Posts Tagged hope

Long Haul People

I preached this sermon (via Zoom) at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 29th 2020.  I had intended to preach on the long journey ahead of us, given the congregation’s decision on March 8th to seek a new, bigger facility, but in the space of just a few days, the coronavirus pandemic made us change all of our plans!

I had intended to use the poem by Rudy Nemser, because it’s such a great poem praising those dedicated members of a church who are the backbone of a thriving congregation:

Long haul people[, Nemser writes,]
upon whose shoulders
(and pocketbooks and casseroles
and daylight/night-time hours)
a church is built and maintained
after the brass is tarnished and
cushions need re-stitching.

These members understand that their commitment really matters, and they don’t need to like or approve of every single aspect of congregational life to do what needs to be done.

They pay their pledges full and on time[, Nemser notes,]
even when the music’s modern;
[they] support each canvass
though the sermons aren’t always short;
[they] mow lawns and come to suppers;
[they] teach Sunday School when
there’s no one else and they’ll miss the service.

And long haul people understand that what really matters endures, too, and that it’s important to take the long view rather than get too distracted by what’s happening at any given time.

Asked what they think of the minister, [Nemser says,]
or plans for the kitchen renovation,
or the choral anthem, or the Christmas pageant,
or the color of the bathroom paint,
they’ll reply: individuals and fashions
arrive and pass.

The church — their church — will be here, steady and hale,
for a long, long time.

Of course, Nemser, who served the mission of UU congregations in Massachusetts, Virginia, New York and New Jersey between 1950 and 2000, never imagined the sort of situation in which we now find ourselves, unable to meet in person and relying on such technology as this to practice community!

And so I decided in this service to also include the more recently written poem by Margaret Weis, who currently serves the mission of the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca. Entitled “The Church Has Left the Building”, Weis begins by making something as clear as she can:

The Fellowship is not a place; it is a people.

Yes, Weis explains, there are buildings with walls and foundation stones and doors, but what really makes a congregation is people, connecting to one another, working for healing and justice, opening up to the world’s possibilities, calming fears and soothing heartache, and offering hope and love. The Fellowship is not a place, Weis explains:

the Fellowship is us — each and every one of us — together,
a beacon of hope to this world that so sorely needs it.

What these poems by Nemser and Weis have in common is their declaration that what makes a congregation thrive — regardless of the color of the paint on the walls or whether there even are walls — is the people, people who are willing to commit to the journey ahead and offer hope and love to a hurting world.

Now, I could get theological at this point. I could talk about the spiritual resources our faith offers us in our on-going efforts to offer the wider world our very special blessing. I could examine each of our Seven Principles, as well as the Five Smooth Stones. After all, the fifth of the smooth stones is the joy of knowing that the human and cosmic resources for meaningful personal and social transformation justify ultimate optimism. And maybe I’ll give that sermon at some point, but for today, as we enter week three of this social crisis that feels like it’s been going on for much longer already, I want to be more pastoral. Today I want us to think about what will help us get through this, what will help us to be long haul people for one another, so that we can offer the wider world our very special blessing. So here’s my list of what can help us.

First, breathe. In fact, breathe with me now, if you would. Breathe in, and breathe out.

Many years ago, the best advice I ever got from a yoga teacher was: don’t stop breathing. It’s easy — and we’ve all done it — when we’re trying to do something difficult, when we’re really focused on what we’re doing, to hold our breath while we’re making the effort. I don’t know why we do that, because it doesn’t help. Breathing is essential. In fact, the more effort you’re making, the more you need to breathe. So, don’t forget to breathe.

Breathe in, and breathe out.

Breathe in peace, and breathe out love.

Next, be patient. Be patient with one another. Be patient with yourselves. We’re all faced with a really big learning curve. This is like nothing we’ve had to do before, learning how to practice community when we can’t do that in-person! And so we’re figuring out how to use Zoom, for instance, to offer services and programs, and to hold the meetings we still need to hold. It’s going to take us some time to get to some reasonable virtual semblance of congregational life, and there will be mistakes along the way. So remember that we’re all human!

Along with that, take it one step at a time. I am amazed by how many artists, musicians, authors and entertainers are now making free videos available, particularly for children. (And I know we parents are very grateful for that!) One such author is Mo Willems — my daughter loves his books — and in one video he recorded, he showed how he designed and created a three-dimensional cardboard set so that photographs could be taken for one of his books. In that video, he gently explained to the children that the idea of creating something so big and detailed can seem overwhelming if you try to take in everything that needs to be done, but if you break it down into steps and take them one at a time, it becomes much more manageable. Willems was not just talking about his art, of course, but also the current situation. When we’re faced with such a big and complicated situation, it helps to take it one day at a time.

