Posts Tagged Unitarian Universalism

Assembled Here

This sermon, delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on May 22nd 2016, was rather unusual.  The service began without hymn books, without a chalice, and without myself or our student minister present…

Lay Leader, Scott:

You may have noticed that I’m all alone up here. If you’re a member or have otherwise been here long enough to know how we usually do services, you may have noticed that some things are missing this morning. If this is your first time here today: welcome, and I’m glad you’re here, and I apologize for everybody else’s confusion, but all will become clear, I promise.

So what’s missing? The lay leader doesn’t usually have this much responsibility on a Sunday morning. We usually sing out of hymn books. We’d have lit our chalice by now, and in fact there’d be other flaming chalice symbols around the place, too. Even the Order of Service is missing a few words, such as calling this congregation the “Fellowship of the Peninsula”.

Imagine that, then. Imagine this as some non-denominational congregation, a “Fellowship of the Peninsula” all alone in the world, without any larger faith tradition of which it is a part. Imagine, in other words, that there’s no Unitarian Universalist Association. How would a congregation like ours make do without the benefits and resources deriving from being part of that wider denomination?

Well, let’s consider just one of those benefits and resources.

[He pulls out a copy of our hymn book from under the pulpit.]

Consider this hymnal, “Singing the Living Tradition”. It’s published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, and was the result of five years’ worth of work by the UUA’s Hymnbook Resources Commission. We’re used to singing hymns out of it every Sunday, maybe a reading from it, too, but without the UUA creating the commission and subsidizing their work and paying for copyright licenses and so forth, there’d be no hymnal.

What would we use instead? Well, that’s a good question. Maybe the New Century Hymnal from the United Church of Christ, but perhaps only the hymns that are particularly liberal even for that liberal denomination. Maybe we’d be able to find more songs like “Weave”, songs that are appropriately “spiritual but not religious”, though without the Unitarian Universalist Association there’d be far fewer of those sort of songs, too.

Thankfully the UUA does exist and does publish hymn books, so let’s bring in our copies of “Singing the Living Tradition” and hand them out now.

[The ushers wheel the hymnal cart into the Sanctuary and give out the books.]

There, that feels better, doesn’t it?

Now, let’s see what else is missing.

Well, there’s the chalice, but we’ll come to that in a moment. Before that, though, let’s talk about who else is missing.

A very important function of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to evaluate and certify new ministers. And a big part of preparing ministers to be ministers is, of course, the training. There’s the academic work, which takes place at a seminary; there are two of those that are associated with the UUA, namely Starr King in San Francisco and Meadville Lombard in Chicago. And there’s the practical work of becoming a minister, which takes place at hospitals and in teaching congregations. We’ve been fortunate to be one of the latter these last two years, so it’s time to bring in our student minister, Christina Hockman!

[Chris enters the Sanctuary and takes a seat on the platform.]

Now Chris graduated from Meadville Lombard one week ago — congratulations, Chris! — and came to us from her home congregation in Richmond. But if there were no Unitarian Universalist Association, we’d have no connection with Meadville to have one of their students here, and without the UUA, we’d have no connection with Richmond to have one of their members here. So thank goodness the UUA does exist!

Student Minister, Chris:

Yes, if it weren’t for the Unitarian Universalist Association, I wouldn’t have been your student minister these last two years, I wouldn’t now have a Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School, and I wouldn’t have been been evaluated and certified ready for ministry. And maybe my life would have been rather simpler over the last three years were all of that the case, but my life would also be much less full and rich, given the wonderful people and the many experiences that have helped me become the person I am today. As I’ll describe next Sunday, it’s made a world of difference for me to be a part of this wonderful, warm, loving congregation.

As most of you know, another major event for me this month was being called to serve the Unitarian Universalist Church of Corpus Christi in Texas. What you may not know is that, in addition to the schooling and training and certifying, the UUA plays a vital role in the search process, too. After all, most congregations don’t go directly to the ministers they want and offer them the job. There’s no magic to finding a minister who seems like a good match to a given congregation, and professional headhunters who would do the work cost more than almost any congregation can afford.

So the Unitarian Universalist Association helps out, making the search process a lot easier for both congregations and ministers to find one another. There’s a website where both sides upload lots of information about themselves, about who they really are, about what they really want to achieve. It’s like match.com or eHarmony, only for congregations and ministers. Thanks to the UUA, then, ministers in search can identify congregations that seem like they’d be good places to serve, and then congregations can look at the ministers interested in them and decide who seems like a good fit. It’s thanks to the UUA, in other words, that I’m going to Corpus Christi. And since this congregation went through its own search process seven years ago, it’s thanks to the UUA that you have a minister, too.

[I enter the Sanctuary and take a seat on the platform.]

There’s something else that’s a feature of every Sunday morning that we owe to the Unitarian Universalist Association, and that’s our flaming chalice. It began as a symbol of hope and liberation, when it was created during World War II in support of the work of the Unitarian Service Committee as it helped refugees escape from Nazi Europe. A few decades later, the UUA adopted it as a symbol for its own documents, and as such congregations started using it, too. We have the flaming chalice on display here in this Sanctuary: on the wall, in a framed piece of the old pulpit; and on the front of this pulpit.

[I uncover the chalice symbol on the wall; Chris uncovers the chalice symbol on the pulpit.]

UUFP's Pulpit and Flaming ChaliceMost obvious, perhaps, is that we also have a physical chalice in which we light an actual flame, a chalice given to us by former youth, Keith Dixon, many decades ago, a chalice that survived the fire that burned down our old building.

[Ask ushers to bring the chalice into the Sanctuary and place it on its table next to the pulpit.]

Now that we have both hymn books and chalice, I would ask you to join me in speaking aloud, together and in unison, reading number 443, “We Arrive Out of Many Singular Rooms” by Kenneth Patton, while Scott lights our chalice.

Me:

“We arrive out of many singular rooms,” seeking the assurances of friendship, community, presence and human contact. “This is the reason of cities, of homes, of assemblies in the houses of worship.” It’s the reason of congregations, and also of denominations — in our case, an association of congregations. And given the presence of hymn books and the chalice, given that Chris and I are present, too, we are also aware of the presence of that association, here in our own singular room of this Sanctuary.

In some of the things we do, we draw attention to how they connect us with other Unitarian Universalist congregations. Last Sunday we celebrated the Flower Communion, as did other UU congregations that same day, and almost all UU congregations hold a Flower Communion service sometime in the Spring. And in the Fall, we and almost all other UU congregations hold a Water Communion service. Now for all that they seem timeless, it’s important to remember that these traditions had a beginning.

We know that Maja Čapek brought the Flower Communion to this country during World War II, sharing it with some congregations, who then shared it with others. If it weren’t for those congregations being part of an association with one another, there wouldn’t be a Flower Communion. It’s less clear how the Water Communion started. I once heard that it began at a conference, perhaps a UU women’s retreat, and the participants took it back to their home congregations, who then shared it with others. Once again, if it weren’t for the association of those congregations, there wouldn’t be a Water Communion.

And that brings me to the last thing that we need to uncover — the last thing we need to reclaim as part of recognizing that our association of congregations, the Unitarian Universalist Association, does indeed exist — and that’s our Joys and Sorrows table.

[Chris and Scott uncover the Joys and Sorrows table and prepare it.]

Now it’s also not clear how Joys and Sorrows began, and it may even have been created in more than one place, given the number of different ways of doing it, but what is clear is that this congregation did not create it. We practice Joys and Sorrows here — every Sunday at first service, less often at second service — because we heard about it thanks to being part of a wider association of congregations. And, of course, part of how we do Joys and Sorrows is sing “Spirit of Life”, number 123 in the hymn book. Carolyn McDade wrote her sung prayer for reasons that had little to do with Unitarian Universalism, but it wouldn’t be as known and loved by so many UUs if it weren’t for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

And so, in this community of compassion and gratitude, let us now take the time to share with one another what is in our hearts — our joys, our sorrows, and important milestones that are truly changing our lives. I invite you to receive and light a candle, then tell us your name, and briefly share what matters to you so much that you can’t not share it. You may choose to light a candle in silence, but if you do speak, please use the microphone so that everyone here this morning may hear your words.

[The sharing of Joys and Sorrows takes place, followed by the singing of “Spirit of Life”.]

Me:

Thank goodness the Unitarian Universalist Association does exist! Without the UUA, we wouldn’t have hymn books full of inspiring words and music. Without the UUA, we wouldn’t have the flaming chalice, either as a symbol or as a physical object. Without the UUA we wouldn’t have beloved, meaningful rituals like Flower Communion and Joys and Sorrows. And without the UUA, Chris wouldn’t have been here as our intern, and I wouldn’t be here as your minister.

Of course, there are many more benefits and resources we receive from being part of a wider association.

Elsewhere on our campus this morning, for instance, our children and youth are engaged in religious exploration. Three of the RE curricula we’ve been using all this year, namely “Sing to the Power” for elementary-school-age children, “Building Bridges” for middle-schoolers and “A Place of Wholeness” for high-schoolers, come from Tapestry of Faith, a curriculum series produced by the UUA that congregations (or anybody, for that matter) can download and use completely free of charge. And next year, we’ll be offering Our Whole Lives, the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for teenagers, which is a joint project of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ.

And if you’re a member you should have received this magazine in the mail just this week. UU World is published each quarter by the UUA and sent out to all members of congregations, and there’s always lots of fabulous content in it. This issue made me chuckle, though.

The cover story is about the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon and their rapid growth in recent years, and, as I scanned through it, I recognized a face in the pictures. So I looked more closely. It turns out that their first minister, hired in 2004, was Jeanne Pupke, my colleague at First UU in Richmond. Then, their first called minister a couple of years later was Heather Starr, who is now one of the co-ministers of my home congregation in Hartford, Connecticut. Then Central Oregon had an interim minister, Alex Holt, who I’ve met at Southeast UU Ministers Association meetings when he was in our region. And for the last couple of years, their minister has been Antonia Won, whose face I recognized in the article’s pictures, because she was student minister in Albuquerque immediately before I did my internship there!

