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Growing the Beloved Community, Twelve Months a Year

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

Not long after I’d moved to Connecticut in early 2001, I learned that there was a Unitarian Universalist congregation just up the road from me.  The first service I attended there was on Easter Sunday, and not long after that I went to an orientation and became a member.  Then something very strange happened.

Services came to an end for the Summer.

It turned out that, for the months of July and August, my congregation and the UU church in the next town had an arrangement where they would share services.  Anybody coming to one congregation, assuming there’d be a service, would be greeted by a hand-scribbled note taped to the door saying that services were being held at the other congregation.  Oh, and since the two congregations held their services at different times, well, there was no way…

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One Planet Indivisible

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 16th 2014.)

Reading: from Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God by Karl Peters

I first met Karl Peters at the Summer 2000 conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.  That was the first time I went, whereas Karl and his wife Marj Davis had been stalwarts of the Institute for many years.  When they weren’t at the Star Island conferences, Karl was Professor of Religion at Rollins College in Florida and Marj was a minister with the United Church of Christ in northern Connecticut.  As it turned out, not long after I moved to Connecticut the following year, Karl was retiring, and we both met again at the Unitarian Society of Hartford.  We quickly found that we had much in common, and that what he called naturalistic theism was a whole lot like what I called pantheism.  So when Karl published Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God, it gave us lots to talk about!

This reading, then, is excerpted from chapter nine of Dancing with the Sacred, entitled “Our Natural Family”.

I’m trying to change my mind about the way I look at the natural world and its creatures. […] It’s not easy to do this when I find a wasp in my basement or when a cockroach scurries away from the light I’ve just turned on as I enter a room.  Yet, I think it’s important for all of us to see ourselves interconnected with other creatures and the Earth — as members of the same natural family.

One reason it’s important is to help resolve the problem […] of moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants.  Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it. [… T]echnology has given us the power to affect the lives of other species and the entire ecosystems of our planet in ways that are unprecedented.  Many scientists are concerned that our burgeoning population is challenging the carrying capacity of the Earth.  Others point out that [it’s the use] of automobiles and some other technologies [that] is threatening our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  We are putting future generations of humans and other species in a crisis that we are just beginning to discern. […]

There are many things that must be done to help us change our ways of living to insure that life and civilization will continue and flourish in a sustainable manner.  New energy efficient technologies, many already invented, must be placed in the market.  Producers and consumers need economic incentives to create an environmentally responsible economy.  Politicians need to exercise courageous leadership in passing regulations that can guide [our] living in ways that promote our own well-being and that of our planet.  [And especially important, n]ew ways of understanding ourselves in our world must be cultivated to help our minds change so that we will live more in harmony with other creatures on our planet.”

Sermon: “One Planet Indivisible”

I took a somewhat indirect route to my decision to go to seminary.

When I went to my second Star Island conference in 2001, I met someone who worked for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford.  Jeanie was (and still is) Environmental Justice Coordinator for the Archdiocese, and hearing that I was interested in matters of religion and the environment, she mentioned an event being planned for that Fall by an organization called the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.  Founded to “empower[…] and inspir[e] religious communities in Connecticut to be faithful stewards of the Earth”, it wasn’t just interreligious in name, either: the lead organizers at the time included an American Baptist minister and a Jewish Renewal rabbi.

The event itself was called “A Sacred Trust: a Forum on Religion and the Environment” and featured speakers from many faith traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Timed to take place near the saint’s day of Francis of Assisi in early October 2001, it was overshadowed, of course, by recent events.  September 11th definitely called for a religious response, but the main portion of the forum was still devoted to looking at human stewardship of the Earth from a variety of religious perspectives.

Now the forum was held at Hartford Seminary, which was just a few blocks down the road from where I was living, and while I was there I looked to see what else they were doing, just out of curiosity.  I didn’t know what to expect because I never thought I’d actually be standing in such a place, much less that I might enroll in seminary.  But then, only a few months before that I’d joined a congregation, so there went fifteen years of certainty in my life!

One of the courses caught my eye.  It was a course on Environmental Ethics, and it sounded interesting not only academically — given that I’d never taken such a class before — but because I was genuinely curious about what was needed to really address the environmental problems that I was hearing so much about.  It is, as Karl Peters put it in Dancing with the Sacred, a matter of “moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants” and so I thought a course on Environmental Ethics would help me understand that.

Another draw was that this was the first course being taught at Hartford Seminary by its new president, Heidi Hadsell, who had a distinguished career as an academic, interfaith and international ethicist.  So I signed up, paid my non-enrolled registration fee and attended my first seminary class in early 2002.

One of the themes that quickly emerged was mentioned by Karl Peters in the reading: “Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it.”  Prof. Hadsell referred to a paper she’d written a few years before (“Environmental Ethics and Health/Wholeness,” Bulletin Vol. 24 No. 3/4, The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, September/November 1995) when attending an American Academy of Religion conference on the topic of human health and wholeness.  Asked to speak to the relationship between her specialty and the conference theme, she looked at the effects of environmental problems on human health, not so much in terms of what those are — damage to the ozone layer, for instance, resulting in an increased incidence of skin cancer — but from the question of why we are, in her words, “fouling our [own] nest to [such] an unprecedented extent[… that] our habits turn back around and bite us”.  Hadsell writes,

I can understand, though I may not agree with, those who insist that the snail darter or […] the spotted owl have value only in relation to human well-being and human abilities to survive reasonably well in places like the northwest […].  But when the matter becomes human health itself directly, not in future generations but now, and not the survival of what to many are exotic species of plants and animals [but of ourselves], why don’t we react?

This, as I said, is a question to which I’ve wanted an answer, too.  It’s a large part of why I even started going to a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the first place.  That’s because, after a few years of getting on the mailing lists of what seemed like just about every environmental group in the country, I had no shortage of return address labels.  I also had no shortage of environmental problems and emerging crises without much that I could really do about any of them.  I needed help dealing with it all if I wasn’t going to end up severely depressed.

To illustrate this, in the very first sermon I gave at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, a few months after I started at Hartford Seminary, I related the story of a “Doonesbury” comic strip that had been printed some previous Earth Day.  In that particular cartoon, Mike Doonesbury is complaining by telephone to his friend Zonker that he can’t spend his every moment trying to figure out the environmental consequences of his actions.  “If I consider the impact of everything I do, I’ll never get out of bed!  I’ll just lie there all day, lights off, heat off, munching organically grown celery!”  And in the final panel of the strip, we see that this is, of course, precisely what Zonker is doing.

Before I come back to Prof. Hadsell’s paper on this subject, I want to explain why I bring it up this morning.

Today we are participating in the 2014 National Preach-In on Climate Change.  This is something that Interfaith Power and Light has organized for a few years now, coordinating thousands of clergy and lay leaders across the country over a weekend in February to offer religious responses to the global problem of climate change.  We’re participating in it this year because we’ve also been participating in the Thirty Days of Love, and one of the purposes of the Preach-In is to share our love of the world that is our planetary home.  At the same time, my sermon theme for the month is Stewardship, and our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” is the cornerstone of all Unitarian Universalist efforts to practice good stewardship of the Earth, including for this congregation to earn the designation of Green Sanctuary.

Now many sermons that are part of the Preach-In, whether they took place on Friday evening or sometime yesterday or are being given this Sunday morning, will include a litany of facts about climate change.  In fact, in their Preach-In Kit, Interfaith Power and Light provides an information sheet entitled “The Facts about Climate Change”.  It reads, “Here are the latest findings from the 2013 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by the United States Global Change Research Program.  This is why we must act now.”  And then it lists a number of facts and provides further information about each:

  • Climate change is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.
  • Extreme weather is underway.
  • Sea ice is disappearing and seas are rising.
  • Crop and livestock production is increasingly challenged.
  • Threats to human health will increase.
  • Warming will continue to increase.
  • Delays will make a big difference.

The fact sheet even includes web addresses for various “Global Warming Reports and Resources” where you can get more information.

Here’s what I’m wondering, though.  Is the problem, really, that we don’t have enough information?

The first Earth Day was in 1970.  The Kyoto Protocol was figured out in the late nineties.  Most mainstream media outlets now recognize the legitimate science of climate change, and are even taking steps to actively reject the pseudo-science that has been peddled by Exxon and the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Global climate change is part of our cultural vocabulary, and Unitarian Universalists in particular understand the validity of the 99.5% scientific consensus.  (The other 0.5% comes, and this should be no surprise, from scientists paid to speak for private, corporate interests.)  We even know the difference between climate and weather.  The problem in our society is not a lack of information.  The problem in our society is a lack of motivation.

And that brings us back to Heidi Hadsell’s question about why our apathy in the face of environmental problems.  Answering her own question, in fact, Hadsell offers a number of reasons why we’re not acting.

First, there’s the plain, old-fashioned concept of denial.  “Far from being unknown,” Hadsell explains, “the environmental problems, including those that affect human health directly, are so evident and so vast and complex.  The reason that we are not doing much about the environment is that the problems are so bad that we can’t or won’t allow ourselves to look them squarely in the face.”

