reed puts it, Universalism proved to be a hard sell to African Americans, for example, because its theological promise seemed to be so at odds with the African American experience.  Where was the justice, they asked, in slave-holders being ushered into heaven right alongside those upon whom they had visited such degradation and suffering?

Though there were African Americans who had been part of even the oldest Universalist churches, and indeed the first three African Americans ever to be ordained as Universalist ministers — Joseph Jordan, Thomas E. Wise and Joseph Fletcher Jordan (no relation) — served right across the James River from us, in Norfolk and Suffolk, universal salvation was simply a theological absurdity to most African Americans.  White ministers could joke about assault and robbery, but African American Universalists faced persecution for both their faith and their race.  Thomas E. Wise, for instance, who in the 1890s was only the second African American to be a Universalist minister, was undermined by the white members of a commission appointed by the Universalist General Convention to oversee his ministry to the extent that he quit Universalism and became a Methodist, taking eight members of the Norfolk church with him.

Some might argue that it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the Universalists would grow bigger than Christianity, to grow bigger, even, than theism, in order to find a way to resolve the theological conundrum of universal salvation, to find a way that love and justice might work together rather than in opposition.  When this finally happened in the 1940s and 50s, when the Universalists recognized their call to be a truly universal religion, they found a kinship with the Unitarians, who had long since evolved to be broader than their exclusively Christian origins.  And the result of that partnership was Unitarian Universalism.

But what of universal salvation?  What of that core belief that had fueled a persistent faith for close to two thousand years?  Well, in some ways it caught on, even beyond the Universalists.  Many Christian denominations now proclaim, as part of their good news, that “God is love”, though they don’t take it quite as far to its logical conclusion as Hosea Ballou did.  But over the same time that theological Universalism was becoming a part of other denominations, the Universalists themselves were focusing more on this world rather than on any world to come, just as the Unitarians had.

This, too, was perhaps inevitable.  To be a truly universal religion means welcoming everyone, or at least everyone who is willing to be a part of such a religion and keep it welcoming for everybody else.  But there will always be differences in belief, differences in opinion, differences in personal world-views, that must somehow be accommodated.  It’s a simple fact that not everyone agrees on the idea of life after death, for example.  Amongst today’s Unitarian Universalists, some believe in a fairly traditional idea of heaven.  Some believe in reincarnation.  Some believe in a spiritual energy or a cosmic consciousness from which we came and into which we are reabsorbed.  Some believe that, when we die, our consciousness simply ceases to exist.  In spite of those differences, however, we can all agree on the idea of life before death.

Every religion seeks to make this life better in some way, though for many it’s really only a means to another end.  For both the Universalists and the Unitarians, though, it became an important end in and of itself.  Many religious traditions as well as science tell us that all life is interdependent, that we’re all in this together.  Whether viewed out of enlightened self-interest or pure altruism, this means that we are all called to build a better world for everyone.  This is salvation that isn’t just a matter of an individual promise concerning something in the future; rather this is salvation that’s a matter of a common commitment in the here and now.  Rather than salvation in another life after death, it’s salvation in this life.  So when, in our Principles, we affirm such values as “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” and “world community with peace, liberty and justice for all”, we’re not just saying, well, that’d be nice, and hoping they magically show up; rather, we’re making a commitment to work for them and realize them together.

That’s what salvation means in Unitarian Universalism.  It has nothing to do with heaven or hell or other metaphysical realms separate from our lived reality.  Rather, it has everything to do with choosing to build heaven here on Earth, with choosing to redeem ourselves — all of us — from what is, for too many people, altogether too much like hell.  It’s a theology that puts love and justice on the same side, that draws a direct line between the best love of which we human beings are capable and a world in which everyone is treated fairly and compassionately.

