Tuesday, July 31, 2012

You Can't Go Home Again


<Deep Breath>

I figure that if I'm going to write about the highlights, the successes, that I need to be equally open about the setbacks and heartaches.  A one dimensional picture is hardly useful in trying to describe a three dimensional world, and nothing is as easy as it sounds when you only describe the times when it's easy.

<Deep Breath>

Over the past couple of weeks I've been struggling.  My reasons are personal and specific, but they'd be recognizable to anyone who's ever read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, or ever attended any kind of 12 Step meeting, or known anyone with addiction issues.  Really they'd be recognizable to anyone who's ever done any kind of deep spiritual exploration and discovered anything important about how the human mind and heart work when operating under the control of the small-s "self" rather than the large-s "Self."

The reasons aren't that important; the results, on the other hand, are.  I ate some junk food.  Actually, I ate a lot of junk food.  Had some McDonald's for lunch one day.  Then Burger King for breakfast the next.  I wolfed down a couple of jumbo hot dogs.  Consumed some pizza.  Some fried chicken.  I even ate a breakfast of hash, home fries, biscuits and gravy, and sausage -- both links and patties.  In other words, I stepped off of the path of my new way of eating and resumed old habits that have been causing me harm.

The good news -- and I do like to try to find the good news -- is that Thomas Wolfe was right . . . you can't go home again.  After clearing up my system and establishing new patterns as I've been doing for the past several months I found that I couldn't return to my old ways of eating.

I could, of course.  Obviously I could, because I did.  What I mean is that I discovered in a newly clear way that it's really no longer an option for me.  What had not that long ago been accepted parts of my life were no longer acceptable:
~ My brain essentially shut down. The "brain fog" was so dense that my short term memory was shot and my ability to think ahead was nearly non-existent. I couldn't make connections, and struggled to put words together in any kind of coherent way.

~ And all I wanted to do was sleep. Not only was my brain filled with fog -- or, more accurately, smog -- but my body was weighed down. My arms and legs felt heavy, leaden. It was all I could do to get myself out of a chair. And my sleep was not restorative in the least -- I woke up each morning even more tired than I'd gone to bed the night before.

~ My sinuses began to fill up, and my whole body began to itch -- especially my scalp and my back, but my arms and legs, too. My chronic athlete's foot condition raged again. I started feeling hot in cold rooms, and cool in hot ones. I began to sweat again, easily and profusely.

~ And in case it's not intuitively obvious, my depression came back with a vengence. Negative self-talk regained the ascendency.

And all this after just a few days of eating junk again!  Admittedly, I ate a fair amount of junk during those few days, but there was a time when I ate fast-food for at least two out of three meals most days and easily downed a 2-liter bottle of coke and a whole pizza without giving it a second thought.

If I had any doubt that the way I was eating was harming me, and that the changes I'd been making were helping, the response of my body and brain to this last binge removed it.  The cause-and-effect is so incredibly clear.  And having had something of a break from these mental and physical symptoms, having experience another way, I find that I cannot stomach (excuse the pun) the thought of letting myself go backwards. 

And, so, the juicer is back in service again.  And I'm discovering (again) how good it feels to think and move and really live.  I'm reminding myself, and being reminded, of the addage:  There is no such thing as junk food.  There is food and there is junk.  And while I cannot say with any degree of certainty that I'll never slip like this again -- in fact, I can say with more than a little certainty that it's likely that I will! -- I do now know that I will never again make my home in this unhealthy place.

In Gassho,


Monday, July 30, 2012

Not Whether . . . But When

I've been thinking about the weather lately.  In part because I now live in Virginia and experienced first-hand a month or so back what my old stomping grounds in the Northeast have just experienced -- the power of the derecho.

Apparently this word has been in use to describe this particular weather phenomenon since 1877, but I'd swear that I'd never heard it before knocked down the branches and trees all around my home and knocked out the power to tens of thousands of people.  I mean, truthfully, I honestly don't remember ever hearing about derechos before that time.  And then, oddly enough, there's a second one in the national news spotlight in less than a month.  Weird.

There are a lot of weird things happening in our weather these days.  And since Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth hit our mass consciousness, more and more the phrase "climate change" has become part of our lexicon.  And our experiences.  Summers are hotter; droughts are longer; storms are more powerful.  Our global climate is changing.  Weird things are happening in our weather.

There are, of course, folks who deny the whole notion of climate change.  Most often they seem to focus on the question of the causes of these changes, although they do sometimes question the reality of the changes themselves.  But most of the time even that challenge is in essence a challenge to the idea that human activity is the root problem and needs to be changed. 

Some try to challenge this call for change by noting that the planet has heated up and cooled before and since there weren't coal-fired energy plants and pervasive automobile pollution the last time this happened that what we, as a species, are doing today is obviously not to blame.  Different interpretations of the data involved can, apparently, support such a position . . . and I am not a climate scientist so I know that I can't speak authoritatively about this.  I do remember one of the important lessons in my college class on statistics -- "the numbers" can be interpreted in so many different ways that just about any point can be supported.

So I find myself unwilling to declare that the so-called "Climate Change Deniers" are wrong.  At least, not entirely.  Let's argue for a moment that the science really isn't clear yet.  Let us, for the moment, agree to take a deep breath and, for the sake of furthering the discussion, decide that the question of the cause of climate change isn't something we are able to answer with any certainty.

Let's look at the effect.  It is certainly clear that something weird is happening with our weather this day, and it also seems to be true that there have been previous shits if global weather patterns.  The earth has heated up, and cooled off, before.  And whenever this has happened before there have catastrophic changes to the earth's ecosystems.  Animal and plant species died off in tremendous numbers.  And while it is certainly true that life has continued to flourish, the life which continued was not life as they knew it before the changes occurred.  Sure, the earth survived but that's cold comfort for the dinosaurs.

Whatever the cause, it seems as though our global climate is, in fact, changing.  And, again whatever the cause, we can safely assume that, as in the past, these changes portend that life as we've known it is changing too.  Doesn't it seem to make sense to stop arguing about who or what is at fault and begin trying to work together to figure out how we're going to adapt to this changing reality?

In Gassho,


Thursday, July 26, 2012

To A Weary God

Are You tired, God?
Are You tired of rocking me,
            rocking me,
                        endlessly rocking me,
as You try to comfort my distress?

Are You weary of walking the floor
while I,
                        too tired to know that I’m tired,
            wriggle and writhe,
                        sputter and scream,
                                    all the while looking up at You and saying
                                                “Why aren’t You doing anything to help me?”

