Posts Tagged mission

Growing the Beloved Community, Twelve Months a Year

Changing the World @ the UUFP

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

Not long after I’d moved to Connecticut in early 2001, I learned that there was a Unitarian Universalist congregation just up the road from me.  The first service I attended there was on Easter Sunday, and not long after that I went to an orientation and became a member.  Then something very strange happened.

Services came to an end for the Summer.

It turned out that, for the months of July and August, my congregation and the UU church in the next town had an arrangement where they would share services.  Anybody coming to one congregation, assuming there’d be a service, would be greeted by a hand-scribbled note taped to the door saying that services were being held at the other congregation.  Oh, and since the two congregations held their services at different times, well, there was no way…

View original post 888 more words

Advertisements

Leave a Comment

To Create a Dynamic Community the Celebrates Life and Searches for Truths

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 17th 2013.)

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

Many of you know that before I went into ministry I had a career in science.  I trace this back to my childhood, when I first found a fascination with machinery.  Well, to be precise, it came from a children’s television show that was set in an antiques store and featured a cast of toys who came to life after hours.  The toy mice were typically the troublemakers in every episode, and in one they tricked the other toys into thinking they had a machine that made cookies.  The mice emptied small sacks of flour and sugar and other ingredients into one end of the machine, and a nice round cookie came rolling out of the other end.  It turned out that the mice were just taking the one cookie and bringing it around the back of the machine and sending it rolling out the front again, and soon enough the other toys figured out that it was all a trick.  But I liked cookies, at least the ones my mother baked, and I thought to myself that it must be possible to build a machine that really took flour and sugar and other ingredients and actually make cookies.  It was just a matter of figuring out how to build such a machine.

A couple of years later I was introduced to chemistry, and that seemed even better.  For one thing, I think I’d realized by then that you could simply buy cookies that were made by machines, and that took away of the challenge.  But chemistry!  You could take this little glass tube of something blue and heat it up over a flame and it would turn white.  And then, you could add a little water, and what had been this white ashy stuff would turn a brilliant blue again.  It was like magic!  The possibilities seemed endless for transforming substances into one another, for making things that would change color or burn with bright flames or give off strange smells.  I wanted to find out more, to find out what could be done in a chemistry laboratory.  When my parents gave me a chemistry set that Christmas, I asked about using a storage shed at the back of our garden to do experiments.  They agreed, perhaps wanting to encourage this budding interest of mine, perhaps thinking that at least I’d be outdoors.

Some time in high school, though, we were introduced to organic chemistry, and some of the attraction wore off.  We were expected to learn about these techniques for bringing about certain reactions, but the catalysts that were used and whether something actually worked or not, well, it all just seemed so random.  In the mean-time, I’d been learning about physics, about laws and forces and particles and space and time.  Chemistry, we’d been taught, was a consequence of physics, so physics was more fundamental, and it opened up whole new vistas of imagination.  I had started reading science fiction, too, and the mere chance it might be possible to travel faster than light, to explore other star systems, well, I wanted to find out everything I could about what really makes the Universe tick.

I think I took that about as far as I could.  In graduate school I worked with a professor who developed an alternative formulation of quantum mechanics, and though I helped him flesh out some of his ideas a little further, I was reaching the limits of what I was able to do with the mathematics.  It wasn’t much consolation that other professors working on the bleeding edge of physics were saying things like how five new fields of mathematics would have to be invented just to capture some of the concepts then being proposed.

After graduate school, I was fortunate to have research work that paid me enough to maintain a frugal lifestyle, but I was at something of a loss for a few years.  I did some teaching, which I enjoyed, but otherwise found myself back where I started, figuring out how to make machines that did particular things.  Not make cookies, I’m sad to say.  No, I was building microscopes that could look at biological processes in living cells.  The professors for whom I worked got their funding on the basis of the potential applications for diagnosing certain diseases, for understanding the mechanisms of such diseases, and perhaps even for therapeutic treatments in some cases.  So having been to the frontiers of our understanding of reality, so to speak, I now found myself drawn to finding ways to help people, even if only indirectly by figuring out new tools and techniques that others could use in their research of better diagnostics and treatments.

Though some have wondered how I moved from physics to ministry, I don’t see it as such a big leap when I look back at it.  Ministry is considered a helping profession, and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to accompany someone as they try to figure out what’s going on in their lives, to help them find creative, compassionate ways to respond to the struggles that they face.  And when it comes to religion, to understanding what it means to be human and how we can be our best with one another, well, the challenges and the possibilities are even greater than they are in science.  Though my career, my vocation, my calling has changed, I’m still searching for the same truths.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life

July 19th will be one of the most important days of each year for the rest of my life.  It was the day last year on which my daughter was born, and so July 19th will always be for me, first and foremost, Olivia’s birthday.  I shall never forget her first cries as she was delivered; I held tight to Allison’s hand and the world stood still in that moment.  Someone took a picture of the three of us; I don’t remember who — it doesn’t really matter — but I’ll treasure that picture forever.  Many hours later, after a long day in the hospital, busier than any we had known before, and having shared our happy news with family and friends, we were finally able to sleep, filled with joy for this precious gift of a child in our lives.

Unfortunately July 20th woke us with decidedly unhappy news.  We noticed that some of our friends had posted on Facebook their reassurances that they were okay, and we wondered what had happened that might have caused them to not be okay.  Turning on the news, we learned that a man had opened fire at a movie theater in Colorado, killing a dozen people and wounding dozens more.  And our hearts sank when we recognized the theater, not far from where we had lived in Aurora just a few years ago, and where we had ourselves watched movies.  A couple of our friends had even planned to go to the movie showing where the shooting had happened, but thankfully decided in the end to go to a different movie theater.