Now Unitarian Universalist congregations can offer a taste of that.  At their best, UU congregations are a sign of that salvation in this life, a promise that different people can come together in community, that our common humanity is a strong foundation for celebrating our differences, rather than being afraid of them.  Building within our walls even an imperfect miniature version of the heaven on Earth that we know is possible, a UU congregation can be a place, in the words of Rebecca Parker, President of the (Unitarian Universalist) Starr King School for the Ministry, where joys are celebrated, were injustices are confronted, where difficulties are overcome, and where hopes are shared.  So why would we keep that to ourselves? As Parker put it, “The progressive church holds a feast of life spread for all — it is ours to share with any who can find nourishment within our walls.

This is our good news: that such a community is possible.  That it starts on a small scale, that it flashes fitfully here and there, that there are set-backs and disappointments, that it picks itself up and tries again, well, that’s life.  It’s part of being human.  So it’s good news with a dose of realism, and that’s something that we need to share.  If it’s good news for us, then it’ll be good news for lots of other people.  And the more people who have heard that good news, the better off we’ll all be.

It’s certainly the good news of this congregation, as we’re coming to realize.  At the Board’s Retreat back in August, in fact, one of the goals that emerged, something to which the Board will bend its energies as this congregation moves forward, is to build a new narrative for this Fellowship, to tell a new story about ourselves.  Or, at least, to take the stories we already tell about ourselves and bring them together in celebration of the sort of abundant congregation we aspire to be.

You may be familiar with some of those stories, particularly if you’ve been through a membership orientation recently.  There’s the story of how this congregation was founded in the late 1950s by a handful of local residents who sought, in their words, to “foster liberal religious attitudes and living through group study, worship, service, work and recreation.”  It was chartered as a lay-led fellowship at the height of the twenty-year program that founded hundreds of new congregations around the country, many of which no longer exist, and within a year not only had its own building but hosted a conference for all of the then-Unitarian churches and fellowships in Virginia.  From the start, and in defiance of prevailing social attitudes, the membership was racially integrated, thanks to a close association with Hampton University.  Then and in the decades since, members of the Fellowship have demonstrated for civil rights, for women’s rights and for LGBT rights, and the congregation is home to the oldest pagan group in Virginia.

In 1979, the Fellowship’s building burnt down, but three items survived the fire: the original membership book, which includes the names and signatures of the charter members on its first page; the charter itself, issued to the congregation when it was founded; and the chalice, which was given by former youth Keith Dixon and which we continue to light at the start of every service.  A little over a decade ago, the Fellowship took the plunge and called its first, full-time, settled minister.  That didn’t go so well, but rather than give up on professional ministry, the congregation made a commitment to try again.  And three years ago, you decided to buy additional property, a decision made at the worst time in the Great Recession, when banks were imploding and realtors were finding other jobs.  My colleague Jeanne Pupke, minister to the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Richmond, says that buying our office building was something we had no right to do, but we did it anyway.  What’s more, we paid off the mortgage just after Thanksgiving last year, having raised the funds to finance it ourselves rather than paying a private lender.

Board member-at-large C— came up with the perfect name for the new narrative we’ll build for the congregation, a story that celebrates our achievements and inspires us to be bold in our vision-making.  C— suggested that we build this narrative of the UUFP as “the little church that did” but it didn’t take too long for other Board members to add to that, making it “the little church that did… and can… and should… and will…”

This is our good news: that different people can come together in community, celebrating our differences on the strong foundation of our common humanity.  And this is our good news: that we are here as a place where joys are celebrated, where injustices are confronted, where difficulties are overcome, and where hopes are shared. And this is our good news: that we have hands that lift us up when we’re down and help to make the world better for everyone.  And this is our good news: that we are “the little church that did… and can… and should… and will…”  But this also needs to be part of our good news: that we have hearts that open doors to everyone who would choose to cross our threshold.  For I believe that many people are aching to hear our good news, but it can be very hard to hear it in our culture.