Yet there You are,
            gently holding me in Your safe, strong arms,
                        softly kissing my cheek,
                                    blowing Your warm breath over my face
doing everything a parent could do
            and wishing
that I would only stop sputtering
                                    long enough
                                                to see that everything is okay.

Are You tired, God?
            Are You weary, knowing
                        that even if You help me to sleep
                                    I will only wake up in an hour or two
                                                (or less)
                        and we’ll start this whole
                                                over again?

Oh God                                   I’ll try to sleep through the night.

Freedom and Submission

These are the sermonic explorations from July 22nd 2012 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA.

If you'd like to hear the podcast, click here.

Mike Ludwick’s Explorations:  Chains of Submission-- Chains of Freedom

I don't know much about Ramadan.  So if you came to hear something about Ramadan you are going to be severely disappointed, by me anyway. Perhaps our ordained clergy person will have something profound to say about it.  We’ll see.

Nevertheless I have been thinking a lot about the ideas of freedom and submission.  I would think that for those of us who identify with the principles of Unitarian-Universalism, one of the values we hold most dear is freedom, particularly freedom of thought and belief.  Just recently I noticed that Jefferson’s Statue of Religious Freedom for Virginia is posted here in the sanctuary. I suspect this statute is one of the things we like most about Jefferson.  We know he was pretty psyched about it himself because he wanted it mentioned on tombstone, which it is. 

In fact, I think it would be great if the name of our religion could be changed to include something about freedom. I’m afraid the name “Unitarian-Universalism” is confusing to people because there is the Unitarian part which sounds like we are about ONE thing, and the universalism part which sounds like we are about EVERYTHING. I think to non-UUs we just sound kind of kooky which is a shame.  Perhaps our religion could simply be called “The Free Church” and we could all practice “Freeism” and be “Freeists”.  People would say, “Look a Freeist in a Prius!”  Although after what Erik had to say last week, I guess instead of just being “The Free Church” it should be “The Free and Responsible Church”…… Nah, the marketing folks will never go for that.

For those of you born into this Freeist way of thinking, you don’t have the baggage of other religions as do converts, like me, but you likely feel the same way. We don’t want to submit to creeds, dogmas, doctrines and teachings.  Many converts are here because we wanted to get away from them and the rest of you want to stay away from them.

We don’t like submitting to things, do we? We all want to be free, right? But what does it mean to be free?

 At a minimum being free is not being enslaved or oppressed to the point where you must almost completely submit to others or be punished, imprisoned or killed.  The song we sang “Sick and Tired” was inspired by a quotation of Fannie Lou Hamer, the voting rights and civil rights activist, who at the age of 44 tried to register to vote in 1962 in Mississippi and was shot at, jailed and beaten.  She went on to help found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and challenged the Democratic Party to seat its delegation at the 1964 convention.  The song talks about getting up and breaking the chains of oppression. There is little redemptive value in submission to this sort of oppression, but many did submit simply to survive.  Fortunately others risked their lives and did not submit which helped to increase the freedom of others.  

Yet even while we value freedom so highly, can submission enrich our lives, even though we would be less free, less able to do whatever we want?   Just by living in America we submit ourselves to the Constitution, the laws of Congress, executive orders, judicial decisions, and fortunately we have a Bill of Rights intended to protect our freedoms. By living in Virginia we submit to its Constitution and laws and there are local ordinances we have to abide by also. We submit to these limitations because we the people have imposed these strictures on ourselves in this experiment in self-government.  The idea is that through our governments, we limit what we are permitted to do, but overall our freedoms are protected and we live in a more secure and orderly place.  Of course, if there are laws we don’t agree with, we can act to have them changed, work to change the elected officials, or we can even move away, if we have the means that is.

Places without the rule of law or effective governments may have lots of “freedom” but they end up being governed by the whims of tribal leaders, warlords, or gangs and people live in fear of punishment or death.  Freedom like that, anarchy really, may not mean real freedom for people who aren’t able to just live their lives in peace.

In families we submit to one another.  We have to think about the needs of others and compromise, often putting their needs and wants ahead of ours.  Bruce Springsteen sang a song about a person with a hungry heart who said “I got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back.”  Technically, I am free to walk out the door of my house at any time and never come back. But every day I choose to submit myself to my family which limits my freedom.  Not that I always like it. But being a family has greatly enriched my life.  We laugh, sing, play, talk, read, watch TV and just enjoy each other’s company.  There have been difficult times, to be sure, but somehow we made it through together. 

Hopefully our children frequently submit to our loving authority as parents.  In their submission, though, is a measure of freedom.  If they normally do as we ask, behave responsibly, treat others with respect, have good manners, we will be more likely to take them fun places like the zoo, movies or concerts, and we will be more likely to allow them to have the freedom to go places with others, trusting (and praying) they will make good choices.

As we’ll sing at offertory, we are all links in a chain connected to each other in our families, through generations, a chain that is connected to our friends and neighbors, and ultimately to all human beings.

In this church we submit to one another, helping to meet each other’s needs, accepting each other, encouraging each other’s spiritual growth, bringing meals to one another, being a listening ear and a caring heart.  The church helps provides roots to hold us close, as well as wings to set us free, so we may more fully experience the Spirit of Life.  Perhaps when we submit to others, have connections, and are rooted, we are better able to fly, that is better able to be our best selves.

What binds us together are not only these personal connections, but also the fact that we believe in the seven principles of Freeism and agree to submit ourselves to these principles.  Erik reminded me that the word “religion” itself comes from the Latin word “religare” meaning “to bind together”.  Which reminded me that the Latin word for “believe” (credere) is derived from the Latin word for heart, cor.  So etymologically speaking, in religion we are bound together by what we hold deep inside, in our hearts.  No doubt we may act contrary to these principles just because we are human--created perfectly imperfect as Erik likes to say.  Practicing what we preach isn’t always easy.  But our submission to these principles does have implications even if we don’t always measure up.

As a trustee of the church’s Abrahamse endowment fund for music, I have started to attend endowment committee meetings. The committee is working on an investment policy and thinking about how that policy should reflect our values.  There is a concept called “socially responsible investing” that can help us avoid investing in companies that don’t reflect our values, perhaps ones that discriminate based on sexual orientation or ones that have demonstrated patterns of violating human rights and workers’ rights.  If this approach is taken, we would limit our freedom to invest in whatever we want, but these limits may serve a greater purpose, helping to, in a small way, create more freedom for others.  Since many of us have IRAs or 401(k)s, this concept may be one we could be thinking about as individuals also, if we haven’t already.

