Posts Tagged heresy

Bring a Friend to Church!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So may it be.

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The Dance of Freedom and Responsibility

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on August 19th 2012.)

If you’ve ever been a subscriber to an e-mail discussion group (or, going back a few years, a listserv or — even further back! — an on-line bulletin board), chances are you’ve either witnessed or even been a participant in a disagreement that became an argument that escalated into what’s known as a “flame war”.  We wouldn’t be faulted for thinking that this phenomenon characterized by ad hominem attacks and all-out sarcasm is a unique result of the development of electronic forms of communication such as e-mail and the Web, particularly since they allow for the rapid exchange of increasingly heated sentiments fueled — in large part — by the cloak of anonymity.  We’d be wrong, though.

For example, the available technology of sixteenth century Europe, including Gutenberg’s movable type for the printing press, was apparently sufficient to allow individuals with not-so-humble opinions to hurl strong words and insults at one another, albeit with a turnaround time of weeks rather than minutes.  And in Reformation Europe, two such individuals were Michael Servetus and John Calvin.

Calvin was running the city of Geneva on the basis of his ideas for reforming church and state.  Servetus was practicing medicine in public and writing books in secret, specifically books decrying how Christianity was corrupt.  Now Calvin, like Martin Luther before him, also believed that Christianity had been corrupted, the blame for which lay squarely with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.  Servetus agreed, but went further by insisting that the real source of the corruption was the doctrine of the Trinity.

Gutenberg’s movable type, you see, had put the Bible into the hands of anyone who wanted to read it for themselves, and Servetus, like countless others since that time, had done so and had found that the Trinity — the fourth-century doctrine that God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit exist as three persons but only one being — well, that claim is not actually in the Bible.  And denying the Trinity made Servetus a heretic.

As his books made the rounds, in part because he couldn’t help but send them to religious and civic leaders across Europe, Servetus was condemned not only by the Catholics but also by the newly minted Protestants, too.  Taking a pseudonym to avoid persecution, he continued to write books as well as letters to those who he thought might have some sympathy for him.  Servetus believed he knew the truth and he felt it his duty to share it with others, convinced that if they were but willing to listen to him then they would be free of the falsehoods to which they had chained themselves.  When others, from his perspective, would not listen to him, he fell back on verbal abuse, whether in his letters to Calvin or during his trial in Geneva.  Yes, he was caught and tried for heresy, something that was probably only a matter of time.

Servetus was first arrested, in fact, by the Roman Catholic authorities but he managed to escape.  In his absence the Inquisition convicted him of heresy and sentenced him to be burned with his books.  Fleeing across Europe he inexplicably stopped in Geneva, where was recognized and arrested following a Sunday service where none other than Calvin himself was the preacher!  Just as the Catholics had the first time, the Calvinists convicted Servetus, but this time they made sure he couldn’t escape again.  And so he was burned at the stake, in person rather than in effigy.  His books were burned with him, his most recent work chained to his thigh.

That was the end, and a thoroughly grisly end at that, for Michael Servetus.  It was not, in spite of the intentions of the Catholics and the Calvinists, the end of his ideas or even of his books, a very few copies of which survive even today.  Scholars view our modern ideas of the rights of freedom of religion and conscience, in fact, as his legacies.  We Unitarian Universalists celebrate him as a martyr, recognizing his influence on the Unitarian movements in Poland and Transylvania, and putting him on T-shirts such as this one that was sold at General Assembly in a few years ago.  “Michael Servetus, 1511–1553: Unitarian Universalists Celebrating 450 Years of Heresy”!

“A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is arguably the most Unitarian of our seven Unitarian Universalist principles, and it finds its place thanks, in part, to Servetus.  We call ourselves a liberal religion because we stand for that which liberates the heart, the mind and the soul.  Unitarian Universalist minister Tom Owen-Towle prefers the term ‘freethinking’ as “a fresher and less corrupted reference than ‘liberal’”, but it comes to much the same thing.  We may even refer to ourselves as heretics, recognizing that the word ‘heresy’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘choice’ and noting that we choose to employ tolerance, reason and freedom as tools to transform ourselves and our world.  As freethinkers, the liberally religious, we belong, Owen-Towle notes, “to the heritage of incorrigible choice-makers, an admirable lineage of heretics from Michael Servetus to Susan B. Anthony”.

So hooray for freedom!  Where, though, does responsibility come in?