Speaking of days, keep a routine. This can be a challenge if you’re working from home or otherwise spending most of your day at home. Try to get up at your regular time, get dressed, have a decent breakfast — it is the most important meal of the day! — and read the newspaper or do a crossword puzzle or something to get your brain to wake up, too. Keeping some sort of regular schedule helps to avoid that feeling of being adrift and not knowing what day of the week it is. And if something happens to interrupt your routine, what small rituals do you have to center yourself, to re-center yourself when you need it? (Remember to breathe!)

Now, I did mention reading the newspaper as part of a daily routine, but I want to acknowledge how easy it is to be overwhelmed. A newspaper only comes once a day, thankfully, but then there’s the local news and twenty-four hour cable news on television, not to mention the infinite quicksand of social media. I pretty much stopped using Facebook back in December, when there was a protest about the masquerading of paid content as unbiased material, and frankly I was quite happy not to be drowning in bad news anymore. Now that we have no choice but to rely on social media, I’ve had to start using Facebook again, but I’m trying to be more careful in how I use it, paying attention only to what I need rather than getting sucked into scrolling down the unending “news” feed. So when it comes to knowing what’s going on, pick a few sources that you know are reliable. I know I rely on the radio show 1A, even though I’m still sad that Joshua Johnson left it, and there are the briefings that the governor holds each day at 2pm. Figure out where you can get your news in ways that don’t make your head explode in outrage or implode in depression, and limit yourself to them.

And as part of that, keep a sabbath. It’s so easy, now that we’re moving so much of our lives on-line, to be on 24/7. But we need time off. We need breaks from focus and effort for the sake of our own mental hygiene. Build them into your schedule, if you need that to remind you to take some time for yourself. (And don’t feel guilty about that, either!) Like most ministers, I take Mondays “off”, and that’s particularly important now. I can always be reached in an emergency, of course, but I need to set aside some time to slow down and rest, or else I know I won’t be any use to anyone.

Finally, in my list of what can help us to be long haul people for one another and the world, there’s the Serenity Prayer. Whatever your particular theology of prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr’s words remind us that we have limits, and so it is upon each of us to seek “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” There’s a lot that’s wrong right now, from the harmful action and disastrous inaction of the White House to the manifest shortcomings of our society when it comes to taking care of the most vulnerable, and it’s easy to get caught up in everything that’s wrong. And yet, spending all of our emotional energy on things we can’t really change is just going to make us anxious and powerless. As I’ve learned when it comes to my own anxiety, focus on something you can do. Maybe it’s doing the laundry or cleaning the kitchen. Maybe it’s making sure that an elderly friend has groceries. Maybe it’s going for solo walk or a bike ride. Maybe it’s organizing an on-line study group. As psychologist Eileen Feliciano put it recently, “Find something you can control, and control the heck out of it.” For one thing, you’ll be getting something done; for another, you’ll feel good that you did get something done.

Okay, just one more thing. Check in with one another. Have you been wondering about someone you haven’t heard from in a while? Perhaps you’re not sure if you’ve seen them in this on-line service or if they’ve posted to Facebook recently? Well, give them a call. Send them an email. Write them a note and mail it. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it, and they’ll be glad you thought of them.

Breathe. Be patient. Take it one step at a time. Keep a routine. Limit yourself to reliable sources of news. Keep a sabbath. Remember the Serenity Prayer. Check-in with one another. If you’ve found other ways to keep going during this difficult time, other ways to support us in becoming long haul people for the journey that we have ahead of us, please do share them, because we’re all in this together.

For the Fellowship is us, each and every one of us together, a beacon of hope to this world that so sorely needs it.

For long haul people bless a congregation — and the world — with a very special blessing.

May it be so.

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Bah! Humbug!

I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 24th 2018.

This is the time of year when it’s not hard to find one of a number of traditional holiday movies on the television, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to Frosty the Snowman, from A Christmas Story to Die Hard.  Another that you’ll find is A Christmas Carol, which, like The Grinch, has been adapted in various ways, from the Patrick Stewart’s theatrical production to Mickey’s Christmas Carol featuring Scrooge McDuck, from the modern version with Bill Murray as a cynical and selfish television executive to the 3D animation and its Scrooge flying through the air in a rather short night gown that has scarred all our memories forever.

