Posts Tagged diversity

Bringing Wholeness

(I preached this homily for Flower Communion at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 1st 2014.)

In a few minutes’ time, we’ll celebrate the Flower Communion, which I can say without hesitation is the most beloved of all Unitarian Universalist ceremonies.  It was created by Czech Unitarian minister Norbert Čapek, who wrote a number of original hymns and prayers for it, and it was then brought to the United States by his wife, Maja.  Actually, I suspect that Maja had a hand in helping her husband create the Flower Communion, but we are particularly grateful to her for making it such a beautiful part of the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism.

The story goes that, until about a hundred years ago, Norbert was living in eastern Europe.  He’d been born into a Roman Catholic family living in Bohemia and he’d always wanted to be a priest, but he was a free-thinker and that got him into trouble when it came to some of the things he said about religion and politics.  Finding his increasingly liberal opinions unwelcome, Norbert, his first wife and their eight children fled to the United States.  Unfortunately his wife died soon after they arrived, but it was here that he learned about Unitarianism and found that it matched his own developing religious ideas.  He also met Maja, who was from Bohemia as well and had come to the United States some years before.  A graduate of Columbia University, she worked at the New York Public Library when they met.  They married soon after, and together joined the Unitarian church in Orange, New Jersey.

With their homeland newly independent after World War I, the Čapeks moved back to Europe, to the city of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic.  Together they founded the first Unitarian church in that part of Europe, and in time it became the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, with over three-thousand members.

Now, Sunday services in the Czech Unitarian Church weren’t much like worship services in today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations.  They didn’t sing hymns, and the ritual of lighting the chalice didn’t yet exist.  Some of the church members wanted something more spiritual than a lecture they could hear at the local university, so Norbert decided to create a ritual that would bring people together.  Taking his inspiration from the beauty of the countryside around Prague, he created the Flower Communion.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s the simple beauty that makes it so meaningful.  Every person coming to the service brings a flower, which they place in large vases.  The flowers form a beautiful bouquet, as unique and irreplaceable as each of the flowers in it.  With even just one flower missing, it wouldn’t be the same bouquet!  After the flowers are blessed, each person selects a flower to take home with them.  So different people brings different flowers and everybody gets to take one home, a different one than they brought.  In this way we honor the uniqueness of each person, as beautiful in their own way as a flower, each of us with a special contribution to make to our community.

lots of flowers

Now this isn’t a story with a nice, neat happy ending, but then, life is hardly a fairy tale.  During World War II, the Čapeks were invited back to the United States, given understandable concerns for their safety.  Maja did return, though that was primarily to help raise funds for Czech relief efforts, but Norbert chose to remain in his homeland, ministering to those who needed to hear his message of inherent worth and dignity and beauty.  Unfortunately that message wasn’t popular with the Nazi regime, and both he and his daughter were arrested and sent to a concentration camp.  Norbert was tortured and then killed.  But his legacy didn’t die with him, of course.  Maja, who had also been ordained a minister of the Czech Unitarian Church, brought with her the Flower Communion, and it quickly became a beloved tradition in Unitarian and then Unitarian Universalist congregations.

In a moment, I’ll read Norbert’s own words for consecrating the flowers before I invite you to come forward and take one.  But there’s one particular line that has stood out since the first time I heard these words, and it bears a little further comment.  That line is as follows:

May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do work of bringing wholeness to the world.

I know there have been times in my own life when I feel envy at something that another person has done, something that I myself have not done, perhaps that I am not even able to do.  Many of my colleagues in ministry do amazing things all the time, and I sometimes find myself thinking, “Oooh, I wish I had done that.”  Or even, “I wish I could do that.”  Of course, I try not to begrudge them their success, and I try to turn it around to find ways to let their successes inspire me, rather than resenting them and putting myself down.  I’d like to think, of course, that there are similarly things that I do, at least once in a while, that inspire other people, and maybe even impress them, too.  Hey, I have an ego: I’m human, too.

Goodness knows, there are lots of opportunities, even within a modestly sized congregation like ours, to be impressed by what other people are doing.  Take any one of us, and there will always be someone who can volunteer more of their time here, or who can contribute more money, or who can run a committee meeting more effectively, or who can sing or play music with more skill, or who can create artwork or write poetry that is more beautiful, or who can cook and bake more delicious food, or …  The list goes on.  It’s natural to feel a little envious, because we’re human, too, and if it inspires us to try a little harder and aim a little higher, then that’s okay.  Putting ourselves down, and making others feel bad about their talents and efforts, on the other hand, is not okay.

