Posts Tagged faith

Thank you, Michael Piazza, for restoring my faith in church.

Dear Michael Piazza,*

Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Oh, I don’t mean “a church”.  I have great confidence in the congregation I serve, after all, and I know there are other good faith communities out there, too.  And I don’t mean “the church”, in the larger sense of organized religion.  Rather, I mean “church”, as short-hand for “the institution of congregational life”.

You restored my faith in the institution of congregational life when I attended your workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s “Institute” at the beginning of February.  Your title was “Preaching and Worship for the Future Church and the Future of the Church”, and though in the course of our three days together you certainly talked about good preaching and good worship, what came through most clearly was your passion for doing church well.  It was clear that you so dearly want to do congregational life well — and that you sincerely wanted every UU minister in that lecture hall to do like-wise, too — because you believe that congregational life really, really matters.  It was your passion and your heartfelt belief that restored my faith in church.

For anyone following religion news these days, it’s not hard to see and hear a lot of doom and gloom about “the future church and the future of the church”.  Oh, the demographic shifts are real enough, combining the generation-spanning decline in trust of institutions generally with younger generations’ rejection of religion that is judgmental, exclusionary and irrelevant.  And it would certainly be foolish to do church as if credit cards and social media didn’t exist, or with notions of “sacred music” limited to what was written by a few long-dead white men.  But the doom and gloom seem to go beyond noticing that congregations can’t keep pretending it’s the 1950s, to declaring that the congregation as an institution not only has no future but is already on its death-bed.

I can handle the seemingly endless stream of articles with titles such as “Nine Reasons Why People Aren’t Coming To Your Church” or “Seven Ways You’re Repelling Newcomers”; for all that their titles are sensationalistic, the articles themselves do make some valid points.  But I have been disheartened by the apparently exclusive emphasis on other forms of religious group-making, including the earnest promotion of ministry as a vocation that in the future will require either independent wealth or a submission to poverty.  The cynic in me says that we’ve given up trying to find the formula that will magically make congregations perfect, only we did so not by accepting that there are no such things as “magic” or “perfection”, but instead by abandoning the congregation as a viable way of doing religion.

The fact is that it takes hard work for people to actually be in community, particularly religious community.  And when a congregation is doing well, by which I mean when it’s doing community well, then more people will want to be a part of it, which means it will grow, which means it will change, and then it will take more hard work to respond to that change in healthy ways so that the congregation continues to do well as it grows.

Now I’ve spent fifteen years figuring out that simple fact, thanks to my experiences first as a lay church member, then as a seminarian, and now as a minister serving a congregation that really values community and hospitality.  But in the last couple of years, following in particular the publicity around “the rise of the nones”, it increasingly felt like I was being told that I was on a fool’s errand.  I so want to see the congregation I serve thrive and grow and fulfill its considerable potential, but again and again I’ve seen the consultants and the experts gleefully preparing a casket for the idea of church.  (Last year, you may remember, the Alban Institute even shut its doors!)

That’s why I’m thanking you, Michael.  You made it clear to me that what I and my colleagues in parish ministry are doing really does matter.  You made it clear that church really does matter, not because any of us might think we have the right theology or the right music or the right programs, but because congregational life matters.  Church is where we listen to one another and support one another and help one another, where we can respond to the deepest of human needs to know each other and to be known.  The forms and trappings of church may change with the times — and, indeed, they must change — but the core reason for being of the institution of congregational life continues, because our human need for comforting, encouraging, transforming community continues.  Thank you for showing me that I’m not the only one who still believes that.  Thank you for restoring my faith in church.

Yours, in faith and service,

Andrew.

~)<

* Piazza started as a Methodist preacher and then moved to the Metropolitan Community Church when he came out.  In the 1980s, he began serving an MCC congregation in Dallas that was dying.  Literally dying.  It was the height of the AIDS crisis, there was little understanding of what AIDS was or how to treat it, and while gay men were dying across the country, the White House press corps was laughing about it.  Piazza turned that church around, and, as the Cathedral of Hope, it’s now the largest LGBTQ-friendly congregation in the world.  And it’s in Dallas, Texas.