Now I want to note that this isn’t about me, though my life has been enriched in many different ways for knowing these colleagues. And it’d be easy to say, as if everything was explained, “Well, it’s a small UU world.” But the fact is, I wouldn’t know these wonderful people, I wouldn’t be working alongside them, if it weren’t for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

After all, we tend to think of the Unitarian Universalist Association as an institution in its own right, doing its thing up in Boston. And we’ve already seen how, as an institution, it provides so much that we need as a congregation, but that’s an outcome, an end-result of what it means to be a congregation in covenant with other congregations, to be a member of an association of congregations.

So, take a hymn book, please, and open it to hymn number one. Then turn back a page. On the left, you’ll see a page of text that begins with the big word “We”. Well, you could argue that the big word “We” says it all, but maybe it needs some unpacking. So, please read with me the top three lines on that page: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote”. Then, what follows are the Seven Principles and the Six Sources, all thirteen of which, of course, only exist because the UUA exists. And then, at the bottom of the page are another three and a bit lines of text, so please read those with me: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.”  [Emphasis mine.]

That’s the covenant that this congregation makes with all other Unitarian Universalist congregations, the promise we have made to be part of a wider association with a pledge of mutual trust and support. It’s what makes us, not just some non-denominational “Fellowship of the Peninsula” but rather the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula.

Just as members of this congregation covenant with one another to form the congregation, promising to support it with time, talent and treasure, so do member congregations of the UUA covenant with one another to form the association, promising to support it with the congregation’s time, talent and treasure. It’s a promise we make as the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula, a promise that’s also made by those congregations in Central Oregon, Richmond, Hartford and Albuquerque, a covenant that holds us in relationship with them and with more than a thousand other UU congregations.

“A pledge of mutual trust and support.” It should be pretty obvious why we make that promise: we can’t do it all by ourselves. Not even big congregations, like First UU in Richmond, can do it all by themselves.

Consider the fact that we’re sending two of our own emerging leaders to leadership school this Summer. It’s not cheap to send two people for a week-long, immersive, residential program like that — so a big thank you to the trustees for agreeing to pay for about half of the cost from Endowment income — but it would cost even more if it weren’t heavily subsidized by the UUA.

Or consider that, over the last twenty years, this congregation has benefited from two Chalice Lighter Grants, money that’s collected directly from participating members of other congregations in our region. The most recent grant was about $25,000 to pay for the renovation of our office building when we bought it six years ago.

Or consider that, thanks to the association, we have a voice on national, even global, issues. Earlier this month, for instance, UUA President Peter Morales addressed LGBTQ clergy and other leaders in the United Methodist Church, recognizing their bravery and offering them encouragement as their own denomination struggles to be fully inclusive and welcoming.

None of these are things we’d be able to do by ourselves. And recognizing that, we can be proud that this congregation has a long history of doing its part to support the Unitarian Universalist Association. Up until a couple of years ago, we were what is called a “Fair Share” congregation, meaning that we gave to the UUA an expected amount of money from our budget each year.

I’ll note as an aside that this used to be calculated as a certain amount per member, but now it’s simply a percentage of the budget. The new method of figuring Fair Share — known as GIFT — is actually more fair, particularly since some congregations now admit that they used to play games with their membership rolls to try to reduce what they’d pay. Please know that this congregation did not play such games. In any case, the amount of our Fair Share didn’t change much from the old method to the new, and going back twenty-five years or more, in fact, we had been a Fair Share congregation. We can, as I say, be proud of that.

Unfortunately, that changed a couple of years ago. Given our budget the year before last, we only contributed to the UUA about a third of our Fair Share. And in this year’s budget, as UUFP Treasurer Alan Sheeler pointed out last Sunday, there’s actually no money for the UUA at all. So we want to try to fix that today.

If, as Scott said earlier, you’re a member or have otherwise been here long enough to know how we usually do services, you may have noticed that we haven’t collected the Offering yet. And as we usually say in introducing the Offering, all that this Fellowship is and all that this congregation has are what we bring to it: our time, our talents, our capabilities and concerns, and our money. Well, the same is true of our association: all that the UUA is and has are what we give to it. So today we’re going to share our Offering with our UUA.

Now I’m not deluding myself that a single Sunday’s Offering would allow us to pay our full Fair Share to the UUA. That would be truly fantastic, in the original sense of the word. But I do see this as a first step back to making good on the promise we make as a congregation, the covenant that we have entered in association with our sister congregations.

And so, in gratitude for the resources and services that come to us from the UUA, in recognition of the benefits and advantages that follow from being part of a wider association, and in keeping our promise of mutual trust and support to our sister congregations, let us now collect the offering, and, as is our tradition, receive it with the singing of hymn number 402, “From You I Receive”.

~ ~ ~

You can make your contribution on-line now. Just click here and look for the box marked “UUA GIFT Contributions.

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Open Doors to Many Rooms

UUFP Blog

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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Five Ways to Be Welcoming

UUFP Blog

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

“Gathered in this friendly place,
love bring light to ev’ry face:
one and all, from far and near,
come on in!  We’re glad you’re here!”
— after V. B. Silliman, “This Friendly Place”

One piece of feedback I consistently hear from people visiting our Fellowship is how friendly we are as a congregation.  And I certainly see it on Sunday mornings, as we welcome people through our doors.  Much credit for that goes to our hospitality teams’ Greeters, who make a special point of speaking to newcomers, but there’s also a generally warm atmosphere of friendliness that helps people feel at home.  It’s wonderful that this is in our nature as a congregation, but it also makes a big difference to be intentional about it.

Of course, not everyone in our Fellowship should feel able to strike up…

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The Chalice and the Circle (and the Cross) [redux]

I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula in August 2012, and the statistics gathered by WordPress tell me that it’s been viewed more than anything else I’ve posted, often as a result of somebody searching the Web for a phrase like “cross in a circle”.  In that time, however, most of the links I had used for examples of flaming chalice symbols have stopped working, and this month the Fellowship is running a competition to create our own symbol, so I’m bringing back this post to show those examples.  (I believe that they’ve been shared on-line for general use, but if that’s not the case, or if I have mis-attributed any of them, please let me know.)

In today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations it’s not hard to find chalices.  They’re lit at the beginning of our Sunday services, just as we did this morning, but we also light chalices to open Religious Education classes, our Fellowship Circle sessions and even our committee meetings, where a chalice-lighting helps to remind us that we are not a social group or a debating club or a political party but a religious community.  You’ll find flaming chalice symbols in print, on websites and made into jewelry.  As shown in the gallery below, you’ll also find them in many different designs: enclosed in a circle or a sunburst; with a stylized flame or a realistic flame or a rainbow-colored flame; made up of letters that spell out a word or including a peace sign, a recycling logo or a question mark; recognizing the importance of reaching out to Unitarian Universalists who serve in our nation’s armed forces.  Not only is the flaming chalice ubiquitous, a widely loved symbol of Unitarian Universalism, but lighting it is the single-most recognized ritual our faith embraces.

Now while the flaming chalice symbol goes back over seventy years, it’s only become a widely accepted part of our congregational life in the last twenty or thirty years.  There were no chalice lightings in Hymns for the Celebration of Life, the 1964 hymn book.  The flaming chalice appeared for the first time on an official Unitarian Universalist Association document only in 1976.  And our current hymn book, Singing the Living Tradition published in 1993, has only nine chalice lightings, but there are many more than that in use today.  So, you can see that in the last couple of decades the flaming chalice has caught on in a really big way!

What’s more, as these various examples show, the chalice symbol is, more often than not, enclosed in some sort of circle, or sometimes two overlapping circles, which are usually taken to represent the coming together of Unitarianism and Universalism.  This morning I’m going to reflect on the origins of these symbols — the chalice from Unitarianism and the circle from Universalism — as well as a third symbol that dropped out along the way.

Many of you have probably heard the story of the flaming chalice, but it’s a good story that bears repeating from time to time.  This is how Unitarian Universalist minister Dan Hotchkiss tells that story:

The chalice and the flame were brought together to make a symbol for Unitarian use by an Austrian artist named Hans Deutsch.  Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew political cartoons that were critical of Adolf Hitler, so when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, Deutsch abandoned all he had and fled.  That was probably the right move!  He went first to the south of France, and then he went to Spain.  Finally, with an altered passport, Deutsch made it into Portugal, where Lisbon was the only open port remaining in Europe.

In Portugal, Deutsch met the Reverend Charles Joy, commissioner for Europe of the newly founded Unitarian Service Committee.  The Service Committee — a forerunner of today’s Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — had been founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, including Unitarians and Jews, as well as artists, intellectuals and dissidents, to escape Nazi persecution.  From his headquarters in Lisbon, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents, helping to provide identification papers and travel documents that would allow refugees to escape to freedom.

Now Deutsch was most impressed with the work of the Unitarian Service Committee and was soon working for Joy.  Deutsch had never seen a Unitarian — or, for that matter, a Universalist — church, but what he had seen was faith in action, with Joy and the other members of the Service Committee willing to risk everything for others in a time of urgent need.  Deutsch wanted to help.

In 1940, the Unitarian Service Committee was an unknown organization.  That put them at a disadvantage in the war-time environment, when establishing trust across barriers of language, nationality and faith would mean life instead of death. So Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for the papers issued by the Service Committee, to make them look official, dignifying them while also symbolizing the spirit of the work.  Joy wrote, “When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”

Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the Unitarian Service Committee and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism.  With pencil and ink, he drew a chalice with a flame rising from it.  The design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom.  Unitarian Service Committee logoReporting to Boston, Charles Joy wrote:

“It represents, as you see, […] the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars.  The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice.  In ancient and medieval art this chalice is frequently found, and the design itself, modernized and stylized though it is, reminds one of the signs seen on the old monastic manuscripts.  This was in the mind of the artist.  The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit.  We do not limit our work to Christians.  Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love.”