So, where do you see freedom and submission in your life? What chains to you need to break? What might holding you back from being the best you can be in your free and responsible search for truth and meaning? What links that connected you to others have you broken, or have others broken with you, and do they need to be mended? What could you submit to, that might limit your freedom, but might enrich your life and the lives of others?  For those of you who ascribe to the values of this religion, enjoy who is here and what happens here, maybe it’s time to bind yourself even more closely with the church by becoming a member, if you aren’t already. Just sayin’.

May we all find a balance between freedom and submission that works for each one of us in each phase of our lives.

Erik Wikstrom’s Exploration:  Freedom and Submission

Freedom and Submission – I was thinking about titling this sermon “Fifty Shades of Freedom,” but we are talking about “submission”—not that kind—for two reasons.  The first is that this past Friday was the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the holiest of Islam’s four holy months and, in fact, its observance is one of the so-called “Five Pillars of Islam.”  (The others are faith in God, five-times daily prayer, almsgiving to the poor—and it might be worth noting that this is the annual giving not of a tithe, ten percent of your income, but the annual giving of a fortieth of one’s entire net worth!  The last “pillar” upon which the practice of Islam is built is a pilgrimage to Mecca for everyone capable of making one.)

During the month of Ramadan every person who can safely do so is to fast between sunrise and sunset—technically, from the moment when one can first distinguish between a dark hair and a light one until the moment when one no longer can.  This fasting is, of course, abstaining from food—and alcohol, cigarettes, and sex—but it’s also supposed to be a fast from gossip, slander, angry words, evil thoughts, and all forms of bad behavior.  And in the space that this fasting opens up one is to put good deeds, spiritual thoughts, and the daily reading of a thirtieth of the Qur’an so that by the end of Ramadan each year every Muslim has read their holy book cover to cover. 

I have to say that I find that pretty inspiring.  I’ve known a lot Christians, for instance, who’ve never read the Bible from cover-to-cover even once, but it is one of the practices expected of all Muslims to read the entire Qur’an each and every year.  I think that’s amazing.  (And I’ve done this several times with members of UU congregations during several Ramadans, and it’s been really eye opening.  Maybe next year.)

Now, what takes me from the beginning of Ramadan to a sermon on “submission” is that the heart of Islam, the meaning of the name itself, is “submission”—submission to Allah, submission to the Ultimate Reality in which we find ourselves.

So that’s the reason we’re preaching about submission today.  The reason we’re preaching about submission at all, besides the reasons Mike just gave, is that it is an element found in the teachings of just about every one of the world’s great religions.  Just about everywhere we human beings have attempted to preserve our experiments with Life—the answers we’ve found to the Big Questions—the idea of the importance of submission comes up.  That, it seems to me, makes it worthy of our consideration.  Especially so because so many of us are so ready to dismiss it; that alone makes me think there might be something worth looking at.

I want to share with you something that was written by a teenage member of the Unitarian Church of Ithaca, NY, after their youth group visited the Benedictine Monastery of Mount Savior for vespers.  It was originally published in the church newsletter.  But I came across it reprinted in an essay in the fabulous book on Worship written and compiled by the members of the Congregation of Abraxas.  (Including our own Wayne Clark.)  Here’s what she – and let’s just assume that the anonymous author was a she – had to say:

“In the chapel there were only a few people watching the service, and I sat in front of them.  I wanted the sensation of being alone there.  I wanted to be open to the beauty of the chapel and the circle of monks and to the chanting.  And I see now that I wanted more than that.  I wanted thru some sort of magic to enter into the service, not simply because its forms were beautiful, but because they seemed at once mysterious and full of meaning. . . .  The monks knelt and rose and bowed; bowing, their bodies bent forward from the waist, torsos almost horizontal.  But I could not move. . . .  I was brought up I this [Unitarian] church where no one kneels and no one bows.  Physically I’m very inhibited, so that I don’t move easily.  And when has it ever been suggested that I might kneel, even figuratively kneel, before or to something?  I wanted to kneel, that’s the important thing.  But I could not. . . .  To kneel and to mean it would be frightening because there is a darkness in the kneeling and a darkness in us which we cannot reason about.  You [Unitarians] teach the fear of form without meaning, and that is right; but having avoided forms, you have sometimes avoided the darkness, and it is from the darkness that the real questions arise.”
“I wanted to kneel, that’s the important thing.  But I could not. . . .  To kneel and to mean it would be frightening.” 
There was a woman in one of the churches I served who used to come into the sanctuary sometimes as much as half an hour before the start of the Sunday service.  She wanted to kneel in that sacred space and prepare herself to really be present in worship.  She wanted to go within and look at, and let go of, the past week.  She wanted to quiet the ever racing voices inside her head, the running commentary that accompanied her everywhere.  She wanted to kneel and pray.
She didn’t do it for very long, though, before other people’s discomfort made her too uncomfortable.  She told me that she didn’t think she’d have gotten such looks if she’d sat in the pews, lit a cigarette, and cracked a beer.  And all she wanted to do was kneel.  She ended up going across the street to the Congregationalists.
“[W]hen has it ever been suggested that [we] might kneel, even figuratively kneel, before or to something?”  I’d go even further and say that it’s been my experience that we UUs often go out of our way to make it clear that we should not kneel—even figuratively—before or to anything.  We say that we’ve left all that religious claptrap behind us, that we’re now more liberated, more free, yet there was a UU who wanted to kneel and found herself unable to move.  What kind of freedom is that?  Where was our fabled tolerance when one of our own wanted to kneel in her own sanctuary? 
Now I know . . . one of the problems with this idea is that we think that to kneel requires that there be someone or something before or to which we’re kneeling.  People through up their defenses because they think we’re gonna start talkin’ ‘bout “God” or something.
Well, let me tell you the most important thing I know about the subject of “God.”  It’s summed up in a sentence that comes from the book Everyday Spiritual Practice, a collection edited by Scott Alexander—of The Welcoming Congregation fame—which brings together about forty Unitarian Universalist clergy and lay-people each describing her or his own spiritual practice. 
It’s a great book and this, I think, is its best sentence.  The Rev. Barbara Merritt, in her chapter on dealing with adversity as a spiritual practice, writes this, “Whether or not we believe in God, we need to recognize that we ourselves are not God.”   Listen to that again:  “Whether or not we believe in God, we need to recognize that we ourselves are not God.”
I hope this isn’t news to anyone here—but neither you nor I are God.  We may be applying for the position but we haven’t got it yet.  No one of us bears the universe on our shoulders.  Not even all of us together.  As the poet Wendell Berry reminds us, “Not by your will is the house carried through the night.”  Whether or not we believe in God, we need to recognize that we ourselves are not God.
And at its heart I think that this is what the religious meaning of submission is—realizing that we don’t run the show.  It’s not about having to follow a whole lot of externally imposed rules; it’s not about subjugation or humiliation.  It’s about recognizing that the worst thing I can do when I find yourself in fast moving water is to fight the current, trying to impose my will on it.  The wise thing to do is to float on you back—feet together, arms crossed, pointing downstream—and let the river take you where it was going to take you anyway.  This is not an indication of failure or defeat or weakness but a recognition of reality.  Since I do not rule the river, it is only sensible to follow the river’s lead.
Now to be sure, in the cultural, personal/political realm the idea of submission is quite arguably a negative.  All one needs is the phrase, “to beat you into submission,” to get the point.  This use of the word is all about forcing you to give up what is yours—your power, your consent, your will.  That’s the way the word has been used when white, heterosexual men are talking to GLBT folk, or women, or people of color, or anyone who’s not one of Them.  And it’s the way so many of us have experienced the word being said by religious folk – submit to the priest, submit to the Pope, submit to the teachings of the church, submit to God.
But although this is the same word it is in no way the same thing we’re talking about.  The spiritual concept of submission is not at all about taking an individual’s power from them but about the individual recognizing that she or he isn’t the Grand High Poobah of the Universe.  It’s not about us giving over power that is rightfully ours but about us realizing that there are things—big things, most things—over which we have no power and our ceasing to act as though we do.  It’s about us letting go of our illusion that we’re in the drivers’ seat and learning how to really enjoy the ride.  (I love the bumper sticker that says, “If God is your co-pilot, change seats!”)
Now, when we accept the need to take ourselves off the throne of the cosmos, when we recognize the wisdom and, in fact, the strength of this kind of spiritual submission, we come back to that question—to whom or what am I suggesting we submit?  Certainly not the Old White Guy With The Long White Beard Sitting In The Clouds Slinging Lighting Bolts And Judgment.  Not the Cosmic Cop Who’s Monitoring Our Every Mistake or the Phantom Puppeteer Who’s Pulling All The Strings.  Such figures, even if they existed, would hardly be worth our attention.
But Life—with a capital “L”— the “Isness” of Existence that fuels evolution and the birthing of the stars; the Spirit of Life that powers the pumping of our hearts and the pulsing of a neutrino and pushes the blade of grass through the asphalt:  Isn’t that something we can agree is greater than ourselves?  And, so, might that not be a place to start?
When we really take in the astonishing scope of life—from the universe that is at least 28 billion light years in diameter to the quark that is one hundred millionth the size of an atom; when we grasp the miracle that strangers can become lovers and enemies can become friends; when we realize that pain and brokenness can be healed, others’ and our own; when we are reminded that hope is often well placed; when we witness acts of courage, when we experience justice, when we discover that our best selves are as much a part of us as our worst—doesn’t that make you want to kneel, even if only figuratively?
“To kneel and to mean it would be frightening because there is a darkness in the kneeling and a darkness in us which we cannot reason about.  [We Unitarians] teach the fear of form without meaning, and that is right; but having avoided forms, [we] have sometimes avoided the darkness, and it is from the darkness that the real questions arise.”
And, I’d add, it is only there in the midst of those real questions that we have any hope of ever find any real answers.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Free and Responsible