This, of course, is one of the lessons of the Flower Communion.  It wasn’t some random thought that prompted Norbert Čapek to put that line into his prayer for consecrating the flowers: “May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do work of bringing wholeness to the world.”  Flowers are a great metaphor for human diversity, and of course an object lesson in accepting one another’s inherent worth and dignity and beauty.  And not only accepting it, but lifting it up, and enjoy being lifted up ourselves, too.

After all, even the flowers that most people consider to be undesirable weeds when it comes to their lawns at home are beautiful in their own way.  When my daughter and I go for a walk — well, I’m usually the one walking, while she rides in the wagon I’m pulling — we notice all of the flowers we pass.  As yet, she really hasn’t been that interested in roses or lilies, but she loves buttercups and clover.  It’s reminded me of my own childhood delight in flowers, how buttercups shine so brightly yellow, and that thing children do of holding one under someone’s chin to see if they like butter or not.  And clover is not only something that enriches the soil, but is a primary source of nectar for honeybees, which need all the help they can get right now.  Even dandelions, the bane of many home gardeners’ existence, are beautiful in their own way, not to mention when the heads dry out and all those seeds are on their little fluffy parachutes and you can blow on them and who knows how far any one seed will travel.

So as you select a flower today to take home, think about how it’s different from every other flower that you might have taken.  Think about how you are different from every other person here, perhaps more skilled and gifted and interested in some things than other people, perhaps less in others.  And that’s okay, because whatever we do and whatever we are, we are all a part of the work of bringing wholeness to the world.

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A Joy to Be Together

Changing the World @ the UUFP

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

Gathered here, in the mystery of the hour;
gathered here, in one strong body;
gathered here, in the struggle and the power:
Spirit, draw near!

I’m writing this column at The Mountain, a Unitarian Universalist retreat and learning center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern North Carolina, here to participate in the Spring meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the UU Ministers Association.  It’s my first time back in more than two years, and it’s been great to catch up with colleagues both old and new.  I’m also excited to be here this week because the Rev. Thandeka is leading us in a seminar on what she names Affect Theology, “the study of the human emotions and affective states that guide, direct and prioritize religious beliefs, liturgical structures, religious education programs and pastoral practices by members and leaders…

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The ‘A’ Word

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 2nd 2014.  The choice of topic was won in last year’s Auction.)

Atheism seems to have been in the news quite a bit recently.

Atheist groups have gone to court, for instance, to try to get monuments featuring secular quotes set up in places such as courthouses where the Ten Commandments are on display.  Then there was the giant digital billboard advert by American Atheists that flashed every ten minutes near Metlife Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.  Featuring an AA staffer dressed as a priest but with football players’ stripes under his eyes and holding a football, the ad read “A ‘hail Mary’ only works in football. Enjoy the game!”

Then there was the lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation challenging the right of ministers to use a parsonage, or receive an equivalent housing allowance, without having to pay taxes.  Judge Barbara Crabbe ruled that the parsonage exemption is unconstitutional, resulting in preferential treatment for religious messages because, so she concluded, there are no atheist ministers.  As the Rev. Richard Nugent, Director of the UUA’s Office of Church Staff Finances, put it in an e-mail, “Obviously Judge Crabbe isn’t familiar with Unitarian Universalism”.

Then there are the Sunday Assemblies.  Founded in London by two British stand-up comedians, each Sunday Assembly is a time for atheists to get together for community, music and singing, and an inspiring message.  Sound familiar to, oh, I don’t know, church?  The Sunday Assembly Everywhere network uses a franchise model to start new groups in the bigger cities of the UK and the US, and in the grand old tradition of, well, I guess I can’t say religion, they’ve already experienced their first schism: a group in New York is breaking away to form what they call the “Godless Revival”.  As the Rev. Tom Schade wrote on his blog, The Lively Tradition, “Really, people should talk to Unitarian Universalists before they try to do what we have been trying to do for decades.”

And then there’s Ryan Bell, who recently announced that he would live for a year as an atheist.  He was motivated in part by a friend’s question about what difference it makes to believe in God, and was also inspired by the book A Year of Living Biblically.  He didn’t think his plan would gain so much attention, but maybe that would have been a fair assumption, given that Bell had been a Seventh-Day Adventist Minister.

In fact, starting his “year of living atheistically” on January 1st, he got as far as January 4th before being “let go” from his teaching positions at both Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary.  Bell says that both places were “super nice” and that he’d be welcomed back once he could sign their faith statements again, but as UU Doug Muder wrote on his blog, The Weekly Sift, “From the War on Christmas to the ObamaCare contraception mandate, the media gives a lot of respect to the idea that Christians might be persecuted in America, or at least that their religious freedom might be in danger.  But [if they] really want to know what religious discrimination is like, they should try being atheists.”

Finally, in this quick review of atheists in the news, there are the most recent results of a public opinion poll that organizational consulting firm Gallup has been repeating every couple of decades since 1937.