It was hard to wrap our minds around both the great joy of Olivia’s birth and the great sorrow of so many pointless deaths in Aurora.  There was, of course, very little we could do about the latter, other than to reach out to our friends in Colorado, to say that we were thinking about them, that we were with them in their grief.  As for here in Newport News, we had a baby to look after, we had to get ready to go home, and we had to take the plunge into our new lives as parents.  Through it all we were reminded of what really matters in life, something that is both precious and all too brief.  We were filled with gratitude to the doctors and nurses who looked after both Allison and Olivia, to our parents for all of their love and support, and to the members of this congregation who helped us in so many ways both before and after Olivia was born.  And we found ourselves filled with hope, hope for Olivia’s future, hope for all of us, hope that even in the midst of tragic events we would always be able to find the courage to celebrate life.  For how do we truly respond to tragedies — from the man-made evil of the Boston Marathon bombing to the natural devastation of Typhoon Haiyan — if not from a place of celebrating life?

That’s a big part of what being here is all about, of course.  Joy and sorrow, reasons to celebrate and reasons to grieve, life gives them to us together.  Often we can’t do much about that, so it’s what we do with it that makes all the difference.  And it can be a really big difference.

Three years ago, for example, a few of us decided that we wanted to start observing Transgender Day of Remembrance here at the Fellowship.  I can say without reservation that it is one of the hardest things we do.  The main element in it is the reading of names, the names of people who were transgender or did not conform to gender stereotypes and who were killed by others out of fear and hatred.  Hearing what happened to each person, many of whom were not just violently killed but cruelly mutilated as well, your faith in humanity is called into question.  Reading aloud what happened… well, it’s hard to do that.  And yet we’re doing it again this afternoon, the third year we’ve observed Transgender Day of Remembrance, refusing to give in to the sorrow, to the shame of what some people are willing to do to others.  We do it, paradoxically, as a celebration of life, accepting the sorrow but standing resolutely against the fear and the hatred, lifting the small lights of faith that beckon us all onward into a world where all of us can be fully human, fully realized and, most importantly, fully loved.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community

When I first went to seminary, I took courses part-time while I continued to work in my research job full-time.  I spent five years, in fact, doing a third of the coursework I’d ultimately complete, and at the end of that time, when I was about to move from Connecticut to Colorado in order to complete my studies, I gave a farewell sermon at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, thanking them for their support and encouragement, describing some of what I’d learned, and sharing some of my hopes and plans.

Something I noted was that, in at least eight out of the ten courses I’d taken, I’d come to address the meaning of community, the importance of religious community, not just in courses on congregational studies but in courses on topics from environmental ethics to the letters of Paul to the Corinthians.  I’ve since realized, though, that this was more than just an academic interest to me.

When I was a child, about the time I started to get interested in science, I got my sister and the boy next door together to organize the other children on our street into our naïve idea of a gang.  Our base was the shed at the back of my parent’s garden that I was using as a chemistry laboratory, and perhaps a wise observer might have guessed I was destined for church work when our main activity was holding committee meetings.

A few years later my school bought its first computers, and a another student and I thought it’d be a good idea to learn more about how to use them, so we organized a computer club to teach ourselves what we thought we needed to know.  In high school I started a science society, to bring in local speakers to talk to us about topics that added a real-world dimension to what we were learning in classes.  Or, in the case of yours truly, to give a talk about time-travel.  At university I joined a host of student organizations on topics from physics and astronomy to music appreciation and learning to sing Russian folk songs.  Perhaps you can see something of a pattern emerging here.

Things changed when I came to the United States. I didn’t participate in many official clubs or societies in graduate school, but I found a fairly close-knit group of friends amongst the mathematicians, who for whatever reason were much more sociable than my fellow physicists.  And, thanks to my girlfriend at the time, I went up to New York a couple of times a week to sing in a large college choir.  It wasn’t until I was living in San Diego that I really found myself part of an organized community again.  At first that was with a group of students and university alumni who met for dinner each week to talk about science fiction and go to the movies.  And then it was when I organized the Pantheists of Southern California, bringing together for meals and talks and hikes a variety of people who saw divinity in the Universe and sacredness in Nature.  And when I moved back to the East Coast — and having finally heard about Unitarian Universalism after nearly a decade of living in this country, which was way too long not to have heard about Unitarian Universalism — one of the first things I did was join the Unitarian Society of Hartford.

So looking back, it’s really not surprising that in all those seminary courses, I found some way to bring the course material to bear on the subject of community.  I wanted to find out what community means; I wanted to find out what makes a community tick; I clearly wanted to be part of a community, no matter my age, occupation or place in the world.  I’m still figuring it out, of course.  Being here at the Fellowship for three-plus years has been eye-opening, that’s for sure.  And in a good way!  You may not realize what a gift it truly is to be immersed in such a great community as thrives here.  I know I’m blessed to be a part of it.

The mission of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula is to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

In the last month I preached three sermons that all had the word “church” in their titles.  I’d intended for the first two to be a pair — though I hadn’t realized that it would lead to a bidding war at the auction over who would get to select a topic for one of my future sermons!  But the third sermon turned out to be a part three, so I’ve been referring to them, when people ask about being able to read them and share them with others, as the “church” trilogy.

In planning for this service, I realized I didn’t want to do what would essentially be part four of the “church” trilogy.  Yes, our mission is important, and it’s something that we all need to keep in mind as the true owner of this Fellowship.  Our “bottom line” as a congregation truly is, as Dan Hotchkiss asserts, the degree to which our mission is being achieved.  Yes, I want you all to read the UUFP Planning Committee’s report, and to re-read it if you’ve done it before.  It’s on the website, and the Planning Committee wants to know what you think, too, with a survey that is going out to everyone this week; please do take the time to respond.  And yes, how we achieve our mission and realize our vision and implement a strategic plan for doing both hinges critically on leadership and on leadership development and on the willingness of every member and friend of this beloved community to engage, at some level, with the life and ministry of this congregation.  But I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t convince anyone of any of that by preaching a part four of the “church” trilogy.  If you think you might be convinced by reading those three sermons, great, I can tell you how you can do that, but this morning I thought I’d try a different approach.