These are the sermonic explorations from the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, VA on July 15, 2012.

If you'd like to hear the podcast, click here.

Pam Phillips’ Explorations:
Have you ever had a hard time explaining what it is to be a Unitarian Universalist? I have.   When I’ve struggled to explain UU-ism to others, I often turn to the Seven Principles, especially the one that says we affirm and promote “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The principles have been a touchstone for me, particularly since being a mentor to Coming of Age youth. Helping youth learn about our faith by completing activities in a notebook organized by the principles has strengthened my appreciation of them.  A few years ago, we also got to hear stories exploring the seven principles during Star Studio Sundays. Heck, all you have to do is look in the front of our hymnals to find the Seven Principles.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that the wording for the principles and sources of Unitarian Universalism were up for a vote at the General Assembly in Salt Lake City back in 2009. A vote to change the principles--how was that possible? What would they do with the coming of age notebooks, the pamphlets, the hymnal?
As it happened, the changes were voted down and the wording remains, but this revelation got me started on learning more about the history of our faith. This morning, I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned. It turns out that those principles and sources are not a permanent fixture in our churches and were never meant to be. In fact, the vote in 2009 was long overdue.
Let me go back to the beginning, which was 1960, the year before the consolidation of the two denominations. At that time, creating and agreeing on six principles was a painstaking process because the Unitarians and Universalists had very different ideas about what they should say.  The original of what is now our fourth principle about the “free and responsible search” was then the first principle and stated that “the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking to strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship.”
Notice the difference in wording. It went from “free and disciplined” to “free and responsible.” It’s that word responsible that I want to focus on today. What does it mean to be responsible, particularly when paired with freedom? I’m going to go out on a grammatical limb here and suggest that responsible can be understood as “able to respond.” I know this is not what you’ll find in a dictionary. There it says “accountable,” but indulge me, please.

If ours is to be a search that is responsible—as in able to respond—what might that mean? Well, in the late 1970’s, being able to respond as a movement included responding to the changing attitudes toward women and religion. Warren Ross, a UU historian, explains how the UUA responded in an article in the UU World.  He writes:  Granted, two other emerging understandings also helped make the existing Principles seem inadequate—first, that traditions other than the Judeo-Christian are important to our heritage; second, that our relation to the environment is one of our primary religious concerns. But the main impetus for change did come from the UU Women's Federation (UUWF).” 

The UUWF spearheaded an effort to revise the sexist language in the principles which you heard in our opening words. The initial draft was objected to by a group of ministers because it left out any reference to our Christian roots; one of those ministers was our former interim minister and current member Reverend Kim Beach. The ministers asked for open dialogue and a committee to study the situation. Kim Beach called for a set of Principles “with religious integrity, intellectual coherence, and literary quality."
As it happens, another minister who served TJMC, Rev. Walter Royal Jones, headed the special committee which went through a years-long process. This included sending out questionnaires, crafting a draft based on congregations’ feedback, creating a separate section that lifts up the “living traditions we share” in addition to the Judeo-Christian, holding small group discussions of the draft at the 1982 GA, submitting a new version based on that feedback for more discussion and debate at the congregational and then denominational level, and finally presenting the principles and sources which were approved at the 1984 and then the 1985 General Assemblies. Whew, that sounds like a UU process, doesn’t it?