Given all of these adaptations, we’re familiar with the basics of Charles Dickens’ novella, which was first published in 1843.

[Summary of the story…]

There has been much debate as to whether A Christmas Carol is a Christian allegory or if it’s a fully secular story.  Much like The Grinch, it’s about someone with a mean, cold heart discovering the true meaning of Christmas.  As one person has put it, “A Christmas Carol is the heartwarming tale of how rich people must be supernaturally terrorized into sharing.”  And yet, while Dickens’ novella mentions Christmas some ninety times, it does not mention Jesus even once.

This is somewhat curious, because it’s not that Dickens himself was not religious.  He was christened and reared in the Church of England, and he was at least a nominal Anglican for most of his life.  Thanks to some experiences early in his life, he developed an aversion to evangelical zeal, doctrinal debates and sectarianism in general, and he turned to Unitarianism for a while during his thirties.  Though he went back to the Church of England later on, he continued to associated with Unitarians for the rest of his life. At the time, though, Unitarianism in England — as well as here in the United States — was very much a Christian faith, so that’s not the reason why Dickens chose not to mention Jesus even once.

Even if A Christmas Carol is not explicitly religious, it nonetheless portrays values taught by Jesus: changing indifference into love, changing selfishness into generosity, amplifying the spirit of hope in humanity.  Some might argue that these are also humanistic values — and, for that matter, the redemption of someone described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” is pretty Universalist — but maybe that’s because Dickens was aiming for an important distinction.

After all, what matters about Christmas, as exemplified by those values, is the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus.  For A Christmas Carol, The Grinch and other stories lifting up the true meaning of Christmas to center Jesus would make them feed into the narratives of a religion about Jesus; by centering Christian, humanistic values, on the other hand, they are demonstrating the religion of Jesus.  And that’s much more powerful and will serve the world much better.

Now there is something in A Christmas Carol that has always bothered me.  After the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has shown Scrooge scenes from a Christmas in the future, it takes him at last to

A churchyard.  Here, then; the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground.  It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation’s death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite.  A worthy place!

The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One.  [Scrooge] advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.

“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question.  Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?”

“Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.

“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge.  “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”

The Spirit was immovable as ever.

Scrooge crept towards [the grave], trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, Ebenezer Scrooge.

It is at this point that Scrooge gives up his defiance to Christmas past and present, making a promise to honor Christmas in his heart and to try to keep it all the year.  He says he will learn the lessons offered by the three ghosts that have visited him, if only it will change what is written on that gravestone.

What’s bothered me is that this scene is portrayed in the various movies as if it’s Scrooge simply seeing his own grave that changes him, that finally thaws his heart.  It’s as if he never thought he would die, but now seeing the evidence of his own mortality, he promises to change his ways as if that means he won’t die.

This doesn’t make any sense.  Death is as much a theme of the story as poverty and selfishness are.  After all, A Christmas Carol begins with this very paragraph:

Marley was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

And then Dickens goes on for another couple of pages about Marley being dead, in one of his apparent tangents that feeds the myth that he was paid to write by the word.  Furthermore, part of Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come involved witnessing the Cratchit family as they grieve the death of Tiny Tim. For all that Scrooge was miserly and mean and greedy and inconsiderate, he was hardly stupid, so I don’t see why he would have harbored any illusions regarding his own mortality.

Rather, and this is a point to which I don’t believe the various movies have done justice, seeing his own grave forces Scrooge to realize he’s not leaving anything of any value behind.  For all the wealth that he accumulated during his lifetime, there’s nobody to mourn him. The only people who feel emotion over his death are a couple who are happy that they now have more time to put their finances in order.  And it is clear that Tiny Tim, a young boy whose short life had been defined by illness and poverty, leaves behind a much greater legacy than Scrooge. This stark realization is what makes him finally vow to change his ways, not so that he can somehow prevent his death someday, but so that when he does die, there will be people who mourn him because they love him, people who will be inspired by his example, people who will find meaning in their lives thanks to his legacy.  This is when Scrooge realizes the true meaning of Christmas.

There’s another part of the story that is usually overlooked in its movie adaptations.  The Ghost of Christmas Present is often portrayed as a larger-than-life figure of plenty, more Father Christmas in his origins as a Green-Man-type god of nature than a sanitized Santa Claus.  And yet, toward the end of this spirit’s time with Scrooge, the miser notices two small figures lurking in the folds of the ghost’s robes.