So I told you about myself, about some of my own personal history when it comes to searching for truths in science and religion, when it comes to celebrating life in both joy and sadness, and when it comes to the pursuit of a dynamic community where I could belong.  But I know I’m not the only one with such narratives, with similar stories about growing up and finding friends and discovering what really matters in life.  And that is why we are here.  It’s why our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths is the true owner of this congregation, because it reflects what has brought us here and who we already are.

Let me finish with this request.  I want to hear your stories.  I want to hear your stories about your searching for truths and your celebrations of life and your need for a dynamic community where you belong.  So send me an e-mail.  Write me an old-fashioned letter.  Post something on your blog and give me the link.  Invite me for coffee at Starbucks or Aroma’s.  I want to hear your stories, and for that matter I want you to share them with one another, too.  Because our mission and everything that comes with it reflects what has brought us here and who we already are, so your stories matter.  And it’s in the telling of them that we’ll create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

So may it be.

Comments (1)

Transformation in the Sharing

“In our community of caring we take time to share with one another what is in our hearts — our joys, our sorrows, and important milestones.  I invite you to receive and light a candle, tell us your name, and briefly share what is changing your life.”

Each Sunday these familiar words introduce what our Order of Service names as “Sharing Joys and Concerns”.  For many people, such sharing is an important part of the service, an opportunity for members whose lives are being changed by either joy or sorrow (or, sometimes, both at once!) to speak briefly about that personal transformation.  It’s important because heart-felt sharing develops and deepens fellowship in a way that nothing else can.

What we call Joys and Concerns was introduced into Unitarian Universalist worship during the 1960s and 70s.  It’s generally a combination of the candle-lighting remembrances of Catholicism and Judaism with the personal confessions or petitionary prayers of Protestant churches.  From what I’ve seen, though, it’s done differently in just about every UU congregation.

Some do Joys and Concerns every Sunday while others only do it once a month.  Some have a limited number of candles or a limited amount of time for sharing or a limited number of chairs for people to occupy in advance of their sharing.  Some have candles lit or stones dropped into water, but no sharing.  Some have people write their joys and sorrows in a “book of life” and then they’re blended into a pastoral prayer offered by the minister or a lay leader.  One in seven congregations do not do Joys and Concerns at all.

There have also been debates about Joys and Concerns since it was introduced.  Aside from the amount of time it takes, which can vary unpredictably from two minutes to ten minutes or even more, just about every minister has at least one horror story of thoroughly inappropriate sharing.  Personally I value Joys and Concerns for the emotional warmth it brings to our community, and visitors often comment on how impressed they are that we take this time to care for one another.  For in our stressed-out, endlessly competitive lives in a culture that increasingly values what we have over who we are, Joys and Concerns is a rare time for sharing not what is on our minds but what is in our hearts, not what is happening in our lives but what is changing our lives.

When it comes to the joys, we want to hear about the new child or the new job — or the milestone of a major birthday or wedding anniversary.  When it comes to the concerns, we really want to hear about the family death, the loss of a job, or the illness of a sick friend whose name we should keep in our hearts.  We want to know what is truly changing your life, what it is that is transforming you such that, in the sharing, it can transform everyone who hears you, too.

And that’s because, when all is said and done, we are here to be transformed, to transform one another and our world.  Congregations, more than any other social institutions, exist to change lives.  Sunday services, religious education, small group programs, social events and even committee meetings are all means that serve the end purpose of transformation.  Our members and friends also pledge their financial support of our mission and ministry to change lives, from growing our individual souls and nurturing the life of the community to building the world we dream about.

On Sunday mornings, you’ll hear not only the joys and sorrows that are changing people’s lives, but also personal testimonials about how the Fellowship is changing lives.  These are stories of individual transformation and community deepening as well as stories of how we are changing the world for the better.  So, how have you been transformed?  What is your story of how your life has been changed by being a part of the congregation?  What is your story of how our Fellowship is helping to make the world a better place?  We want to know what is truly changing your life, what it is that is transforming you such that, in the sharing, it can transform everyone who hears you, too.

Comments (1)

The True Measure of Our Gifts

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 17th 2013.)

The King James Version has been the most influential English translation of the Bible for most of the four-hundred-and-two years since it was first published.  During that time it has contributed hundreds of proverbs, sayings and other phrases to the English language, more than any other single source, including Æsop’s fables and the complete works of Shakespeare.  When someone claims that “the writing is on the wall” or asks if “a leopard can change its spots”, when they describe something as “a labor of love” or say that their “cup runneth over”, they’re actually quoting the King James Bible.  (If it has a “thee” or a “thou” or a verb ending in “-eth”, that’s usually a clue.)

Now there had been a couple of earlier English translations but some mistakes had been pointed out by the Puritan wing of the Church of England.  The Puritans were concerned with the purity of their faith, after all, so they wanted any version of the Bible to be as true to the original as possible.  (Not that anyone at that time had the originals of any of the Biblical texts, but never mind.)  So when King James took the throne of England, one of the first things he did was convene a conference of scholars and clergy of the Church of England, charging them with the task of producing a new, more authoritative English version.  He also gave them specific instructions to make sure that certain Hebrew and Greek words were translated in ways that matched the organizational structure of the Church of England, so as not to give the Puritans any further fodder for their complaints about how the church wasn’t doing it right.  For less political reasons, it also used contemporary weights and measures in place of ancient terms that were unfamiliar.

For example, there’s a story told in both Mark and Luke where Jesus is in the Jerusalem Temple and sees a poor widow donating a couple of small coins.  In the Greek, both Mark and Luke use the word “lepton” to name the type of coin the widow is donating, the lepton being the smallest unit of coinage in the Greek-speaking world at the time.  (If you know your particle physics, you’ll realize this is the origin of “lepton” as the name of that class of fundamental particles which includes the electron.)  Of course, the scholars working on the King James Bible needed a word more familiar to their contemporaries, something even smaller than the farthing, which, at a quarter of a penny, was the smallest coin in England.  In the end, the translators went with the name of what was then the smallest coin in Europe: the mite of the Netherlands.