The poll question is as follows: “If your [political] party nominated a generally well-qualified person for [the office of] President who happened to be [fill-in-the-blank], would you vote for that person?”  There weren’t many categories in 1937 to go in that blank, and the results were about what you might expect.  Back in the thirties, only sixty percent of Americans would vote for a Catholic, only forty-six percent would vote for a Jew, and only thirty-three percent would vote for a woman.  These days, more than ninety percent of Americans say they would vote for Catholic, Jewish or female candidates for the office of President.

But at the bottom of the rankings today?  Only sixty-eight percent of Americans would vote for a gay or lesbian person, only fifty-eight percent would vote for a Muslim, and only fifty-four percent would vote for an atheist.  Now all such numbers have increased since Gallup first added each to its opinion poll, but it still paints a picture of widespread prejudice amongst the American public.

All in all, for the average atheist in this nation, and certainly here in the South, it’s simply advisable not to mention the ‘A’ word when it comes to talking about one’s beliefs.

There are, of course, places — even religious places — where atheists are welcome to make themselves at home.  There are, for example, Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Many years ago I heard of a memorial service for a man who had been a life-long Unitarian.  Someone who was not a UU was at that service to honor his friend, but knowing something of our history in rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, he said he knew that Unitarians believe in one god.  A woman, who was a UU, immediately chimed in: “You mean,” she called out, “believe in at most one god.”  More generally, UU congregations have long aspired to welcome everyone who would want to be part of such communities, with the only real condition being that anyone who wants to be here must be willing to help keep it welcoming for anyone else who wants to be here, too.

Now surveys of individual Unitarian Universalists have shown that about a fifth of all UUs would identify themselves as atheists.  Since atheism and other identifying terms are usually undefined on such surveys, there’s quite a bit of overlap with UUs who also identify as humanist, agnostic or Earth-centered, and perhaps even as Buddhist or pagan, too.  Still, it’s safe to say that the majority of UUs are not theistic in a traditional sense, though there’s plenty of theological diversity within and beyond that.  And it is, of course, our aspiration to be a safe place for that diversity: the radical good news of Unitarian Universalism, after all, is that we can be different people with different beliefs but still be part of one beloved community.

Amongst those who believe that such community is impossible — and perhaps even undesirable — are the so-called “New Atheists”.

Starting in 2004 with a book by Sam Harris entitled The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, and then continuing with books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, the New Atheists emerged in response to events from coordinated efforts to teach creationism in school science classes to the hijackings of planes by terrorists on September 11th 2001.  Rather than taking a persuasive approach, however, the New Atheists launched a full frontal assault on religion in general, arguing that humanity would be better off if religion — all religion — simply went away.  This may not be anything that, in its content, is particularly new; its roots, for instance, go back to eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume and his argument that the only real miracle in religion is that people would believe in the miracles claimed by religion.  In their style, on the other hand, the New Atheists greatly ramped up the intensity and the volume of their explicitly confrontational rhetoric.

Consider, for example, this paragraph from The End of Faith by Sam Harris.  (Words emphasized in italics are his.)

With each passing year, do our religious beliefs conserve more of the data of human experience?  If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields [such as astronomy and medicine], would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine.  Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of the world.  By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward.  It cannot survive the changes that have come over us — culturally, technologically, and even ethically.  Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

Now there is some truth in Harris’ words when it comes to the necessity of religion being susceptible to progress.  One of the primary reasons why I am a Unitarian Universalist, for instance, is that ours is a religion that is not only open to developments in the scientific understanding of our world, but actively embraces the insights of cosmology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience.  And I know for a fact that plenty of my Christian colleagues in seminary were just as interested in cultural, technological and particularly ethical progress, even when that meant calling into question certain parts of the scriptures they held dear.

But to the New Atheists, religion is a singular structure that never allows for progress, and is instead based entirely on ideas about the world that last seemed sensible in the Iron Age.  And when that is assumed, then there are no differences between, say, Christian fundamentalists and Quakers, or between Islamic terrorists and the followers of the Dalai Lama.  In fact, as far as the New Atheists are concerned, those who claim to be religious moderates are particularly bad, because they allow religious extremists to continue to exist.

Sam Harris, for example, doesn’t acknowledge the existence of religious progressives (and doesn’t mention Unitarian Universalists), and what he claims to be a continuum of people of faith he actually describes as just a dichotomy between, on the one hand, those who, in his words, “draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity” and, on the other hand, those who, in his words, “would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.”  In his book (figuratively and literally), if you’re not a religious extremist, then you’re a religious moderate, and you’re only a moderate because you failed to be an extremist.

Here’s what Harris has to say about, as he puts it, “the ‘myth’ of moderation in religion”.