So what does this history lesson have to do with us? For one, I love the process the UUA took to make major decisions about how they wanted to define themselves back in the 80’s. They were responsible, that is, able to respond—to women who objected to the patriarchal language of the principles, to Christians who objected to being marginalized, to others who found inspiration in non-Judeo Christian traditions. The process was “grass roots” in the sense that congregations were asked to provide input and that small groups hammered out language at General Assembly. It may have taken time, but the results would prove to be lasting. In fact, they’ve lasted longer than intended. The UUA by-laws, of which the Principles and Purposes are Article II, state that they are to be reconsidered every fifteen years.  They are not meant to be written in stone, but to be ever able to respond to our changing understandings of the world and our relation to it.

And yet. You knew that was coming, didn’t you? And yet, when I was confronted with voting on whether to affirm new language for our principles and purposes in 2009, I didn’t know anything about it. Our congregation hadn’t participated at all in the Commission on Appraisal’s four-year process of seeking input, nor had we discussed their final wording.  That’s one of the reasons you hear me talking about General Assembly and the resolutions they pass. I want us to be as involved in defining Unitarian Universalism as other congregations have been and as influential as many of our professional clergy have and continue to be.  Most of what I knew about being a Unitarian Universalist first came from being a member of this congregation, but I am grateful for all that I have learned since attending other churches and both district and national meetings. It has enriched my understanding and my devotion to this faith.

Which brings me to my own free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Yes, I love that my search is free—free from the limiting dogma and orthodoxy of my previous churches—and responsible--able to respond to my ever-changing and expanding understanding of the world and my place in it. My search brings me here to church, but it also takes me to reading book and exploring new spiritual practices, and yes, to General Assemblies. Sometimes my search makes me realize that I’ve been wrong. Take that vote three years ago in Salt Lake City on the Principles and Purposes. I voted no. I won’t go into all the reasons I voted no, but at least part of it was my reaction to changing those words that I have come to rely on when explaining Unitarian Universalism to someone. Considering how much I value being able to respond, perhaps it was not the most responsible thing to do.

Erik Wikstrom’s Explorations:
I know that you’ve heard it before.  You may have even said it yourself.  (Although I won’t make you admit it if you have!)  “One of the coolest things about Unitarian Universalism is that you can believe whatever you want!!!!!”  (Right?)
So many people – both within and beyond our ranks – truly believe that because we eschew creeds and dogmas, because we don’t tell one another what to think, that here you are free to believe whatever you want to.
Well . . . I don’t believe that.  In fact, I think it’d be fair to say that I’ve spent my career combating this myth.  (Again, both within and beyond our ranks.)  I fight it for three reasons:
First, because it’s just not true and I affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and not innuendo or misunderstanding.
Second, because when outsiders hear this they find it a source of ridicule and an excuse to dismiss the Grand Experiment we’re engaged with . . . because there are a whole lot of people believing a whole lot of ridiculous things out there and if within our faith you can believe whatever you want . . . ?  Not a pretty picture. 
I did my internship at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Concord, Massachusetts, and at the top of their steeple they have, not a cross, but a weathervane.    My mentor, Gary Smith, used to say that this was for too many people an all too apt symbol for our movement, because they believed that UUs don’t really stand for anything but go wherever the prevailing winds are blowing.  (Or, maybe, the countervailing winds.)
The third reason, though, that I want to debunk the myth that UUs are free to believe whatever we want to is, I think, the most important – because it’s an idea that’s damaging and dangerous.
Friends, I’m going to let you in on a little secret:  the search for truth and meaning matters.  It’s important.
It’s important because in our tradition we refuse to impose a meaning on one another – and on ourselves.  Refuse to accept an external mandate from On High about the meaning of life (except, perhaps, from Monty Python), yet meaning matters none the less.  We are pattern-sensing, meaning-making creatures.  (There’s a wonderful passage in a Kurt Vonnegut novel in which the main character confronts God about the meaning of life.  “What is the ultimate purpose of life?” he asks.  And God answers, “Must life have an ultimate purpose?”  “Of course!” the human replies.  “Then your purpose is to find the purpose.”  I paraphrase, but it should come as no surprise that Vonnegut was a UU.)
The search for truth and meaning is important, for instance, to the activists among us, who are in such danger of burning themselves out if they aren’t able to articulate – and, therefore, to draw strength from – the reason they do what they do.  What is the purpose, the meaning, of their crusade?  Without a clear answer to that one wears oneself out over time.  There’s virtually no way to avoid it.
And it matters to everyone when bad things happen to us or those we love.  The most natural response to a tragedy or a fright is to ask, “Why?”  Why me?  Why them?  What did we do to deserve this?  Why did this have to happen?  And I’m here to tell you this morning, the way we answer those questions matters a lot.
The pioneering religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs once wrote something that I think should be emblazed on the walls of each of our congregations.  (At least it’s enshrined in the back of our hymnals.)
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 like shadows, clouding children's days with fears of unknown calamities.

Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.

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.

Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction.

Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some beliefs weaken a person's selfhood. They blight the growth of resourcefulness.

Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and ignite the feeling of personal worth.

Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.

Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

It matters what we believe.  (That’s #657 if you want to read it to yourself again sometime.)  It matters what we believe.
Let me give you one example.  And this is a little bit risky because I’ll bet that some of you really believe this.  Well, lots of people believe that “everything happens for a reason.”  Yet let me show you what I, at least, think happens when you hold this belief and consider it part of the “truth and meaning” that you’ve found:
If everything happens for a reason, then when something bad happens to you or to someone you know and love you will naturally begin to search for the reason.  (We are, after all, pattern-sensing and meaning-making creatures.)  In and of itself this may not necessarily be a bad thing, yet when you believe that “everything happens for a reason” you are likely to find a reason like this:
This happened to teach me – or the other person – a lesson.
This happened because I – or the other person – wasn’t grounded enough, or loving enough, or open enough, or trusting enough, or something enough.
Let’s just stop at those two for a moment.  Let’s just stop and listen to the undercurrent of those “reasons.”  (And you can’t see it, but in my manuscript I’ve got quotation marks around the word “reasons.”)  Beneath these supposed “reasons” there is a steady drone tone – it’s your fault, it’s your fault, it’s your fault, it’s your fault.
Do you really want to say that to a little child with cancer, or to that child’s parents?  (It’s your fault, it’s your fault . . .)  Do you really want to say that to someone who’s just suffering through the death of a loved one?  (It’s your fault, you weren’t open enough to love, it’s your fault . . .)  Do we really want to say that to the survivors of a deadly mudslide in a rural village in a remote part of India who are burying their children?  (It’s your fault, you needed to learn a lesson about letting go, it’s your fault . . .)  Is that the kind of world we live in?
Now . . . I do believe that there are lessons to be learned in the things that happen to us.  I think that everything – even the most terrible – can teach us something.  Yet I don’t believe that these things happen to us so that we can learn these lessons.  I believe, instead, that because these things have happened we have the opportunity to learn a lesson.  I think that that difference is important.  It matters what we believe.
And so, I think, it’s important to declare that we Unitarian Universalists are not encouraged to believe whatever we want.  What we affirm is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning!  As Pam noted earlier, another meaning of “responsible” is “accountable,” and that phrase used to read “. . . a free and disciplined search . . .”
We are encouraged to search – freely, widely – yet to be responsible in our searching:  to test our discoveries with the peer-review of community, if you will; to listen to the discoveries others are making and to continually reassess our own in context of these others’; to keep searching so that our beliefs do not become “rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.”  To examine the beliefs we discover within the framework of the beliefs our human family has been discovering throughout its history and across its cultures.  Free and responsible.
Here’s one last reason I think that our free and responsible search for truth and meaning is so important, and why we need constantly to remind ourselves that we’re not free to merely believe whatever we want to.  (And I know I said I had three reasons . . . consider this a freebie.)
In 1968 my father, Wik Wikstrom, wrote a study for the Conference Board titled Managing By – and with – Objectives.  After reviewing the literature in the field known as “management by objectives” he noticed two common concepts.  First, and I’m quoting him here, “the clearer the idea one has of what it is one is trying to accomplish, the greater the chances of accomplishing it.”  The second idea he found was, and again these are his words, “progress can only be measured in terms of what one is trying to make progress toward.”
Hold those thoughts for a moment and listen to this piece, called “Fetish on Fads,” by my colleague David Rankin:
I felt sorry for Jake.  We were friends in seminary—many years ago.  He was now a broken soul.
When he was a college student, he was into existentialism—Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard.
When he was a graduate student, he was into world religions—Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism.
When he was a theological student, he was into the new psychology—Fromm, Rogers, and Maslow.
When he was a minister, he was into experimental worship—guitars, folk-songs, and dialogue.
When he was a community organizer, he was into direct action—marches, sit-ins, and rallies.
When he was a welfare recipient, he was into human potential—EST, Rolfing, and holistic medicine.
Jake had discovered all kinds of things—but never the center of himself.  He could not dance in the empty spaces, or listen to the sound of no birds singing.
[He] had discovered all kinds of things—but never the center of himself.  He could not dance in the empty spaces, or listen to the sound of no birds singing.
It’s important to remember, to know, that what we’re trying to accomplish in our search for truth and meaning is not simply some kind of sound byte to lull us back to sleep – we’re looking for the center of ourselves, the center of the universe, the center of Life itself.  And not all beliefs lead there; some even lead us away.
It matters what we believe, and because it matters so much our search must be both free and responsible.  Else we might never learn to “dance in the empty spaces” and “listen to the sound of no birds singing.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

We Need Not Eat Alike . . .

One of the most famous utterances in the Unitarian tradition comes from the 16th century.  It was said by Francis Dávid—or, as he is known in his own language, Dávid Ferenc.  In his lifetime he was a Catholic, who converted to Lutheranism, who converted to Calvanism, who converted to Unitarianism. And I don’t mean that he did a lot of church shopping—he was a rector or priest in each of these denominations, and rose to the rank of Superintendent (which is like a Bishop) in three of them.  And he became the founder of the first institutional Unitarian church in history. 

He once said -- and this isn't the "famous utterance" I'm talking about -- In this world there have always been many opinions about faith.”

But the quote I'm thinking about, and the one that I've modified for the title of this post, is this:

"We need not think alike, to love alike."

In today's increasingly polarized world this notion is such a powerful corrective.  We need not think alive, to love alike.  We need not share worldviews to recognize our common humanity and treat each other like family.  I could even go so far as to say that we need not agree about everything to work together on those things we do all care about.

This idea is applicable in so many places today.

I started thinking about all of this (again) during some recent conversations I've been involved in (on FaceBook and in the "real" world) about dietary plans.  It seems that "in this world there have always been many opinions about nutrition," and folks quite often are ready to defend their own particular opinion against all challenges.

And one of the things I've noticed (and yes, again) is that it seems that a default method of defending your own opinion is to denounce and deride any others.  Paleo people declare that Vegans don't get it.  And juicers act as though non-juicers are imbeciles.  And it seems that few people are willing to recognize that we need not eat alike to love alike.  And we need not agree about everything to acknowledge that there's a fair bit we do agree about.

We are meant to eat food.  It provides the building blocks which makes everything possible -- every movement we make, every thought we think.  As I watched my babies grow into toddlers I thought of how amazing it is that they were turning baby food into longer arms and legs and ever more connected synapses.  The maxim "you are what you eat" is quite literally true. 

Yet much of what is included in the typical western (and, perhaps particularly, American) diet is no longer really food -- it is overly processed food-like product.  And it's worth noting that providing nutrition to people is not the primary purpose of what, for want of a better term, I'll lump together under the name "The Food Industry."  Its primary purpose is providing profits to its shareholders.  And one of the best ways to do this is to create nutrient-lean, calorie-dense food-like products with lots of additives that are cheap to produce and which keep you coming back for more.  (Some of the common additives in many processed foods are known to be as addictive as cocaine!)

We've seen this in the behavior of the tobacco industry -- an intentional manipulation of the chemical components of cigarettes so as to make them more addictive.  It is also clear that many food manufacturer's have been doing the same thing -- increasing the fat, sugar, and/or salt content (and inserting additives like MSG) so as to make us crave more of their products.  And by (again, intentionally) reducing the nutrient content relative to the calorie count they've created products that feel filling when consumed, stimulate all sorts of pleasure receptors, but do not actually provide the necessary nutrients for the body and so virtually guarantee that we'll keep eating.

So while we're designed to eat food, the typical American diet consists primarily of non-food substances.  This is something like providing to the construction company that's building your house not wood, stone, and metal, but wax paper, styrofoam and aluminum foil.  These things are kind of like those appropriate building materials, but not really a substitute.

And not only are the heavily-processed food-like substances not good for us, they are demonstrably bad.  Not only are they not particularly beneficial, they are actually harmful.  These things have been shown over and over again to be primary contributors to our epidemic of obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease, various cancers, and a host of other serious health problems that are plaguing our lives.  And these are just some of the so-called "physical" repercussions.  These same contributors have been shown to play a role in a host of so-called "mental" health issues as well -- such as depression, ADD, autism, etc.

And now, as always, there are many opinions about nutrition.  And people willing to defend their particular opinion.  But when we at all costs defend the details of our particular plan, are we adding to the confusion that leaves the majority of people confused about what to do when it comes to eating?

Michael Pollan -- the author of such books as The Omnivore's Dilemma, and In Defense of Food -- has written a book called Food Rules in which he tries to cut through the various specific details of the multitude of plans that compete for our attention and to offer some simple, common sense "rules" to guide a rational response to our national need for change.  Here are some of my favorites:
  • Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
  • If it came from a plant, eat it.  If it was made in a plant, don't.
  • It’s not food if it’s served through the window of your car.
  • It’s not food if it’s called by the same name in every language.  (e.g., Pringles, Big Mac)
  • Don't eat cereal that changes the color of your milk.
  • Don't eat foods with ingredients you can't pronounce.
And then of course there's this classic, perhaps my favorite:
  • Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.
We need not eat alike to love alike.  We need not eat alike to live alive.  But it sure seems increasingly clear that most of us can't keep eating the way we do and continue to love, or live, at all.

In Gassho,


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What Is America?

Here are the two "sermonic explorations" from this past Sunday at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.

If you want to listen to the podcast it will be available here.

Pam Phillips’ Explorations
“Can we feel pride in America? Should we feel pride in America?”
The timing of these questions is perfect for me. Yes, we just celebrated the birth of our nation on the Fourth of July, but perhaps more to the point is that we are getting ready for the Olympics. When I think of pride and America, some of my most visceral experiences of pride go back to the Olympics.
I have strong emotional memories of crying joyful tears as I heard the Star Spangled Banner play and watched American athletes receive gold medals. I was a swimmer, so Mark Spitz gave me lots of opportunities to cry. Back then, our biggest competition was the USSR and other Soviet bloc countries, and I remember the East German women swimmers who looked more like men. When US swimmers won, they did it fairly—no steroids. US athletes were not taken from their families as children and indoctrinated to become symbols of the superiority of communism. To me, the Olympics were a symbol of what was right with America and what was wrong with the communists. My pride in the athletes who represented our country equaled my pride in my country.
As I got older, my understanding of the world got more complicated. The world changed, too, of course. There’s no longer a Soviet Union and Olympic athletes are no longer amateurs. It’s all gotten complicated.
Now when I watch the Olympic coverage, I admit to a certain amount of irritation at the media. I get tired of the constant references to the medal count—which country has the most medals—as if the prowess of the athletes really does represent the relative worth of their countries.
Just as my attitude towards the Olympics has changed, so too has my relationship with my country, and it has more to do with politics than with sports. I still have moments of intense pride in America. I think of the night Barack Obama won the presidential election. That was like a gold medal ceremony on steroids for me. (And yes, I cried.) But I have also had moments of extreme disappointment in my country.
I think back to the months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The initial response, both in this country and around the world, was one of disbelief and unity against terrorism. We were all in this together, and I was proud to be an American. As time went on, though, and politicians’ statements became more stridently us versus them, and any questioning of our country’s policies or actions was met with “Either you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.” Well, then it became more difficult to be proud to be an American. I felt like the flag and other symbols of patriotism had been hijacked by people who were afraid of the rest of the world, who suspected anyone who was “different.” I didn’t want to put a flag sticker on my car, because I didn’t want to be associated with “that” kind of patriotism—with jingoism.
This reminds me of the way the language of reverence, of religion, seems to have been hijacked by the religious right. When I tell people how involved I am in my church, they often get a very skewed idea of who I am because they assume “church” means conservative and orthodox. That’s why I think it is so important for Unitarian Universalists to take back the language of reverence and to do public witness. I want people to know that religion doesn’t necessarily mean “right” and that church can look like us. Just because I don’t want to be orthodox doesn’t mean I can’t be religious.
Likewise, just because I don’t want to be jingoistic doesn’t mean I can’t be patriotic, which is why my favorite July 4th tradition is to go up to Monticello for the Naturalization Ceremony. I first went years ago to watch a friend from South Africa become a US citizen, and I discovered then that it is the best antidote to jaded cynicism. The Charlottesville Municipal Band plays patriotic music and people make speeches (and this year it was Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci). The best part, though, is when the new citizens get the microphone and I’m reminded why I am so lucky and proud to be an American.
This year, I heard a woman from Zimbabwe explain why she had been so confused at American’s interest in politics. In her home country they had elections, but the results were a foregone conclusion. She urged us to vote. A woman from Brazil explained that if you don’t vote, they take away your passport! A man from South Sudan proclaimed that he had been born again in his new country. He said that Americans were very good people but encouraged us to follow the law. He explained that here the police are good; they are here to protect us. There is no 911 in Khartoum.
Listening to these newest citizens puts my own criticisms of America into perspective. Yes, I am sick of the political climate in this country, but I do get to vote. Yes, I am angered by stories of racial profiling, but our police are princes compared to those in many other parts of the world.
The newest Americans on the Fourth of July remind me of what I cannot know as keenly as they do, that this is a wonderful country, and if I hadn’t been born to it, I might want to go through the hardships they went through to become a citizen as well.
And yet . . . I just got back from General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona—the Justice GA--where I was confronted with more sources of disappointment in our country. I stood witness with thousands to protest the Tent City detention center, where people are living in canvass tents in the desert. I learned more about how our immigration policies are broken and need fixing, but more especially how those policies are affecting the lives of people. I’ve just started learning about the Doctrine of Discovery—a doctrine established over five hundred years ago that is still used to deny the rights of indigenous people in America.
Can I feel pride and shame at the same time? I do, so I must. So how can I reconcile these conflicting feelings? How do I live with both/and? I find one answer in the words of yet another new citizen. He described choosing a new nationality as a deep and bold act. A deep and bold act. I like that, because it captures how significant it is to choose to become a citizen of a new country. Can you imagine making that choice? I can’t. I didn’t have to. The newest citizens of the US came here from other lands, many at great risk and great cost, but they chose to become Americans. I can take inspiration from our newest fellow citizens, then, and make my own deep and bold act: I can choose to learn what I can about what’s wrong in my country and do what I can to make it right. I can work, with all of you, to fulfill the promise of this country for all Americans, no, for all people. As one new American said, “I feel myself in the brightest and most resilient country.”                                            
May we make it so.