Here, then, is the King James Version of that story, as found at the end of chapter twelve of Mark.

“And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.  And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.  And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:  For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”

The last sentence can be a little hard for us to grasp when written in the over-punctuated and spelling-optional English of King James, so here it is again in the modern English of the New Revised Standard Version:

“This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

When it comes to sermons on generosity and giving — particularly in congregations that have some sort of annual pledge drive in order to fund the next year’s budget — the story of the widow’s mite is an obvious text.  I first heard it as a child, in fact, staying in services one time rather than going to Sunday school, my sister and I asked by the minister to help illustrate the point of her sermon.  One of us got what looked like a big bar of chocolate — it was actually made of cardboard, which was probably just as well or it wouldn’t have lasted until it was needed in the service — and the other got a considerably smaller fake bar of chocolate.  The minister’s point was that even if we each gave away the same amount of chocolate, whichever one of us had the smaller amount to begin with was actually being more generous.

And that seems to be implied message in the words attributed to Jesus.  “Look at this poor widow,” he says to his disciples.  (And according to Mark in particular, Jesus is constantly pointing out even obvious things to the disciples, since they otherwise spend most of their time clueless and confused.)  “Look at her,” Jesus says.  “She only has two coins to rub together — literally! — two practically worthless copper coins, but she gave them both to the Temple anyway.  There are all these rich people making a big show of putting lots of silver coins into the treasury, but this widow — disowned by her family after the death of her husband and living without any income — she puts in all that she owns.  She’s actually giving more than they are.”

It’s certainly a story that’s tempting to preachers who want to sway the hearts and minds of their congregants, at least in those traditions that proclaim the importance of what is known as sacrificial giving.  But is that really the point of the story, that church members should give until it literally hurts?

I was recently introduced to a method of trying to figure out what is going on in a given situation, particularly the context is an unfamiliar culture.  It’s natural, of course, to view any situation through our own cultural lenses, so it requires a lot of intention to not do that, whether it’s something that we see happen between two people across a room or something reported to have happened almost two-thousand years ago.  The method is known as Describe, Interpret, Evaluate, or D.I.E. for short, and those name the three stages.

The Describe stage requires naming what happened as clinically and objectively as possible.  In the case of the story of the widow’s mite, that’s done for us: Jesus sees people putting money into the treasury; some rich people put in quite a lot of money; a poor widow puts in two tiny copper coins.

The Interpret stage asks us to name how we understand what happened, based on the assumptions arising from our own experiences.  That’s done for us, too, in Jesus’ words interpreting what he saw: the widow put in all she had, and so in relative terms was giving more than the rich people.

What is not in the Bible’s text is the Evaluate stage, where we are called to bring our own sense of values into play and arrive at a value judgment based on cultural expectations.  If we’re only focused on making sure there’s enough money to pay the bills and employ enough staff to run programs and fund committees sufficiently for their work, then it’s natural that we’d evaluate the story as meaning that people really should give until it hurts, that there’s virtue in someone giving away more than they can really afford.  If, on the other hand, we’re focused on making sure that everyone has enough to live on, that the people who don’t have a lot to begin with aren’t expected to give beyond their means, that the people who have more can make correspondingly bigger contributions, then perhaps what Jesus was actually doing was criticizing a corrupt system where poor widows were expected to give up everything they had in order that the privileged could maintain their status in an unjust society.

(Immediately before the story of the widow’s mite, Jesus tells the people listening to him in the temple: “Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”)

So why am I talking about the story of the widow’s mite this morning?  We are, after all, heading into our annual pledge drive, the weeks each Spring when we canvass our members and ask them to pledge their financial support to the congregation for the next church year.  The story of the widow’s mite is, as I say, a common text for sermons on generosity and giving, but I’ve just explained why any preacher who uses it really should stop and re-evaluate it.  What’s more, I realize that while many Unitarian Universalists may have some academic interest in better understanding a well-known Bible story, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be convinced to behave one way or another just because somebody behind a pulpit quotes chapter and verse — even if it’s one of the stories that Thomas Jefferson left in his version of the Bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, when he took a razor blade to the Gospels and cut away anything he considered unnatural or miraculous.

No, I chose to talk about the story of the widow’s mite for a couple of reasons, one pretty specific and one more general.  The specific reason is easy to put into words: I want to note that generosity is relative.  The usual understanding of the story is correct in that sense, at least.  That’s why the pledge card that we ask all of our members to fill out at this time of year has a handy chart on the back that describes different levels of “fair-share” pledging in terms of percentages of income rather than absolute numbers of dollars.  And, of course, how any individual or couple defines their income is completely up to them — we’re not in the business of expecting to see anyone’s tax return form 1040 so that we can check what’s on line thirty-seven!

But this does take us to the more general reason for talking about the story of the widow’s mite: we need to take a look at the fact that the Unitarian Universalist relationship with money is, well, weird.  And it’s weird — even, some might say, dysfunctional — for reasons that have little to do with whether we’re good, well-meaning, hard-working people or not, but have a whole lot to do with our culture.  For just as the poor widow’s behavior had been conditioned by her culture, so has ours.

In the case of Unitarian Universalist congregations, in fact, we’ve been conditioned by two cultures.  The first is that of being middle-class.  Most people in America think of themselves as being middle-class, even if, technically, they’re not, and an even higher proportion of Unitarian Universalists claim a middle-class identity.  Why?  It’s safe to be in the middle class.  It comes with a built-in modesty where we don’t talk about money because it’s considered, well, rude, somehow.  Members of the poor and working class, on the other hand, have no choice but to talk about money because it’s a constant concern.  When you have to decide whether to pay the heating bill or buy food for your child, modesty kills.  And members of the owning, ruling class are expected to talk about money because it’s the way they assert their place in the socio-economic hierarchy.  But for members of the middle class, it’s simply not nice to talk about money.  We’re certainly conflicted about it.  The middle class looks up and wishes it had more, but then looks down and feels guilty about what it already has.  Or feels angry about not having more.  Either way, it’s just better not to mention the subject in the first place.