Today is “Bring a Friend to Church” day, our first here at the Fellowship, so far as I know, and something suggested by the Religious Education Committee.  (Our children’s RE program here, as those of you who are parents already know, is another big part of our good news, so why shouldn’t we share that with more people, too?)  Last Sunday, and in our various communications, I invited you to bring a friend or a relative to services with you today, somebody you know in your life who might be interested in being part of this community, who might benefit from being here and belonging here, if only they knew about us.

I also made the claim that there was almost certainly someone in your life like that.  How could I know?  Well, the people who study such things tell us that four out of every five people who don’t currently go to a church would do so if they were asked by a trusted friend or relative, but only two percent of church-going people actually invite anyone else to come with them in a given year.  And although the people who study such things almost always do so from a Christian perspective, I have no doubt that something equivalent holds for people who would be a part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation if only they’d heard of Unitarian Universalism.

After all, we know that the religious landscape of the United States is undergoing some huge demographic changes.  With every new generation, there are more people who do not identify with any particular religion.  On surveys asking about religious preference, they check the box marked “none”, so they are known as the “nones”.  (Obviously that’s different from the nuns who live in convents and come armed with wooden rulers.)  About a fifth of the population now says it has no religious preference, and the nones make up about a third of all young adults born after 1985.  Now this doesn’t mean that there are a whole lot more, say, atheists out there.  In terms of beliefs, the nones aren’t that much different from the church-going population, whether they believe in a personal God or see divinity in the Earth or consider themselves generically “spiritual but not religious”.  The main difference is in terms of values: they’ve given up on religion because they dislike and actively distrust what they see as authoritarian and anti-egalitarian, from attacks on women, LGBT people and the environment to meddling in education and undue influence in politics.  Well, they’ve only given up on religion because they haven’t heard about Unitarian Universalism yet!

So to those of you who brought a friend or relative here today, I say thank you.  Thank you for helping to shine the light of our liberal faith.  And to those of you who were invited here, as well as to those of you who just happen to be visiting for the first time, I say welcome.  I look forward to meeting you and getting to know you.  For this is work that we are all called to do, applying our hearts and minds and voices and hands to the building of a better world.  It isn’t easy work, but ours is no caravan of despair.  For all of us, whether we’ve been here for decades or for years or have only just crossed the threshold for the first time this morning, all of us are invited to this feast of life that is spread for all.

So may it be.

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The Church of First Resort!

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 27th 2013.)

Reading: from Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

In her essay, “An Expedition to the Pole”, Annie Dillard alternates historical information about various attempts by explorers to reach either the North Pole or the South Pole with descriptions of her experiences of a church service she decides to attend.  In the process, she draws some conclusions about the parallels between the two enterprises: on the one hand, those who explored either the Arctic or the Antarctic were attempting to reach the navigator’s map point known as the “Pole of Relative Inaccessibility”, which in the north is that imagined point in the Arctic Ocean farthest from land in any direction and in the south is equivalently the point on the Antarctic Continent farthest from salt water in any direction; on the other hand, the goal of religion — as Dillard sees it — is to similarly attain a metaphysical Pole of Relative Inaccessibility.  Explaining herself, she writes, “It is that point of spirit farthest from every accessible point of spirit in all directions.  Like the others, it is a Pole of the Most Trouble.  It is also — I take this as given — the pole of great price.”

Going on to describe the various mishaps faced by polar expeditions, whether arising from unfortunate events or bad planning or, in the case of the 1845 expedition under Sir John Franklin, downright stupidity in caring more about their china place settings and sterling silver cutlery than, say, warm clothing and enough coal for the engines, Dillard describes some of the things that make it hard for her to keep from laughing out loud in church.  She writes, for instance, that “No one, least of all the organist, could find the opening hymn.  Then no one knew it.  Then no one could sing anyway.  There was no sermon, only announcements.  [Then the] priest proudly introduced the rascally acolyte who was going to light the two Advent candles.  As we all could plainly see, the rascally acolyte had already [lit] them.  […]  During communion, the priest handed me a wafer which proved to be stuck to five other wafers.  I waited while he tore the clump into rags of wafer, resisting the impulse to help.  Directly to my left, and all through communion, a woman was banging out the theme from The Sound of Music on a piano.”