Let’s move from the Unitarian side of the story to the Universalist side.

Back in the United States in the 1940s, the Universalist Church of America was struggling with its religious identity.  At stake was whether Universalism was genuinely a Christian denomination or whether it was (or should be) something more, something larger, something truly universal.  In truth, the Universalist Church had struggled with its sense of identity for most of its existence, and had just been denied membership — twice — in the Federal Council of Churches: the council decided that the Universalists were, first, not sufficiently Christian and, second, too much like the Unitarians!

But into the mixture of voices calling, on the one hand, for a stronger Christian witness and, on the other, for a transformation of Universalism to a more truly universal religion, there came a new voice.  It came from a small group of recent graduates of the Crane Theological School at Tufts University, and it proved to be a major force pushing the Universalist Church beyond Christianity.

The graduates took their name from a medieval religious order, the Humiliati.  The name means “the humble ones”, though few people thought the members of this new order were particularly humble!  The group was originally formed so that its members could continue to enjoy the friendship, intellectual stimulation and spiritual growth they had enjoyed as seminarians; they held annual retreats during the 1940s and 50s at which they discussed theology, worship and liturgy.

Committing themselves to the renewal of their denomination as a universalized Universalism, the Humiliati adopted the symbol of a small, off-center cross enclosed by a larger circle.Humiliati symbol  The circle was intended to represent the all-embracing nature of Universalism; the off-center cross, of course, recognized Universalism’s Christian roots while at the same time implying that Christianity was no longer necessarily central to the faith.  When the symbol first appeared at the ordination of one of the Humiliati, it created something of a stir; then another member of the group caused a bigger dispute when he insisted on being ordained to the Universalist ministry rather than to the Christian ministry.  Although the Humiliati’s theological and liturgical innovations were by no means widely embraced, the idea of a universalized Universalism took hold and the symbol of the circle enclosing an off-center cross came to be widely used in Universalist churches.

It was at about the same time in the 1940s and 50s that the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association were once again talking about the possibility of combining their organizations and resources, a conversation that had been going, off and on, for almost a century.  The Unitarians had worked through the humanist–theist controversy of the 1920s and 30s and now, thanks in no small part to the Humiliati, the Universalists were moving beyond an exclusively Christian orientation.  The talks finally culminated, of course, in the legal consolidation that in 1961 formed the Unitarian Universalist Association.  And, a couple of years after that, the Unitarian Service Committee and the Universalist Service Committee merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which continued to use the flaming chalice in its documents.

Like our faith itself, the flaming chalice symbol has evolved over time.  Some years ago the UUA changed its logo to convey the idea of illumination emanating from the flame; more recently the UUSC changed its logo to hold the chalice in a pair of hands.Unitarian Universalist Service Committee logo  More often, the placing of the Unitarian chalice within the Universalist circle is a starting point for all sorts of  variations in design.  As Charles Joy noted almost seventy years ago, the shape of the chalice can be suggestive of a cross, but in some designs the cross is more explicit.  One painting, commissioned by First Unitarian in Albuquerque from New Mexico artist Robert P. Hooton, features a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right.  Here together are the three symbols we’ve been considering: the chalice, the circle and the cross.

sketch for painting by Robert P. Hooton, featuring a cross within a circle to the left and a chalice within a circle to the right

sketch for painting by Robert P. Hooton

The flaming chalice combines two archetypes — a drinking cup and a flame — that have been used in religious symbolism for as long as there’s been such a thing as religion.  From the wine cup of the Passover seder to the Holy Grail of medieval legend, the chalice represents community, sustenance, fertility.  The flame is an even older symbol, of course, and soon we’ll be in that season featuring a number of holidays involving candles, in Advent wreaths, Hanukkah menorahs and Kwanzaa kinaras, where the flames represent hope, courage, witness.  With this wealth of meanings, it’s perhaps not surprising that the flaming chalice caught on within Unitarian Universalism and that it’s become so near and dear to our hearts.

Now there’s a joke that tells of a Catholic church, a Baptist church and a Unitarian Universalist church next to one another; one stormy night there’s a lightning strike and soon all three churches are on fire.  Some of the more dedicated church members risk their lives to save the church’s most prized possessions: the Catholics run in to save the communion host; the Baptists run in to save the Bible; and the UUs run in to save the coffee pot!  But the very next thing most UUs would try to save would be the chalice.

(Our own chalice has its own story, of course, which also involves a church fire, but that’s a story for another time.)

For me, the flaming chalice represents the relationship between the individual and the community.  The community holds the individual just as the chalice holds the flame, providing it with a home, a place to be, sheltering it from the winds that would extinguish it.  The individual, on the other hand, illuminates the community, just as the flame illuminates the chalice, shining its light, sharing its wisdom and warming with its love.  Last Sunday I introduced the word “autokoenony” from the Greek meaning “the self engaged in a group whose members have something in common”, and that describes what the flaming chalice represents to me.  In this interpretation, in fact, it teach us two simple lessons: without the community, there would be no place for the individual to stand; and without the individual, the community would go without illumination.

Another archetypal symbol is the circle.  With no beginning and no end, a circle goes on forever.  What most of us think of as the traditional wedding ceremony includes the custom of exchanging rings as a sign of our hope — even in this day and age — for everlasting love.  And yet a ring wouldn’t be a ring were it not for the empty space in the middle through which one’s finger passes, and a circle wouldn’t be a circle without the empty space in the center.  If the circle, in the symbology we inherit from the Universalists, represents the universe of existence, then perhaps the empty space in the center represents the mystery at the heart of existence.  We place our flaming chalice within the circle, but it doesn’t fill the circle: there’s still plenty of room for mystery.

symbols of the religions of the world design based on the Rehnberg Memorial Window at the UU Church of Rockford

design based on the Rehnberg Memorial Window at the UU Church of Rockford

And then we come to the cross.  Many Unitarian Universalists have some difficulty accepting the cross as one of our religious symbols, I’ve noticed.  Including it as just another symbol along with the Jewish Star of David, the Hindu Om, the Taoist Yin–Yang, and so on is okay, but most Unitarian Universalists would rather not focus on the cross, if we can help it.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross was, after all, an instrument of torture and death used by the Roman Empire against those it particularly despised.  We might object to it on the grounds that the cross became a symbol justifying colonialism and oppression by Europeans against Africans and Native Americans.  We might object to it on the grounds that the whole emphasis on the crucifixion came, in any case, from the Apostle Paul and doesn’t really have anything to do with the ethical teachings of the human Jesus.

Well, those are valid objections.  However, there are two reasons why we ought to be okay with the cross as a symbol representing Christianity at its best.  First, both Unitarianism and Universalism evolved out of “traditional” Christianity.  As the Unitarian Universalist Association’s own Commission on Appraisal made clear:

“Unitarian Universalism is rooted in two religious heritages.  Both are grounded on thousands of years of Jewish and Christian teachings, traditions and experiences.  The Unitarian heritage has affirmed that we need not think alike to love alike and that God is one.  The Universalist heritage has preached not hell but hope and courage, and the kindness and love of God.  Contemporary Unitarian Universalists have reaped the benefits of a legacy of prophetic words and deeds.”

Second, given that heritage, we have a right to own the meanings of that heritage, to speak in favor of religion based on love rather than fear, to use the cross as a symbol for our purposes rather than let it be used against us.  We may not subscribe to the theology it is usually taken to represent and we may object to its history as a tool of conquest and subjugation, but strip away the distinctly un-Christian abuses of the cross and trim back the elaborate mystification surrounding it, and what we find is a simple call to love and to be loved.

The chalice, the circle and the cross, in fact, are reminders to us of those who went before us in our faith.  Let us remember those who were willing to risk everything, even their lives, to help others escape persecution.  Let us remember those who advocated for a larger faith, embracing freedom of belief and service to the whole.  And let us affirm our heritage in oneness and wholeness, carrying forward the symbols of our faith as we fill our lives with hope and courage, kindness and love.

So may it be.

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Embracing Our Identities

UUFP Blog

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

This time last year there were a couple of a widely shared articles criticizing Christianized versions of the Passover seder.  In “Why Christians Should Not Host Their Own Passover Seders”, for example, Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy describes how, as a Christian woman married to a Jewish man, she has become a “safe person” for her fellow Christians to ask about Judaism.  As such, she has been approached by Christians who want to hold Passover seders.  “Their logic,” she notes, “is that since Jesus was celebrating Passover during the week when he was arrested, tried, executed and resurrected, in a desire to be more Christ-like, they too should celebrate the holiday.”

While understanding that desire, Cynamon-Murphy goes on to make the case that Christians hosting their own seders do more harm than good, from ignoring thousands of years of persecution of…

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Liberal Religion in the Public Square

UUFP Blog

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

“Ways of life we are all enmeshed in — economic systems, our whole patterns of living, our whole established world — are not adequate for the quality of life we know we ourselves capable of and that we want for the Earth’s people.  We must become capable of offering religious leadership to a society called to change its fundamental ways of living.”
— Rebecca Parker, “Rising to the Challenge of Our Times” (1997)

For the last few years, Unitarian Universalists everywhere have been invited to read and discuss a book selected as a “Common Read”.  As such, it “can build community in our congregations and our movement by giving diverse people a shared experience, shared language, and a basis for deep, meaningful conversations.”  Recent Common Read books include Margaret Regan’s The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories…

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Gifts of Being from Sources Beyond Ourselves

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on November 24th 2013.)