Then there’s the fact that Unitarian Universalism was profoundly shaped by an experiment in growth that took place in the 1940s and 50s and 60s.  That experiment was the Fellowship Movement, which birthed hundreds of small, lay-led congregations across the country — including this congregation — as a way to spread the good news of our liberal religion.  What was, at the time, the American Unitarian Association hired a man by the name of Monroe Husbands to travel the country, visiting cities that fit a certain profile, advertising in the newspaper for people who might be interested in forming a fellowship, and then bringing them together to try to get them to agree to start a new congregation.  One of the points that convinced many potential lay-leaders to commit, in fact, was that, though they would, as volunteers, need to give quite a bit of their time, they were promised that they would not need to give much money since their new congregation had neither a minister to pay nor a building to maintain.  This played right into the ideals of the modern middle class that was emerging after World War II, in large part thanks to the GI Bill, and it probably explains a lot of the success of the Fellowship Movement.

We’ve been conditioned, both by the wider American culture and by the organizational DNA of our own congregations, to feel shame when it comes to talking about money, particularly when it comes to talking about the money we’re personally pledging in support of those very congregations.  Unfortunately, it is absolutely essential that we do talk about money.  While we exist as a religious community in order to fulfill a particular mission — celebrating life together, growing a caring community together, searching for truths together, making the world a better place together — doing so is something that takes money.  Having staff to help fulfill that mission — because there are limits to what volunteers can and should do — that’s something that takes money.  Owning grounds and buildings as a customized space where we can fulfill that mission, that’s something that takes money, too.

So, inquiring minds want to know, how much money?  Well, about $1,200 per member each year.  I generally avoid stressing numbers in sermons, but let me repeat that one: $1,200 per member.  And I don’t provide that number to make anyone feel guilty, but because I think you should all be aware of it.  Obviously not everyone can pledge that much, given their own household financial realities.  Most members pledge less than that.  Some pledge more.  And generosity is relative, remember.  We also hold a number of special fund-raising events like the Casbah and we have a few other sources of revenue such as re-selling used books through Amazon, but the vast majority of what it takes to support the congregation in fulfilling its mission comes from pledges.

But, the inquiring minds continue, fulfilling a mission like ours is rather hard to quantify; what is that money actually doing?  Well, it’s giving us fabulous music on Sunday mornings, with more musicians and singers of all ages and abilities.  It’s giving us a better sound system in this Sanctuary, enabling more people to hear rather than being left out.  It’s giving us a variety of Sunday morning Adult RE programs that fill the room.  It’s giving us excellent children’s RE programs from Spirit Play to Our Whole Lives.  It’s giving us more programs at other times and on other days of the week, and space to hold those programs.  It’s supporting ministries to military families and LGBTQ individuals and college students.  It’s bringing families and young adults and our elders together in community.  It’s helping us care for our own members and their families through surgeries and other challenges.  It’s helping us to help the wider community, from our involvement with the PORT Winter Shelter to our responsibilities at the St. Paul’s Weekend Meal Ministry.  It’s giving us greater visibility, too, from our sign on Warwick Boulevard to the service we’re doing at Christopher Newport University next Sunday.  It’s making us known as a powerful voice for Unitarian Universalism, within the Tidewater Cluster, within the Southeast District, and within the Unitarian Universalist Association.

In doing all of that, every pledge counts.  Every pledge matters.  The Children’s Focus this morning nicely illustrated how even apparently small amounts of money can make a big difference in the life of this Fellowship.  We certainly need large amounts of money for the more costly parts of running a congregation — things like electricity bills and insurance premiums that are harder to have on hand to show the children than a bottle of glue or a roll of toilet paper — but the good news is that every pledge, big or small, goes into the congregation’s budget in exactly the same way.  Remembering that generosity is relative is one way that we can affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, as is thanking one another for whatever we are able to do, for whatever we are able to give to make this Fellowship such a special place.

So when you get that e-mail or that telephone call from another member of the congregation, when you’re asked to meet with that person as part of this year’s canvass, please don’t be shy.  Please don’t succumb to that middle-class modesty that merely serves to stifle the splendor of this tapestry of life.  A canvass visit is a special opportunity to better know a kindred spirit, something that is to be embraced rather than feared.  Being canvassed, in fact, is a right of membership as people who have committed to grow this beloved community together.  When it comes to your pledge, of course, I urge you to be generous, but remember that you’re the one who gets to decide what generosity means for you.  If you can pledge a four-figure amount or more, thank you for your leading support of the congregation.  If you can’t pledge as much as you’d like, thank you for what you can pledge.  If you can only pledge what seems like a small amount, thank you for your steadfast willingness to be part of a larger community.  And whatever your income, I hope that, unlike the poor widow, you won’t pledge until it hurts, but until it feels good.  Whatever it means to you, your generosity will be received most gratefully, and may your giving bring you joy!

So may it be.

Comments (2)

The Messiah Is Among You

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on January 27th 2013.)

There was once a monastery that had fallen on hard times.  As the years passed there were fewer and fewer novices and some of the younger monks began leaving in dissatisfaction.  Few people from the surrounding villages would even visit any more.  Eventually only a handful of elderly monks remained and they argued amongst themselves, each blaming the monastery’s decline on the faults and failings of the others.  Their leader, the abbot, didn’t know what to do.

Now an old friend of the abbot’s was a rabbi who had recently retired to live in a small cottage near the monastery.  After years of only seeing one another when the abbot had cause to travel into town, they were able to renew their friendship with more regular visits.  The rabbi and the abbot would sit together, drinking tea and remembering the good old days back when they were both students.

On one of his visits to see the rabbi, the abbot brought up the problems at the monastery.  This was not the first time the rabbi had heard about the situation that so troubled his friend, but this time the abbot specifically asked for advice, particularly something that he could share with the other monks that might encourage them and perhaps even stop them from fighting with each other.