First, remember that, as I mentioned last month, the word “freedom” comes from an ancient root word that actually means “love”.  That means that freedom isn’t so much about our status relative to the ideal of an autonomous individual, but rather about what we do and the choices we make in relationship to one another.  Freedom is not, in fact, a static, isolated state of being, but a dynamic, connected process of becoming.

Second, remember that the foundation of our Unitarian Universalist faith is not creed, that is, what we believe, but covenant, that is, how we promise to behave.  As you’ve heard me say before, a creed can exist in the head of just one person, even if that person were all alone in the entire cosmos, but a covenant by definition exists around and within the relationships between two or more people.

So if freedom is about becoming and if our faith is about relationship, then our free faith challenges us to understand our becoming in the context of our relationships.  I’ll say that again: our free faith challenges us to understand our becoming in the context of our relationships.  In other words, we are challenged to make sense of freedom when we do not, in fact, actually have the autonomy to do whatever we want without regard to the consequences for others or ourselves; we should instead expect to be answerable for our — otherwise free — decisions and actions.  Let me try to make this a little more concrete…

You may have heard of the “Tragedy of the Commons”, a modern parable by ecologist Garret Hardin.  Consider, Hardin wrote about forty years ago, a medieval village in which each family has the use of some common land for letting their cows graze.  For each individual family, adding another cow to their own herd on the village commons gives that family all the benefit of the additional cow, while spreading any possible drawbacks amongst all of the families in the village.  If each family in the village is free to add more cow to their herds, then it’s quite rational for them to do that, and to keep doing it, until there are so many cows that the commons becomes so damaged that it’s of no use to anybody.  The Tragedy of the Commons takes place because the villagers fail to recognize their interdependence and refuse to accept responsibility for the collective consequences of their individual actions.

Some economists, of course, have argued that the Tragedy of the Commons simply isn’t realistic, that “market forces” — Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and so forth — would always come into play to magically prevent such runaway self-centeredness, but this is no idle thought experiment: it literally happened with overgrazing on Boston Common in the 1630s, and it’s not hard to see global climate change as an on-going tragedy with the Earth’s atmosphere as the commons and all of us as the villagers.

Unfortunately responsibility is a much less exciting idea than freedom.  Even the word, ‘freedom’, tends to conjure exciting images in our minds: the open plains, with pioneers and settlers traveling westward to make new lives for themselves; or the open road, driving a fast car toward the horizon, no cares in the world as the wind blows through your hair.  Romanticized and more inspired by Hollywood movies and television advertising than based in real-world experience, yes, but evocative and inspiring nonetheless.  Responsibility, on the other hand, is about duty, obligation, something that binds us to behaving in certain ways when, all things considered, we’d rather cut out when nobody’s looking and go for a drive on the open road in that zippy convertible.  We adults like to tell our children that responsibility is a necessary part of growing up, but sometimes I wonder who it is we’re really trying to convince…

Of course, the process of individuation is a necessary part of growing up.  Healthy human beings must learn to think of themselves as individuals, separate from their parents and other people and with a sense of their own identity and will.  There’s a lot of power in recognizing oneself as an individual with free will, able to make the decisions that determine one’s own destiny.  Individuality is a necessary and healthy part of being human, but what about individualism, the place where, more than any other, our ideas about freedom are enshrined?

Individualism, it could be argued, encapsulated the founding ideals of the United States.  The “fundamental American ideology of individualism”, as defined by linguist Ronald Scollon, is that “the individual is the basis of all reality and all society” and that individual freedom must, above all else, be protected from external interference.  Well, it’s easy to get into a sort of chicken-and-egg situation when arguing about the relationship between individuals and society — and theologians and philosophers and, more recently, politicians have spent a lot of time arguing about it — but it doesn’t take much thought to realize that even if we were to aspire to be completely free individuals, we were (and, in fact, continue to be) formed — as individuals — in the overlapping contexts of family, community, culture and the very society that supposedly depends on us rather than the other way around.