“They were a boy and girl.  [Jaundiced], meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.  Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds.  Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

“Scrooge started back, appalled.  Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them.  “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.  This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.  Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city.  “Slander those who tell it ye!  Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse.  And bide the end!”

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol with a moral in mind, and it’s not as simply as “selfishness is bad and generosity is good”.  Though born into a middle-class family, he experienced poverty as a child, and it gave him, according to one biographer, a “deep personal and social outrage” that heavily influenced his outlook on life and his writing.  But whereas Scrooge’s attempts to ensure that he never suffered turned inward, making him a miser, Dickens’ developed a social conscience, particularly a concern for children whose families were affected by the working conditions resulting from the industrial revolution.

In the same year he wrote A Christmas Carol, his anger was fueled not only by witnessing the appallingly unhealthy and unsafe conditions experienced by tin miners, but also by the fact that those mining the tin were children.  He saw further suffering at one of London’s schools for illiterate and half-starved homeless children, and he joined efforts to change these conditions. In a speech that year, Dickens urged workers and employers to join together to combat ignorance with educational reform, but he soon realized that he would be most effective in reaching the most people not with pamphlets and essays but with a heartfelt story about the social effects of poverty and injustice.

In this scene with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the spirit is not so much making its point about Ignorance and Want to Scrooge, who, at this point, still doesn’t get it, but to the reader, both then and now.  Certainly children are no longer made to work down mines or sent up chimneys, but childhood poverty is very much a problem in our society, and public education as a means to lift up individuals and families is under attack.

The moral of A Christmas Carol is still very much relevant today, not simply the tale of a mean and selfish man who is frightened into changing his behavior, but a warning to society at large that treating children so badly is hypocrisy — indeed, nothing short of evil — when our society spends more time and effort claiming Christian values than it does actually putting them into practice.

As Dickens wrote in the surprising brief preface to the novella, “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” As we prepare to enjoy this Christmas with friends, family and loved ones, as we celebrate the season in whatever ways fill us with joy, may this favorite story of transformation and redemption continue to haunt all of our houses.

May it be so.

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Open Doors to Many Rooms

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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.

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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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Lighting the Windows of Our Lives

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

My favorite part of any Christmas Eve service — and, I suspect, the favorite part for most Unitarian Universalist ministers — is the ceremony of passing the flame. With a single candle lit from the chalice, the flame is silently passed along the rows, and from each row to the one behind. Standing at the pulpit, I can see the tongues of fire multiplying as they spread, until soft light shines in every face and the whole Sanctuary is aglow. Then, each of us holding our candles, we sing “Silent Night”, adding another dimension to the warmth and beauty that fills the room.

Christmas Eve photograph by Rosalee Pfister

There are many ways to understand the symbolism of this ceremony. The individual flame can represent hope or love or wisdom or kindness, something that we all have, something that we all…

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Seeking a Song of Love

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

A hand that’s warm in friendship strong,
that lifts us up when things go wrong
and builds a church where — more than creeds —
we count our blessings in good deeds:
our hands can offer hope’s embrace
to make the world a better place.
— additional fifth verse to hymn 300, “With Heart and Mind”

While in Denver for my seminary studies at the Iliff School of Theology, I also worked for the Mountain Desert District, first as Youth Chaplain and then as interim Youth Ministry Coordinator.  Working with teenagers and their UU congregations from New Mexico to Wyoming, from Texas to Utah, I witnessed their youthful struggles with matters of personal and religious identity, with questions of morality and justice, and with attempts to put their hopes and aspirations into words.  In other words, exactly the same…

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Reconnecting, Remembering, Recommitting

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

Hinei mah tov umah nayim, shevet achim gam yahad!
How rare it is, how lovely, this fellowship of those who meet together!
— Psalm 133

The house was alive with activity, from elders catching up on their news to children chasing one another through the doorways.  Those not assisting in the preparations would be shooed out of the kitchen, where the cooks were in a state of frenzy getting everything ready.  There were bowls of appetizers everywhere, to try to delay some of the impatience of hunger; olives were particularly popular.  And in what was otherwise the living room, every table and chair in the house had been gathered to make a long dining table with enough space for the whole family to sit down together.  It was Passover at my grandmother-in-law’s house in Philadelphia.

Soon after Allison and I…

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