Dillard concludes that, whether people are trying to reach a geographical pole or a spiritual one, “there seems to be only one business at hand — that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”  As her historical accounts of the polar expeditions and her description of the church service start to blend together, she sees the church itself as one of the ships trying to make its way through the ice.  And in a passage that religious professionals and church consultants love to quote, Dillard asks, “Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful […] tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?  […]  Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?  Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?  The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.  It is madness to wear ladies’ […] velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.  Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Sermon: “The Church of First Resort!”

Last Sunday I responded to the idea, apparently held by some people who don’t really know much about Unitarian Universalism, that we are the church of last resort.  I challenged this idea, explaining why it’s not true, and ended with a teaser for this sermon about how we could be the church of first resort instead.

Now this pair of sermons came out of a conversation with a member who in last year’s auction was the highest bidder for the auction item that is essentially getting to choose the topic for one of my services.  This year’s auction is coming up very soon, of course, so you could be the next person to give me a sermon theme, and who knows, maybe you’ll get two services for the price of one!

While my sermon last Sunday was about the vision that other people have of us, today I want to talk about the vision we have of ourselves particularly in terms of how it is either similar to or different from our vision for ourselves.  I realize I’m using the word “vision” here in a couple of different ways, so let me explain.

First, there’s our vision of ourselves, in the sense of how we see ourselves right now.  Like our self-images as individuals, sometimes the ways in which we see ourselves are influenced by more than just reality, so one of the responsibilities of a parish minister is to hold up a mirror to congregational life so that the congregation can see itself — warts and all, as it were.  A vision of ourselves that’s a little bit more positive than reality isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s a form of self-confidence, after all.  But it is a sign of spiritual maturity — both for individuals as well as for congregations — to want to face up to shortcomings and areas for improvement rather than to gloss over them.

Second, there’s our vision for ourselves, in the sense of how we want to see ourselves in the future.  The Fellowship’s vision in that sense is articulated in our by-laws, and lent its words to my invocation this morning: “We offer a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.”  As much as that’s written in the present tense, as a vision statement it describes an ideal that serves to guide us into the future, that calls us to always be better in the future.  So another responsibility of a parish minister is to keep reminding a congregation of its vision for its own future.

Now I want to talk about our vision of and for ourselves, particularly in terms of how that relates to becoming the church of first resort, but let me begin by setting up something that I’ll come back to later on.

In January, we held a day-long social justice workshop where we considered what we’re doing as a congregation to create a more just and caring world.  Our Social Justice Chair led an exercise that had us think about our geographical location, starting with our street and our immediate neighborhood, then moving to the larger neighborhood of Denbigh, then the city of Newport News, then Hampton Roads, then Virginia, then the southeast, then the United States, then the whole planet Earth.  And at each level, we brainstormed the characteristics of that level: what was good, what was bad, what we liked, what was a problem.

What I found fascinating about this exercise was that we tended to have more good things to say about the smaller scales of our geographical location — our neighborhood, our town — while at the larger scales — from the state up to the whole planet — we had increasingly bad things to say.  Apparently we really like where we are, and we think that things are generally good right here, but we don’t like the bigger picture of where we are and we can see a lot more problems there.  But if we think that things are generally good here, and if, in all likelihood, most people in most other places think that things are generally good where they are, too, then how come when all those good places are put together, they result in a larger place that’s so much worse?  Keep that in the back of your mind for a few minutes, because I’ll come back to it.

Earlier this month, there was some discussion on Facebook of a blog post written by a former Unitarian Universalist.  It was actually written a couple of years ago and was titled “A ‘Dear John’ Letter to Unitarian Universalism”.  It’s evidently done the rounds amongst many UUs during those two years, because the letter itself is followed by one hundred and ten comments, indicating that the author touched quite a number of nerves.