Hearing the abbot’s question, the rabbi was quiet for some time, sipping his tea as he thought.  As the silence stretched on, the abbot couldn’t contain himself.  “Don’t you have some advice that might save my monastery?” he begged his friend.

“Your monks will not listen to my advice,” the rabbi replied, somewhat sadly, “but perhaps they would benefit from an observation.”

“Yes?” said the abbot hopefully.  “Have you noticed something about the monastery that we ourselves have not?”

“I think so,” answered the rabbi, “and it is this: the Messiah is among you.”

That abbot was initially lost for words.  It seemed an outrageous claim, but he trusted his friend, so when he regained his composure he asked, as respectfully as he could, “The Messiah is among us?  But who is it?”

“As to that,” the rabbi replied, “I cannot say.  But I know that it is true beyond all doubt.  The Messiah is among you.  Share this with your monks and in time the truth will be revealed.”

Well, the abbot couldn’t wait to get back to the monastery.  Taking one last gulp of tea, he thanked his friend profusely, jumped up out of his chair, grabbed his coat and, without even taking the time to put it on, ran out of the cottage and across the meadow.  Arriving breathlessly back at the monastery, he managed to convey to the first monk he saw that he wanted everyone to meet in the chapel.  By the time they arrived, he had recovered enough to address them.

“My brothers,” the abbot said, “I have incredible news.  I have just been told, without any room for doubt or question, the following.  The Messiah is among you.”

The monks immediately started talking.  “One of us?  Here?  But who?  How can that be?”  Raising his hands to quiet them, the abbot explained what the rabbi had told him, and then instructed them to be about their work while they reflected on the amazing news.  And as the monks did their chores, each wondered to himself.

“It couldn’t be Brother Samuel, could it?  He always forgets when it’s his turn to do the washing up after meals.  But then, he brings such lovely flowers to decorate the tables.”

“Surely it’s not Brother Albert!  He’s always muttering to himself, and when he’s not muttering it’s because he’s being rude.  But then, he’s always the first there to look after us if we get sick.”

“What about Brother Leo?  He’s always dirty, and he smells bad, too.  But then, that’s because he works so hard in the field, growing the most delicious vegetables.”

“And I can’t believe it’s Brother Thomas!  He always spills ink all over the desk where we write out the scriptures.  But then, his drawings and decorations of the scripts are so vivid and beautiful.”

The monks continued to try to figure out who amongst them might be the Messiah, but none of them came to any conclusions.  Still, they realized that they could sometimes see the Messiah in one another’s faces; they could sometimes hear the Messiah in one another’s voices.  And they began to treat one another more kindly and more fairly, just in case.

And as time passed, the villagers noticed that something was different about the monastery, and they began visiting more often.  And more of the young men who came to inquire about training as novices decided to stay.  And the elderly monks and their abbot found themselves at peace, content to enjoy their golden years doing what they loved while all about them the monastery thrived.

[This is one variant of the same story found in many places, including Doorways to the Soul: 52 Wisdom Tales from Around the World by Elisa Davy Pearmain.  Some story-tellers give credit for the original story to Francis Dorff, O. Praem, of the Norbertine Community of Alberquerque NM.]

I first heard this story a few years ago and it stuck with me.  It speaks to what we all want in a healthy community, I think, which is people treating one another kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, the kind of spiritual health that is not only good for the community itself but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world.  The story does use one idea that is specific to Christianity and Judaism, though it can always be re-told in different cultural settings.

That idea of the Messiah comes from the Hebrew word “mashiach”, which literally means “anointed one”.  It refers to a king or a high priest traditionally annointed with holy oil, and in the Hebrew Bible is used to refer to a number of people, including the non-Jewish king, Cyrus of Persia, who released the Jews from their exile in Babylon and commissioned the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.  More often, though, the Messiah refers to a future Jewish king, of the line of David, who will rule the reunited tribes of Israel and usher in an age of world peace.  As such, there are many passages in the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Isaiah, that describe the qualities and actions of such a leader.

Now somewhere in the third century Before the Common Era, scholars in Alexandria began the process of translating the Torah into Greek, since, as legend has it, the Jews living in Egypt at the time were not fluent in Hebrew, whereas Greek was spoken throughout the eastern Roman Empire.  By the time of Jesus, that Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which became known as the Septuagint, was already in wide use by Jews all around the Mediterranean, including those living in Palestine, which is unfortunate because the Septuagint has a number of mis-translations.  One of those, for example, is the sentence in Isaiah that, in the Greek, refers to a messiah being born of a virgin, whereas in the Hebrew the word translated “virgin” doesn’t mean virgin at all but rather means a young woman of child-bearing age.

In any case, the Hebrew word “mashiach” was translated into Greek as “khristos”, which also means “anointed one”.  So when a new religion started to emerge around the idea of Jesus as the anointed savior, he was given the honorific “Christ” and his followers called themselves “Christians”.  And yet, since Jesus hadn’t fulfilled many of the expectations of the Messiah, those early Christians assumed that he would soon return to complete all of the prophecies.

In other words, while the rabbi and the abbot in the story could both come together over the idea of the Messiah being hidden in their midst, the difference was that for the abbot it would be the Messiah’s second coming whereas for the rabbi it would only be his first.  Either way, as the story goes, the possibility that any one of the monks might be the Messiah causes them all to pause before judging one another, to focus more on the good aspects of each other’s character and behavior, something that would be nice, of course, if we could all do it all of the time.

Now in Unitarian Universalism there is no Messiah concept as there is in Judaism or Christianity.  I don’t know when it dropped out of our common theology, though I’m guessing that the Universalist side of our religious tradition held onto it longer, given that the Unitarian side emerged from Christianity around the primary faith claim that Jesus was, in fact, fully human, rather than God incarnated in human form.

Perhaps, though, we don’t need to believe in a Messiah as such to arrive at the place where we can treat one another kindly and fairly in spite of our faults and failings.  There are, after all, other faith claims — or, at least, other religious metaphors — that might work just as well.