That’s why information about climate change is only helpful up to a point.  Anybody who knows enough to be concerned isn’t going to be convinced any further by having more data.  If anything, litanies of facts about climate change and other environmental issues and the myriad ways that humans are damaging the Earth just get really depressing, really fast.

Second on Hadsell’s list is individualism.  “We may intuit the problem,” she writes, “but we lack the moral and political language to get our heads around them.  Our language is tied to rights and freedoms as individually construed; we can only cope when things are tied to the ways we are used to thinking of ourselves as autonomous individuals.”

There are, of course, things we can do as individuals that do add up to make at least something of a difference, particularly if we have other reasons for taking those actions.  For instance, I have a single-cup coffee maker.  I like it, and I think it’s more energy efficient than a regular multiple-cup machine.  But I’ve realized I’ve been drinking a lot more coffee since my daughter was born — and I moved from decaf to regular, too — and all those little plastic cups with a single-serving of coffee in them add up to a lot of waste in the landfill.  So rather than buying boxes of the cups, I switched to bags of coffee instead, using a reusable cup that I empty and refill as needed.  That’s somewhat less convenient but it’s also cheaper per cup of coffee, and the only waste (other than the bag the coffee comes in) is the used coffee grounds rather than a non-reusable and probably non-recyclable cup.  The more people who did that, the less waste there’d be in our landfills, not to mention whatever waste is generated in making those cups in the first place.  But the fact is that we’re not going to solve our biggest problems by tackling them as if they were simply bigger versions of smaller individual problems, and that takes us to Hadsell’s third reason: materialism.

“Another explanation, and one that we cannot discard,” she writes, “is that in the end most people don’t care.  They like what they have and would rather have what they have — and by that I mean the stuff they have — than protect the environment, or protect their own or the public’s health.”  There’s even a term for this syndrome, though it hasn’t made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, yet.  The condition known as “affluenza” was, in fact, used by criminal defense lawyers last year to argue that their teenage client’s drunk driving, and the subsequent crash that killed four people, was a result of his privileged upbringing by parents who never set limits on his behavior.

Hadsell goes on to list: group egoism, as in the “Tragedy of the Commons” where the people in a group all assume they won’t be the ones impacted by the results of their decisions affecting that group; structural relationships, where political and economic forces determine many of our choices for us; lack of resources, namely the intellectual, material or organizational resources to bring about change;
and finally collectivism, whether that’s excuses such as corporations being too big to fail and governments being too bureaucratic to change anything, or the selfish short-sightedness of the human race as a whole that is so collectively irrational that it might be considered a form of death wish.

Happy stuff, eh?

I know many of you watch The Daily Show and so some of you here probable saw last week’s interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, a new book about the massive reduction in the diversity of life on Earth that is going on right now thanks to, well, us.  Jon Stewart did his best to make the interview something other than a seven-minute bummer, but in trying to wrap it up he started to say, “On a hopeful note…” but then caught himself and asked, “Was there a hopeful note?”  Kolbert had to admit that, no, there wasn’t.

Thankfully, Hadsell’s paper doesn’t end by talking about the possible death wish of the human race.  And since she is someone who studies religion and was presenting her paper to others who study religion, she continued by looking at the role of religion in addressing these reasons for failing to act.

Religion needs to be active in helping to shape humanity’s social world, for instance, making meaning in ways that help us to see ourselves as part of the natural world rather than in ways that pretend we’re better than and can somehow exist independent of the natural world.  Religion offers the ministries of “preaching and teaching, marshaling the evidence,” as Hadsell puts it, “and giving [people] the context in which to let it all sink in.  One hopes that this role of the church will chip away at the defense of denial so prevalent, at least in this society.”

Then there’s the core capacity of the religious imagination to lift up a vision of something other than “an endless extrapolation of the present”, a vision of, say, the Beloved Community where people live in relationships of mutuality and justice with one another and in relationships of sustainability and respect with the Earth.  And in practical terms, religion can offer the physical resource of space for talking about these matters, the social resource of a community with which to talk about them, and the organizational resource of committees and coalitions and networks to make plans and put them into action.

We’ve been doing all of these here, of course, from the work of L— and our Green Sanctuary Committee to the course that B— is currently teaching on the “new cosmology”, a religious perspective on creation that R— and the late Jack Dougher have promoted here, too.

Moreover, Hadsell notes religion’s ability to provide “a language which carries moral sensibilities significant to human health and environmental survival[, encompassing m]oral values such as regard for the other, the insistence that meaning is not the possession of things, a sense of history which extends beyond the boundaries of national identity, and a language which provides motivation for courage and the commitment of all kinds of personal and institutional resources we may not even know we have.”

This, I think, is the key.  If we’re going to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, we need moral motivation in terms of moral sensibilities and moral values.  It’s no accident that the tens of thousands of people, perhaps a hundred thousand people, who gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina a week ago did so under the banner of a Mass Moral March.  Reporter Jaimie Fuller, in an article in The Washington Post, explained that a large part of the success of that movement is the central role of “morality as a way to fight for progressive issues, and a way of challenging the Christian Right’s use of religion”.  In his speech that day, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, certainly made it clear that this is not about political parties or partisan ideologies but about right and wrong.

Now if all this talk about moral this, that and the other is triggering nightmarish flashbacks to being caught in a childhood transgression by an overly strict nun at some parochial school — even if that wasn’t actually your childhood — consider what Jay Michaelson, who writes about spirituality, Judaism, sexuality and law, has to say not just about morality but about sin.

[T]he grammar of sin — [only] without its vocabulary — is [in fact] alive and well in progressive religious circles.  Consider how progressives respond when we learn that someone we know is racist, or sexist.  If you’re like me and every other progressive I know, you probably recoil in disgust.  That moral disgust — which neuroscientists tell us activates the same parts of the brain as physical disgust — is […] the quintessential reaction of a purity violation.

This is from a recent article of Michaelson’s entitled “Climate Change Is a Sin — Here’s How to Repent For It”.  He explains what he means by this as follows.

Climate change is a sin, but it’s a special kind of sin.  It’s not a personal failure but a societal one.  We sin collectively (interestingly, in Jewish liturgy, almost all confessionals are in the first-person plural), and if we are to repent, we must repent collectively.  That means re-engaging with the people we can’t stand — including people who talk about “sin” — and finding ways to communicate with them, rather than preach to the already converted.

This, really, is our challenge.  This, I think, is the real point of the National Preach-In on Climate Change.  It’s certainly not to “preach to the already converted.”  Rather, it’s to figure out how we can work in moral coalitions just like Rev. Barber’s Forward Together Movement.  As Michaelson puts it,

Climate change is a collective sin, and it requires collective repentance: alliances with the evangelical-led “creation care” movement, recasting the issue in public moral terms rather than the language of progressive cul-de-sacs, and a de-partisanization of moral good and evil.  It is not enough to be the change you want to see in the world.  You also have to fight for it.

So, since I don’t like ending a sermon in which I’ve described a big problem without giving you something you can do about it, here’s something you can do about it.

Outside the Sanctuary, we have a table set up where you can fill out postcards to our Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, asking them to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s Carbon Pollution Standards for new and existing power plants.  These postcards have been provided by Interfaith Power and Light, and we printed extras to hopefully have enough.  They read, “I believe we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted or damaged by climate change.  We all need to do our part as stewards of Creation.”  Please fill out a postcard with your name and address to one Senator, or fill out one to each, and we’ll mail them all in together,* along with tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of postcards from Preach-Ins in congregations all over the country this weekend.

These postcards are one way we can raise our collective voice to not only be the change we want to see in the world, but to fight for it.  This is the work to which we are called, the work of realizing the Beloved Community, the work of co-creating a sustainable future for human society and for all life on Earth.

So may it be.

* We mailed a total of eighty-eight postcards to the Senators!

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From Selma to Raleigh

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 2nd 2014.)

On March 8th 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to religious leaders around the country.  That telegram read as follows:

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America.  No American is without responsibility.  The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden.  I call therefore on clergy of all faiths to join me in Selma.

One hundred and thirty one Unitarian Universalist ministers answered that call, as well as twice that number of UU laypeople.  Joining about two thousand African American laypeople, many of them women and children, there were, in all, some four hundred and fifty religious leaders in that second march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 9th 1965.  In other words, nearly a nearly a third of the clergy who were there were Unitarian Universalists.  In fact one out of every five UU ministers answered Dr. King’s call to Selma, and in the days that followed more joined them.  The UUA’s President and Board of Trustees even adjourned their scheduled meeting, flew from Boston to Alabama, and reconvened in Selma.  As Victor Carpenter, who was serving as minister to the Unitarian Church of Cape Town at the time, summarized it:

These ministers had been called to perform a profound religious witness. It filled them with purpose and hope as well as fear and uncertainty. They were marching with America’s greatest civil rights leader of the twentieth century in a struggle against an unambiguously evil system of racial hate. Their lives were on the line. For many it was the most thrilling and personally ennobling time in all their years.

In just about every account of Unitarian Universalist history, you’ll find that the response of UUs to Dr. King’s call to Selma has consistently been a huge point of denominational pride.  “We were there,” we tell ourselves.  “When it mattered most, we showed up.”