I’ve loved the thanksgiving prayer of Unitarian Universalist minister Richard Fewkes since I first heard it.  As we heard our youngest choir members sing it so sweetly this morning:

“For the sun and the dawn which we did not create,
for the moon and the evening which we did not design,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

Elizabeth Alexander set these words to music, explaining that “my family has spoken this blessing as our table grace for the past twenty years.  This is no small praise, for I had exhaustive criteria for this prayer: it needed to be simple enough for a young child to learn, beautiful in language and form, and appropriate in the presence of a guest of any faith. It was a pleasure to set Richard Fewkes’ words to music, so that I could share his generous sentiment with others.”

Now I don’t know how many Unitarian Universalists engage in what they might consider prayer on a regular basis.  Indeed it has been said that prayer in most Unitarian Universalist circles is something like a dog walking around on its hind legs: the surprise isn’t from seeing it done well, but from seeing it done at all.  But some sort of blessing or grace at the dinner table may not be that unusual, particularly when taken as an opportunity to teach children about the value of gratitude, as was evidently part of Alexander’s intention. (She is, by the way, a Unitarian Universalist.)

Now expressing gratitude is one of the four classic purposes of prayer.  The other three are expressing wonder, expressing regret and expressing need, though the forms of those expressions obviously vary depending on your theology.  I think one of the reasons many Unitarian Universalists don’t consider anything they do as prayer is because we’ve fallen victim to the idea that praying is simply about asking for things, and to most of us that sounds pretty self-serving.  But let’s try to escape the trap of a narrow theological frame and broaden our thinking.

What about prayer as an expression of wonder?  I’m by no means a morning person, but whenever I get the opportunity to see the Sun rise into the dawning sky, I can’t help but marvel that I’m standing on a huge ball of rock that’s spinning as it circles through space around a vast ball of fire.  Moreover, the scales and distances are so immense that we actually see the Sun as it was more than eight minutes into the past.  That’s just one of the many wonders available to us every minute of every day.

What about prayer as an expression of regret?  There are all the ways in which I fall short of my own intentions, all the ways that I don’t live up to my own vision for who I want to be in the world.  Whether I make promises to myself or to others, I can run out of time or I can get distracted; I can forget something on my ever-growing “to do” list, and then there’s always just plain old-fashioned procrastination.  But I try to be aware of how I fall short, because it’s only by being honest with myself that I can fix what my mistakes and figure out how to do better next time.

And what about prayer as an expression of need?  This is not just asking for things.  If we’re willing to admit, particularly to ourselves, our limits and our faults, then we ought to be able to admit what we need, from one another, from the world, from life.  I need to feel connected to family and friends, for instance.  I need to feel like I belong.  I’ve found I have a real need to spend time with my one-year-old daughter before she goes to sleep, and so I also need the people who run our many evening committee meetings to be understanding of that when I arrive late.

And then there’s prayer as an expression of gratitude.  Many people have noted that gratitude isn’t just for Thanksgiving Day.  It’s something to be done every day, a way of life that we should always be practicing because it helps to move us from dwelling on what we lack — and with that attitude what we need will always be scarce — to celebrating what we have — and appreciating how our needs are met in a spirit of abundance.  As addiction recovery specialist and self-help author Melody Beattie puts it, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.  It turns what we have into enough, and more.  It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Personally I think that gratitude is foundational to any expression of need, regret or wonder.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that gratitude brings depth and motivation and promise and usefulness to those other expressions.  After all, it’s no good to become so focused on what we need that we fail to appreciate what we already have; it’s certainly no good if reasonable and honest acknowledgements of our failings become drowned in self-pity; and it’s no less unhelpful to spend every waking moment in such a state of amazement that we are incapable of actually doing anything with the gifts we’ve been given.  It’s gratitude that frees us from the paralysis that can so easily come from need, regret and even wonder.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

“For food which we plant but cannot grow,
for friends and loved ones we have not earned and cannot buy,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

Any occasion to sit down for a good meal with friends and family is a chance to think intentionally about these gifts, to appreciate them and perhaps to express gratitude out loud.  A major holiday that’s actually called Thanksgiving does, of course, lend itself to doing this more readily, but Thanksgiving isn’t the only time to be grateful any more than Christmas is the only time to be nice to people or Valentine’s Day is the only time to be loving or St. Patrick’s Day is the only time to eat food that’s all been boiled until it’s the same color.  If, that is, you have some objection to vitamins.

Still, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking Thanksgiving as an opportunity to think more about those things for which we are grateful, and there’s some merit to the idea that if we focus on some particular good habit for at least a while, then some of it will stick with us afterwards.

So it’s not too surprising that, for the last forty years, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee — the UUSC, for short — has been asking UU congregations to participate in its “Guest at Your Table” program, starting the Sunday before Thanksgiving and running through the Winter holidays.  If you’ve been to this or any other UU congregation on such a Sunday before, you’ll have heard the basic idea, which has a lot to do with gratitude.

The official mission and vision statements of the UUSC are as follows: the “UUSC advances human rights and social justice around the world, partnering with those who confront unjust power structures and mobilizing to challenge oppressive policies”; the “UUSC envisions a world free from oppression and injustice, where all can realize their full human rights.”  As such, the UUSC is in Haiti, supporting people who are rebuilding communities that are still recovering from the earthquake that devastated the country three years ago.  And the UUSC is in Arkansas, helping people who are fighting against worker exploitation in situations where wages are stolen, where safety rules are ignored and where sexual harassment is overlooked.  And now the UUSC is in the Philippines, too, working with local and international organizations as well as the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines to provide relief in communities where people lost almost everything to Typhoon Haiyan.

Those are all worthy efforts, of course, and the UUSC is engaged in plenty more all over the world.  For me, though, it all comes down to gratitude.  Most of us, most of the time, are amongst the fortunate.  And that goes for Unitarian Universalists in general, at least within the United States: most of us, most of the time, are amongst the fortunate.  The UUSC, then, is one way that Unitarian Universalists, collectively, can give back.  You’ve probably heard the saying that “from everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”  It’s one of the many sayings that people think are in the Bible, only this one actually is — it’s said by Jesus in the Book of Luke — though it was also paraphrased by Oliver Wendell Holmes and John F. Kennedy.  The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, then, is one way that Unitarian Universalism recognizes that obligation, and so it makes perfect sense to learn about and think about the UUSC’s work during that time of year when we are encouraged to express gratitude for what we have and how we have been blessed.

And so for the last forty years, the UUSC has been asking Unitarian Universalists in congregations across the United States to support their work by participating in Guest at Your Table.  GaYT_boxThe idea is pretty simple: you take one of these boxes, and you take it home, and you put it on your dinner table, and every time you sit down for a meal — and perhaps say a formal grace or at least go around the table and have everyone speak of something for which they are grateful — then you see the box and remember to put a few coins or even a couple of dollar bills into it as a way to make concrete your gratitude for what you have and how you have been blessed.  Every year the UUSC selects four of their partners and writes “Stories of Hope” about them to help bring to life some of the valuable, vital work they’re doing, but that doesn’t really matter, because you know that everything they do is good, worthwhile work that reflects UU values and makes a difference in people’s lives, but that’s not why you put those cents and dollars into that box.  No, you put that money in because you are grateful for what you have and how you have been blessed.

But this year, the UUSC isn’t making these boxes.  They’ve decided that in keeping with their other efforts to be good stewards of the environment, Guest at Your Table will collect money through a website.  After all, producing thousands of boxes and printing them all in full color only for them to be used for a couple of months before they go, hopefully, into the recycling bin, well, that’s perhaps not the most environmentally friendly thing to do every year.  And I applaud that, but, you know, it worries me.  I worry about how well it will work, without the physical presence of the cardboard boxes on people’s dinner tables.  It turns out that it also worries J— who, I should note, has been the one who for so many years has maintained this Fellowship’s participation in the UUSC’s programs and for that we should all express our gratitude to her.  So she and I did some of our own thinking “outside the box” — yes, groan — and came up with our own UUFP way to do Guest at Your Table this year.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer continues:

“For this gathered company which welcomes us as we are,
from wherever we have come,
for all our free churches that keep us human
and encourage us in our quest for beauty, truth and love,
we lift up our hearts in thanks.”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we like food here.  We like eating together, whether it’s a potluck or a lunch after services at a local restaurant or a meal for six or eight offered by members as an auction item or a special dinner as part of the annual pledge drive.  Members of this congregation covenant to companion one another on this journey of the spirit that we call life, and there’s nothing wrong with remembering that to be a companion literally means to share bread with someone.  Well, we have a few people who can’t eat gluten, but the good news is that there’s always plenty more food than just bread here!

So today, for instance, the Membership Committee is hosting the first of this year’s Fourth Sunday Soup Socials that run through the Winter months.  These aren’t potlucks, but rather R— and devoted volunteers will provide a variety of types of soup and an occasional chili that are available for anyone to enjoy.  In keeping with our own efforts to be good stewards of the environment, you’re encouraged to bring your own bowl and spoon, but you won’t be turned away if you don’t.  As R— explains it, “All are welcome to join in without having to bring anything except for your […] willingness to help out if needed for set up and take down.”

Then there’s the Thanksgiving Day potluck lunch that S— is coordinating right here this Thursday.  If you’ll be by yourself for Thanksgiving, or even if you’ll be with others who might also enjoy a friendly meal with a welcoming group, then you’re welcome to come; just let S— know today and she’ll make sure she has enough turkey.  In a similar vein, J— and I are coordinating a potluck lunch here on Christmas Day, and of course the Festival of the Season that we’re doing on December 7th will kick-off the afternoon’s festivities with a meal, too.  There are also many regular groups and programs that include potlucks or meals together in their activities, and looking out as far ahead as the Spring, we’ve already scheduled a Passover Seder — itself an ancient religious practice of companionship — for the afternoon of Easter Sunday.