For instance, one of the things I remember a former minister of mine talking about was the idea that there’s a spark of the divine within each of us.  Actually I remember hearing that idea from a local rabbi, too.  It’s a more Universalist idea than it is Unitarian, another version of the claim that we are all children of God, and the beauty of that, for me, is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a literal faith claim or a religious metaphor.  What does matter is how we treat one another, and if we can see something of good, of value, of worth, even of divinity in one another, then maybe we’ll treat one another accordingly.

Actually, the same faith claim is already familiar to us, just in more humanist language.  Rather than referring to the spark of the divine within each of us, we can speak of “the inherent worth and dignity of each person”, but it’s just another version of that same classical Universalist claim that we are all children of God.  And it’s no accident that the promise that goes along with that Principle is to “listen actively and speak and act respectfully to others”.

So why did I end our Responsive Reading with what is otherwise the First Principle, and thus the First Promise, rather than putting them, well, first?

There’s a school of thought within and beyond Unitarian Universalism that, out of all Seven Principles, the one that is truly theological is the seventh, which speaks of the “interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Some people have suggested that it should actually be listed first, since it’s the foundation and context for the other six principles.  That’s why I listed the Promises in reverse order, moving from the interdependent web of all existence, the grandest scale of being imaginable, down to the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

For as I have claimed before, our inherent worth and dignity only makes sense within the larger context of our interdependence, calling us to relate to one another in life-affirming ways.  So I was glad to see that the promise that goes along with the Seventh Principle is to “live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community”.  But what does that mean?

Well, in the words of welcome that our lay leader spoke at the start of the service, you heard one meaning of that.  “The Fellowship is working to integrate reverence, gratitude and care for the living Earth into everything we do.  By committing to sustainable lifestyles as individuals and as a faith community, we are on the path to official recognition as a Green Sanctuary congregation.”  Doing the intentional, soulful work required to become a Green Sanctuary is indeed one way that our own church community aspires to live lightly on the Earth.

But there’s another side to what it means to be a church community living with awareness of the interdependent web of all existence, and that’s to recognize that we, here, in this congregation, form our own interdependent web in miniature, and awareness of that relates directly to how well we truly believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

This was brought home to me in a particularly clear way about a year ago, when the Board was evaluating me as part of the final phase of assessing my fellowship as a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The UUFP Board included this comment in their evaluation: “Rev. Millard needs to continue to remind each of us about the larger mission of the UUFP and that our individual interests can only be met if the UUFP itself is vibrant and healthy and functions as an integrated organization.”

“Our individual interests can only be met if the UUFP itself is vibrant and healthy and functions as an integrated organization.”  I think that’s what the monks in the story discovered for themselves.  They didn’t have any understanding of their interdependence, so they needed someone to point them in the right direction so they might discover it for themselves.  The rabbi’s observation that “the Messiah is among you” prodded them into being more careful in the ways they related to one another, and ultimately that allowed them to be more caring, too, finally able to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of one another, no matter their apparent faults and failings.

The monks had a big advantage, though.  They were already on the same page theologically in terms of what they believed about the Messiah and what would be appropriate behavior toward the Messiah.  The rabbi’s observation, then, was all that was necessary to help them behave in those same ways toward one another.

I think a similar case can be made for us on the basis of our Seven Principles, but it’s not nearly so simple.  Belief in an anointed savior figure who will return in glory to bring peace to the world is, for many people, very compelling; for some people, in fact, it may be the only thing that keeps them going in life.  Our Seven Principles, however, are not nearly so compelling.

Oh, intellectually they’re very reasonable.  The ideas they contain are certainly big and important, but at face value they’re also mostly abstract.  The words themselves are hardly poetic.  As promises that congregations make to one another in order to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, and even rewritten as promises that we make to each other as individual Unitarian Universalists striving to grow the Beloved Community, we need to find ways to internalize them, to truly make them part of our souls, rather than leaving them as rather abstract ideals with which we agree intellectually but don’t always live.

And I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to Charles Wesley’s hymn, “I Want a Principle Within”, quite apart from the great tune to which it is usually sung.  Because, aside from Wesley’s eighteenth century obsession with sin and temptation and more sin and the blood of Jesus, he really was expressing a yearning for the strengthening of his own moral compass to help him find the good at those times when his own heart and mind would wander away from his best self.  I like to think that one of the most important things we can do as Unitarian Universalists is cultivate such a principle within ourselves that helps us to figure out right from wrong.  Yes, these written Principles, these mostly abstract and regrettably unpoetic words, speak to important truths, but reading them, even saying them out loud together, is only the first step in a journey together, a long journey that involves removing the splinters from our souls.

And how do we do that?  Well, only at each and every moment of our lives.  Let me give you a simple example.

Within the first few months of living about a mile the other side of Warwick Boulevard from here, I became convinced that I knew where, one day, I would die.  And that’s because, on those days when I drove to work, I had to get across the intersection on Warwick to get here, and then to get home again.  And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the turn lanes on the side streets either side of Warwick don’t quite line up, and not having any signals on is, I have discovered, an indication to most other drivers that I intend to turn right.  Or left, for that matter, but definitely not straight, and cars would regularly cut across the intersection in front of me — or screech to a halt when they noticed that I was actually going straight through.  After a while, the urge to honk was too much for me to withstand, and often there was swearing involved, too.

Well, sometime last year I realized that I ought to be better than that.  Rather than getting angry and impatient, I decided to try compassion instead.

If someone didn’t understand what my lack of signaling meant, well, I could wait patiently until I knew what they were going to do first.  If they really had to cut across the intersection in front of me, well, I could hope for them that they reached their destination safely.  If it took me a few more seconds to get to the office or to get home, or even a couple more minutes if I missed the light, well, I could be grateful that my commute was barely one mile.  And maybe it’s just me, but it has seemed to me lately that more of the people coming to that intersection from both side streets, most of whom are turning left or right onto Warwick, are better at letting cars go straight across, and, for that matter, better at signaling their own turns, than they were a couple of years ago.