It is not, of course, a story without tragedy.  And it’s embedded in a considerably larger story as well, a story that all Americans would do well to know better.

Records show that in 1961, Dallas County, Alabama was home to some 15,000 African Americans, representing more than half of the county’s population, many of them living in the county seat of Selma.  Of those 15,000, however, only 130 were registered to vote.  In other words, less than 1% of African Americans in Dallas County could vote, and that wasn’t unusual for Alabama and other parts of the South.  Efforts to help more African Americans register were frequently blocked by local and state officials, by a white supremacist organization called the Citizens’ Council of America, and by the Ku Klux Klan.

That blocking manifested in ways that included literacy tests, economic pressure and outright violence.  Organizers with the Dallas County Voters League were beaten.  African American school teachers who tried to register to vote were fired by the all-white school board.  Local ordinances were passed that made it illegal for civil rights groups to meet even to talk about voter registration.  President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might as well have happened in another country for all that it made a difference in Selma.

Then the Dallas County Voters League asked for help from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had been leading successful campaigns of boycotts and non-violent protests across the South.  The Selma Voting Rights Movement was launched on January 2nd 1965, when Dr. King and others defied the anti-meeting ordinance at Brown Chapel.  Along with activists from the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, they organized protests and voter registration drives there and in other counties.

On February 18th, one such protest took place in Marion.  Alabama State Troopers had been ordered to target the organizer, and many of the protesters fled when the troopers rushed them.  Jimmie Lee Jackson tried to hide, with his mother, in a nearby café, but a trooper followed them and shot Jackson.  He was twenty-six years old and the only wage-earner in his household.  He died eight days later from an infection.

The leaders of the Selma Voting Rights Movement called for a march to Montgomery to demand answers from Governor George Wallace.  With so much pain and anger, the march was intended to provide a non-violent focus, something that Dr. King supported.  The governor, on the other hand, called the march “a threat to public safety” and promised to do whatever he could to prevent it.

On March 7th, some five or six hundred protesters set out from Selma, led by John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they found Alabama State Troopers waiting for them, blocking the bridge.  The troopers’ ranks were even supplemented with conscripts, thanks to the sheriff’s order for all while adult males in Dallas County to be deputized that morning.  The protesters were told to disband, but when Lewis and Williams went forward to talk to the commanding officer, the troopers attacked, knocking protesters to the ground, beating them, firing tear gas at them, even charging them on horseback.  Seventeen protesters were hospitalized, though many more were injured, and television coverage sparked national outrage over what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”.

That was when Dr. King sent out his telegram, organizing a second march that would go at least as far as the bridge, for a time of prayer on the bridge itself, given a new court order prohibiting a march all the way to Montgomery.  This time there were about two and a half thousand protesters.

On the evening of March 9th, however, three of the Unitarian Universalist ministers who had gone to Selma — Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen and James Reeb — were attacked outside by white segregationists.  Reeb was hospitalized after being struck on the back of the head and he died two days later.  On March 15th, Dr. King gave the address at Reeb’s memorial service, which was held in Brown Chapel, and UUA President Dana Greeley offered the prayer.  And with protests outside the White House and in cities across the country, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act.

There were, of course, other victims.  Viola Liuzzo was a UU layperson from Michigan, who was killed by Klansmen as she was driving to Montgomery to pick up protesters participating in the third march from Selma.  And Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, was killed by a deputy sheriff after a week in jail for participating in a protest.  And when the deaths of the white activists gained more attention than had that of Jimmie Lee Jackson, well, that drew understandable complaints.  As a 2001 UU World article about the dedication of a new memorial to Jackson, Reeb and Liuzzo at UUA headquarters put it:

Many African Americans noted bitterly at the time that Jackson’s death did not generate a sympathy call from the President of the United States, but that Reeb’s death did.  The President himself announced the arrest of four Ku Klux Klansmen charged with shooting Viola Liuzzo as she drove back toward Montgomery to pick up more weary marchers, but no one was arrested for the gunshot that killed Jackson.

It wasn’t until 2007, in fact, that the Alabama State Trooper who had shot Jackson forty-two years earlier was charged with murder; he pled guilty to manslaughter in 2010 and was sentenced to six months in prison.  Back in the 1960s, at least, the UUA had used some of the money donated in memory of James Reeb to buy a house and establish a fund to help support Jackson’s family.

I relate this decidedly unhappy history for a few reasons.

First, it hasn’t been even fifty years since these events took place.  Some of the people who took part in them are still alive, from John Lewis, who now represents Georgia’s fifth district in Congress, to Clark Olsen, who a few years ago I heard address the UU Ministers Association on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination.  These events are very much a part of who they are.

Second, we should be proud of how Unitarian Universalism responded to Dr. King’s call.  Our version of a denomination had, after all, only just come into existence with the 1961 consolidation of the Universalists and the Unitarians.  Moreover, as Victor Carpenter and others would have us always acknowledge and remember, the white UUs who went to Selma acted at the direction of the Selma Voting Rights Movement and its African American leadership, something that represents what was, for the times, a remarkable suppression of those UUs’ own white privilege.

Third, knowing this history gives us more than enough reason to be thoroughly outraged that the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act last year.  As if it wasn’t bad enough that it took forty-five years to convict Jimmie Lee Jackson’s killer, it’s an insult to his memory and to James Reeb’s memory and to all those who put their lives on the line to ensure that everyone could have access to the most basic tool of citizenship and democracy.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Attorney General Holder gives new depth to the word “stupid”.  I could use a few other words that aren’t appropriate for a Sunday morning, too.  Objecting to the part of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states and counties had to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department to change their voting laws, Chief Justice John Roberts summarized the court’s majority opinion as “things have changed”.  You know, we have a black President, and racism has magically gone away.  Yeah, right.

Now Justice Roberts did try to explain how “things have changed”, claiming that the country could no longer be divided into states and counties that embrace Jim Crow and those that don’t, and that maintaining such a division on the basis of history was unreasonable.

Well, he ignored the fact that jurisdictions can prove to a court that they meet certain criteria for getting themselves off the list needing Justice Department pre-clearance, just as counties in Virginia have done.  He also ignored the fact that Shelby County was incapable of meeting those “bail out” criteria because it continued to try to disenfranchise African Americans.  And as Justice Kagan put it, “You’re objecting to the formula [used to determine coverage by the Voting Rights Act], but under any formula Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama.

Well, now we have “things have changed” as a legal precedent.  Only in most places, they haven’t changed much in fifty years.  As Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissenting opinion, “Jurisdictions covered by the pre-clearance requirement continued to submit, in large numbers, proposed changes to voting laws that the Attorney General declined to approve, auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the pre-clearance remedy eliminated.”  And yes, she was right.  Within hours — not days; hours — of the Supreme Court decision, officials in Texas and Mississippi — both states subject to pre-clearance — announced that they would begin enforcing voter identification laws that the Justice Department had rejected as discriminatory.

The champion of disenfranchisement, however, is North Carolina.  One month to the day after Shelby County v. Holder was decided, North Carolina passed a whole package of changes to voting laws, including just about everything that’s been tried to suppress voting, from rejecting student identification to shortening polling hours, from restricting provisional voting to making illegal paid voter registration drives.  Such changes are claimed to be necessary to combat voter fraud, where somebody shows up at a polling station claiming to be someone else, but no evidence of such in-person voter fraud has ever been found.

It’s not about any such thing as combating voter fraud, of course.  That’s just how it’s being packaged and sold in the hopes that the public will let it slide.  Rather, it’s about voter suppression, particularly suppression of the voting rights of African Americans, women, students, the disabled and the poor.  The sad thing is that apparently it doesn’t take much to get someone pushing these changes to voting laws to admit that.  North Carolina elections official Don Yelton was even fired after bragging about voter suppression tactics on The Daily Show last Fall.  During the middle of the interview, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi actually interrupted one of Yelton’s racially offensive tirades to ask, “You know we can hear what you’re saying, don’t you?”

In response to the emergence of what is being called the New Jim Crow, people began organizing, just as they did fifty years ago.  In North Carolina, their efforts coalesced in the Moral Mondays Movement, led by the Rev. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina NAACP.  Nine Unitarian Universalist ministers serving congregations and communities in North Carolina even made the commitment to engage in civil disobedience as part of the Movement, resulting in their arrest.  And on December 18th, they sent out this message:

Here in North Carolina, we have known no vacation from the struggle for voting rights.  And now, we find ourselves in the midst of an ugly battle for democracy.

As ministers and citizens of North Carolina, we’ve felt compelled to respond to this threat.  We have borne witness to a movement across our state that is resisting the immoral and undemocratic actions of our legislature and governor.  With many from the congregations we serve we’ve taken part in Moral Mondays[. …]

We went because we knew that to suppress the vote is to suppress the spirit of a person.  We knew that any attempt to erode our democracy is rooted in a desperate history of paralyzing, painful politics that would serve none of us.  We knew that our own history, and the sacrifices made by those before, called us to this struggle.  And we knew that democracy is not simply a type of governance, but is a spiritual value. […]

We have continued to show up in Raleigh and across North Carolina.  We are committed to resist laws that aim to suppress the voice of the people by reducing early voting, requiring unnecessary government-issued identification (in a state with no evidence of voter fraud) and ensuring that our students are penalized for voting on campus.  It’s unconscionable.  It’s immoral.  It’s dangerous.