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.  From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist.  […]

The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.  We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled.  All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us.  This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural [interpretation]; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.  Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance — and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. […]

By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.  Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question — i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us — religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.

You know, I wish that Sam had told us how he really feels.

First, there is no such singular structure as religion, no such one-dimensional phenomenon as faith.  That’s a straw man and Harris and Dawkins only get away with implying it thanks to popular ignorance.  It doesn’t help that the mainstream media — including our local Daily Press — likes to report on marriage equality or reproductive rights as if every person claiming to be religious is necessarily opposed to them.  Such sloppy reporting needs to be held accountable for its mis-representation of religion, as do Harris and the other New Atheists.

And, as you’ve heard me say before, neither religion nor faith are merely about belief.  They are also about behavior and belonging.  It’s not surprising that the atheist Sunday Assemblies are turning out to look a lot like churches, when it’s belonging and behavior that matter more than belief (or, for that matter, non-belief).  Whether or not we are permitted (and permitted by whom, I don’t know) to criticize others’ harmful beliefs — and whether doing so would change them — is irrelevant anyway, since it’s not someone’s belief but their behavior that actually affects other people.

Even when it comes to that belief, it’s certainly not the case that faith is all about believing things that are at odds with, as Harris puts it, “the last two thousand years of human thought ([such as] democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographical isolation, etc.).”  Satirist Ambrose Bierce, in his “reference” book, The Devil’s Dictionary, drew on that caricature of faith by defining it as “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”

Now Bierce may have had in mind the Christian Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, which defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  But even with such a biblical definition, that doesn’t rule out, for instance, faith in humanity, faith in the progress of the human endeavor, faith that we can overcome our differences and bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice and bring the Beloved Community into being.

But is it true that religious moderates, to use Harris’ terminology, are failing to challenge, and are thereby enabling, religious extremists?  Well, no, it’s not true.

Consider, for instance, the response of moderates to that form of extremism that is justifying homophobic discrimination in terms of “religious freedom”.  That’s a desperate attempt to hang onto heterosexism (as well as the sexism that’s hidden within it) by those who can see the writing on the wall, and that by itself shows that the moderates are disabling the extremists, not enabling them.  Of course, organizations like Focus on the Family are still kicking, and can mobilize their members across the country to lobby in favor of the anti-LGBTQ legislation that has been making its way through legislatures in Arizona and Kansas and a dozen other states.  But they’re not getting away with it.

There’s an organization called Faithful America, for example, which describes itself as “a fast-growing online community dedicated to reclaiming Christianity from the religious right and putting faith into action for social justice.  Our members,” they explain, “are sick of sitting by quietly while Jesus’ message of good news is hijacked to serve a hateful political agenda, so we’re organizing the faithful to take on [religious] extremists and renew the church’s prophetic role in building a more free and just society.”

And they’re not the only ones doing this.  Just a few days ago, progressive evangelical Jim Wallis wrote an article entitled “To Young Christians Speaking Out Against Anti-Gay Discrimination: Thank You”.  He was referring specifically writers like Jonathan Merritt and Kirsten Powers, who each criticized the supposedly Christian arguments being used to justify legal discrimination and questioned whether that “discrimination would also be applied to other less than ‘biblical’ marriages,” as the religious right might see them, “or if just gays and lesbians were being singled out.”

So is there an alternative to New Atheism that might allow us to consider the actual problems of religions in the real world without all the rancor and bitterness?  Well, yes, there is.

Alain de Botton calls it “Atheism 2.0”.  That was the title of his TED talk a couple of years ago, in which he talked about what atheism could learn from the world’s religions as a framework for human connection to one another, to our world, to ourselves, to time, to truth, to meaning, and so on.  That’s the behaving and belonging piece that he sees as very valuable in religion, even if, as he makes clear right from the start, he rejects the beliefs.  But for him, the basic premise of atheism — that there’s no God, singular, or gods, plural — is the “very, very beginning” of the story, not its end.  (De Botton, by the way, was one of the influences in Ryan Bell’s decision to live for a year as an atheist.)

Perhaps more well-known is Chris Stedman, the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.  In this largely autobiographical book, Stedman describes how he became a “born again” Christian as a youth — not because he believed but because he wanted to believe, and even more because he wanted the parts of religion that Alain de Botton says are the helpful parts, particularly the parts about justice.  Only not long after converting, Stedman realized he was gay.

He tried to figure it out, and, when that didn’t help, he tried to pray himself straight, but that didn’t work, either.  He considered suicide, but couldn’t go through with it.  Finally he came out, first to his mother, and then to a sympathetic minister, and he credits them with saving his life.  But within a few years, between the widespread homophobia he saw in too many churches and his own experiences of senseless violence and destruction, he became an atheist.

But Stedman didn’t give up on religion.  Today he advocates for the necessity of atheists and the religious working together to bridge their differences and find ways to understand one another.  Noting that the word “interfaith” is “imperfect, clunky and can feel exclusive to many non-religious people”, he nonetheless argues that atheists should participate in interfaith work.  He explains why this matters as follows.

Dialogue isn’t meaningless — the humanization of the ‘other’ elicited by an act of intentional encounter with difference leads to real change.  Engaging in interfaith coalition-building efforts requires a certain level of vulnerability and humility; to be understood, we must all work to understand.  To understand our privileges, our pasts, our prejudices, and what we each bring to the table in order to strengthen ourselves as a community and as a country, we must be willing to challenge the beliefs we have about those who seem different — and the result is often life-changing for all parties involved.  Everyone I’ve met who has taken part in interfaith dialogue has walked away challenged, with a renewed sense of personal agency and a feeling of shared responsibility to bring about a more pluralistic world.

So here’s my question.  Whose take on atheism is likely to help change public attitudes about the ‘A’ word, to change those poll numbers and someday allow an atheist president to be elected?  Should we follow Sam Harris, by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, vandalizing the bathroom, burning down the house, and bombing the neighborhood?  Or is it Chris Stedman, who sees many shared values and concerns amongst atheists and believers alike, and would have them work together to make the world a better place for all of us?

Then there’s the fact that if we take Harris seriously in his complaint that moderates are not doing enough to stand up to the extremists, then moderate atheists (and non-theists within Unitarian Universalism) are justified in standing up to the extremism of the New Atheists, including Harris himself!

As Sophia Lyon Fahs put it,

Some beliefs are like walled gardens.  They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.  Other beliefs are expansive, and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.  Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

I think it’s pretty obvious which it would be better to choose.

So may it be.

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Bring a Friend to Church!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So may it be.

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How to Disagree

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 18th 2013.)

People’s Parable: “The Argument Clinic” by Monty Python

Aria: “Let the Goodness In” by Tret Fure

Sermon: “How to Disagree”

I’d like to begin my sermon with a very quick show of hands.  Please raise your hand if you’ve ever disagreed with somebody else.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us that we have all experienced disagreements in our lives.  Many of them were mild differences of opinion that didn’t really matter.  Some of them led to arguments that hurt feelings and changed relationships, at least for a while.  And a few of them led to greater conflicts that — in the absence of any other way forward — ended relationships.

I’ve been thinking about the subject of “how to disagree” for a while now.  It’s relevant to all of our personal lives, of course, but it’s particularly relevant in the context of a religious community such as ours that makes the breathtakingly stunning — and thoroughly counter-cultural — claim that in spite of differences in belief and differences in opinion we can nonetheless be in community with one another.  After all, we don’t have to pay for a session at an argument clinic to find somebody who’s going to disagree with us on something.  When it does happen, though, it’d be nice to think there was something constructive we could do instead of sinking to the lowest level of flinging “Yes, it is.” and “No, it isn’t.” back and forth, even though that’s apparently the approach to national governance that Congress thinks is best.

We can, of course, try to avoid disagreement altogether, and it’s actually not too hard to do that these days.  After all, whatever your position on almost any issue, you can choose to tune into the radio and television stations that seem to endorse similar positions.  And you can do that even more effectively on-line, frequenting those websites and blogs and following those people on Facebook and Twitter whose ideas and values match your own.

It’s natural, of course, to be most comfortable around people with worldviews and opinions that are similar to our own, but it’s not healthy — intellectually, emotionally, spiritually — to be entirely surrounded by people who agree with us.  It’s to live in a fantasyland that drifts further and further away from reality, floating off in an ideological bubble that will inevitably burst with severe if not devastating consequences for those inside it.  It feels good to be safe and secure in that bubble, right up until the moment when reality intrudes and we realize that our safety and security were only illusions.  No matter how good it feels to be Emperor, none of us wants to realize, in the end, that we actually have no clothes.

So I’m convinced that, given our Unitarian Universalist declaration of our commitments to diversity and pluralism, we have an obligation to do better ourselves, and to take what we learn here and help the wider world do better, too.  After all, knowing how to disagree is essential for the healthy functioning of a congregation.  Knowing how to disagree means that we understand that the democratic process does not mean that we’ll agree all the time but rather hinges on our willingness to remain in loving covenant no matter our disagreements.  Those holding minority opinions have the right to be heard expressing those opinions, for example, but once a decision has been made, they also have the right to be just as much valued members of the community as they were before.

And that’s important not only for the health of the people within these walls, but for how we relate to — and hope to make a difference in — the world beyond our walls.  As a warning against the temptations of trivial disagreements, for instance, Unitarian Universalist minister Dick Gilbert relates the traditional anecdote that “while [the] revolution was raging in St. Petersburg in 1917, a convocation of the Russian Orthodox Church was in session a few blocks away, engaged in bitter debate over what color vestments their priests should wear.”  That’s a pretty egregious example, but there are a few similar stories from Unitarian Universalist history, too.