Thinking about all these opportunities we have to share food together, J— and I very quickly went through the four classic purposes of prayer.  First, wonder: “Isn’t it great that we have so many times that people can enjoy food and fellowship here?”  Then, regret: “It’s a shame that we can’t always get to them and enjoy them ourselves.”  Then, need: “We should look for more occasions to do more of them and involve more people, too.”  Then, gratitude: “But we certainly owe great thanks to everyone who organizes these potlucks and meals as well as everyone who comes to them and makes them such fun.”  Well, okay, maybe we didn’t literally say those exact sentences out loud, but our conversation formed a prayer nonetheless, and out of it came an epiphany.  If the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is no longer making the many small collection boxes that can go home with each of you for Guest at Your Table, then perhaps we could instead have one big collection box that stays here at the Fellowship for Guest at Our Table.

And here it is:

GaOT_box

This box will be on the table at those lunches and potlucks and dinners I mentioned, probably on the kitchen island where the food is usually served, and it’ll be the Guest at Our Table, reminding us to be grateful for what we have and how we have been blessed.  As always, putting some coins or dollar bills or anything into the box is entirely voluntary.  We don’t charge admission to any of these meals — they’re not church fund-raisers and the Fourth Sunday Soup Socials aren’t even potlucks — and in fact some of our own members who face daily financial hardships come to such events specifically for a meal that they might not otherwise get.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  We also have plenty of people who are able to put anything from loose pocket change to a few dollars into this box and, in a spirit of gratitude, will want to do so.  It’ll add up, and come the Spring we’ll send it all in to the UUSC as our expression of gratitude for what we have and how we have been blessed, emphasizing as well that what we do as Unitarian Universalists, we do together, in community, rather than as individuals alone.

Fewkes’ thanksgiving prayer concludes:

“For all things which come to us
as gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves,
gifts of life and love and friendship,
we lift up our hearts in thanks this day.”

As we approach this week the primary holiday of the United States, an essential civic holiday named for the essentially religious act of expressing gratitude, I invite you to keep the words of Richard Fewkes’ prayer in mind.  They’re printed in our grey hymnal and you can find them in plenty of places on-line, too.  Perhaps, like Elizabeth Alexander and her family, you’ll make it a grace, saying it together as you’re holding hands around the table before your meal.

Or keep, at least, the spirit of Fewkes’ prayer in your heart.  Keep its spirit of humility, of wonder, of grace with you; let it open you to all the possibilities offered by life and love and friendship; let it lead you to join others in the outpouring of all those “gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves”.  There is much in this world for all of us to do — and, really, to do together — but to do any of it we must begin in a place of gratitude.

So may it be.

~ ~ ~

Update!  We collected $144.44 in our Guest at Our Table box, which is matched dollar-for-dollar by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, NY!  An additional $200 (also matched) was collected by on-line donations via our UUFP team web page.  (as of June 11th 2014)

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Bringing Wholeness

(I preached this homily for Flower Communion at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 1st 2014.)

In a few minutes’ time, we’ll celebrate the Flower Communion, which I can say without hesitation is the most beloved of all Unitarian Universalist ceremonies.  It was created by Czech Unitarian minister Norbert Čapek, who wrote a number of original hymns and prayers for it, and it was then brought to the United States by his wife, Maja.  Actually, I suspect that Maja had a hand in helping her husband create the Flower Communion, but we are particularly grateful to her for making it such a beautiful part of the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism.

The story goes that, until about a hundred years ago, Norbert was living in eastern Europe.  He’d been born into a Roman Catholic family living in Bohemia and he’d always wanted to be a priest, but he was a free-thinker and that got him into trouble when it came to some of the things he said about religion and politics.  Finding his increasingly liberal opinions unwelcome, Norbert, his first wife and their eight children fled to the United States.  Unfortunately his wife died soon after they arrived, but it was here that he learned about Unitarianism and found that it matched his own developing religious ideas.  He also met Maja, who was from Bohemia as well and had come to the United States some years before.  A graduate of Columbia University, she worked at the New York Public Library when they met.  They married soon after, and together joined the Unitarian church in Orange, New Jersey.

With their homeland newly independent after World War I, the Čapeks moved back to Europe, to the city of Prague in what is now the Czech Republic.  Together they founded the first Unitarian church in that part of Europe, and in time it became the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, with over three-thousand members.

Now, Sunday services in the Czech Unitarian Church weren’t much like worship services in today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations.  They didn’t sing hymns, and the ritual of lighting the chalice didn’t yet exist.  Some of the church members wanted something more spiritual than a lecture they could hear at the local university, so Norbert decided to create a ritual that would bring people together.  Taking his inspiration from the beauty of the countryside around Prague, he created the Flower Communion.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s the simple beauty that makes it so meaningful.  Every person coming to the service brings a flower, which they place in large vases.  The flowers form a beautiful bouquet, as unique and irreplaceable as each of the flowers in it.  With even just one flower missing, it wouldn’t be the same bouquet!  After the flowers are blessed, each person selects a flower to take home with them.  So different people brings different flowers and everybody gets to take one home, a different one than they brought.  In this way we honor the uniqueness of each person, as beautiful in their own way as a flower, each of us with a special contribution to make to our community.

lots of flowers

Now this isn’t a story with a nice, neat happy ending, but then, life is hardly a fairy tale.  During World War II, the Čapeks were invited back to the United States, given understandable concerns for their safety.  Maja did return, though that was primarily to help raise funds for Czech relief efforts, but Norbert chose to remain in his homeland, ministering to those who needed to hear his message of inherent worth and dignity and beauty.  Unfortunately that message wasn’t popular with the Nazi regime, and both he and his daughter were arrested and sent to a concentration camp.  Norbert was tortured and then killed.  But his legacy didn’t die with him, of course.  Maja, who had also been ordained a minister of the Czech Unitarian Church, brought with her the Flower Communion, and it quickly became a beloved tradition in Unitarian and then Unitarian Universalist congregations.

In a moment, I’ll read Norbert’s own words for consecrating the flowers before I invite you to come forward and take one.  But there’s one particular line that has stood out since the first time I heard these words, and it bears a little further comment.  That line is as follows:

May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do work of bringing wholeness to the world.

I know there have been times in my own life when I feel envy at something that another person has done, something that I myself have not done, perhaps that I am not even able to do.  Many of my colleagues in ministry do amazing things all the time, and I sometimes find myself thinking, “Oooh, I wish I had done that.”  Or even, “I wish I could do that.”  Of course, I try not to begrudge them their success, and I try to turn it around to find ways to let their successes inspire me, rather than resenting them and putting myself down.  I’d like to think, of course, that there are similarly things that I do, at least once in a while, that inspire other people, and maybe even impress them, too.  Hey, I have an ego: I’m human, too.

Goodness knows, there are lots of opportunities, even within a modestly sized congregation like ours, to be impressed by what other people are doing.  Take any one of us, and there will always be someone who can volunteer more of their time here, or who can contribute more money, or who can run a committee meeting more effectively, or who can sing or play music with more skill, or who can create artwork or write poetry that is more beautiful, or who can cook and bake more delicious food, or …  The list goes on.  It’s natural to feel a little envious, because we’re human, too, and if it inspires us to try a little harder and aim a little higher, then that’s okay.  Putting ourselves down, and making others feel bad about their talents and efforts, on the other hand, is not okay.

This, of course, is one of the lessons of the Flower Communion.  It wasn’t some random thought that prompted Norbert Čapek to put that line into his prayer for consecrating the flowers: “May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do work of bringing wholeness to the world.”  Flowers are a great metaphor for human diversity, and of course an object lesson in accepting one another’s inherent worth and dignity and beauty.  And not only accepting it, but lifting it up, and enjoy being lifted up ourselves, too.

After all, even the flowers that most people consider to be undesirable weeds when it comes to their lawns at home are beautiful in their own way.  When my daughter and I go for a walk — well, I’m usually the one walking, while she rides in the wagon I’m pulling — we notice all of the flowers we pass.  As yet, she really hasn’t been that interested in roses or lilies, but she loves buttercups and clover.  It’s reminded me of my own childhood delight in flowers, how buttercups shine so brightly yellow, and that thing children do of holding one under someone’s chin to see if they like butter or not.  And clover is not only something that enriches the soil, but is a primary source of nectar for honeybees, which need all the help they can get right now.  Even dandelions, the bane of many home gardeners’ existence, are beautiful in their own way, not to mention when the heads dry out and all those seeds are on their little fluffy parachutes and you can blow on them and who knows how far any one seed will travel.

So as you select a flower today to take home, think about how it’s different from every other flower that you might have taken.  Think about how you are different from every other person here, perhaps more skilled and gifted and interested in some things than other people, perhaps less in others.  And that’s okay, because whatever we do and whatever we are, we are all a part of the work of bringing wholeness to the world.

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The ‘A’ Word

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 2nd 2014.  The choice of topic was won in last year’s Auction.)

Atheism seems to have been in the news quite a bit recently.

Atheist groups have gone to court, for instance, to try to get monuments featuring secular quotes set up in places such as courthouses where the Ten Commandments are on display.  Then there was the giant digital billboard advert by American Atheists that flashed every ten minutes near Metlife Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.  Featuring an AA staffer dressed as a priest but with football players’ stripes under his eyes and holding a football, the ad read “A ‘hail Mary’ only works in football. Enjoy the game!”

Then there was the lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation challenging the right of ministers to use a parsonage, or receive an equivalent housing allowance, without having to pay taxes.  Judge Barbara Crabbe ruled that the parsonage exemption is unconstitutional, resulting in preferential treatment for religious messages because, so she concluded, there are no atheist ministers.  As the Rev. Richard Nugent, Director of the UUA’s Office of Church Staff Finances, put it in an e-mail, “Obviously Judge Crabbe isn’t familiar with Unitarian Universalism”.