We know North Carolina is being viewed as a test state to unleash these regressive chains of injustice across the country.

That is why […] we ask for you to join us in Raleigh on Saturday, February 8th, when the NAACP will host the ‘Mass Moral March on Raleigh’ as part of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street. The NAACP has a vision that this will be the most massive moral rally in the South since Selma.  And we need it to be.  We write to you to ask you urgently to come join us […] as we respond to the spiritual call to engage in the struggle.

When I read this, back in December, I knew that I had to go.  Knowing what I do of our history, I knew that I had to go.  The letter from the North Carolina ministers was drawing of course, upon the legacy of Dr. King’s telegram.  Their letter was rather longer, of course, given that the cost of a telegram was per word whereas an e-mail costs the same regardless of length or content, at least until Verizon gets its way.  But the spirit was the same, and they knew that when they wrote it, and it’s had the effect they intended by it.

Perhaps more importantly, I’m not going alone.  Around twenty of us from the Fellowship are going, and I think that includes some children.  That’s a fabulous response from a small congregation like ours.  And we’ll be in Raleigh with several hundred of our fellow Unitarian Universalists and several thousand of our fellow citizens on Saturday morning, when we march from Shaw University to the North Carolina State Capitol.

Thankfully some things really have changed, though that probably has more to do with cell ‘phone cameras and social media than it does with legislation or judicial opinion.  We won’t be confronted by armed state troopers with orders to attack us with tear gas or charge us on horseback.  So far as I know there aren’t any plans for anyone to engage in civil disobedience, either.  The worst hazard we face, in fact, is the rain that’s currently forecast for Saturday.

Not everyone can go, of course.  Not everyone wants to go.  And that’s okay.  But whether we’re going or not, I hope we all realize that we are at a turning point in history, just as we were fifty years ago.  And by “we” I mean not only the United States as a nation but Unitarian Universalism as a faith, too.

In one of his final sermons, which was given at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington DC, James Reeb said that “We are going to have to really take upon ourselves a continuing and disciplined effort with no real hope that in our lifetime we are going to be able to take a vacation from the struggle for justice.”  Well, that’s just as true today as it was fifty years ago.  And it’s part of our heritage, part of the living tradition that we begin to embrace when we join a congregation like this one.  We may not do it perfectly.  We have made mistakes — as a congregation, as a denomination — and I can guarantee that there will be mistakes in our future.  But by taking part in public witness and advocacy, or by supporting and affirming those who do, simply by being here in this imperfect microcosm of the Beloved Community that we hope to realize, we are all of us lending the weight of our souls to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

So may it be.

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The Work of Christmas

UUFP Blog

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

“When the song of angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flock,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among sisters and brothers,
to make music in the heart.”
— Howard Thurman

I am writing this on what is known in my native England as Boxing Day.  Traditionally the day when servants and tradesmen would receive gifts from their masters or other employers, I remember December 26th growing up as being a lot like a second Christmas Day.  Relatives would still be staying with us, so there’d be more big family meals, more time with the presents we’d unwrapped the…

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Appreciation and Encouragement

UUFP Blog

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

I attended my first General Assembly in 2001.  The congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association were meeting that year in Cleveland and I stayed with a group of Ohians I’d met through the World Pantheist Movement.  I probably could have gone to GA as a delegate of the Unitarian Society of Hartford, but I’d only just become a member there and I was still figuring things out.

I was excited to be going to my first General Assembly, and a few months before I had filled out the registration form with considerably more anticipation than I did those of any of the academic conferences I was used to attending.  When the form asked for a title to go along with my name, I didn’t think much of putting “Dr.” in the box.  From what I already knew of the…

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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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Things My Baby Daughter Taught Me

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 16th 2013.  A portion from the end of it was published as one of my columns in the Daily Press.)

Reading: “For Those Thinking of Having Children”

Our reading is one of those things that gets e-mailed from one person to another, or posted by one person to another on Facebook, until it’s not clear where it came from or who originally wrote it.  I imagine that it’s most often sent by those who are already parents to those who are not yet parents, usually with a knowing comment such as “You’ll find out this is 100% true!”

Here, then, are ten lessons for those thinking of having children.

Lesson One: Household Finances

Go to the grocery store.  Arrange to have your salary paid directly to their head office.  Go home.  Pick up the paper.  Read it for the last time.

Lesson Two: Giving (and Receiving) Advice

Find a couple who already are parents and berate them about their methods of discipline, their lack of patience, their appallingly low tolerance levels and the fact that they allow their children to run wild.  Suggest ways in which they might improve their child’s breastfeeding, sleep habits, toilet training, table manners, and overall behavior.  Enjoy it because it will be the last time in your life you will have all the answers.

Lesson Three: Night-time Schedules

Get home from work and immediately begin walking around the living room from 5pm to 10pm carrying a wet bag weighing approximately eight to twelve pounds and with a radio turned to static (or some other obnoxious sound) playing loudly.  Eat cold food with one hand for dinner.  At 10pm, put the bag gently down, set the alarm for midnight, and go to sleep.  Get up at twelve and walk around the living room again, with the bag, until 1am.  Set the alarm for 3am.  Since you can’t get back to sleep, get up at 2am, make a drink and watch an infomercial.  Go to bed at 2:45am.  Get up at 3am when the alarm goes off.  Sing songs quietly in the dark until 4am.  Get up.  Make breakfast.  Get ready for work and go to work — work hard and be productive!  Repeat these steps each night for three to five years.  Look cheerful and together.

Lesson Four: Child-Oriented Redecorating

Smear peanut butter onto the sofa and jam onto the curtains.  Hide a piece of raw chicken behind the stereo and leave it there all Summer.  Stick your fingers in the flower bed, then rub them on the clean walls.  Take your favorite book, photo album, etc., and wreck it.  Spill milk on your new pillows and cover the stains with crayons.

Lesson Five: Dressing a Small Child

Buy an octopus and a small bag made out of loose mesh.  Attempt to put the octopus into the bag so that none of the arms hang out.  Time allowed for this: all morning.

IMAG0587Lesson Six: Feeding a Small Child

Hollow out a melon and make a small hole in the side.  Suspend it from the ceiling and set it swinging.  Now get a bowl of soggy Cheerios and attempt to spoon them into the swaying melon by pretending that the spoon is an airplane.  Continue until half the Cheerios are gone.  Tip most of what’s left into your lap.  The rest, just throw into the air.

Lesson Seven: Auditory Resilience

Make a recording of Fran Drescher saying “mommy” repeatedly.  It is important to have no more than a four-second delay between each “mommy”.  An occasional crescendo to the level of a supersonic jet is required.  Play this in your car everywhere you go for the next four years.

Lesson Eight: Adult Conversations

Start talking to an adult of your choice.  Have someone else continually tug on your clothing while playing the “mommy” recording from the previous lesson.

Lesson Nine: Vehicle Maintenance

Buy a chocolate ice cream cone and put it in your car’s glove compartment.  Leave it there.  Get a dime and stick it in the CD player.  Take a family size package of chocolate cookies and mash them into the back seat.  Sprinkle Cheerios all over the floor, then smash them with your foot.  Run a garden rake along both sides of the car.

IMAG0378Lesson Ten: Grocery Shopping

Go to the local supermarket.  Take with you the closest thing you can find to a pre-school child — a full-grown goat is an excellent choice.  (If you intend to have more than one child, then definitely take more than one goat.)  Buy your week’s groceries without letting the goat out of your sight.  Pay for everything the goat eats or destroys.

Sermon: “Things My Baby Daughter Taught Me”

Today is my first Father’s Day.  A couple of years ago I had no idea I’d now be a father — it’s amazing how much life can change in just two years!  And they’ve been two years that have somehow gone by very quickly, too.

I am loving it, of course.  For all that I feel exhausted almost all the time, for all that I don’t get to read the newspaper anymore or that dressing Olivia really is like wrestling an octopus into a mesh bag or that our living room is now wall-to-wall toys — or that I sometimes find myself humming the obnoxious tunes that said toys play over and over again — I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lots of people, of course, have been giving us advice of varying degrees of helpfulness.  Many of the more dire predictions concern what our lives will be like when Olivia’s a teenager, but Allison and I keep reminding ourselves that we still have another decade or so of relative sanity ahead of us.

Life, of course, is famous for failing to come with an instruction manual, and the chapter that’s the most missing is undoubtedly the one on parenting.  Oh, there are experts and classes, of course.  Allison and I dutifully attended the series of childbirth classes offered by Mary Immaculate, learning about the stages of labor, techniques for relaxation, the importance of breathing, and so on.  As it happened none of that helped, because at twenty-five weeks Olivia apparently decided she was going to sit upright for the rest of the pregnancy and was eventually delivered by scheduled Caesarian section.  Since Olivia’s head was measured in the ninety-ninth percentile, though, that was the only way she was going to come out.

Now there are some helpful resources on parenting.  For instance, I was recommended a book by pediatrician Harvey Karp called The Happiest Baby on the Block, which explains the consequences of the fact that there really ought to be a fourth trimester of pregnancy.  For those women who’ve had children and just broke out into a cold sweat at the thought of there having been a fourth trimester, I apologize!  Dr. Karp argues that there’s so much developing that newborns do during their first three months that it’s like a fourth trimester, only it takes place outside the womb.

For instance, Olivia had a mild case of hip dysplasia when she was born, given that she hit the trifecta of being Allison’s first child, being a girl, and being in the breech position for the last fifteen weeks before birth.  Thankfully it was only mild, so keeping her in two diapers and swaddling her tightly at night for the first couple of months was enough for her hip joint to finishing developing correctly.

And we saw with our own eyes how much Olivia changed outwardly during the three months after birth, too, not just growing in size but transforming from primarily reflex-driven behaviors to an emerging consciousness with more awareness and control of herself and her surroundings.  It was actually amazing to me, during those early weeks of not enough sleep and irregular meals, that it was possible to calm Olivia and get her to sleep by following Dr. Karp’s advice in regard to those newborn reflexes, particularly in terms of what Karp calls the five “S”s.

After all, before being born, the baby pretty much fills the uterus.  Being out in the open where, as one parenting blog put it, the arms and legs are free to flail around “like an octopus on meth”, well, that can be scary.  So the first “S” is swaddling.  While that helped fix her hip dysplasia, as I said, it was a struggle to maintain it as Olivia grew.  That’s because she’s on the long side and the swaddle wraps that are made with the Velcro and so on are apparently designed for babies who are shaped like miniature sumo wrestlers.  Thankfully tucking her into her cradle had much the same effect.

Another “S” is shushing, or really any white noise, that mimics the sounds made by the blood flow and other bodily functions going on around the uterus.  And the shushing can be loud.  You can apparently get an idea of what it sounds like to be in the womb by filling your bath-tub with water, turning on the taps full blast and then sticking your head under the water.  After being born, then, a baby’s world is too cold, too bright and way too quiet.  One night, when Olivia just wouldn’t settle down and go to sleep, I moved her cradle into the kitchen and started the dishwasher running.  Now we don’t have a quiet dishwasher, but that was good, because to Olivia the racket it makes was apparently the sweetest lullaby.

Then there’s the “S” of swinging, which is mimicking the rocking motion that is felt in the womb when the mother is moving around.  We had this swinging cradle for Olivia that was a life-saver for us.  We tried a few times in those first few months to transition her to her crib, but she wouldn’t sleep, even when the swaddling didn’t fall off her.  So when the motor on the swing broke, we despaired of ever sleeping again.  I think Allison actually cried.  Thankfully we survived long enough to get the replacement motor that Fisher-Price sent us, and, once it was installed and the swing was working again, there was much rejoicing.

There are, though, a number of things I’ve noticed or wondered about, some from when Allison was pregnant and many from since Olivia was born.  As I said a couple of weeks ago, being a parent and playing with Olivia and reading to her and so on means that, in a way, I’ve been doing some teaching at home, but I know I’ve learned a lot more from her than she’s learned from me.

Here, for instance, is something my baby daughter taught me even before she was born, as we were getting ready for her arrival.  There it is, in fact: we use some weird euphemisms, like “arrival”, to talk about birth.  It makes it sound like we expect babies to show up on a baggage claim carousel at the airport.  Or we talk about a child “coming into this world”.  That would imply that the womb is in another dimension, outside the Universe, and the birth canal is some sort of hyperspace portal.  When all of us so readily use bizarre language like that in everyday conversation, I guess it’s not surprising that politicians keep creating bizarre legislation to control women’s bodies.  Maybe they think trans-dimensional aliens might use women’s “hyperspace portals” to invade the Earth otherwise.

484106Then there’s something Allison had told me about, having had more recent baby experience than me with all of the younger cousins on her side of the family, but I don’t think I believed her until I saw it with my own eyes.  And that’s what Allison calls “gas face”.  Yes, apparently babies, a month or two old, will smile, quite serenely, while passing gas.  Now when she was older Olivia would smile when she saw us — and I have to tell you, nothing else has ever made me feel as good as peeking my head around the door of her bedroom in the morning and seeing her, when she sees me, breaking into a big smile — and then, when she was a little older than that, she started smiling when she saw the cats.  Apparently it took her a while to figure out that cats are not just mobile furniture.  But before any of that, there was “gas face”, so I have to wonder what that implies for actual smiles.  Perhaps there’s something back in our hominid evolution where smiling meant “I’m so happy to see you that it feels as good as when I pass gas.”

Here’s another thing my baby daughter taught me.  It’s very hard to spoon-feed someone, particularly if they’re reluctant to open their mouth, without opening your own mouth.  This need not be a conscious attempt to invoke mimicry, either.  My mother-in-law pointed it out, in fact, back in the early weeks of feeding Olivia puréed vegetables, that both Allison and I were opening our own mouths each and every time we offered her a spoonful of food.

Then there’s the fact that while babies certainly do learn by mimicry, they seem to learn an awful lot by figuring things out by themselves or by doing them instinctively.

For instance, we quickly realized how much of a difference it made to Olivia being able to fall asleep if she had a pacifier in her mouth.  (Dr. Karp’s fifth “S” for calming babies stands for sucking, either a pacifier or a thumb.)  But often, being on the verge of falling asleep, her mouth would relax and the pacifier would fall out, at which she’d quickly wake back up, meaning we’d have to restart the whole process over again.  Soon after being born she only managed to get her thumb in her mouth by accident, and when another random arm movement took her thumb back out of her mouth, she’d actually get upset, as if someone else had played a trick on her.  When she was a few months older, she did figure out how to get her fingers in her mouth, at which point she spent a lot of time with her face, her bib and her clothes saturated with drool.  I’m glad we have a high-efficiency, front-loading washing machine!  Finally, thanks to a pacifier that she discovered let her put her thumb inside it while it was in her mouth, she figured it out.  That was a glorious day!  We can’t claim credit for any of that, of course; we’d just seen that brand of pacifier mentioned on a parenting blog.  But once Olivia knew how to suck her thumb, she could help herself go to sleep, or go back to sleep if she woke up during the night.  Someday, of course, we’re going to have to wean her off her thumb, or else be prepared to pay a lot of orthodontist’s bills when she’s older.

Then there’s a more recent example of this that continues to stun me.  One day, playing with Olivia and in something of a silly mood, I made a burbling sound by moving my finger across my lips.  Well, she copied me!  Allison did it, too, and Olivia copied her as well!  Mostly she just made the same sound, while moving her hand across her mouth, though since then she’s refined her technique and she does actually swipe her thumb across her lips.  That’s not what stunned me.  What stunned me was when she started clicking her tongue.  She figured out how to do that all by herself.  And doing it first, she got us to copy her by doing it, too.  I’m still amazed at that.

Something else my baby daughter taught me is that there’s no such thing as average.

Oh, there are common developmental milestones that typically happen in certain windows of age after birth, but even the best pediatrician can only make general predictions.  Allison and I had heard a pretty widespread opinion, for instance, that when babies start making pre-verbal sounds, “də də də” comes before “mə mə mə”.  Well, Olivia’s been making “mə” sounds for ages.  I don’t think she’s ever connected it with a way of calling or referring to Allison, and she’s never said anything that sounds like “mama”, and for that matter there were occasional periods of a week or two where she’d stop saying “mə mə mə” and instead every sound would be screeched as by an angry pterodactyl.  Then she discovered “bə” sounds.  Allison and I agree that the first actual word Olivia spoke is “baby”.  We have a video of her, crawling through the grass in my mother-in-law’s back-yard, clearly saying “baby” to herself, over and over again.  That was probably because, during our visit to her that week, my mother-in-law kept using the word “baby” whenever she saw Olivia — or, for that matter, whenever she saw the puppy they’d just brought home.  I’m pleased to report, though, that just in the last couple of weeks, Olivia has started making “də” sounds.  Perhaps she knew that Father’s Day was coming.

There’s much more that I could talk about this morning, and I know there will always be more I learn with every passing week and month and year.  I’ll end, though, with something that seems particularly appropriate for inclusion in a sermon, for consideration by a religious community, and that’s what my baby daughter has taught me about morality.

Morality, after all, is something that is of concern to every religion.  Every religion ought to help its adherents distinguish between good behavior that is to be encouraged and bad behavior that is to be discouraged.  Religions that have a holy book or a great leader have a relatively easy time of identifying their moral center, in that it’s whatever the book or the leader says it is.  There’s still the problem of interpretation, which keeps the priests and the scribes employed for generations, but in principle it’s straightforward.

Unitarian Universalism has neither a holy book nor a great leader, though.  Rather, every book can be holy, if holiness can be found amongst its words.  And every person can be someone who inspires, supports, guides, comforts and counsels others, given aptitude and/or training.  So, on the basis of how other religions do it, it’s not uncommon to hear expressed doubts about the moral center of Unitarian Universalism when it’s not given to us by some specially designated source.

IMAG0270Well, our own Unitarian Universalist versions of priests and scribes have been hard at work on this for a long time, usually constructing elaborate systems involving evolutionary biology and categorical imperatives and other complex psycho-social theories.  But my almost-eleven-month-old has convinced me that it may well be a whole lot simpler than that.

After all, when Olivia eats her food without dribbling it down her face and over her clothes, when she lets go of the cell ‘phone charger wire and stops trying to chew on the little plug on the end, when she lies still on the changing pad and lets me not only put a clean diaper on her but, more importantly, dispose of the old one without any of its contents escaping, then I find myself, quite without thinking about it, praising her for “being good”.

In other words, when she behaves according to my expectations of her behavior, when she does what I want or simply does what’s convenient for me, that, really, is what it means to me for her to be good.  Perhaps understanding morality doesn’t need highbrow ideas or elaborate psychological or sociological concepts.  Perhaps it just needs the recognition that when we are in relationship with one another, then we have certain expectations of one another, and when those expectations are met, then that’s good, and when they’re not, then that’s bad.

And that’s great news for Unitarian Universalism, a religion that 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, a religion that trusts that revelation is not sealed and that we can always learn better and deeper and more loving ways to be in relationship with one another.

I know I’m going to need to remember that as Olivia grows up.  It’s something I know I need to do a better job of remembering in my marriage with Allison, in my rôle as the son of my parents, and in my ministering to all of you.  After all, there’s no instruction manual for any of this.  We figure it out as we go along, and each of us tries to remember that we are human and each of us tries to remember that the other person is human, too, and we accept that we’re going to make mistakes and when we do, we try to own those mistakes so that we can at least learn something from them.  And we are all one another’s teachers, from the elder with the wisdom of years of hard-won life experiences to, well, a child who isn’t even a year old and who has only a one-word vocabulary and who sometimes screeches like an angry pterodactyl.

May we always be open to whatever life has to teach us, whoever the teacher may be.

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Mining for Gold

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 30th 2013.)

A few years ago I was on the receiving end of a telephone interview when I was asked to name my leadership style.  It wasn’t a question I was expecting, nor was it one I’d ever been asked before, so I tried to come up with something based on my experience in Unitarian Universalism.  I talked — though perhaps “rambled” would be a more appropriate word — about cooperative and collaborative leadership, about the ideal of sharing power with rather than holding power over people, and about companioning others in their own work toward the achievement of common goals.  It evidently wasn’t the sort of answer my interviewers wanted, since they asked me the question again, though all I was able to offer was a more concise version of my earlier ramble.

The interview as a whole certainly wasn’t anything to brag about, but I think I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to get the job.  Since then, though, I’ve continued to think about leadership, particularly in terms of what leadership means — both as a minister and for lay leaders — within Unitarian Universalist congregations.  And given some of the trainings and workshops I’ve attended in recent years, I’m apparently not the only one who’s been thinking about this.

Perhaps that’s not too surprising, given what some might identify as a common Unitarian Universalist temperament.  “We may be a relatively small denomination,” former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association John Buehrens once remarked, “but look at it this way: we’re the largest, longest lasting, most widely dispersed therapy program for people with authority issues that American culture has ever seen.”

Then there’s the not unrelated fact that we are a people who value discussions as much as we value decisions.  You may have seen the cartoon that shows a Unitarian Universalist who dies and is pleasantly surprised to find that there is a realm of life after death, where stands a crossroads with three signposts.  One reads, “This way to heaven.”  Another reads, “This way to hell.”  And the third reads, “This way to a discussion about heaven and hell.”  Without hesitation the UU goes to the discussion.

Now this isn’t necessarily a character flaw reflective of little more than procrastination: it’s part of our tradition, too, to emphasize good process as much as good product, to not only value but also to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.  Historical Unitarianism, after all, emphasized its own trinity of freedom, reason and tolerance, while today’s Unitarian Universalist values include “acceptance of one another”, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “the right of conscience”.  So it makes sense that the ideal Unitarian Universalist leadership style is cooperative and collaborative, that the ideal leader is, in the words of the UUA’s former Ministerial Transitions Director David Pohl, someone who “listens as well as speaks, learns as well as teaches, shares the challenges and burdens of leadership rather than monopolizing or relinquishing them.”

Well, okay, that sounds great.  And though Pohl wrote those words sometime in the 1980s, I’d be prepared to bet that if we were to jump into a time machine, go back to the 1930s and show Pohl’s words to what was then the American Unitarian Association, there’d be little disagreement.  On the other hand, some of what they said back then still holds true today.

For example, a 1936 report of the AUA’s Commission of Appraisal lamented the denomination’s condition as being “anarchy mitigated by occasional flashes of brilliant but erratic genius. Leadership,” the report noted, “doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle. It is the product of careful and patient and far-sighted planning.”

Leadership, in other words, doesn’t come naturally.  It takes intentional and deliberate training, what is often named “leadership development”, a process of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth that equips both new and experienced leaders with the technical and visionary skills they need.

The good news is that, as Unitarian Universalists, we believe that just about everybody has some capacity for leadership; the challenge is that any given person’s capacity for leadership needs to be intentionally cultivated if it is to flourish; the added challenge is that, as Eric Wikstrom notes in Serving with Grace, we’re talking about leadership in the context of a religious community, something that is clearly distinct from a small business, a country club, a political action committee or a social service agency.

Now one of the ways that Unitarian Universalists have been responding to these challenges is to think not just about leadership but about what’s called “adaptive leadership”, so let me explain what is meant by that.

Many of the problems facing us in everyday life might be considered “technical” problems, in that it’s simply a matter of applying the appropriate knowledge and skills to resolve each one.  Should one of the tires on my bicycle develop a puncture, for example, it’s either a matter of taking it to a bike shop for the tire to be replaced or buying a new tire and then replacing it myself.  I come out of the process pretty much as I went in, at least once I’ve washed the dirt and grease off my hands!

A lot of what happens in the day-to-day life of a church involves technical problems, too.  If a light bulb burns out, we get a new bulb and replace the old one.  If the kitchen sink gets clogged, we clean out the P bend.  If the weather changes from cold and dry to warm and humid, we get the piano tuned so we don’t feel like we’re trying to sing hymns in an old West saloon.

Now you might have noticed that all of the examples of technical problems that I’ve given you involve things, devices, mechanisms.  If they break, they can be fixed, and it’s just a matter of finding the right knowledge and applying the right skills to fix them.  Well, people can break, too, so to speak — and the relationships between people are particularly prone to breaking — but they can’t usually be fixed in that technical sense, in spite of the fact that we base an awful lot of how we do education and medicine and economics on the hugely false assumption that we can.  It’s false because people and groups of people are not mechanisms to be fixed; they’re organisms that need to be nurtured.

So, many of the problems faced by groups of people — from congregations to human societies — are not technical, and addressing them isn’t simply about having or acquiring knowledge and skills.  Rather, they’re described as adaptive, requiring, in the words of Ron Heifitz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “developing the organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to meet problems successfully according to our values and purposes.”  Addressing adaptive challenges can be messy, as tends to be the case for organisms rather then mechanisms, but doing so is always transformative, for individuals as well as for their culture.

Let me give you an example of an adaptive challenge that just about every congregation — at least every Unitarian Universalist congregation — faces, and not just once but every year.  And that is completing a successful Canvass in order to fund the operating budget.

A Canvass is, in simple terms, the process by which we ask each member and friend of the congregation to figure out how much money they intend to give during the next church year — what is, in shorthand, referred to as their pledge — so that the Finance Committee can put together a balanced budget that supports the Fellowship’s mission in general and funds the specific goals determined by the Policy Board.

Now it might seem like ensuring that there’s a healthy budget is a technical problem: after all, isn’t it simply a matter of finding the right way to ask members and friends to submit generous pledges and that’s all there is to it?  Well, no.  It is far from being a technical problem, and there is no such thing as the perfectly written appeal letter or the perfectly designed Canvass brochure or the perfectly worded pulpit update, any of which would, thanks to their perfection, get everybody to pledge promptly, generously and with a minimum of fuss.  If such magic did exist, trust me, a whole lot of denominational staff and church consultants would be looking for other work.

Rather, each and every Canvass is an adaptive challenge.  Each and every year offers us, in Heifitz’ terms, a new opportunity to develop our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to be the best congregation we can be.  Unlike a technical problem, where we come out of fixing it pretty much the same as we went in, responding to such an adaptive challenge requires us to examine our purpose for being, our attitudes towards risk and difficult decisions, our comfort (or lack thereof!) with disequilibrium and change.  That’s why this is not just about leadership but about adaptive leadership, requiring an organic rather than a mechanical approach to problems, and where a good process for problem-solving is, if anything, more important than a good product.

Let me give you an example of how we’re trying to do that in one particular case, something that really brought home to me one lesson from the program for leadership development called “Harvest the Power!” that I co-taught a couple of years ago.

At the start of this year, our chair of the Sunday Services Committee published an article in the Flame about the state of the pulpit, the physical object which usually stands on this platform and from which the lay leader speaks and I preach.  He wrote about how the pulpit was showing its age and had needed some repairs.  Now you’ll notice that I’m not using the pulpit this morning, and that’s because more repairs need to be made, and we don’t want to risk further damage by moving it again until it is repaired.