So I’ve collected a few guidelines for how to disagree.  Just to be clear, I’m not talking about social justice issues, where it’s definitely not acceptable to merely agree to disagree with people promoting homophobia or restrictions on women’s reproductive rights or environmental exploitation.  Rather, I’m talking about the majority of disagreements that most of us encounter here or at home or at work as we go about our daily lives.  And my emphasis will be on staying in relationship with one another in spite of our differences.

Now my default position here comes from the claim that, as human beings, our identities are defined by our relationships.  I don’t just mean our ‘intimate’ relationships, of course, or family relationships, but also varying degrees of friendship, from the people with whom we work and serve and volunteer to the people we encounter at the supermarket or the gas station or the airport.  Thanks to the Universalist side of our tradition, I take as an article of faith that it is possible to be in ‘right’ relationship with anyone.  But there does appear to be an exception, and, since I continually try to come to terms with the fact that I am limited and mortal, I’ve had to accept that that’s okay.

Here’s why there’s an exception — or perhaps it’d be better to call it an escape clause.

Researchers at Baruch College in New York recently published a study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that showed that “not only is ignoring obnoxious people more effective at silencing them than actually speaking to them or engaging them in discussion, it’s healthier and less mentally draining on you as well.”  As one reporter titled her article about the research, “Ostracism worthwhile when dealing with jerks”.  To quickly summarize the results, the participants in the study were each asked to either interact with or ignore another person for a few minutes and then perform a task requiring mental effort.  If the other person was likeable and engaging, the participants who interacted did better at the task.  But if the other person was rude and offensive, the participants who used the silent treatment did better.

Now this study really just quantifies something we already knew: being around good people makes us better, while being around jerks makes us worse.  Still, it has some implications for us.  First, yes, removing ourselves from interactions with obnoxious people is a tool of self-preservation.  Second, we need to be aware of when we’re becoming rude and offensive ourselves, or we’ll deserve the silent treatment, too.  But third, and this is where Universalist faith re-asserts itself in the face of our human limits and frailties, we must leave space for the person who used to be obnoxious.  It may not be possible to always be in right relationship, but we can remain open to trying, to the possibility of being in right relationship.  After all, sometimes we’re the ones being jerks, and we should always be able to hope that, once we snap out of it and shape up, there’ll be a place for us in community again.

I know there’ve been plenty of times in my life when I’ve been the rude and offensive person.  Looking back I usually realize it was because I was under stress or grieving or, less acceptably, because I was tired or hungry.  In most cases I was able to apologize afterwards and right relationship was restored.  Recognizing my own failings, I try to be more understanding when it’s the other person who seems obnoxious, silently offering them compassion for whatever trials they might be encountering in their own life.  It might not improve their behavior toward me, but it helps prevent the deterioration of my behavior toward them.  As author — and creator of Peter Pan — J. M. Barrie put it, “Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own.”

Another piece of wise advice comes to us from psychologist, author and dating coach Mark Mason.  At the top of his list of “Six Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal” is keeping a scorecard of the other person’s past mistakes for the sole purpose of dredging them up as ammunition in the current disagreement.  (Related to that is the use of words like “always” and “never” to make sweeping generalizations about the other person’s misbehavior.)  The scorecard is toxic because each person ends up spending more time reopening old wounds to prove that they are less wrong than in finding the right answer to the current situation.  Rather, says Mason, unless there’s clearly some recurring problem, each issue should be dealt with on its own terms.

While it’s important to avoid making disagreements personal, such as in terms of the other person’s past and unrelated actions, sometimes it’s important to acknowledge, at least to yourself, that a disagreement is personal, at least in that it really has nothing to do with what the disagreement is supposedly about.  You’ve heard — or at least heard of — the cliché, usually in the context of break-ups, “It’s not you; it’s me.”  Well, no, sometimes it really is them.  It’s not helpful to point that out, of course.  But when another person has an unexpectedly strong disagreement or a difference of opinion that just seems to come out of nowhere or a piece of what seems like overly critical feedback, it may simply be best to listen to them, to reassure them that you’ve heard what they had to say, and to move on.  If it helps, you can say to yourself the mantra that I’ve heard Unitarian Universalist minister and Mountain Desert District Executive Nancy Bowen claim as an alternative meaning of “WTF”: Wasn’t that fascinating!

Another piece of wisdom I gained from Nancy is the importance of asking if the object of the disagreement is worth it.  Is your goal in disagreeing worth what it will cost?  Or in Nancy’s words, “Is this a ditch I’m willing to die in?”  And that’s a great question because it forces you to actually identify your goal, to figure out what you’re trying to achieve by disagreeing.

After all, when my wife and I are at the supermarket and talking about buying some ice-cream, we may disagree about what flavor to buy.  But if I want chocolate and she wants strawberry, it’s not a relationship disaster.  Perhaps there’s a “buy one, get one free” deal that would let us each get our preferred flavor without spending a lot.  Or perhaps we could just make do with Neapolitan.  There doesn’t have to be a winner-take-all argument over which flavor of ice-cream is better, something that is entirely subjective anyway, and the only purpose of our disagreeing is to express personal preferences that can readily be satisfied.

Sometimes when we stop and think about why we’re disagreeing, we realize it’s really about not much more than, well, which flavor of ice-cream we prefer.  About ten years ago, I was in an on-going argument with my boss — who was the professor of the research group I was in — about the experiments I was doing.  I was having the hardest time showing him that I was actually getting the results he was expecting, and it was stressing me out to the point that I developed my first bout of sinusitis and would break out into uncontrollable coughing whenever I saw him coming.  After redoing the experiments, and rebuilding the equipment, again and again, for weeks and then months, I finally realized that it came down to the colors I was using to plot my data.  He preferred a different color scale and he couldn’t see what I saw in the one I usually used.  Well, that was easy to resolve.  What’s more, once I’d used his preferred colors to show him my results, he was fine with me publishing them using my preferred colors.

Knowing what it is we’re trying to achieve — and being honest about it with ourselves — makes all the difference.  Judith Martin, who is better known as Miss Manners, recently answered a letter from someone who was trying to get to a train but was stuck on the stairs behind someone who, as it turned out, was texting.  It was raining and it was rush hour, so the traveler asked if the texter would mind finishing at the bottom of the stairs.  Now the texter was holding up a lot of people who were also getting wet, so the traveler was surprised when the texter got angry and responded rudely.  Miss Manners answered the letter by first taking the traveler to task for wrapping the incident in selfless virtue.  After all, the problem for the traveler wasn’t really that someone else was texting, perhaps even for very important reasons, or that other people were getting wet.  The problem for the traveler was that the traveler couldn’t get past.  Being honest about that, Miss Manners pointed out, would have led to the traveler simply saying something like “I’m sorry, but can I get by?” rather than committing the first “rudeness” of the situation by criticizing the texter’s actions.  (This is actually one of the central lessons of Non-Violent or Compassionate Communication, something that two UUFP members are teaching us about this Fall.)

So, to recap: know your purpose in disagreeing; recognize when it’s not about you; avoid making disagreements personal; deal with each issue on its own terms; assume the other person means as at least as well as you do; walk away from obnoxious behavior, but allow for that behavior to change; and, beware the temptations of the trivial, because you might miss the revolution.

These are, of course, guidelines, not rules.  Human relationships being what they are, there are no simple, technical solutions.  And whatever anybody says, it’s always easier said than done.  All of us — you; me; even, I’d be prepared to bet, Miss Manners — have to work at it.  But it’s worth it, because here’s the thing about disagreement: it’s going to happen.  For a congregation or any other community to be healthy does not mean that there are no disagreements.  In fact, nearly the opposite is true: if there are never any disagreements, then that’s reflective of decadence, apathy and lack of purpose, which indicates only a worthless form of health.  Rather, a community that is dynamic, vibrant and mission-centered will encounter disagreements amongst reasonable, well-meaning and honest people, and the health of that community is measured by how well those disagreements are held, in love, by the community as a whole.

Two hundred years ago, this was part of the message of the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou.  Riding on horseback between churches to preach the good news of universal salvation, Ballou drew out the implications of his theology for what it means for how we treat one another in life.  “If we agree in love,” he said, “there is no disagreement that can do us any injury.”  It’s love, and what we love, that holds together a community, a congregation, a church, love that transcends differences of belief and differences of opinion, love that holds us together no matter our disagreements over the color of our vestments or our choices of vocabulary.  But Ballou went on: “if we do not [agree in love], no other agreement can do us any good.”  In other words, love matters most and everything else, if it is not in service to love, is for naught.

So here’s my final guideline for how to disagree.  Ask yourself what you love, and what the person with whom you are disagreeing loves.  Look at how that love holds you, both of you, in the space of disagreement.  Think about what you have in common, the values you share, and the goals to which you are working together.  Remember that no matter what, for this brief moment in time, might appear to be keeping you apart, you are held in love.

So may it be.

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Manifest in Beauty

(I delivered this homily at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 12th 2013.)

A seasoned minister once warned me about Mother’s Day services.  “We have people who don’t get on with their mothers,” she told me.  “Or they never knew their mothers.  Or they were abused by their mothers.  We have women who always wanted to be mothers but because of health or relationship challenges never had children.  Or society tells them there’s something wrong with them because they don’t want children.  There are all too many reasons why people would rather not be reminded that it’s Mother’s Day,” she concluded, “or else they’d simply prefer to dismiss it as yet another commercialized, ‘Hallmark’ holiday.”

It’s perhaps not too surprising, then, that Mother’s Day is a fairly popular choice of Sunday for Unitarian Universalists to hold their Flower Communion services.  After all, any Sunday in the months approaching the Summer would do, providing a nice symmetry between the Water Communion in early Autumn as a celebration of everything we share in common with one another and the Flower Communion in late Spring as a celebration of everything that makes us unique and special.  But the more of a Sunday service on Mother’s Day that’s devoted to something like the Flower Communion, well, the less time there is to deal with that fact that it is Mother’s Day.  Plus, there’s already that association between Mother’s Day and flowers, so it’s not too hard to justify.

Of course, Mother’s Day didn’t begin as just another opportunity for the vendors of flowers, chocolates and jewelry to make money: Unitarian writer and activist Julia Ward Howe first campaigned for such a day in the late nineteenth century as a way for women everywhere to bring healing and peace in the wake of the horrors of the Civil War.  And challenging our society’s narrow views of motherhood and the resulting oppression of women, the Unitarian Universalist Association is partnering with the Strong Families Initiative, a coalition of organizations and individuals that crosses society’s often artificial boundaries of “generation, race, gender, immigration status, and sexuality”.  The UUA, by the way, is the first religious organization to partner with Strong Families, joining the effort to broaden Mother’s Day into a more inclusive celebration of motherhood in all its forms.  Jessica Halperin, who is the UUA’s women’s issues program associate, explains, “Strong Families is a national initiative to change policy and culture in support of all families.  Their annual ‘Mama’s Day’ campaign lifts up and celebrates the magic and heartbreak of being a mama and honors the experiences of motherhood that often don’t fit ideas of a traditional Mother’s Day.”

Another dimension to this, of course, comes in association with the word “beauty”.  I actually picked the title of this service, “Manifest in Beauty”, based on my description of previous Flower Communion services, where I explained that just “as the idea of a flower finds expression in many varieties and infinite forms, so too does our shared humanity manifest in so many beautiful ways.”  Then, shortly after I’d chosen my title, the Dove soap people came out with a new advert as part of their “Real Beauty” marketing campaign, comparing a forensic artist’s sketches of women’s descriptions of themselves with those based on other people’s descriptions of the same women.  Putting each pair of sketches side-by-side, it’s clear that the women described themselves in overly critical and, frankly, inaccurate ways, whereas other people — women and men — described their appearances more favorably.  It’s a powerful advert, but it received a lot of criticism because, at the end of the day, Dove’s message seems to be that, simply put, it’s physical appearance that really matters when it comes to a woman’s self-confidence, her success, even her ability to be a good mother.  (Oh, and, of course, that Dove soap and other products from the Unilever corporation can help with that.)

Now there’s a whole series of sermons’ worth of material here — from the complex ways that inner self-confidence and outer self-image are related, including the differences between men and women in how that typically happens, to the intentional marketing of the artificial problem of falling short of some idealized standard of beauty in order to support the growth of the cosmetics industry — but I bring it up here because it does indeed relate to the reason why Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate the Flower Communion.

flowersAfter all, when Norbert and Maja Čapek left the United States, where they had lived during World War I, to create in Prague what would be, for a while, the largest Unitarian church in the world, they wanted to inspire their congregants to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all people, to think of themselves and everyone else, too, as a different embodiment of a spark of divinity struggling for higher expression in its own way.  Inspired by the beauty of the Czech countryside, the Čapeks asked everyone coming to services to bring with them a flower, and to put all of the flowers together to form a huge bouquet.  The assembly of flowers, of course, was just like the congregation of people: remove or change just one flower, and it wouldn’t be the same bouquet!  Then, as part of the Flower Communion, each person was to select a flower to take with them when they left, a reminder that each is special in and of itself, simply for being itself, for the carnation doesn’t complain that it’s not a rose nor the tulip that it’s not an orchid.

In a few minutes we’ll be celebrating the Flower Communion ourselves, taking the opportunity to once again manifest in shared beauty our diverse humanity.  But it is Mother’s Day, and so in tribute to everyone — regardless of age, race, class, gender identity or sexual orientation — who deserves to be recognized for their mothering, I’d like to share a reading by mother and writer Beth Brubaker with you.  By way of an introduction, I’ll simply say that this reading is in the style of the books by Laura Numeroff that began with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, but even if you’ve never read those books, many of you, I suspect, will find Brubaker’s description of household events awfully familiar.

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Finding Our Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So may it be.

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