Posts Tagged good news

Open Doors to Many Rooms

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive MillardLighting the Flaming Chalice

One of the activities that’s part of our quarterly Orientation to Membership workshop is the “values continuum”.  Laying out a piece of string on the floor, we describe a number of scenarios where one end of the string represents somebody holding one set of values and the other end represents somebody holding contrasting values.  For each scenario, we ask the workshop participants to place themselves on the string based on how their own values align, and then we invite them to share their reasons for where they’ve placed themselves.

For example, one scenario might have “Interior Isabel” at one end of the string and “Ollie Outreach” at the other.  Isabel believes that Sunday services should be primarily occasions for spiritual growth; she likes quiet sermons on pastoral topics and plenty of time for silent reflection.  Ollie, by contrast, believes…

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Social Incarnation

“There’s no such thing as a good individual in isolation; rather there is a good individual in relationship: the decisive forms of virtue are socially incarnated.”  Here’s my reflection on hope in dismal times.

Changing the World @ the UUFP

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

“… and so we light the Candle of Hope.  May its flame remind us of the eternal hope of the human spirit: that each person may grow for themselves a life of meaning; that this congregation may be a beloved community for all who seek it; and that our world may both celebrate our common humanity and embrace our human differences.”

Candle of Hope lit on an Advent WreathIf you’re familiar with our tradition of the Advent Wreath, you’ll know that we lit the first candle, the Candle of Hope, on Sunday morning.  This Sunday we’ll relight it and also light the Candle of Faith.  The Sunday after that, along with the first two, we’ll light the third candle, the rose-colored Candle of Joy.  And the Sunday after that, once all of the others have been relit, we’ll light the Candle of Love.  So by Christmas all…

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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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Promises, Promises

I once kept track of all the promises I made in the course of a week.  There were a lot of them!  None of them were major promises of the order of, say, wedding vows, but I was still surprised at how many promises I made during one ordinary week.

At home I made promises about errands and cleaning, whether picking up a quart of milk or running a load of laundry.  At work I made promises about attending particular meetings and submitting reports on specific topics.  With friends I made promises to see them or to call them or to mail them something I thought they might like.  With colleagues I made promises to meet them for lunch or read a book they’d recommended to me.

Not all of these promises were necessarily made to other people, since some of them were things I’d promised myself I would do.  In many cases, though, I knew that keeping my promise was a factor in somebody else’s reality, affecting their emotional well-being or their ability to do their own work.  I realized that I was accountable to those other people, whether they knew of my promises or not.

I also realized that I broke my promises more often that I had known, and certainly more often than I liked.  Sometimes I had promised something I simply could not deliver, due to limited time or ability.  Sometimes I was dependent on someone else’s promise in order to keep my own.  Sometimes I simply forgot or I rationalized a way to make the promise a low priority out of my own laziness or selfishness, and acknowledging that about myself was often painful.

Thankfully, I was in most cases able to renew my promise.  Whether by friendship or fortune or grace, I was able to make good on what I’d promised, though not necessarily in the exact terms of the original promise.  Forgiveness was an integral part of that, and was sometimes most difficult when I was the one who needed to forgive myself.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber saw the making of promises as essential to human nature.  Indeed, he described humans as promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking and promise-renewing beings.  This is central to the idea of religion that is about behavior more than belief, that our becoming human is a life-long process, and it is particularly instructive for faiths such as Unitarian Universalism that are based on covenant rather than creed.

The concept of covenant dates back to the ancient Near East, when sovereign nations set up treaties with their vassal states.  That political idea was applied to the theological realm in the Hebrew scriptures, where covenant describes the relationship between G-d and humanity as a set of promises that can provide order and continuity in society.  Of course, humans are finite and fallible, prone to mistakes in both understanding and action, but the good news is that when covenant is — inevitably — broken, it can be re-made through faithfulness and love.

Unitarian Universalism traces its basis in covenant to the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the declaration of religious independence by New England’s Puritans and their ecclesiastical constitution.  Centuries later, we have been re-discovering the power of covenant, coming to understand it as the container formed of faithfulness and love that embraces a church of different people with different beliefs.  Each congregation words its own covenant between its members in the face of the demands and possibilities of reality, but the spirit of covenant asks us to act — and, particularly, speak — in ways that are truthful, that are reasonable and that are kind.

Perhaps this week you’ll keep track of the promises you make.  Pay attention to how you keep them, candidly notice when you break them, and realize the grace that allows you to renew them.  Whatever your religious persuasion — even none at all — think about what it is that holds you in community with family and friends, with those you love and those with whom you work to lift up the character of society so that none may be deprived of mercy or justice.

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