So, the article was the first step in a process of addressing the deteriorating condition of the physical pulpit.  Now it would be natural, given our cultural habits when it comes to problem-solving, to treat this as a technical problem.  Pulpit’s broken?  Fix it.  Can’t be fixed? Get a new one.  Find the money, repair it or buy a replacement.  Case closed.  End of story.

Well, not so fast.  We know the pulpit’s been here as long as this Sanctuary, about thirty years.  That’s a long time for people to develop not just opinions about it, but feelings, too, and different feelings depending on their personal histories and aesthetic senses.  And that’s just the people who look at it.  The people who use it, the people who use this space, even this platform, whether for worship or for other purposes, they have feelings about it as well.  And it’s not just a wooden box, like a maitre d’ might use to assign people to tables at a restaurant: it’s a pulpit, with the symbol of our faith on the front of it.  So it’s even more complicated than just listening to what people want and then taking a vote.

The deterioration of the pulpit then, is an adaptive challenge.  This was most obvious when we put the article on the Fellowship’s blog and linked to it on Facebook.  A conversation about the pulpit sprang up almost instantly, with some people sharing positive feelings about it and others sharing negative feelings.  The Sunday Services Committee already knew about some of that, which is why we had scheduled a town-hall meeting, to bring people together in person to share their feelings about the pulpit with one another.

Now that Facebook discussion turned out to be an excellent example of one of the lessons of the “Harvest the Power!” course, namely that getting people to talk with one another about their different perspectives on a particular issue is much more effective than having all those people provide their individual opinions to a single person or committee.  Here’s the simple explanation as to why: if you hold an opinion on something, it’s natural to think — in the absence of any evidence to the contrary — that most other people will hold that same opinion.  And if you feel very strongly about your opinion, then surely everybody else feels the same way, because no healthy psyche starts by assuming that it’s wrong to feel what it’s feeling.

So when people individually send in their individual opinions, they naturally assume that theirs is representative of the majority opinion — and they’ll keep assuming that unless and until they get some sort of feedback that indicates otherwise.  The problem is that the feedback usually comes only in the form of hearing about the final decision, in which case all the people who held minority opinions will be disappointed if not angry.  Whoever is responsible for making that final decision is, in fact, faced with the impossible task of satisfying many different people who all think that their own individual opinions are in the majority.

In a multi-directional conversation, by contrast, people can quickly recognize that other people have different ideas and they can start figuring out together how to meet on common ground.  The final decision emerges — or is, at least, indicated — naturally because that’s where everybody in the conversation ends up, given long enough.  The minority is usually okay not getting their way if they at least feel that they’ve been heard, while the majority has at least some understanding that not everyone agrees with them and owes the minority a measure of compassion.

And that, really, is the goal of having a good process to figure out what to do about the deterioration of the pulpit.  Adaptive leadership recognizes that it’s not just about finding a logical solution, something that is particularly true in this case.  Rather, it’s about developing our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to be in community with one another, such as by learning how to avoid the temptation to use a simple vote as a bludgeon to beat a minority into submission, by learning how to be in that minority without holding everybody else hostage as the only way to prove the worth of your opinion, and by learning how to really listen to the people with whom you disagree.

There will always be people with whom you disagree, and if the wider culture is doing a thoroughly awful job of teaching us how to be in community with different people holding different beliefs and different opinions, we should at least make sure that our congregations do better.

And that is one of the reasons why, this week — starting this afternoon, in fact — we’re hosting a Youth Leadership School here at the Fellowship.  It’s known as GoldMine and it’s designed to train Unitarian Universalist youth not only in leadership skills but also in worship arts and religious values and heritage, which are the same three areas of emphasis as at most of the leadership schools for adult UUs.  GoldMine isn’t an extended lock-in or even a youth camp, but is an intensive series of workshops for learning, reflection and sharing, though of course fun and friendship are still important parts of it.  The intention is to provide a whole experience that is as much about faith development, the deepening of religious identity and community building as it is about giving leadership tools.

Now if you haven’t guessed by now, yes, I came up with the name of this sermon based on the name of the youth leadership school, but nowhere in two-hundred page staff manual did I see anything explaining the origin of that name.  The manual does say that GoldMine was created by Unitarian Universalist minister Jaco ten Hove who had himself been a UU as a child and then a youth.  He wanted to adapt the Pacific Northwest District’s leadership school for adults, while also drawing upon the energy of the young adults in that district, to offer a leadership development experience for youth.  So I wrote to Jaco and asked him how he came up with the name.  I’m please to say that he wrote back, explaining that “The name arose, as you might guess, from my musings on the value of the participants — golden! — combined with the goal of the school to bring forth — or ‘mine’ — their emerging abilities as conscious, UU-strong leaders.”

Now Jaco concluded by noting that “Despite understandable misgivings about the extraction industry, one generally thinks of a gold mine as a positive resource.”  Of course, taking a literalistic approach to a metaphor is, to paraphrase writer E. B. White, “like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”  So let’s try to stick with the metaphor for a little longer.

Unitarian Universalist leadership development is a process of mining the spiritual gold that is everybody’s capacity for leadership.  Sometimes it gives us hints of its presence, the glimmerings of a rich vein just beneath the surface.  Sometimes it may even be out in the open already, small nuggets collecting where the streams of experience have washed them.  But leadership, as our religious forebears noted over seventy-five years ago, “doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle.”  Rather, it is up to us to unearth that spiritual gold, working with one another through faith development, community building and the deepening of religious identity to lift up our best selves.

May it be so.

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The Bittersweetness of Human Relationships

UUFP Blog

The good good-bye includes: acknowledging feelings, sharing memories,
offering praise, making a promise, and giving a final blessing.
— Danita Nolan

Olivia has recently started to wave good-bye to people when they’re leaving our house.  She seems to have an easier time saying words that begin with ‘B’, so the fact that she’s able to say “bye bye” isn’t too surprising; the fact that, in addition to the young child’s usual finger-bending wave, she sometimes does the wrist-twisting “royal” wave was rather less expected!  In any case, we haven’t really had much success getting her to wave hello — or if she does, she still says “bye bye” as if it were like “aloha” or “shalom”.  Of course, when she does wave “bye bye” it’s almost always in a context where “au revoir” or “see you again soon” would be appropriate.

Life is filled with many occasions to say either…

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Together We Are More

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 19th 2013.  The first service that Sunday featured a “traditional” format based around the sermon, while the second service was “multigenerational” with the three stories told interactively as bracketed by an introduction and a reflection.)

Introduction (multigenerational service)

This morning we’re going to hear three different folk tales from around the world — one from Africa, one from India and one from Japan — as well as a song based on a saying from China.  All of them provide us with some different ways to look at what it means to be part of something larger than ourselves.

Now all of us are part of something larger than ourselves, often more than one thing.  We’re part of our families, part of our communities, part of our society, part of the human race, part of life on this planet.  And all of us here this morning are part of this congregation — even if you’re visiting us for the first time, we welcome you into our religious community for the time that you’re here.

One of the reasons to choose to be a part of something larger than ourselves is that it allows us to do things that we cannot do by ourselves.  In the first story, we’ll meet Hare, who realizes he must ask others to help him if he’s to do what he promised Hyena; in return, Hare gives the others a couple of marvelous gifts.

Often we’re part of something larger than ourselves because there’s some bigger goal we’re trying to achieve together.  In the second story, when a fowler or bird-catcher is trying to trap some quail so that he can sell them at the market, we find out what can happen to a community when it loses sight of its own goal.

And our third story is short but makes a simple point about the importance of how we are together making all the difference.  We’ll go with a woman who wants to see both heaven and hell; the monks at the local temple show her two scenes that are exactly the same except in one particular way that turns one scene into hell and turns the other into heaven.

~)<

Anthem: “Where There Is Light in the Soul” by Elizabeth Alexander

Sermon

[“Hare’s Gifts”, a story from Africa, told by Kenneth Collier]

It wasn’t until I’d completed about a year’s worth of seminary classes that I realized that one of my main interests was in the subject of community.  And this wasn’t just an academic interest in building and sustaining community, I knew, but a deep, personal need to be a part of something larger.  I’ve always been a “joiner” — by which I don’t mean a carpenter who specializes in assembling woodwork but somebody who becomes a member of organizations — and where they was no organization to join, I would create one.

As a young child, for instance, I rounded up the other young children who lived on my street, starting with my sister and one of the neighbors, to form what I naïvely called a gang.  Rather than going out and getting into trouble, though, we met in a shed in my parents’ back yard and held committee meetings.  I guess I was destined for church work.

Twenty years later I was living in San Diego and had become part of an on-line community that was forming under the name of Scientific Pantheism.  I’d been attracted — in spite of the bizarre-sounding name — on the basis of a web page that asked questions such as:

“When you look at the night sky or at the images of the Hubble Space Telescope, are you filled with feelings of awe and wonder at the overwhelming beauty and power of the Universe?

“When you are in the midst of Nature, in a forest, by the sea, on a mountain peak, do you ever feel a sense of the sacred, like the feeling of being in a vast cathedral?