Now the “about” page of the blog doesn’t give a name for the author herself, nor does it name her former congregation, but a number of the comments call her as Cindy, so that’s what I’ll call her, too.

The first part of Cindy’s “Dear John” letter expresses some general dissatisfaction with Unitarian Universalism, even though she makes clear that there are plenty of things she loves about our faith, too.  She also makes it pretty clear up front in the letter that she’s a liberal Christian, and though that does feed into her dissatisfaction, I don’t take it to play into her decision to leave our faith that much.

As well as general dissatisfaction, though, Cindy does give some tangible reasons for leaving Unitarian Universalism, and these are definitely worthy of our consideration.

First she calls to the stand an “ambivalence about membership”.  She’s certainly not the first person to note that Unitarian Universalist congregations typically expect very little of their members, whether in material or spiritual terms, and yet it’s well known that it’s actually the churches that ask a lot of their members that tend to be large and thriving.  Cindy writes that as much as she dislikes the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations”, it did describe what she experienced.  She was appalled that, in her old congregation, it was actually okay that people would hardly ever show up on Sundays, and never participate in any other ways, but still come to congregational meetings to hog the floor and provoke arguments.

Now in our membership orientation program, we do actually focus on what it means to be a member here at the Fellowship.  Hearing myself say that, it seems weird that a membership orientation would not highlight what it means to be a member, but the weirder thing is that many such orientations don’t.  We also talk about the rights and responsibilities of being a member here, and part of the information about that says: “We expect our members to participate in [any of] a number of ways: by attending Sunday services; by working on their own spiritual development; by putting their faith into action; by taking part in our various programs and activities; by pledging financial support; by engaging with our democratic process; and by connecting to the wider world of Unitarian Universalism.”  Yes, there is a healthy, reasonable alternative to the dysfunction of ultra-low expectations that Cindy witnessed that does not make us into the sort of ultra-strict church that demands to see people’s tax returns.  There’s nothing wrong with articulating what it means to actually be a member, and I’m glad that we do that, though there’s always more that we could do to help people get the most out of being here as members.

Next in her “Dear John” letter, Cindy tackles what she names “accepticemia”, which is a systemic “reluctance to label toxic behaviors and assign them consequences”.  That’s part of the dysfunction that allows congregational meetings to turn into shouting matches, something that not too many years ago used to happen here, so I’m told.  Cindy attributes this to a perversion of the first of the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism: “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  I’m not sure that that’s the only, or even the main reason, and in any case part of the First Principle is respecting people enough to hold them accountable for their actions, not letting them get away with toxic and disruptive behaviors.  As Cindy points out, there is a very real difference between welcoming all people, which is definitely something our faith calls us to do, and welcoming all behaviors, which is at best unhealthy and at worst dangerous.

From my perspective, “accepticemia”, to use Cindy’s new word for this syndrome, was a result of Unitarian Universalism forgetting that we are a faith based on covenant, or the promises we make one another about how we’ll behave when we’re together.  We always knew — and were proud of the fact — that we weren’t a faith based on creed, or an officially sanctioned list of beliefs, but we forgot that we were supposed to be based on covenant, with agreed upon standards of behavior, and as a result we were effectively a faith based on, well, nothing.  When I first joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation a little over twelve years ago, I don’t remember hearing anything about covenant.  In the last decade, thankfully, we’ve been rediscovering our heritage and remembering who we are called to be.

I’m guessing that Cindy’s old congregation didn’t know much about how to be in covenant.  She comments on how accepticemia manifested at its worst during Joys and Concerns, when people aired their personal grudges or abused it to vent on political issues.  Cindy saw that part of the service go toxic more than once, and while she says she can forgive the people who probably didn’t even realize the damage they were doing, she cannot forgive the lay leaders who refused to set up healthy boundaries between what is appropriate in worship and what is not.