I’ve tried the same change in attitude in other settings, too — when I’m on the telephone talking to someone in customer service about some frustration, for instance.  I don’t always succeed — I’m the first to recognize that I’m no saint — but whenever I can, I remind myself to look for the spark of the divine in the other person, and to treat them accordingly.

This is something that we can all do, at each and every moment of our lives.  You can start by picking one person with whom you interact and, without telling them, imagine what it might mean if they were the Messiah.  Try looking for that spark of the divine in them.  Think about what it would really mean to truly believe in their inherent worth and dignity.  See how it changes your behavior toward that person if you can see them in that way.  And if you notice that you’re treating that person more kindly and fairly in spite of their faults and failings, try it with other people, too.

For this is the soul work that we are called to do.  In our mission to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, we are called to cultivate a spiritual health that is not only good for our congregation but is also a beacon of hope to the wider world.  Everything we say and do is a chance to grow the Beloved Community, bringing the interdependent web of all existence into our hearts and minds and hands so that we might know one another’s inherent worth and dignity.

So may it be.

Comments (2)

The Seven Promises: a Responsive Reading

When Unitarian Universalists talk about our Seven Principles, we like to think of them as a set of values that define our faith.  We like to note, of course, that there’s little in them that most reasonable people, whether they’re Unitarian Universalists or not, would reject, but we hold them up as, in some way, defining what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

In fact, the Seven Principles are part of a covenant that Unitarian Universalist congregations make with each other.  As printed in large capital letters on one of the opening pages of our grey hymnal, the Seven Principles are actually prefaced with these words: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:”  So these are actually values that Unitarian Universalist congregations promise to uphold.

Of course, those same values can be affirmed and promoted by individuals, too, so in many Unitarian Universalist congregations the language of the Seven Principles has been adapted into what is often called the Seven Promises, a covenant that Unitarian Universalist individuals make with each other.  The Fellowship made its own version of the Seven Promises some years ago, and I’ve adapted it for use as a responsive reading.  I start it with what is essentially an eighth promise, based on our Fellowship’s own mission, and the Seven Promises follow, only in reverse order for reasons that I explain elsewhere.

Let us create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths,

for we honor minds that question, hearts that love and hands that serve.

Let us live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community,

for we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Let us embrace others both near and far in hope and compassion,

for we lift up the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Let us remember that everyone bears responsibility for the health of our congregation,

for we affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Let us remain open to new ideas, knowing that we need not be afraid of change,

for we trust in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Let us respect individual religious paths, even those we do not understand,

for we aspire to accept one another and to encourage spiritual growth.

Let us treat others as we would like to be treated,

for we desire justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

Let us listen actively and speak and act respectfully to others,

for we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Comments (7)

Looking Back, Looking Forward

As we enter the final weeks of 2011, stores are busy with last-minute shopping and post offices are crowded with last-minute mailing, and it won’t be too long before we’re into 2012 and life gets back to what, for most of us, passes as ‘normal’.  For the week and a half from Christmas Eve through to New Year’s, though, I am thoughtfully wishing (to use Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church’s phrase) for a time of happiness and peace, of precious respite from the busy-ness of our modern society, for you and yours and our whole world.

The end of each year is a natural time for looking back.  Much of what seems to be on television right now, for instance, seems to be year-in-review retrospectives, whether it’s the year’s most interesting people or the year’s funniest adverts.  It’s also a time for looking ahead, for thinking about what we want to do and who we want to be.  Imaginative dreaming lifts us up for the longer view, to see what seeds we might plant for the distant future while continuing to nurture the past’s growing seedlings so they may in time bear fruit.  New Year’s resolutions, of course, need to be specific, bringing creativity to bear on imagination and turning vision into action.  In a similar way, my congregation’s staff and lay leaders are preparing for the second half of the church year, planning meaningful Sunday services, fun-raising social events, informative and inspiring religious education classes and workshops, and prophetic work for justice, all of which are dedicated to our mission of creating a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths.

One of the questions that is occasionally asked about our congregation’s mission is where justice comes in.  After all, Sunday services, community events and faith development are clearly implicated, but what about our work in the wider world?  Indeed, as the great Unitarian (and then Unitarian Universalist) theologian James Luther Adams put it (in one of my favorite quotes!), “a purely spiritual religion is a purely spurious religion.”  Certainly prophetic action that speaks truth to power is one of the hallmarks of our faith, inherited from both Unitarian and particularly Universalist halves of our religious heritage, being integral to most of our Seven Principles as well as built into the very governance of the congregation.  From my perspective, however, our efforts to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice are represented — required, even — by all three pieces of our mission statement.

First, a community is dynamic to the extent it includes diversity.  Homogeneity breeds stagnation for if there is no difference or variation then there is no impetus for change or growth.  Diversity does not automatically lead to fairness, however, and in fact will only survive where there is equity, compassion and acceptance of one another.  Second, the celebration of life recognizes both joys and sorrows, lifting up the good times but not pretending that there are no bad times.  In this we honor everyone’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and we work together to insure that everyone may speak their conscience and be heard, finding healthy ways to agree to disagree when necessary.  Third, we embrace a plurality of truths.  As a religion that helps us to figure out for ourselves what it is we truly believe, we actively encourage one another’s spiritual growth, providing a safe place for exploration and demanding a world where people are not treated differently just because of who they are or what they believe.  Our ability to create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truth, then, depends intimately and necessarily on an orientation toward justice, both within our own walls and beyond.

I’m looking forward to seeing how we live our welcoming, worth-shaping, wondering faith in the year ahead, bringing our good news to those who so need to hear it.  My thoughtful wish is that 2012 may offer celebration where there is joy and comfort where there is sorrow, invitation where there is loneliness and generosity where there is fullness, great-heartedness where there is difference and strengthening hope where there is difficulty.  So may it be.

Comments (1)

%d bloggers like this: