Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Does the Government Have an Obligation to "The Least of These"?: a response to Rush Limbaugh

A few days ago, during the visit of the Pope to the US, Rush Limbaugh asked a question on his show.  He said that he wasn't asking it rhetorically, that he really was curious and wanted to know.  I assume that the people who read through what must be a tremendous volume of correspondence will never pass this on to him, yet I'll send it to him nonetheless.  I thought I'd post my musing here, too.

Limbaugh's question was this, "Is there anywhere in the Bible where Jesus says that the government should help people?  Or does he say that individuals should help one another?"  I've heard other conservative pundits ask this same question and, obviously, their implication is the same -- that the moral argument of the government doing anything to address income inequality (and its related social consequences) is fundamentally misguided.  Jesus told people to help one another.  He didn't tell people to ask the government to do it.

I've heard this assertion put forward enough times that when Rush recently did as well I found myself really musing over it.  He's right, of course, as far as it goes and as far as I know.  I do not believe that Jesus is remember as every saying that it was the job of government to take care of the people.  But here's what else I know:

First, it seems obvious to me that we don't really know what Jesus said.  He didn't have a stenographer following him around.  Instead, people told one another what they remembered him as saying.  Those people told other people and the telling of the stories continued for a hundred years or so until people began to write them down.  Those writings, then, went through a myriad of translations -- not just among various languages but also through the eyes of people with different understandings and purposes.  What we have to look at today, then, is the heavily interpreted memory of people's memories of earlier people's remembrances of what Jesus said.  While I know that this is generally identified as liberal interpretation of Scripture, I also don't believe that Rush and the others are among those who believe the alternative theory that the New Testament texts were originally dictated by God for inerrant word, and that God has since guided the efforts of all of the many translators.

Second, even if you do subscribe to the idea that the Christian scriptures are not just "God-inspired" texts but "God-written" texts, you still can't claim to know everything that Jesus said.  After all, in the Gospel of John (21:25) it is written, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."  So ... did Jesus ever say that the government had a responsibility to care for its citizens?  We don't know, and never will, because, "Jesus did many other things as well."

Third, the question itself is flawed.  The government of Jesus' time was the local branch, if you will, of the occupying Roman government.  It was not the government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."  It was an occupying force that obliterated the governing structures of the Jewish people themselves.  When the Jews did have their own independent nation the Prophets did call the government to task for not taking care of the people -- especially the poor and the strangers among them.  And Jesus is remembered as revering the Prophets, and is remembered as chastising the closest thing the Jews had to their own government -- the Temple structure.  Remember his condemnation of the money changers, and the entire system that upheld the Temple hierarchy?  (If not, re-read Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, and John 2:12-25)  Think of the many times he called the Pharisees and Scribes to account for not caring for the poor and the suffering -- these stories are not remembrances of his just talking to and about individuals, but of his critique of those who held power.  So, it is apparently possible to demonstrate that Jesus is remembered as saying that it was the responsibility of "the powers that be" to take care of its people.  But if you want to be strict in your interpretation and limit yourself to whether or not he spoke of the official government, the government of Rome, it is a false parallel to whether or not he would call our own government to account.

Fourth, there is not only the fact that the occupying Roman government is not an appropriate analog to our democratic government today, there is also a difference of scope.  Jesus lived his entire life in an area smaller than the state of Vermont.  It is one thing to expect the poor and the suffering to be cared for by individuals alone in such a small geographic area, but when we're talking about the entire United States?  Our problems are incredibly larger, more complex, and more intimately intertwined than could possibly be handled on a local lever alone.  The reasons people are hungry, and homeless, and in a myriad of other ways in need are national in scope.  Whatever Jesus is remembered as having said he said in and to his own people in his own time and place.  A community the size of the United States was never, could never have been, imagined.