Then there are the Sunday Assemblies.  Founded in London by two British stand-up comedians, each Sunday Assembly is a time for atheists to get together for community, music and singing, and an inspiring message.  Sound familiar to, oh, I don’t know, church?  The Sunday Assembly Everywhere network uses a franchise model to start new groups in the bigger cities of the UK and the US, and in the grand old tradition of, well, I guess I can’t say religion, they’ve already experienced their first schism: a group in New York is breaking away to form what they call the “Godless Revival”.  As the Rev. Tom Schade wrote on his blog, The Lively Tradition, “Really, people should talk to Unitarian Universalists before they try to do what we have been trying to do for decades.”

And then there’s Ryan Bell, who recently announced that he would live for a year as an atheist.  He was motivated in part by a friend’s question about what difference it makes to believe in God, and was also inspired by the book A Year of Living Biblically.  He didn’t think his plan would gain so much attention, but maybe that would have been a fair assumption, given that Bell had been a Seventh-Day Adventist Minister.

In fact, starting his “year of living atheistically” on January 1st, he got as far as January 4th before being “let go” from his teaching positions at both Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary.  Bell says that both places were “super nice” and that he’d be welcomed back once he could sign their faith statements again, but as UU Doug Muder wrote on his blog, The Weekly Sift, “From the War on Christmas to the ObamaCare contraception mandate, the media gives a lot of respect to the idea that Christians might be persecuted in America, or at least that their religious freedom might be in danger.  But [if they] really want to know what religious discrimination is like, they should try being atheists.”

Finally, in this quick review of atheists in the news, there are the most recent results of a public opinion poll that organizational consulting firm Gallup has been repeating every couple of decades since 1937.

The poll question is as follows: “If your [political] party nominated a generally well-qualified person for [the office of] President who happened to be [fill-in-the-blank], would you vote for that person?”  There weren’t many categories in 1937 to go in that blank, and the results were about what you might expect.  Back in the thirties, only sixty percent of Americans would vote for a Catholic, only forty-six percent would vote for a Jew, and only thirty-three percent would vote for a woman.  These days, more than ninety percent of Americans say they would vote for Catholic, Jewish or female candidates for the office of President.

But at the bottom of the rankings today?  Only sixty-eight percent of Americans would vote for a gay or lesbian person, only fifty-eight percent would vote for a Muslim, and only fifty-four percent would vote for an atheist.  Now all such numbers have increased since Gallup first added each to its opinion poll, but it still paints a picture of widespread prejudice amongst the American public.

All in all, for the average atheist in this nation, and certainly here in the South, it’s simply advisable not to mention the ‘A’ word when it comes to talking about one’s beliefs.

There are, of course, places — even religious places — where atheists are welcome to make themselves at home.  There are, for example, Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Many years ago I heard of a memorial service for a man who had been a life-long Unitarian.  Someone who was not a UU was at that service to honor his friend, but knowing something of our history in rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity, he said he knew that Unitarians believe in one god.  A woman, who was a UU, immediately chimed in: “You mean,” she called out, “believe in at most one god.”  More generally, UU congregations have long aspired to welcome everyone who would want to be part of such communities, with the only real condition being that anyone who wants to be here must be willing to help keep it welcoming for anyone else who wants to be here, too.

Now surveys of individual Unitarian Universalists have shown that about a fifth of all UUs would identify themselves as atheists.  Since atheism and other identifying terms are usually undefined on such surveys, there’s quite a bit of overlap with UUs who also identify as humanist, agnostic or Earth-centered, and perhaps even as Buddhist or pagan, too.  Still, it’s safe to say that the majority of UUs are not theistic in a traditional sense, though there’s plenty of theological diversity within and beyond that.  And it is, of course, our aspiration to be a safe place for that diversity: the radical good news of Unitarian Universalism, after all, is that we can be different people with different beliefs but still be part of one beloved community.

Amongst those who believe that such community is impossible — and perhaps even undesirable — are the so-called “New Atheists”.

Starting in 2004 with a book by Sam Harris entitled The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, and then continuing with books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, the New Atheists emerged in response to events from coordinated efforts to teach creationism in school science classes to the hijackings of planes by terrorists on September 11th 2001.  Rather than taking a persuasive approach, however, the New Atheists launched a full frontal assault on religion in general, arguing that humanity would be better off if religion — all religion — simply went away.  This may not be anything that, in its content, is particularly new; its roots, for instance, go back to eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume and his argument that the only real miracle in religion is that people would believe in the miracles claimed by religion.  In their style, on the other hand, the New Atheists greatly ramped up the intensity and the volume of their explicitly confrontational rhetoric.

Consider, for example, this paragraph from The End of Faith by Sam Harris.  (Words emphasized in italics are his.)

With each passing year, do our religious beliefs conserve more of the data of human experience?  If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields [such as astronomy and medicine], would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine.  Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of the world.  By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward.  It cannot survive the changes that have come over us — culturally, technologically, and even ethically.  Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

Now there is some truth in Harris’ words when it comes to the necessity of religion being susceptible to progress.  One of the primary reasons why I am a Unitarian Universalist, for instance, is that ours is a religion that is not only open to developments in the scientific understanding of our world, but actively embraces the insights of cosmology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience.  And I know for a fact that plenty of my Christian colleagues in seminary were just as interested in cultural, technological and particularly ethical progress, even when that meant calling into question certain parts of the scriptures they held dear.

But to the New Atheists, religion is a singular structure that never allows for progress, and is instead based entirely on ideas about the world that last seemed sensible in the Iron Age.  And when that is assumed, then there are no differences between, say, Christian fundamentalists and Quakers, or between Islamic terrorists and the followers of the Dalai Lama.  In fact, as far as the New Atheists are concerned, those who claim to be religious moderates are particularly bad, because they allow religious extremists to continue to exist.

Sam Harris, for example, doesn’t acknowledge the existence of religious progressives (and doesn’t mention Unitarian Universalists), and what he claims to be a continuum of people of faith he actually describes as just a dichotomy between, on the one hand, those who, in his words, “draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity” and, on the other hand, those who, in his words, “would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy.”  In his book (figuratively and literally), if you’re not a religious extremist, then you’re a religious moderate, and you’re only a moderate because you failed to be an extremist.

Here’s what Harris has to say about, as he puts it, “the ‘myth’ of moderation in religion”.

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence.  From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist.  […]

The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism.  We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled.  All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us.  This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural [interpretation]; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.  Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance — and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. […]

By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.  Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question — i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us — religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.

You know, I wish that Sam had told us how he really feels.

First, there is no such singular structure as religion, no such one-dimensional phenomenon as faith.  That’s a straw man and Harris and Dawkins only get away with implying it thanks to popular ignorance.  It doesn’t help that the mainstream media — including our local Daily Press — likes to report on marriage equality or reproductive rights as if every person claiming to be religious is necessarily opposed to them.  Such sloppy reporting needs to be held accountable for its mis-representation of religion, as do Harris and the other New Atheists.

And, as you’ve heard me say before, neither religion nor faith are merely about belief.  They are also about behavior and belonging.  It’s not surprising that the atheist Sunday Assemblies are turning out to look a lot like churches, when it’s belonging and behavior that matter more than belief (or, for that matter, non-belief).  Whether or not we are permitted (and permitted by whom, I don’t know) to criticize others’ harmful beliefs — and whether doing so would change them — is irrelevant anyway, since it’s not someone’s belief but their behavior that actually affects other people.

Even when it comes to that belief, it’s certainly not the case that faith is all about believing things that are at odds with, as Harris puts it, “the last two thousand years of human thought ([such as] democratic politics, scientific advancement on every front, concern for human rights, an end to cultural and geographical isolation, etc.).”  Satirist Ambrose Bierce, in his “reference” book, The Devil’s Dictionary, drew on that caricature of faith by defining it as “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”

Now Bierce may have had in mind the Christian Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, which defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  But even with such a biblical definition, that doesn’t rule out, for instance, faith in humanity, faith in the progress of the human endeavor, faith that we can overcome our differences and bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice and bring the Beloved Community into being.

But is it true that religious moderates, to use Harris’ terminology, are failing to challenge, and are thereby enabling, religious extremists?  Well, no, it’s not true.

Consider, for instance, the response of moderates to that form of extremism that is justifying homophobic discrimination in terms of “religious freedom”.  That’s a desperate attempt to hang onto heterosexism (as well as the sexism that’s hidden within it) by those who can see the writing on the wall, and that by itself shows that the moderates are disabling the extremists, not enabling them.  Of course, organizations like Focus on the Family are still kicking, and can mobilize their members across the country to lobby in favor of the anti-LGBTQ legislation that has been making its way through legislatures in Arizona and Kansas and a dozen other states.  But they’re not getting away with it.

There’s an organization called Faithful America, for example, which describes itself as “a fast-growing online community dedicated to reclaiming Christianity from the religious right and putting faith into action for social justice.  Our members,” they explain, “are sick of sitting by quietly while Jesus’ message of good news is hijacked to serve a hateful political agenda, so we’re organizing the faithful to take on [religious] extremists and renew the church’s prophetic role in building a more free and just society.”

And they’re not the only ones doing this.  Just a few days ago, progressive evangelical Jim Wallis wrote an article entitled “To Young Christians Speaking Out Against Anti-Gay Discrimination: Thank You”.  He was referring specifically writers like Jonathan Merritt and Kirsten Powers, who each criticized the supposedly Christian arguments being used to justify legal discrimination and questioned whether that “discrimination would also be applied to other less than ‘biblical’ marriages,” as the religious right might see them, “or if just gays and lesbians were being singled out.”