Four years ago, Piazza began serving a United Church of Christ congregation in Atlanta.  It was dying, too, given the age of its members. But in those four years, that congregation has quadrupled in size, and it’s now racially diverse, too.

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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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Letter to the Editor, February 18th 2014

(UPDATE: This was published in the letters section of the February 23rd issue.)

To the Editor, Daily Press:

Sunday’s article about Judge Wright Allen once again affirms the old canard that scripture and church doctrine are opposed to any form of marriage but that between one man and one woman.

But this isn’t just a duck, but a fish, too.

Individual religious beliefs may motivate how we act as individuals — as was the case for myself and twenty-three other people of faith when we gathered at the Newport News Circuit Court on Valentine’s Day to witness for marriage equality — but it’s a red herring to imply that religion should determine how our society should act.

Wright Allen is a judge of the law, which in the United States is defined not by the Bible but by the Constitution.

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The Work of Christmas

Changing the World @ the UUFP

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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Knowledge, Access, Advocacy

(I delivered this part of a shared sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 28th 2013.)

During the last few months I’ve shared services with representatives from some of our Share-the-Basket partners.  If you’ve been here more than a few times, you’ll have noticed that each and every Sunday, we share the Offering with one of a number of worthy causes that actively promote what we recognize as Unitarian Universalist values.  The Fellowship has been doing this for a few years now — and, in the case of the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads, doing it once a month for much longer — because we recognize that it is important to practice the abundance to which our faith makes claim, particularly once we recognize that how we use our money and other resources says a lot about who we really are.

Now I’m told that, whenever we’ve done a straw poll, at about this time of year, regarding our possible Share-the-Basket partners for next year, Planned Parenthood, if it is on the ballot, gets the highest number of votes.  A large number of you, in other words, believe that it is important for this congregation to support Planned Parenthood’s vision of “a society where all adults and teens have the ability to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives.”  And so this year, I’m pleased to remind you, one of our Share-the-Basket partners is Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.

A couple of other factors make this a timely partnership.

One is that, at last year’s General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona, the delegates from the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association selected “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling” to be the new issue for study and action by UU congregations over a four-year period.  Stepping up to challenge the “racial, economic, cultural and structural constraints on women’s power” as well as supporting “the right to have children, [the right] to not have children, and [the right] to parent children in safe and healthy environments”, this is only the most recent stage of our association’s “fifty-year history of reproductive rights advocacy of which [Unitarian Universalists] should be very proud.”  The first resolution by Unitarian Universalists was passed fifty years ago, in fact, at the 1963 General Assembly in Chicago; it called for the legalization of abortion, ten years before Roe vs. Wade made that a reality.  That made Unitarian Universalism the first religion to officially endorse a woman’s right to reproductive choice; since then there have been at least two-dozen association-wide resolutions and social justice statements on the topics of abortion, women’s rights and sexuality education.  This is a history of presenting a strong progressive religious voice — our Unitarian Universalist voice — of which we should definitely be proud.

Another factor is that Virginia is the target of too many jokes on late-night television when it comes to our Commonwealth’s nineteenth century sense of sexual morality.  Actually, the nineteenth century might be giving Richmond too much credit; perhaps fourteenth century would be more appropriate.  In any case, I’ve only been living here for three years, so I don’t know how long Jon Stewart, David Letterman and the rest have been laughing at us, but good grief!  Whether it’s requiring trans-vaginal ultrasounds as part of abortion “counseling” or reinstating Virginia’s anti-sodomy law, it’s all too easy to make fun of us.  Never mind that, when it came to a challenge to the sodomy law in 1975, the court justified it by quoting Leviticus, the fact that Governor Bob McDonnell excused his support of the ultrasound bill by saying that he didn’t understand what “trans-vaginal” means is the best argument in favor of comprehensive sex education that I’ve ever heard.  It’s a shame we can’t require every elected representative to have taken the same “Our Whole Lives” curriculum that we teach to our middle-schoolers.

Now in introducing the Adult Religious Education curriculum that was created in support of the “Reproductive Justice” study/action issue, the authors explain that the current debates about all of these issues — including, incredibly, the availability of contraception — “is not as much a political argument over information and misinformation as it is a conflict of values about life, sexuality and religious freedom.”  (And I shouldn’t need to note that religious freedom does not mean the freedom of churches and other religious organizations to oppress their own employees or those they serve.)  As promoted in particular by coalitions of women of color such as SisterSong, Reproductive Justice is a framework that promotes individual rights in many intersecting areas, including reproductive choice, the eradication of violence against women, comprehensive sex education, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, economic justice, environmental justice, and immigration justice.  These are all areas in which Unitarian Universalists have developed progressive positions based on our religious understandings of life, sexuality and freedom.

Talk, of course, is cheap.  It’s doing something with our beliefs and opinions that makes a difference.  All of the time spent at General Assembly debating and passing resolutions and statements of conscience and actions of immediate witness is worthless unless we actually act upon them afterward.  And since it’s congregational delegates who do all that debating and passing of resolutions, it’s the responsibility of congregations to put them into action.  So, on the fortieth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade back in January, Lauren F—, Tret F—, Tom H— and I went up to Richmond to take part in a demonstration at the Capitol in support of reproductive rights, including access to safe and legal abortions, and in opposition to the persistent efforts to chip away at those rights.

I realize, of course, that taking part in such a demonstration — even had it it been at a warmer time of year — isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.  Moreover, there are limits to what we, as a single congregation, can reasonably expect to achieve.  This is work we must do in coalition, and we’re doing just that in at least a couple of ways.

For example, the Gathering of the Tidewater Cluster that took place in Williamsburg last month marked the first step toward creating a Unitarian Universalist network for legislative advocacy in Virginia, something that is being facilitated by our own Mason M—.  This is something that’s been talked about since before I got here, and I’m so glad that it’s now getting off the ground.  I encourage you to talk with Mason to learn more about it.

And, of course, we’re working with Planned Parenthood as one of our Share-the-Basket partners.  You’ll hear more about their work in a moment from two of their people who are here today, but before I introduce them, I just want to frame the value of our support of their work in terms of the three words that provide the title of this sermon — knowledge, access, advocacy — words come from the mission of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia itself.

First, knowledge.  If all people have the “right to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives”, they need to be empowered by receiving the knowledge they need to make those choices.  And so, much as we teach “Our Whole Lives” to our middle-schoolers, Planned Parenthood “provides comprehensive, age appropriate sex education to schools and organizations around Hampton Roads.”

Second, access.  It’s no good having rights in theory if you can’t exercise those rights in practice.  And so, to support people in making informed and responsible choices about their own lives, Planned Parenthood provides access to “high-quality, affordable reproductive health and family planning services”, with facilities located on the Peninsula and southside.

Third, advocacy.  In recent years we’ve witnessed a resurgence of efforts to suppress and prevent both knowledge of our own sexuality and access to services including abortion and contraception, not just in Virginia but nationwide.  And so, Planned Parenthood leads the way in calling for responsible public policy that supports “the rights of all women and men to make their own choices about their [own] reproductive health, to have access to comprehensive sex education and and to have access to affordable reproductive health services.”

I’m very pleased, then, that sharing the pulpit with me this morning are Kim Barbarji and Dan Rice from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.  Kim is the interim program director in the education department at Planned Parenthood.  In that role, she manages the education department and oversees their Newport News public school program.  Before coming to Planned Parenthood, Kim was the Deputy Director of Avalon, a Center for Women and Children which serves victims of domestic abuse in Williamsburg.  And Dan is lead educator at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia, teaching their program in the Health I classes at all six Newport News public high schools.  Dan is a gifted sexual health educator, who has written and taught a wide variety of health curricula for Rutgers University.

[Kim and Dan speak.]

Thank you, Kim and Dan, for being with us this morning.  I hope you’ll take the opportunity to talk with them following this morning’s services, when our Social Justice Committee will facilitate an informal question-and-answer discussion with them.  Our partnership with Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia is a critical part of our work for Reproductive Justice, part of our larger commitment to grow the Beloved Community that is fundamental to both Unitarian Universalist theology and identity.  When it comes to knowledge, access, advocacy and all of the ways we do this, may we be courageous in living our shared aspirations.

So may it be.

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From Where I Stand

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 2nd 2013.)

There’s a story about someone who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one Sunday morning and immediately starts complaining.

“I don’t feel like going to church.  The hymns are always boring, the readings are so pedantic, the sermons are too obscure, and then, after it’s all over, I get the feeling that nobody there really likes me.  That’s it, I’ve decided: I’m not going to church today!”

“But sweetheart,” her spouse gently replies, “the people do like you and the service isn’t all that bad.  Besides, you’ve really got to go: you’re the minister!”

Well, though I need to get up extra early on Sundays — and though I’ve never been a morning person — I always look forward to being here.  I might be tired or sick, I might not feel as on top of things as I’d like, the weather might be dismal and dreary or swelteringly hot, but I look forward to seeing familiar faces, meeting new people, singing our hymns and sitting in silence together, and always noticing, as if with fresh eyes, how much of a difference this community makes in so many people’s lives.  (And, as much as it’s important for me to practice good “self care” by honoring my Sunday off each month, I freely admit that I am sad to miss the wonderful services that are offered on those Sundays.)

It’s hard to believe that I’m coming to the end of my third year here, my third year as minister to this Fellowship.  The time has gone by very quickly, but it’s been very fulfilling, and I feel privileged to be serving such a congregation with so many wonderful people and with such tremendous promise for the future of our faith.  With Olivia’s birth, of course, my own life has changed considerably, and so I’m particularly glad of the support that Allison and I have received from Fellowship members as we’ve fumbled our way into parenthood.

Now I’ve realized — as have others — that in reaching this three-year point, I will soon have been at the Fellowship as long as any previous minister.  Your last settled minister, Buffy Boke, was here for three years, and Paul Boothby was interim minister before her for two years.  So moving into the fourth year of my ministry will be a new experience for all of us, and I’m excited that we get to navigate this uncharted territory in the life of this congregation together.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that there’s been just a bit of anxiety as we prepare to cross this threshold.  Some of that comes from a general fear of the unknown, and perhaps there’s some worry about what changes might come from a minister who’s been here more than a few years.

Some of the anxiety is more specifically based on the Fellowship’s history, manifesting in concerns that I might be planning to leave.  I remember the song written by Joanne, and sung by our children and youth to the tune for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, that lists the many part-time ministers that the Fellowship had before finally making the leap of faith to full-time ministry, and then lists the settled and interim ministers who followed: this congregation has had more than enough practice saying goodbye to its ministers.

So let me put your minds at ease.  I have no plans to leave.

It’s said that there are two mistakes a minister can make: first, staying too long; second, not staying long enough.  Over the last decade, the Fellowship has known life as a church in short cycles — the usual one or two years for interim ministry, but only two or three years for settled ministry — and though there have been major accomplishments — such as buying the office building and funding the mortgage for it ourselves — it’s hard for a congregation to feel like it’s making much headway when the clock keeps being reset on ministry.  (It’s really hard on the Fellowship’s savings, too, when it keeps being spent on finding a new minister.)  So, as I shared with the Search Committee when I first met with them a little over three years ago, I am a firm believer in the transformative effects of long-term settlements.  After all, I’ve seen first-hand the power of Christine Robinson’s twenty-plus year ministry in Albuquerque, something that has transformed First Unitarian there into a thriving, dynamic, boldly imaginative, willing-to-stretch-itself congregation, making it, in fact, one of our faith’s flagship congregations.

I also shared with the UUFP Search Committee that I was looking for a congregation that would grow with me at the same time that I grew as a minister.  And I was told — by the Search Committee, by your former ministers, by other local ministers and by district staff — that this was a thriving, growing congregation with the potential to do great things, by itself as well as in cooperation with our sister congregations in Norfolk and Williamsburg.

Well, all of that is still true. And we’ve seen that it’s not just a matter of potential for some imagined distant future, either.  At the end of February we held the first Hampton Roads Unitarian Universalist Revival, using every chair that Christopher Newport University could give us and filling the CNU Ballroom with fabulous music and singing and speaking and fellowship.  We caught the attention of the Unitarian Universalist Association, too, with a write-up in the latest issue of UU World.  We’re also poised to make ourselves known in Richmond, since, after taking the lead in getting the Tidewater Cluster started, we’re now building a progressive legislative advocacy network amongst Unitarian Universalists in Virginia.

speakingSo, coming to the end of my third year as your minister, and looking forward to the possibilities of the years still to come, this seems like a good time to reflect on where we are and where we’re going.  I’ll touch on a number of different areas, so keep in mind that all of these interlock with one another in many different ways, but of course I can only speak about them one after another.

Something I’ll mention first is that, after a year’s dedicated work to seek out, gather, process and refine an incredible amount of information, the Planning Committee has issued a report that I ask all of you to read.  It’s on the UUFP website and it’ll be sent out by e-mail next week, too.  Soon there’ll be a survey to collect your opinions about the Fellowship’s future, to help us craft a vision and a plan for the next five years of our congregational life together, so please take a look at the Planning Committee’s report when you can.

Well, the place to start, I guess, is with Sunday morning worship, what we’re doing right now.  It’s most people’s first chance to experience what this congregation is really like in the flesh.  Oh, they know what we claim to be, because almost everyone who visits us for the first time has already seen our website and our Facebook pages and our blog, but there’s no substitute for actually walking through those doors and seeing the people who are already here.  From the friendly smiles of the greeters to the smell of coffee and snacks, from the helpful guidance of the ushers to the uplifting music, we try to make people feel as welcome as we can.

And just as the movement from front door to Sanctuary seat is a unified whole, so are our services, with hymns and readings, music and spoken words coming together to support the message.  Sometimes, a traditional sermon is not the only way to get that message across, or even the best way, so when appropriate I like to share the pulpit or include multigenerational dramas, or tell a story or project pictures or invite you into a hands-on activity.  Sometimes I don’t exactly know how it’s going to turn out, but Unitarian Universalism is an experimental faith, after all, and if there’s anyone who should have faith that things will go well, I guess it’s the minister.

This Summer, by the way, marks the latest stage in the evolution of this congregation from where it was — and where most other UU churches were — not all that many years ago, namely being closed on Sundays, with no services, during July and August.  This year, as has been my intention since starting here, I shall be doing services in the Summer months just as if they were any other month.  It’s well known that a lot of people, particularly families with young children, do their “church shopping” during the Summer, and I want to be here for them.  The religious need inherent in being human, the need of people for community and transformation, doesn’t take the Summer off, and neither should ministers.

Next we come to lifespan faith development, which is a fancy way of saying religious education for children, youth and adults.  This is, frankly, an area in which I’d like to be able to do more, but since my place is here on a Sunday morning, I can’t also be part of Adult RE or Spirit Play or the Youth Group.  Of course, for the last ten months I’ve found that I’m doing a lot of another sort of teaching at home, though I think I learn more from Olivia than she’s picking up from me, something I’ll talk about in a couple of weeks’ time.  In any case, I particularly treasure those opportunities I do have to lead classes or offer workshops or participate in youth and young adult events, whether it’s working with and supporting our Fellowship Circle facilitators or helping our Coming of Age students put their faith into words and write elevator speeches about what they believe.

Now when it comes to Unitarian Universalism as a faith, you’ve heard me say before that it doesn’t really matter what we believe; rather, what matters is what we do with those beliefs, in other words how we behave toward others and the world we share.  A good number of my sermons touch on issues of social justice, and this congregation has a long and proud history of good works.

Recently we’ve gone through a transition with a restructuring of the Social Justice Committee to be more of an umbrella group, bringing together task forces and groups working on different issues from hunger and homelessness to LGBTQ equality to environmental stewardship so that they can encourage one another and share ideas and resources.  I think that’s great, and I strongly support their efforts to develop more ways for people to get involved with the sort of well-defined, time-limited volunteer opportunities that prove consistently popular at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry and the PORT Winter Shelter Program.  Given the busyness of life today, most people aren’t willing or aren’t able to commit themselves to the on-going requirements of committee work or organizational responsibility, but offer them a chance to spend a couple of hours making a tangible difference in the lives of others, and they’ll be there — and they’ll bring their children and their friends to help, too. That’s how we show what our faith means.

This brings me to another area, starting with my take on the “hospitality teams” idea that many of you heard about at last month’s annual meeting.  To quickly summarize, the idea of hospitality teams is that the entire congregation, plus any non-members who want to be involved, is divided up into groups of forty or so people.  These teams take it in turn being responsible for everything that happens each Sunday morning between the front door and the Sanctuary doors — from greeting to ushering, from getting the coffee brewing to putting out snacks, from unlocking the doors and setting up the social area to cleaning up after everything’s finished and making sure the building is closed and locked again. There’s something for everyone, since the tasks — which are not always to be done by the same people: well-defined, time-limited volunteer opportunities work best, remember — the tasks range from simply making sure there’s a fresh carton of half-n-half in the fridge to preparing an entire spread of baked goods, since I for one am not willing to get in Sandra’s way of doing that for us.

I’m excited about the hospitality teams idea for a couple of different reasons.

First, when Cyndi Simpson, who has been minister to the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, offered a workshop to our UUFP leadership a few months ago, she talked about the needs that people have to connect with one another at a variety of levels.  (It’s important to know this, because one of the fears that people often express when talking about congregational growth is that they won’t know as many people or won’t know them as well.)

So people need to connect with one another individually, which is one of the reasons why, over the last three years, we’ve been trying to implement a new way of doing congregational stewardship, where every member or couple or family has someone assigned to them to at least check in with them a few times a year.  People also need to connect with one another in small groups of about a dozen people, which is one of the reasons we offer Fellowship Circles in particular and other programs such as the Book Club and Goddess Circle and Resist Apathy and Fifty and Better in general.  But people also need to connect with one another in larger groups of about fifty people and, other than perhaps EarthRising’s most well attended rituals, we don’t really offer anything that meets people’s needs for connection at that level.  Hospitality teams would do that, and do it intentionally, with each team getting together regularly for purely social events.

And I’m excited about hospitality teams for a second reason, and for this insight I’m grateful to Joanne.  Up until last year, we had a Nominating Committee that, just after New Year’s, would start talking to the UUFP leadership about who was willing to continue serving on the Board or as a committee chair and who wasn’t.  They’d figure out which positions needed to be filled by election at the annual meeting and who they had as potential candidates for those positions.  Then they’d panic, and they’d continue in that state of panic for about two months, and that’s why a large chunk of the UUA ministers’ retirement plan is invested in the companies that make Tums and Pepto-Bismol.  The problem is common not just to churches but also to almost every volunteer group, namely that it usually comes down to re-electing the people who’ve already served many times before or the people who’ve just joined the congregation and made the mistake of telling us that they’re good with numbers or words or plumbing.

That’s why we now have a Leadership Development Committee rather than the old fashioned, gastrically ulcerated Nominating Committee.  I’ll come back to this at the end of the month, but leadership development ought to start when someone first walks in that door, continuing with everything they ever do as a member, and rather than culminating in their election to some leadership position continues after that, too, since the primary responsibility of anyone in leadership is to train their own replacement.

Obviously it’s much easier to find people willing to be elected if they first have some positive experience of the work that’s involved, and it’s much better to have people on a committee organizing some program if they first have some positive experience of participating in that program.  Hospitality teams can do just that, helping people who may well be brand new to the congregation to immediately make a difference in the life of this community, putting them on the very first step of the path toward bigger leadership responsibilities in the future, if that’s something that, in time, they choose to pursue.

And this gets to the heart of what I want you to take away from here this morning.  This community is built by all of us.  Our lay leader wasn’t exaggerating this morning when she spoke the usual words to introduce our offering, that “All that this fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it”.  Growing this beloved community is a ministry in which each and every one of us is involved, a ministry that is found whenever we bring our best selves, whenever we share our joy at the good we find here, whenever we boldly grasp the imagination, whenever we lift up the inspiring work that we’re doing together.

I’d like to finish, in fact, by doing just that, lifting up the good work that each and every one of you is doing, whether you’ve been here for decades or have walked in the door for the very first time this morning, for everything you do is helping to grow this beloved community.

So, if you currently serve in an official leadership position — whether elected or appointed — please stand.  Let’s give them a round of applause to thank them!

If you currently serve on a committee or a planning group or a task force, please stand.  Thank you for your service!

If you help with a program — being an RE teacher or a greeter or an usher or a lay leader or a steward or providing hospitality or music or items for the yard sale or being part of the Casbah or PORT or the buildings and grounds clean-up crew — please stand.  You are truly doing the work of this congregation, so thank you.

And if you are present here this morning, having brought yourself as you are, whether troubled or happy, whether content with your life or searching for something missing, whether curious or tired or hungry or lonely or at peace, please stand.  Thank you for giving us the biggest gift of all, the gift of your presence among us.  I invite you to look around at everyone else standing with you and to give yourselves a round of applause.

All that this fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it.  May we always seek and find new and greater ways to live this gift and this promise.

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Freedom from Fear

Franklin D. Roosevelt concluded his 1941 State of the Union address by describing four universal freedoms that, as the right of all people, justified American involvement in the Second World War.  When it came to the fourth freedom, “freedom from fear”, Roosevelt said more than he did for the first three freedoms — “freedom of speech and expression”, “freedom of worship” and “freedom from want” — making the case for U.S. military intervention in Europe as a means to the goal of “a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.”

This is a dream that still awaits realization.  Universalizing Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms beyond the challenges of his time, though, freedom from fear continues to be the most critical of the Four Freedoms, something that we would do well to demand in our own time.  Enshrining freedom of speech and freedom of worship in the Constitution does little good if people are afraid to enjoy those freedoms.  Even freedom from want isn’t possible if people are afraid to grasp the opportunities and securities that are their rights as basic expectations of democracy.

That’s a point that has been part of the good news of Unitarian Universalism for a long time.  There are, for instance, a hundred or more references to freedom in our primary hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition.  There are even whole sections of both hymns and readings under the title of “freedom”!  There are many references to fear in that hymnal, too, but most of them are about overcoming fear, whether that’s through truth or love or service or fellowship.  And in the newer book, one of my favorite new hymns, Jason Shelton’s “The Fire of Commitment”, calls us “into faith set free from fear.”

In this, we Unitarian Universalists really are living the counter-culturalism we claim.  In some of my sermons I criticize the commercial media that, if it’s not trying to sucker us into buying stuff we don’t need, seems to thrive on making us afraid.  Actually those functions go hand-in-hand.  It’s almost laughable how often some so-called “news” segment on television concludes with an outrageous statement such as “Something in your kitchen could be killing you right now!”  Apparently the assumption is that you’ll sit through as many commercials as can be fit in before it is finally revealed that you probably shouldn’t drink dish soap.

Part of the Unitarian Universalist message of freedom, however, is that we don’t need to live in fear.  We don’t need to live in fear of hell or in fear of orthodoxy.  We don’t need to live in fear of the world around us or in fear of our own bodies.  We don’t need to live in fear of being judged for being ourselves or for having questions.  We don’t need to live in fear of not being perfect when perfection is an impossibility.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense that the opposite of freedom isn’t captivity or imprisonment or regulation; no, the opposite of freedom is fear.  So to speak of “freedom from fear” is to be redundant.  To speak of “freedom of speech” also includes not being afraid to speak.  To speak of “freedom of religion” also includes not being afraid to think about and ask questions about religion.  To speak of “freedom from want” also includes not being afraid to demand that one of the priorities of the wealthiest nation on Earth be that everyone have access to the basic necessities of life.

As we go about our lives in a world that strives toward peace, liberty and justice like a seedling strives for the Sun, let us cultivate a faith that rises above fear, seeking the wisdom of our heritage and values, seeking the courage to free ourselves from the fear that closes doors, and resolving to offer the world a hope so keen that our souls may hear and our hearts may see.

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