Now I know that here we have a range of opinions over the value of doing Joys and Concerns, but I have to say that we do Joys and Concerns well here.  Sometimes somebody talks for too long, or the whole segment runs long simply because of the number of people who want to light a candle and speak, but I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in over three years’ worth of my services that someone has made even a mildly inappropriate comment.

And that brings us to Cindy’s criticism of what she calls “negligent worship”.  Here she’s talking about Sunday mornings that offer university lectures and passion-less music, but we could just as easily be talking about the sort of poor planning and lousy execution that made it hard for Annie Dillard to keep from laughing out loud in church.  Other than her own unmet need for a meaningful worship experience, Cindy found herself feeling guilty when someone came to services and shared some major loss in their life — “a child, a spouse, a job or their hope” — but her old congregation had nothing to offer them in consolation.

Now there’s some truth to Dillard’s observation that, whether we’re talking about a physical voyage or a spiritual one, what we are often challenged to do is figure out “workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”  Even with services designed with theological consideration for spiritual meaning and impact, well, things can still go wrong.

I’ve done services where it turned out nobody could sing one of the hymns.  When I was a teenager and was asked to read a pre-written prayer, I accidentally mixed up the order of some of the words, which I think made it an invocation of hell rather than heaven.  And it’s not unusual here for our own chalice to stubbornly refuse to light.  But those things don’t make or break what we do as a religious experience rather than a secular exercise, though we always recognize that there’s room for improvement.

You might be interested to know that the Sunday Services Committee devotes part of each monthly meeting to a book we’re all reading, namely Worship That Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists.  I’ve noticed that it’s already made a difference in how we do services here.  And I am also asking the committee to evaluate at least one of my services each month, given that I fully recognize that I can always do better at this, too, even if becoming better isn’t usually easy or pain-free.

Let’s return to the exercise we did at January’s Social Justice Workshop where we found that we had much more positive things to say about where we are on the local level as contrasted with increasingly negative things to say about the state and national and global levels.  Perhaps you’ve been coming to your own conclusions about it over the last few minutes, but what jumped out for me was the ease with which we identified the Big problems like attacks on women’s reproductive rights, the disappearing social safety net and global climate change.  Those are “Big with a capital B” problems not just because of their scope and wide-ranging impact, but because they exist at a larger scale.

And yet we also know, even if it’s apparently harder for us to name them, that there are “big with a lower-case b” problems, too.  You don’t have to spend long reading the Daily Press or watching the local news to know that Newport News is not a perfect city, and frankly we stand to have a much greater impact on local issues than we do on any national or global issue.  It’s easier to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond, and if you don’t think there’s any way that our Fellowship could ever be a big fish, just remember that of all the congregations that support the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads, the UUFP is actually LINK’s biggest supporter.

Then there are the “big with a lower-case b” reasons for which people often start coming to church services, their need for help in dealing with feelings like anger, or with personal dilemmas over relationships or conflict or sexuality, or with life passages including death and loss, or with spiritual growth and that yearning for a metaphysical “Pole of Relative Inaccessibility” that we have only been able to imagine is actually there.  Perhaps the biggest of the “big with a lower-case b” reasons that people have for seeking out a church is the simple need for community, to feel connected to other people.  The paradigm of church life used to be that if you believed a certain set of things and you behaved in certain ways, then you could belong to the church that required you to believe and behave as such.  These days people are recognizing that it’s belonging that needs to come first, and it’s certainly the first thing that matters when it comes to Unitarian Universalist congregations.

It’s common to hear at our membership orientations that somebody wants to join the Fellowship as a member because they feel that they belong here.  That’s what we want to hear, of course.  And many of the programs and activities in which we expect our members to take part, from Fellowship Circles and the Softball League to Second Sunday Lunch and Hospitality Teams, are really about celebrating and deepening that sense of belonging.  And they’re not exclusively for members, either, of course.

At the same time, we’re trying to be better about really living our vision of ourselves as an inclusive community, too.  That’s not about giving in to accepticemia, of course!  Rather, in regards to the “safe place” part of becoming “a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious [exploration] and service to the wider community”, the Board is developing an Allergy Policy to help us be more aware of those in this community who have what are in some cases life-threatening sensitivities.  To be clear, I’m not talking about merely disliking somebody’s perfume or aftershave, or having a personal preference against sliced onions in a salad.  I have a visceral loathing, for instance, of the overpoweringly “cinnamon” scented things that clog up the supermarkets at this time of year, but that’s not an allergy.  No, I’m talking about the person — adult or child — who needs to carry an epi-pen with them in case they accidentally ingest peanut and must then hope that, on the off-chance that they do, somebody else will have the gumption to slam that epi-pen into their thigh.  I’m talking about the person who’ll end up in hospital if they’re exposed to even the smallest amounts of an allergen, so we have a responsibility to ensure that how we do things, from serving food to maintaining our buildings, helps this to be a safe place for people with allergies, just as we want it to be for everyone.

And that, really, is what being the church of first resort is all about.  Obviously we have a responsibility to ensure that we don’t suffer from the sort of gross negligence of our faith that former UU Cindy called out in her “Dear John” letter, but that’s not enough.  We also have to be who we say we actually are, to be better at being who we say we actually want to be.  So, affirming our commitment to care for one another, we have a Caring Committee that regularly helps out individuals and families following child-birth or surgery or illness.  And we’re relaunching our Stewardship Committee as a reaffirmation of our year-‘round commitment to hold all of our members in community.  And I’m excited to report that we’re also starting a new program of home visits to help those members who have a hard time getting here for services or other programs.  It’s all about connection and belonging, and it’s doing that well that’ll make us the church of first resort.

We’re not there yet, but there are some signs that we’re getting there.  I already mentioned that, as a congregation, we’re LINK’s biggest supporter. That’s obviously something in which we should take great pride.  What you might not know is that we’re also known, by at least one local therapist, as a warm, welcoming community that can help people in their personal search for emotional and spiritual healing and wholeness.  And that’s the other part about being the church of first resort: it’s not just about actually being who we already say we are and should be, it’s also about being known for it.

So next Sunday, I invite you to share your love of this Fellowship by bringing a friend or a relative to services with you.  This is, I should emphasize, an invitation: you won’t be turned away at the door if you don’t have someone new with you, and I certainly don’t want to make anybody anxious about this.  But if there’s somebody you know in your life who might be interested in being part of this community, who might benefit from being here and belonging here — and trust me, there almost certainly is — then I invite you to ask them to come to services with you next Sunday, November 3rd.

My friends, let’s let our light shine.  Let’s live into our own vision for ourselves, let’s welcome all those who still haven’t found what they’re looking for, let’s be that safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth, let’s tend our own souls by caring for one another, let’s embrace that present moment that is such a gift to us, let’s help each other with all those “big with a lower-case b” challenges that life throws at us, and let’s share our good news with all those people who need us in their lives.  Let’s be the church of first resort.

So may it be.

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A Place of Gratitude and Encouragement

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

We had a lovely trip to England during the first half of October.  We celebrated my father’s seventy-fifth birthday with a special dinner at the inn where my sister was married ten years ago.  Olivia spent more time with her grandparents and her aunt and uncle, and she also met her cousin, who is older only by a few days.  And we even managed to squeeze in a quick side-trip to Paris, thanks to the “Chunnel”, which was the first time either Allison or I had been there.  It was a very full two weeks that went by very quickly, but Olivia took it all in stride, coming home with a bigger vocabulary and a more clearly individualized personality, too.  She’s definitely not a baby any more!

Other than a couple of pointless difficulties before we even boarded the…

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