So is there an alternative to New Atheism that might allow us to consider the actual problems of religions in the real world without all the rancor and bitterness?  Well, yes, there is.

Alain de Botton calls it “Atheism 2.0”.  That was the title of his TED talk a couple of years ago, in which he talked about what atheism could learn from the world’s religions as a framework for human connection to one another, to our world, to ourselves, to time, to truth, to meaning, and so on.  That’s the behaving and belonging piece that he sees as very valuable in religion, even if, as he makes clear right from the start, he rejects the beliefs.  But for him, the basic premise of atheism — that there’s no God, singular, or gods, plural — is the “very, very beginning” of the story, not its end.  (De Botton, by the way, was one of the influences in Ryan Bell’s decision to live for a year as an atheist.)

Perhaps more well-known is Chris Stedman, the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious.  In this largely autobiographical book, Stedman describes how he became a “born again” Christian as a youth — not because he believed but because he wanted to believe, and even more because he wanted the parts of religion that Alain de Botton says are the helpful parts, particularly the parts about justice.  Only not long after converting, Stedman realized he was gay.

He tried to figure it out, and, when that didn’t help, he tried to pray himself straight, but that didn’t work, either.  He considered suicide, but couldn’t go through with it.  Finally he came out, first to his mother, and then to a sympathetic minister, and he credits them with saving his life.  But within a few years, between the widespread homophobia he saw in too many churches and his own experiences of senseless violence and destruction, he became an atheist.

But Stedman didn’t give up on religion.  Today he advocates for the necessity of atheists and the religious working together to bridge their differences and find ways to understand one another.  Noting that the word “interfaith” is “imperfect, clunky and can feel exclusive to many non-religious people”, he nonetheless argues that atheists should participate in interfaith work.  He explains why this matters as follows.

Dialogue isn’t meaningless — the humanization of the ‘other’ elicited by an act of intentional encounter with difference leads to real change.  Engaging in interfaith coalition-building efforts requires a certain level of vulnerability and humility; to be understood, we must all work to understand.  To understand our privileges, our pasts, our prejudices, and what we each bring to the table in order to strengthen ourselves as a community and as a country, we must be willing to challenge the beliefs we have about those who seem different — and the result is often life-changing for all parties involved.  Everyone I’ve met who has taken part in interfaith dialogue has walked away challenged, with a renewed sense of personal agency and a feeling of shared responsibility to bring about a more pluralistic world.

So here’s my question.  Whose take on atheism is likely to help change public attitudes about the ‘A’ word, to change those poll numbers and someday allow an atheist president to be elected?  Should we follow Sam Harris, by throwing the baby out with the bathwater, vandalizing the bathroom, burning down the house, and bombing the neighborhood?  Or is it Chris Stedman, who sees many shared values and concerns amongst atheists and believers alike, and would have them work together to make the world a better place for all of us?

Then there’s the fact that if we take Harris seriously in his complaint that moderates are not doing enough to stand up to the extremists, then moderate atheists (and non-theists within Unitarian Universalism) are justified in standing up to the extremism of the New Atheists, including Harris himself!

As Sophia Lyon Fahs put it,

Some beliefs are like walled gardens.  They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.  Other beliefs are expansive, and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.  Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

I think it’s pretty obvious which it would be better to choose.

So may it be.

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One Planet Indivisible

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 16th 2014.)

Reading: from Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God by Karl Peters

I first met Karl Peters at the Summer 2000 conference of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.  That was the first time I went, whereas Karl and his wife Marj Davis had been stalwarts of the Institute for many years.  When they weren’t at the Star Island conferences, Karl was Professor of Religion at Rollins College in Florida and Marj was a minister with the United Church of Christ in northern Connecticut.  As it turned out, not long after I moved to Connecticut the following year, Karl was retiring, and we both met again at the Unitarian Society of Hartford.  We quickly found that we had much in common, and that what he called naturalistic theism was a whole lot like what I called pantheism.  So when Karl published Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology and God, it gave us lots to talk about!

This reading, then, is excerpted from chapter nine of Dancing with the Sacred, entitled “Our Natural Family”.

I’m trying to change my mind about the way I look at the natural world and its creatures. […] It’s not easy to do this when I find a wasp in my basement or when a cockroach scurries away from the light I’ve just turned on as I enter a room.  Yet, I think it’s important for all of us to see ourselves interconnected with other creatures and the Earth — as members of the same natural family.

One reason it’s important is to help resolve the problem […] of moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants.  Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it. [… T]echnology has given us the power to affect the lives of other species and the entire ecosystems of our planet in ways that are unprecedented.  Many scientists are concerned that our burgeoning population is challenging the carrying capacity of the Earth.  Others point out that [it’s the use] of automobiles and some other technologies [that] is threatening our atmosphere with greenhouse gases.  We are putting future generations of humans and other species in a crisis that we are just beginning to discern. […]

There are many things that must be done to help us change our ways of living to insure that life and civilization will continue and flourish in a sustainable manner.  New energy efficient technologies, many already invented, must be placed in the market.  Producers and consumers need economic incentives to create an environmentally responsible economy.  Politicians need to exercise courageous leadership in passing regulations that can guide [our] living in ways that promote our own well-being and that of our planet.  [And especially important, n]ew ways of understanding ourselves in our world must be cultivated to help our minds change so that we will live more in harmony with other creatures on our planet.”

Sermon: “One Planet Indivisible”

I took a somewhat indirect route to my decision to go to seminary.

When I went to my second Star Island conference in 2001, I met someone who worked for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford.  Jeanie was (and still is) Environmental Justice Coordinator for the Archdiocese, and hearing that I was interested in matters of religion and the environment, she mentioned an event being planned for that Fall by an organization called the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network.  Founded to “empower[…] and inspir[e] religious communities in Connecticut to be faithful stewards of the Earth”, it wasn’t just interreligious in name, either: the lead organizers at the time included an American Baptist minister and a Jewish Renewal rabbi.

The event itself was called “A Sacred Trust: a Forum on Religion and the Environment” and featured speakers from many faith traditions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Timed to take place near the saint’s day of Francis of Assisi in early October 2001, it was overshadowed, of course, by recent events.  September 11th definitely called for a religious response, but the main portion of the forum was still devoted to looking at human stewardship of the Earth from a variety of religious perspectives.

Now the forum was held at Hartford Seminary, which was just a few blocks down the road from where I was living, and while I was there I looked to see what else they were doing, just out of curiosity.  I didn’t know what to expect because I never thought I’d actually be standing in such a place, much less that I might enroll in seminary.  But then, only a few months before that I’d joined a congregation, so there went fifteen years of certainty in my life!

One of the courses caught my eye.  It was a course on Environmental Ethics, and it sounded interesting not only academically — given that I’d never taken such a class before — but because I was genuinely curious about what was needed to really address the environmental problems that I was hearing so much about.  It is, as Karl Peters put it in Dancing with the Sacred, a matter of “moral motivation in a global village that includes the entire Earth and its inhabitants” and so I thought a course on Environmental Ethics would help me understand that.

Another draw was that this was the first course being taught at Hartford Seminary by its new president, Heidi Hadsell, who had a distinguished career as an academic, interfaith and international ethicist.  So I signed up, paid my non-enrolled registration fee and attended my first seminary class in early 2002.

One of the themes that quickly emerged was mentioned by Karl Peters in the reading: “Many have recognized that we often know what is right but we don’t do it.”  Prof. Hadsell referred to a paper she’d written a few years before (“Environmental Ethics and Health/Wholeness,” Bulletin Vol. 24 No. 3/4, The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion, September/November 1995) when attending an American Academy of Religion conference on the topic of human health and wholeness.  Asked to speak to the relationship between her specialty and the conference theme, she looked at the effects of environmental problems on human health, not so much in terms of what those are — damage to the ozone layer, for instance, resulting in an increased incidence of skin cancer — but from the question of why we are, in her words, “fouling our [own] nest to [such] an unprecedented extent[… that] our habits turn back around and bite us”.  Hadsell writes,

I can understand, though I may not agree with, those who insist that the snail darter or […] the spotted owl have value only in relation to human well-being and human abilities to survive reasonably well in places like the northwest […].  But when the matter becomes human health itself directly, not in future generations but now, and not the survival of what to many are exotic species of plants and animals [but of ourselves], why don’t we react?

This, as I said, is a question to which I’ve wanted an answer, too.  It’s a large part of why I even started going to a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the first place.  That’s because, after a few years of getting on the mailing lists of what seemed like just about every environmental group in the country, I had no shortage of return address labels.  I also had no shortage of environmental problems and emerging crises without much that I could really do about any of them.  I needed help dealing with it all if I wasn’t going to end up severely depressed.

To illustrate this, in the very first sermon I gave at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, a few months after I started at Hartford Seminary, I related the story of a “Doonesbury” comic strip that had been printed some previous Earth Day.  In that particular cartoon, Mike Doonesbury is complaining by telephone to his friend Zonker that he can’t spend his every moment trying to figure out the environmental consequences of his actions.  “If I consider the impact of everything I do, I’ll never get out of bed!  I’ll just lie there all day, lights off, heat off, munching organically grown celery!”  And in the final panel of the strip, we see that this is, of course, precisely what Zonker is doing.

Before I come back to Prof. Hadsell’s paper on this subject, I want to explain why I bring it up this morning.

Today we are participating in the 2014 National Preach-In on Climate Change.  This is something that Interfaith Power and Light has organized for a few years now, coordinating thousands of clergy and lay leaders across the country over a weekend in February to offer religious responses to the global problem of climate change.  We’re participating in it this year because we’ve also been participating in the Thirty Days of Love, and one of the purposes of the Preach-In is to share our love of the world that is our planetary home.  At the same time, my sermon theme for the month is Stewardship, and our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part” is the cornerstone of all Unitarian Universalist efforts to practice good stewardship of the Earth, including for this congregation to earn the designation of Green Sanctuary.