“Do you believe that humans should be a part of Nature, rather than set above it?”

Well, my answer to all of these questions was “yes”, just as it is for many Unitarian Universalists.  Only I hadn’t heard of Unitarian Universalism at the time.  Even though there were active, healthy UU congregations in the towns where I’d lived since moving to the United States, none of them offered a campus ministry that had reached me at the universities where I studied and worked, so I was left to my own devices to find religion on-line.

Of course, that wasn’t very satisfactory.  So, discovering that there were a number of other people living in Southern California who had also found that on-line group, I suggested we get together.  Apparently other people felt the same need for seeing one another, as I found that I was welcoming into my little apartment not only people from San Diego, but from Orange County, from Riverside, even from Los Angeles.  To give you an idea of the time and distance, that’s like someone coming here from Fredericksburg, only with much, much, much worse traffic, as well as immigration check-points.

We started meeting every month, for picnics and potlucks, for meditation and story-telling and drumming, to go hiking or to visit places like the San Diego Zoo or the La Brea Tar Pits.  We called ourselves the Pantheists of Southern California, and I even have one of the surviving mugs that I had made for us.  It was community at its most instinctive, its most informal, as is entirely appropriate for a small group of a dozen or fifteen people, but it met a real, human need — our need — for community.

[“The Fowler and the Quail”, a story from India, told by H. T. Francis and E. J. Thomas]

Even before I officially began here at the Fellowship, I received a message from someone who wanted to start what he was calling an “Interfaith Communion” to bring together liberal churches around issues of LGBTQ equality.  The inaugural event was to be held at Hilton Christian Church, with a potluck and a showing of a documentary about California’s Proposition 8.  A number of you here attended, and there seemed to be interest in more such events that would bring together Unitarian Universalists, Congregationalists and Reformed Jews as well as some of the more progressive Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Methodists.

I suggested that it would be good for the ministers from those churches and other clergy to meet, to figure out what we might do next as well as to support one another in our own social justice efforts, and very quickly we got together and started meeting once a month.  Now after a few such meetings, the original organizer of the potluck and movie event told us about a distinguished sexuality educator he knew who’d be willing to visit Hampton Roads to do a weekend workshop for us.  We reasoned that a lot of homophobia, for instance, is rooted in ignorance about human sexuality, so anything we could do to educate people would be a step in the right direction.  We readily agreed to organize the workshop and even received a grant from the Advocacy Office of the United Church of Christ to help with costs.  Again, a number of you here attended that weekend workshop.

Not long after that, though, the group fell apart.  That’s not because we started arguing, but we did stop cooperating with one another.  Those of us who were ministers found ourselves too busy with other things.  A couple of people were ill and for some reason just about all of the Congregationalist churches in the area seemed to be having problems of their own.  We found it harder and harder to keep a regular meeting time that worked for even a few of us, and eventually the attempts to re-convene the Interfaith Communion simply ended.

[“The Difference Between Heaven and Hell”, a story from Japan, told by Elisa Pearmain]

I think that’s the difference between what I experienced with the Pantheists of Southern California and what I experienced with the Interfaith Communion: in San Diego, we figured out how to feed each other.  I’m not talking about actual food, of course — there was always plenty of that, and none of us were hindered by only being able to use three-foot-long chopsticks to pick it up.  No, I’m talking about feeding one another spiritually, something that very few people can do — or at least do for very long — all by themselves.

I’ve heard a number of ideas about the origin of the word “religion”, but the one that seems to make the most sense — at least to me, particularly as a Unitarian Universalist — is that it comes from Latin roots meaning “to bind together again”.  I don’t recommend looking it up in any dictionary, though, given that a lot of overly specific theology tends to get inappropriately included.  As I said here one sunny Sunday morning a little over three years ago, there’s a dirty little secret about religion that I learned while I was in seminary:

Religion isn’t really about belief, at least not for most people, even in main-line Christian denominations.  Rather, religion is about community.  It’s about family and friends and feeling connected with other people, being a part of something larger that gives us a sense of purpose in the world, that challenges us to be more than we are, that asks us to help make the world a better place, for our children and for one another.  It’s about feeding one another spiritually.

And here’s what happens when we do that: unlike physical food that’s consumed, when we feed one another spiritually, we end up with more, not less, and we find that we are more together than we are as a mere collection of individuals.  When we come together with our preoccupations with time and who’s responsible for what, with concern for who’s getting credit and unresolved disagreements over what we’re going to do together, it’s easy to be less.  That’s not to say that there’s never a group that’s free of such problems.  Chances are, if it’s doing worthwhile work, there’ll be different ideas about the best way to do that work.  But if the people in the group are feeding one another spiritually, those differences are a source of strength, not weakness.

As I bring this sermon to a close, let me give you an example.

The Fellowship’s Finance Committee is responsible for preparing the congregation’s annual budget.  Though the budget is actually approved by voting members at the annual meeting, as will happen following services today, the budget obviously needs to be developed before that.  That’s not something that happens in a vacuum, though.  For one thing, we can’t assume infinite pledges.  Much as our Canvass Chair cooked up all sorts of creative ways we could raise more money — though I’m not sure how fracking in the Sanctuary’s back yard was ever going to work — we can only work with the pledge commitments we actually receive, modestly supplemented by reasonable estimates of income from fund-raising events and things like the re-sale of the books that many of you donate.

On the other side of the balance sheet, we have a lot of known expenses.  Much as we might plead with them, Dominion will not keep the lights on or the air-conditioners running unless we pay our bill from them each month.  We are similarly committed to pay back our own members who bought bonds to help us pay off the mortgage on the office building.  Then there are the congregational goals and priorities for which the Policy Board is ultimately responsible, from being a “Fair Share” supporter of the Unitarian Universalist Association so that it can continue to offer programs that are of benefit to us, to ensuring that our own dedicated staff are at least better compensated than if they were employees at Walmart.  Finally, there are common-sense requirements, including that the budget should be balanced.

Now all of that can seem like a pretty tall order.  As anyone who has been a part of it can tell you, it takes many meetings, poring over spreadsheets, looking at past budgets, calculating and re-calculating estimates of this year’s actuals, moving numbers around to try to make it all work.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  In that ideal universe with infinite pledges — or, perhaps, an enormous and somehow completely non-polluting source of crude in our own back yard — it’d be easy.  In the real world, it’s not.  What’s more, it may not even be possible to satisfy all of the requirements at the same time.

But here’s the thing.  When the members of the committee are there not just to do the job, but to be in community with one another while doing that job, not just to complete a far from easy task, but to help one another bring their best selves to that task, then they are not just a committee, but are also a community of the like-hearted, lifting one another up and feeding one another spiritually.  At the end of the day, that’s where religion may be found.  That’s what makes us a Fellowship rather than a social club or an activist group or an investment bank.  And that’s how we do the work of growing the Beloved Community.

So may it be.

~)<

Reflection (multigenerational service)

So heaven and hell turned out to be pretty much the same, except in heaven the people were helping one another and in hell they forgot that they could do that.  It seems like a small thing, but even the simple ways in which we work together can make a big difference in the end.  Sometimes we think that helping one another makes things too complicated, that asking for help from somebody else is being a bother to them, that we should be able to do everything ourselves, but we can only be part of something larger than ourselves if we’re willing to help one another, and be helped, too.

Now in the story from India, do you think the quail ended up in heaven or in hell?  Yes, I think they ended up in hell, too.  And really, it was a hell of their own making.  They forgot that they needed to work together, and their own quarrels with one another became more important to them than the larger goal of saving all of the quail from the fowler’s net.  Okay, perhaps there were some quail who were sometimes working harder, either because they were naturally stronger or because they happened to be in just the right place to do more.  But those quail wouldn’t always be as strong and they wouldn’t always be in a good place, and the time would come when they wouldn’t be able to do as much to help with the net, so really they should have counted their blessings rather than complain.  Perhaps then the fowler wouldn’t have been able to trap them.

And in the story from Africa, do you think Hare and the others ended up in heaven or in hell?  Yes, I think they ended up in heaven, too.  Even Hyena, once he’d realized that Hare had done what he promised fair and square, probably had a good time at the feast and enjoyed the music as much as everyone else.  Maybe, when it was time for him to rebuild his hut, he moved into the village along with everyone else, too.  That’s not to say that nobody in the village ever disagreed with one another or got into arguments.  But keeping in mind the promise of the village — that it really is good to live together, sharing, helping and knowing each other — they’d find ways to resolve their disagreements and settle their arguments so that they could continue to enjoy that heavenly promise.

So the next time you find yourself part of a group of people with a particular job to do, think about how you can be in community with one another while doing that job.  Suppose you’re part of a class project or a team with some task to complete, try to find ways to help one another bring your best selves to that project or task.  Like the people at the feast in the temple, it’s important to be there not just as a group of individual people, but as a community of the like-hearted, lifting one another up and feeding one another spiritually.  At the end of the day, that’s where religion may be found.  That’s what makes us a Fellowship rather than a social club or an activist group or an investment bank.  And that’s how we do the work of growing the Beloved Community.

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