Erik Wikstrom’s Exploration
One of the best reactions I ever got to one of my sermons was also one of the most unexpected.  It’s still surprising to me, over a decade later.  And it still makes me smile a subversive little smile.
I heard about the reaction on the Monday or Tuesday following the service.  I lived in the church’s parsonage in those days – right next to the church! – and across the street there was this hardware store.  Like I said, it was Monday or Tuesday and I had to go into the store for some thing or other.  And the owner, who’d come to know me over the years, greeted me with the question, “What did you say to your church on Sunday?”  I asked him why he was asking, and he said, “Because we had a run on flags!”
That’s right . . . the members and friends of the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine left church that June morning and bought out every American flag in the store.  And I tell you, I want to break out in a mischievous grin every time I think of it.
The sermon was an “auction sermon” – the payment of a debt to someone who’d coughed up some cash at the church auction for the right to choose one of my sermon topics.  The topic chosen was:  “Flag Day.”
Now Flag Day has never exactly been at the top of my list of holiday celebrations.  And, as I noted that June morning, the whole notion of preaching about it kind of creeped me out; made me feel a little queasy.  I wasn’t the only one, either.  There were a lot of folks in the pews that day who were visibly uneasy. 
And I think that Pam just named the reason why – “patriotism,” “flag waving,” is often viewed somewhat suspiciously by people whose politics can be described as “liberal,” or, perhaps even, “left of liberal.”  Like a lot of us.  Not all of us, of course, but a lot of us.  Folks like that tend to see that kind of patriotism – the kind that leads, for instance, to the hoisting of the “stars and bars” in public display – as something that’s been largely co-opted by the folks on the right; the folks who stand for . . . well, let’s face it . . . who seem to stand for just about everything folks like most of us stand against.
George Bernard Shaw once observed that “patriotism is a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy. . . .  the conviction that [your] country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.”  And we obviously don’t want to be associated with that.  We don’t want to be associated with the kind of provincial, xenophobic, jingoism that is so often associated with . . . flag wavers.  Many of us, after all, think of ourselves as citizens of the world; not so much “Americans” as “members of the Human Family.”  The social psychologist Erich Fromm said,

“Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity.  ‘Patriotism’ is its cult.  It should hardly be necessary to say that, by ‘patriotism,’ I mean that attitude which puts one’s own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice . . .”

 “My country right or wrong,” in other words.  “America, love it or leave it.”

But why is this what so many of us think of when we think of being patriotic?  When did all these negatives come to be associated with pride in our country and its symbols?  When did the flag become a blindfold rather than a banner—requiring us to be “blindly” patriotic in order to be patriotic?  Was it in the years following 9-11?  Has it been happening for longer than that?  I don’t know, but it certainly does seem as though the Right and the Left have split things up, and the Right has gotten “patriotism” while the left has gotten . . . what? . . . maybe “cynicism.”
To be sure, there has been much said and done in the name of patriotism of which I am not proud.  There is much this country has done, is doing, and no doubt will do with which I disagree and, at times, of which I am deeply ashamed.  But that does not mean that I don’t love this country, as well.  That doesn’t negate all that is good—all that is great and might be great—about it.  That doesn’t invalidate the things Pam talked about hearing at Monticello on Wednesday.  Those things are real, too.  And, in fact, President William Jefferson Clinton once declared, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”
What I told those Unitarian Universalists in Yarmouth, Maine over a decade ago is that the flag is one of the symbols of the ideals of this country, that it stands for all that is right and might be right, and the fact that we have not always lived up to the promise is not the fault of the symbol.  I told them that I, for one, was tired of ceding to the religious and political right all of the really good symbols!  I told them that I didn’t want to accept defeat in the rhetorical struggle to determining the future of the United States by allowing someone else to dictate the framework within which the conversation would be had . . . to define all the terms of the debate.  I told them that on that Flag Day I was planning to raise the flag at my house.  And, apparently, more than a few of them decided to join me.
The quote I read earlier from Erich Fromm—the one that began, “Nationalism is . . . our insanity [and] ‘patriotism’ is its cult . . .”—continues by offering a positive description of patriotism: 
“. . . the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare—never with its power over other nations.  Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”
Just because we extend our love to all of humanity doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love our own families, as well.  And we can love our own families, while still recognizing their shortcomings.  We can love this country while still recognizing its failings, while still holding it accountable for its failings. 
In his powerful speech at the March on Washington the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke stirringly about the “promissory note” which the United States had written at its founding and which was then coming due – the promise that here all people are “created equal” and have “certain unalienable rights.”  He said he’d come to cash that check at “the bank of justice.”
Well, some of those funds have been dispersed.  Some of the value of that note has been redeemed.  But not all of it.  Nowhere near all of it.  And in the years since Dr. King’s speech we’ve realized that there are some folks who are covered by that note that we weren’t even thinking of then.  The promise has not yet been kept.
Still, “not yet” is not the same as “not ever.”  And it seems to me that we have only two choices.  One is to burn ourselves out or up in cynical struggle; fighting, perhaps, to reclaim what we see as lost, yet inwardly believing – or, at least, fearing – that the cause is hopeless, that too much has already been destroyed.
The other is to keep believing in the promise and to keep raising it up – like a banner, like a flag – so that it can guide the building of our future.   That’s the path that I choose.  That’s the path I recommend to you.  Maybe, on your way home, you might want to go buy a flag!

Introduction to Final Hymn:  When I preached that Flag Day sermon all those years ago I wanted to end with something really patriotic.  Now I don’t know how well all y’all know our hymnal, but there’s no section of “patriotic” hymns in the index.  There are no entries for “national pride,” and nothing whatsoever for “flag day.”  And then I realized that the most truly patriotic song I’ve ever heard – patriotic in the Frommian sense – is in there.  It’s the song we’re about to sing, #159, “This is my Song.”

Closing Words:  In the liner notes to the CD we’re about to hear a song from as our postlude, Ray Charles is quoted as saying that for years he resisted doing a version of America the Beautiful.  People kept asking him to, but he always declined because he felt that he had to really be able to get behind a song if he was going to do it right, and he just couldn’t do it with that one.  He did finally include the song, however, on his 1972 recording A Message from the People.  Of his decision to record the song he said that what he was trying to communicate is, “Listen, you’ve got to clean up some of this shit, America, but I still love you.”  It reminds me of the Christian maxim, “God loves you exactly as you are, and loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
I wish that more of us liberal and progressive folks could adopt a similar attitude toward—well, towards many things but this weekend following Independence Day I’m thinking about our country:  let’s love America exactly as it is, and love it too much to let it stay this way.  Let us love our promises, and our possibilities, and our ideals, and love them too much to let them go unfulfilled for so many; let us love our freedoms, and love them too much to let them be trampled under foot; let us love our flag, and love it too much to let it become a weapon of intolerance. 
So ‘though we now extinguish our chalice, let the flame of freedom burn ever brighter in our hearts.