Now many sermons that are part of the Preach-In, whether they took place on Friday evening or sometime yesterday or are being given this Sunday morning, will include a litany of facts about climate change.  In fact, in their Preach-In Kit, Interfaith Power and Light provides an information sheet entitled “The Facts about Climate Change”.  It reads, “Here are the latest findings from the 2013 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by the United States Global Change Research Program.  This is why we must act now.”  And then it lists a number of facts and provides further information about each:

  • Climate change is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.
  • Extreme weather is underway.
  • Sea ice is disappearing and seas are rising.
  • Crop and livestock production is increasingly challenged.
  • Threats to human health will increase.
  • Warming will continue to increase.
  • Delays will make a big difference.

The fact sheet even includes web addresses for various “Global Warming Reports and Resources” where you can get more information.

Here’s what I’m wondering, though.  Is the problem, really, that we don’t have enough information?

The first Earth Day was in 1970.  The Kyoto Protocol was figured out in the late nineties.  Most mainstream media outlets now recognize the legitimate science of climate change, and are even taking steps to actively reject the pseudo-science that has been peddled by Exxon and the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Global climate change is part of our cultural vocabulary, and Unitarian Universalists in particular understand the validity of the 99.5% scientific consensus.  (The other 0.5% comes, and this should be no surprise, from scientists paid to speak for private, corporate interests.)  We even know the difference between climate and weather.  The problem in our society is not a lack of information.  The problem in our society is a lack of motivation.

And that brings us back to Heidi Hadsell’s question about why our apathy in the face of environmental problems.  Answering her own question, in fact, Hadsell offers a number of reasons why we’re not acting.

First, there’s the plain, old-fashioned concept of denial.  “Far from being unknown,” Hadsell explains, “the environmental problems, including those that affect human health directly, are so evident and so vast and complex.  The reason that we are not doing much about the environment is that the problems are so bad that we can’t or won’t allow ourselves to look them squarely in the face.”

That’s why information about climate change is only helpful up to a point.  Anybody who knows enough to be concerned isn’t going to be convinced any further by having more data.  If anything, litanies of facts about climate change and other environmental issues and the myriad ways that humans are damaging the Earth just get really depressing, really fast.

Second on Hadsell’s list is individualism.  “We may intuit the problem,” she writes, “but we lack the moral and political language to get our heads around them.  Our language is tied to rights and freedoms as individually construed; we can only cope when things are tied to the ways we are used to thinking of ourselves as autonomous individuals.”

There are, of course, things we can do as individuals that do add up to make at least something of a difference, particularly if we have other reasons for taking those actions.  For instance, I have a single-cup coffee maker.  I like it, and I think it’s more energy efficient than a regular multiple-cup machine.  But I’ve realized I’ve been drinking a lot more coffee since my daughter was born — and I moved from decaf to regular, too — and all those little plastic cups with a single-serving of coffee in them add up to a lot of waste in the landfill.  So rather than buying boxes of the cups, I switched to bags of coffee instead, using a reusable cup that I empty and refill as needed.  That’s somewhat less convenient but it’s also cheaper per cup of coffee, and the only waste (other than the bag the coffee comes in) is the used coffee grounds rather than a non-reusable and probably non-recyclable cup.  The more people who did that, the less waste there’d be in our landfills, not to mention whatever waste is generated in making those cups in the first place.  But the fact is that we’re not going to solve our biggest problems by tackling them as if they were simply bigger versions of smaller individual problems, and that takes us to Hadsell’s third reason: materialism.

“Another explanation, and one that we cannot discard,” she writes, “is that in the end most people don’t care.  They like what they have and would rather have what they have — and by that I mean the stuff they have — than protect the environment, or protect their own or the public’s health.”  There’s even a term for this syndrome, though it hasn’t made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, yet.  The condition known as “affluenza” was, in fact, used by criminal defense lawyers last year to argue that their teenage client’s drunk driving, and the subsequent crash that killed four people, was a result of his privileged upbringing by parents who never set limits on his behavior.

Hadsell goes on to list: group egoism, as in the “Tragedy of the Commons” where the people in a group all assume they won’t be the ones impacted by the results of their decisions affecting that group; structural relationships, where political and economic forces determine many of our choices for us; lack of resources, namely the intellectual, material or organizational resources to bring about change;
and finally collectivism, whether that’s excuses such as corporations being too big to fail and governments being too bureaucratic to change anything, or the selfish short-sightedness of the human race as a whole that is so collectively irrational that it might be considered a form of death wish.

Happy stuff, eh?

I know many of you watch The Daily Show and so some of you here probable saw last week’s interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, a new book about the massive reduction in the diversity of life on Earth that is going on right now thanks to, well, us.  Jon Stewart did his best to make the interview something other than a seven-minute bummer, but in trying to wrap it up he started to say, “On a hopeful note…” but then caught himself and asked, “Was there a hopeful note?”  Kolbert had to admit that, no, there wasn’t.

Thankfully, Hadsell’s paper doesn’t end by talking about the possible death wish of the human race.  And since she is someone who studies religion and was presenting her paper to others who study religion, she continued by looking at the role of religion in addressing these reasons for failing to act.

Religion needs to be active in helping to shape humanity’s social world, for instance, making meaning in ways that help us to see ourselves as part of the natural world rather than in ways that pretend we’re better than and can somehow exist independent of the natural world.  Religion offers the ministries of “preaching and teaching, marshaling the evidence,” as Hadsell puts it, “and giving [people] the context in which to let it all sink in.  One hopes that this role of the church will chip away at the defense of denial so prevalent, at least in this society.”

Then there’s the core capacity of the religious imagination to lift up a vision of something other than “an endless extrapolation of the present”, a vision of, say, the Beloved Community where people live in relationships of mutuality and justice with one another and in relationships of sustainability and respect with the Earth.  And in practical terms, religion can offer the physical resource of space for talking about these matters, the social resource of a community with which to talk about them, and the organizational resource of committees and coalitions and networks to make plans and put them into action.

We’ve been doing all of these here, of course, from the work of L— and our Green Sanctuary Committee to the course that B— is currently teaching on the “new cosmology”, a religious perspective on creation that R— and the late Jack Dougher have promoted here, too.

Moreover, Hadsell notes religion’s ability to provide “a language which carries moral sensibilities significant to human health and environmental survival[, encompassing m]oral values such as regard for the other, the insistence that meaning is not the possession of things, a sense of history which extends beyond the boundaries of national identity, and a language which provides motivation for courage and the commitment of all kinds of personal and institutional resources we may not even know we have.”

This, I think, is the key.  If we’re going to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, we need moral motivation in terms of moral sensibilities and moral values.  It’s no accident that the tens of thousands of people, perhaps a hundred thousand people, who gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina a week ago did so under the banner of a Mass Moral March.  Reporter Jaimie Fuller, in an article in The Washington Post, explained that a large part of the success of that movement is the central role of “morality as a way to fight for progressive issues, and a way of challenging the Christian Right’s use of religion”.  In his speech that day, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, certainly made it clear that this is not about political parties or partisan ideologies but about right and wrong.

Now if all this talk about moral this, that and the other is triggering nightmarish flashbacks to being caught in a childhood transgression by an overly strict nun at some parochial school — even if that wasn’t actually your childhood — consider what Jay Michaelson, who writes about spirituality, Judaism, sexuality and law, has to say not just about morality but about sin.

[T]he grammar of sin — [only] without its vocabulary — is [in fact] alive and well in progressive religious circles.  Consider how progressives respond when we learn that someone we know is racist, or sexist.  If you’re like me and every other progressive I know, you probably recoil in disgust.  That moral disgust — which neuroscientists tell us activates the same parts of the brain as physical disgust — is […] the quintessential reaction of a purity violation.

This is from a recent article of Michaelson’s entitled “Climate Change Is a Sin — Here’s How to Repent For It”.  He explains what he means by this as follows.

Climate change is a sin, but it’s a special kind of sin.  It’s not a personal failure but a societal one.  We sin collectively (interestingly, in Jewish liturgy, almost all confessionals are in the first-person plural), and if we are to repent, we must repent collectively.  That means re-engaging with the people we can’t stand — including people who talk about “sin” — and finding ways to communicate with them, rather than preach to the already converted.

This, really, is our challenge.  This, I think, is the real point of the National Preach-In on Climate Change.  It’s certainly not to “preach to the already converted.”  Rather, it’s to figure out how we can work in moral coalitions just like Rev. Barber’s Forward Together Movement.  As Michaelson puts it,

Climate change is a collective sin, and it requires collective repentance: alliances with the evangelical-led “creation care” movement, recasting the issue in public moral terms rather than the language of progressive cul-de-sacs, and a de-partisanization of moral good and evil.  It is not enough to be the change you want to see in the world.  You also have to fight for it.

So, since I don’t like ending a sermon in which I’ve described a big problem without giving you something you can do about it, here’s something you can do about it.

Outside the Sanctuary, we have a table set up where you can fill out postcards to our Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, asking them to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s Carbon Pollution Standards for new and existing power plants.  These postcards have been provided by Interfaith Power and Light, and we printed extras to hopefully have enough.  They read, “I believe we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted or damaged by climate change.  We all need to do our part as stewards of Creation.”  Please fill out a postcard with your name and address to one Senator, or fill out one to each, and we’ll mail them all in together,* along with tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of postcards from Preach-Ins in congregations all over the country this weekend.

These postcards are one way we can raise our collective voice to not only be the change we want to see in the world, but to fight for it.  This is the work to which we are called, the work of realizing the Beloved Community, the work of co-creating a sustainable future for human society and for all life on Earth.

So may it be.

* We mailed a total of eighty-eight postcards to the Senators!

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