And don’t we find the most value and worth in ourselves as individuals precisely when we are connected to other individuals in those relational contexts?  How easily we forget or overlook or ignore that, though!  As Unitarian Universalist minister Kenneth Collier puts it, we “sometimes spend so much time and energy worrying about and praising the autonomy of the individual that we forget that individuals standing alone have about as much strength as a bunch of stones lying around on the ground.”  And in his People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn offers this much stronger critique of American individualism: “It’s an irony that these rugged individuals so loved individualism that they ganged up together to enslave black people, steal land from Mexico, and carry out an ethnic cleansing of the continent.  At other times they ganged up to abuse and mistreat, among others within their borders, Chinese people and Japanese people and Jews and Catholics, before ganging up to abuse peoples of Central and South America and so on around the world.  A nation of individuals saying, ‘[Hey,] I’m an individual.  Don’t blame me for the collective crimes of [my] country.’”

I think we need to find a new way to talk about our individuality that, on the one hand, avoids the excesses of individualism and, on the other hand, helps us to see responsibility as not only important but even inspiring.  (Getting responsibility to be exciting may be too much to ask, but I live in hope!)  There’s a word that I learned about a decade ago now that describes some of what I’m trying to get at here, and you heard it in my reading this morning: “autokoenony”.  It was coined by Sarah Hoagland, who in her book Lesbian Ethics writes: “I mean to invoke a self who is both separate and related, a self which is neither autonomous nor dissolved: a self in community who is one among many, what I call autokoenony.”

Now think of this in terms of our Fourth Principle, that “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.

Well, there’s the “free” piece of our religious journey.  If we articulate it at all, we tend to place religious authority — the right to determine what we believe and how we should behave — in individual experience.  That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t end there.  What sort of experience do we mean, for instance?  Are all experiences to be equally valued?  Are all “truths” from every source to be respected on the basis that they belong to someone else’s and that we have no right to judge them?  What is it that prevents us from sliding into utter relativism?  Yes, we affirm, in the words of our First Principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of all people”, but look more closely and there’s something implicit there.  Who is it who is recognizing and respecting the inherent worth and dignity of a given individual?  That particular person her- or himself?  No, it’s someone else, which means we’re talking about relationship.  We’re talking about the relational individual, the individual who belongs to something larger, the self in community, or autokoenony.

And this gets us to the “responsible” piece of our quest for truth and meaning.  When it comes to figuring out what to believe and how to behave, another common source of authority is community tradition.  Our individualistic tendencies make us more aware of the problems of placing authority in tradition, of course, to the extent that Unitarian Universalists have a practically instinctive distrust of hierarchy, which is why our Fifth Principle speaks of “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”.  The individual, after all, needs some distance from the community in order to reflect on it, but the community also serves as the touchstone that prevents us from sliding into utter relativism.  We need both, individual and community, experience and tradition, distance and belonging, freedom and responsibility.

Our own religious authority, then, emerges through autokoenony, the individual being in community, the individual becoming in community.  This is, in fact, our process of becoming human.  We may not always get it right, but we’re not aiming to succeed by being infallible; rather, we’re aiming to succeed by being faithful, and the word we use to describe this process is “covenant”.  We covenant with one another inside our faith community to engage in “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and we covenant with those outside our faith community to be “a church of the open mind, the loving heart and the helping hand”.  Unitarian Universalist theology arises from individuals relating to one another within our congregations themselves and the ways in which we as individuals and congregations work for justice in the wider community.  In contrast to Howard Zinn’s rather negative outlook of individualism, then, consider anthropologist Margaret Mead’s words concerning individual effectiveness when combined with the power of community: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Responsibility calls to us, because without responsibility we’re not really free.  Universalist minister and social activist Clarence Skinner made this point when he wrote that “the fight for freedom is never won.  Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradition.  Each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and peculiar.  Therefore those who have been reared in freedom, bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever larger and more important liberty.

In the dance of the good life to which we all aspire, freedom and responsibility are inseparable partners.  Sometimes, it’s true, one leads and the other follows.  Sometimes it’s good to hit the open road in a fast car, but it’s usually even better to do it with a good friend or a loved one in the passenger seat.

So I encourage you, in the days ahead, to look at your own lives and see how freedom and responsibility are dancing through them.  Look for the ways in which you are free to assert your individuality and the ways in which you help others to find their own freedom.  You might be surprised at how often they overlap.  And then look at how your relationships help you find your own value and worth.  Consider how you can answer the call “to win an ever larger and more important liberty” for yourself, for your communities and for our world.  And take a look at what you have to offer our liberal religion, our free faith, that, in turn, supports your own “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as well as that of our fellow pilgrims on this journey of becoming human.

So may it be.

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