Fifth, the closet followers of Jesus, those whose stories are told in the Book of Acts, organized their communities with care for one another a foundational principle.  It is written of them that,
  "all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need." (Acts 2:45).  Further, it is remembered that, "[T]he congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. ... there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.…" (Acts 4:32 & 34)  Apparently this egalitarian, some might even say "socialist," approach so seriously that we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) in which two of the community who decided to hold back some of their wealth for themselves were struck dead as a result.  If Rush and the others are really suggesting that we look to the teachings of Jesus to inform our social structures, this is the way those who are remembered as knowing him best organized themselves.  

Finally, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312 C.E., and the formation of what, by the 13th century would come to be called "the Holy Roman Empire," we did see a government that at least in name was rooted in Christian principles.  In a book called Germany and the Holy Roman Empire the author notes that there was imperial legislation in 1530, 1548, and 1577 that, "obliged all rulers to take care of their poor," and that, "even in times of crisis, measures that almost all governments had in place undoubtedly brought relief to many.  The deserving poor were neither demonized nor criminalized."  Did Jesus say, specifically, that governments should take care of the poor?  Not that I can tell if we're being strictly precise, but it does seem that those governments that claimed to be following his teachings and example felt that they should do so.

And that, I suppose, is the ultimate response I have to Limbaugh's question:  even if Jesus did not specifically say that governments had to take care of the poor; even if he did intend to limit his overwhelmingly undeniable and inescapable emphasis on mercy, compassion, and "the least of these;" even if we capitulate to all of that ... why not do it anyway?  What is the government?  Representatives of the people, and, for that matter, a just a group of people.  Why should they not feel the same obligations that individual people are supposed to have just because they have come together as "government."  (Specifically, to quote Lincoln again, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people.)  Some may wonder if Jesus ever said that the government should be obliged to take care of its own poor and needy.  I'll just ask in return, "Did he ever say it shouldn't"?

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

To Be, Or Not To Be ...

I've recently been reading a book by Juana Bordas, Salsa, Soul, and Spirit:  Leadership for a Multicultural Age (New Approaches to Leadership from Latino, Black, and American Indian Communities).  This book as been read, and is being read, by UU congregations around the country as well as by Association leadership.  After all, we say we're serious about wanting to be a more truly multicultural community -- both at the level of the local congregation and the national movement -- yet Unitarian Universalism is steeped in Eurocentric history, assumptions, and norms ... so much so that for many of us it's hard to imagine that there's any other ("valid") way of doing things because we're so used to thinking that the way we do things is "the way things should be done."  If we -- White UUs -- want to move toward a true multiculturalism, then we're most likely going to have to open ourselves to learning some new ways of doing things.  (If only so that we can be more aware of how "our ways" don't resonate with anyone.)  Hence the interest around Ms. Bordas's book.

On FaceBook this morning I read a really insightful -- and no doubt for many a really challenging -- post.  It was written by a man named Chris Crass, and made me think of some of the things I'd read in Bordas's book.  First I'll pull out some of those quote and then, with his permission, I'm reprinting Chris' FaceBook post.

From Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: 
When you answer the call to become a multicultural leader, you commit to honoring the unique experiences and background of each person you encounter while connecting with the core human essence we all share.  (p. 199)
[T]he limitations of hierarchical pluralism:  "Dominant cultural values are at the top and are impermeable.  Everyone has to conform to them.  People who are different can come in and be included, but they must understand their traditions don't mean anything.  Their values are subservient and they must adapt."  (p. 203) 
Because Whites are often blind to their own existence as a group, as well as their advantages and privileges, they don't understand that business as usual is really doing business our way.  (p. 203)
Egalitarian pluralism is representative of all people in an organization, not just those who have traditionally held power.  Organizations must be willing to reinvent themselves by altering their language, structure, and methods of operation by welcoming diverse leaders to the table to share their perspectives and experiences. ... Changing structures, norms, and values, is the key to egalitarian pluralism and the foundation for multicultural leadership. (p. 204)

And here's the post that got me thinking:

To become an anti-racist church, the key question, for a white/white majority church, is not "how to get people of color to join the church", it is making a prolonged, spiritually-rooted, engaged commitment to uprooting white supremacy within the church and taking collective action to eradicate it in society.

Our goal is not to have white people sit alongside a person of color so as to affirm that those white people aren't racist. Our goal is to build and be part of beloved community united to end structural oppression and unleash collective liberation in our congregations, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces and society.

Our goal is to join hands across the divisions of racism in our faith and in our communities, find and affirm our humanity in each other, and join our hearts and minds to the task of destroying white supremacy in every worldview, policy, law, institution and governing body of our society. 

For our churches to be places of healing for people of color and white people from the nightmare of racism. For our churches to be places of nourishment for people of color and white people about the multiracial struggles of our people to advance economic, racial, and gender justice and the continual process of overcoming oppression within the movement on the journey to end oppression in society. For our churches to raise our children, of all backgrounds, to be freedom fighters and practitioners of liberation values. 

For our churches to be spiritually alive communities of worship, learning from and contributing to liberation cultures and legacies. For our churches to be welcoming homes for people of all colors, sexualities, classes, ages, genders, citizenship statuses, and abilities. For our churches to regularly be inviting us into and preparing us for courageous action for collective liberation, held in loving community for the long haul. Let our theology and our churches be active agents in the world, to help us all get free, together.

Being the kind of community Chris is describing will take those of us who are used to -- have grown up in, find comfortable and "sensible" -- the mores and norms of the dominant Eurocentric culture to become uncomfortable.  The new, the unfamiliar is usually uncomfortable and we want folks to learn our ways so that they can fit in.  Re-read the second quotation form Salsa:  
"Dominant cultural values are at the top and are impermeable.  Everyone has to conform to them.  People who are different can come in and be included, but they must understand their traditions don't mean anything.  Their values are subservient and they must adapt." [italics added]
This is all true, of course, not just in the context of race.  If "we" want to be truly welcoming to young adults then we need to make peace with the fact that for many of them their phones and tablets are an integrated part of how they think and act in the world.  (This isn't true for all, of course.  No group is a monolith, but it is true for many.)  So "we" want to welcome "them," yet look askance when they assume that that welcome includes them being themselves.

(I keep writing"we" because I am aware that not all UUs are a part of the dominant culture and so it isn't actually true to talk about Unitarian Universalists as if we're all the same.  Yet there is a dominant culture within our movement and a majority demographic, so when speaking of and for that dominant perspective I'm putting quotation marks around "we" so as to remind us all that that "we" doesn't include us all.)

"We" say "we" want to be truly welcoming to people of all economic classes and yet, as one example, "we" still expect everyone to participate in the annual pledge drive as if everyone had the financial means to do so.  "We" say we want to welcome "them," yet in a myriad of ways most of "us" never even see "we" reiterate the message that "they" not as good -- useful, productive, valuable and valued -- as "us."

"We" want to be welcoming to people with a wide variety of abilities, yet don't see making our buidlings accessible as a priority.  

"We" want to be welcoming to transgender people, yet want to make sure that "they" use the bathroom that makes "us" feel most comfortable.

"We" want to be welcoming to families with young children, yet are unwilling to share space with little ones who are age-appropriately squirmy and noisy.  And while we're on the subject of families with young children -- "we" say that "we" want there to be greater integration of these families with the rest of the church community, yet prevent that very integration when "we" insist that "they" volunteer in "our" Religious Education program because none of "us" want to do so.

I could, of course, continue.  In each of these examples, though, the thing to see is that the dominant "we" want the more marginal "they" to conform to "our" expectations and example, and to ensure that "we" are not at all put out or discomforted by "their" presence.  "We" claim as a desire a more multicultural community -- something that's a change from what's true now -- yet "we" are not willing to be changed in order to make it come true.  To put it simply, though:  until "we" are, it won't.

Hear Juana Bordas again:  "Organizations must be willing to reinvent themselves by altering their language, structure, and methods of operation by welcoming diverse leaders to the table to share their perspectives and experiences."  A question for those who so blithely name "diversity" as a value -- are you willing to reinvent yourself?

Pax tecum,


Monday, September 21, 2015

An Invitation to Service

I read something really interesting recently.  Some of you may have, too.  It was just after Bernie Sanders spoke at Liberty University.   That’s democratic socialist, secular Jew Bernie Sanders speaking at the school that Jerry Falwell built.  Afterwards, a piece appeared on the internet called “Biblical Argument for Bernie.”  It was written by a graduate of Liberty, a Conservative pastor, who worked on the George W. Bush campaign, and who calls himself, “pretty much a card-carrying Evangelical Christian.”  And, funnily enough, that is why he is now a supporter of Bernie Sanders.  His basic argument is that this “wild haired Jew” (and he calls him that several times) is more closely aligned with the teachings of that other Jew – Jesus – than those who are running on the Republican ticket calling themselves “Christian.”

It’s a really interesting piece, and I’d encourage you to look it up and read it if you haven’t already.  There is one passage that really jumped out at me, though.  At one point the author says to his fellow Evangelicals:
When we chose to follow Jesus, we decided that the Kingdom of God, and the men and women and children of this world, were more important than us. And that accidentally made us all liberals. The day we decided to follow Christ, and the day we decided that we value other human beings more than ourselves, we accidentally became liberals.
A lot of people have focused on this self-avowed Conservative Evangelical Christian asserting that by trying to follow Jesus he had “accidentally become [a] liberal.”  But there’s something else to hear in that passage.  “[W]e decided that … the men and women and children of this world were more important than us. … [W]e decided that we value other human beings more than ourselves.”  More valuable.  More important.

Now I’ve been around enough Unitarian Universalists to know that that’s the kind of religious language that drives a lot of us right up the wall:  that whole “do-unto-others-before-you-do-unto-yourself” thing.  After all, “others first” has often understood to imply, “and yourself really, really, really far behind.”  “Put others first” has done a lot of damage to a lot of us, and so for the most part we reject that kind of self-depreciating, others-first mind-set.   We know, for instance, that if we take care of ourselves – our own mental, emotional, spiritual well-being – we’ll have more to give and a healthier and more solid place to give it from.  A lot of us would say that ours is a “put-the-oxygen-mask-over-your-own-head-before-assisting-others” kind of a religion, and we’d say it with pride.
Yet I’ll just point out that in this we buck the trend of virtually every other religious tradition we humans have ever created.  They all – each in their own ways – teach that we should “value other human beings more than ourselves.”  All of them … except us.  So maybe they’re on to something.  And we?  Maybe we’re missing something.

More than once I’ve preached a sermon on Matthew 22:39 –  “Love your neighbor as yourself” –  pointing out that this tells us to put our love of others on a par with our love of ourselves.  Not above; not below; but on the same level.  And those sermons have been received with a great deal of relief by people who had been taught – sometimes explicitly and often more subliminally – that love is a zero-sum game, so that the more you love others the less you can love yourself.  Hopefully, it’s clear that our faith does not teach this.  I wonder, though, whether we’ve gone too far in the other direction.

What would happen if, as that Evangelical pastor put it, we value other human beings more than we do ourselves?  What would happen if we were to live our lives so that, all things being equal, we did put others first?  If we let a coworker have the last cookie, for instance, or if you and your spouse were both really tired and you realize that the garbage needs to go out, and you get up to do it – what would happen?  We can, of course, go overboard with this, but what if we don’t?  And what if we could do it not out of a forced sense of obligation but as the result of a free choice to put that other person first?

That’s the basis of service.  That’s the foundation from which true generosity springs forth.  That’s the very definition of “ministry,” which comes to us from a Latin word meaning “less than” (same root as “minus”) but also meaning “to serve.”  We minister when we put someone else’s needs ahead – even if just a little bit ahead – of our own.

A few years ago, while I was working at our Association’s headquarters (which I can’t resist calling “UUHQ”), I was asked to write something that might be useful to congregations.  What came out was the book Serving with Grace: lay leadership as aspiritual practice.  It proposes the somewhat radical notion that what we do within the context of a faith community – everything we do within the context of a faith community – should provide an opportunity for spiritual practice, a way of nurturing our souls.  Everything.  Even serving on the Finance Committee.  Even cleaning up after the church auction.   Not really so radical, of course – the great Christian mystic Brother Lawrence said that his work in the kitchen was prayer, and the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that washing the dishes is meditation.  It really isn’t such a radical idea, but its application is a rare thing indeed.  All too often we find ourselves doing the work of the church, while watching our spiritual connections to the community withering away; the very antithesis of lay leadership being a spiritual practice.

The distance between this idea and its application is a decision.  A decision that we make freely, not out of obligation.  And it’s at least in part the decision to see this community as maybe even just a little bit more important that we are.  I mean, if we didn’t see it that way, who would stay in a Board meeting for three hours?  Or give hours of their time visiting another congregant who’s in need?  Hardly anybody would!  We all have other things we could be doing with our time (our talents, our money, or any of the other things we share with this church).

The sad truth is, though, that many people who give of themselves to this community don’t do it as a spiritual practice; don’t do it because of a freely made decision to apply the idea that service is salvific.  More often it’s because the church needs a chair for this committee or that task force, so we step up because it seems clear that no one else is going to do it.  And while that’s laudable, it’s also a set up for burn out because that makes service to and through the church into merely doing the work of the church, and that’s not why most of us are here.  If we haven’t made the free choice to put others even if just a little bit ahead of ourselves it can be so easy slip into resentment, because it hasn’t been a free choice but a decision thrust upon us.  If we haven’t freely chosen it, it can be really hard when we’re forced to do it anyway.

In a moment we, as a congregation, are going to recognize some of the people who are volunteering their time in a leadership role.  We’ve done this for the past few years in what we’ve called a Service of Commissioning.  I hope that this service is more than simply a way to recognize and thank some hardworking volunteers.  (Although I hope it’ll do that, too.)  The word “commission” means, “the act of granting certain powers or the authority to carry out a particular task or duty,” and it also has its roots in a Latin word that meant, “to entrust.”  Simply put, when we commission these volunteers, these ministers, we are entrusting ourselves and the care of this community to them as they carry out their ministries through the various roles they play here.

Today we’re taking seriously the service these folk are offering to the rest of us, by seeing it as, recognizing it as, and naming it as a true ministry and not a mere job.  It’s my hope that this will help to invite these leaders to see their own work, their own lives, in this way; to recognize in them the possibility of and the opportunity for real spiritual growth and deepening.  I hope it will help to remind them of why they’re doing what they’re doing, and help them to be conscious that the choice is, and always has been, theirs to freely make.  And, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind it at all if today also inspires some of us who have not yet found a way to be of service here to seek out opportunities to do so.

And so, let us begin our Commissioning of Congregational Leaders.

Commissioning of the Worship Weavers Guild
Members of the Worship Weavers Guild:  we thank you for your work as ministers of worship.  Week after week you strive to create a safe space for us in which we can explore and engage with things that matter.  Know that we will try to bring our whole selves whenever we gather. We bless you and your ministry as Weavers of Worship.

Commissioning of the Pastoral Visitors and CareNet Coordinator
To our Pastoral Visitors:  we thank you for your work as ministers of pastoral care.  When we are in need of a companion during difficult times you bring your hearts and minds not to solve anything but to sit with us.  We thank you for your willingness to give of yourselves to others and we offer you our support.    We bless you and your ministry as Pastoral Visitors.

And to our CareNet Coordinator:  This work, too, is a ministry of pastoral care.  It falls to you to strive to match the resources of our community with its needs and this means that it falls to you to hold those needs.  We thank you for your willingness to bear this burden, and to remind you that you do not have to hold those needs alone.  We offer you our hands and our hearts to use as they can be of use.  We bless you and your ministry of CareNet.

Commissioning of the Committee on the Ministry
To our Committee on the Ministry:  we thank you for your work as ministers of and to the congregation.  At different times each of us will have things that delight us and things that distress us about our experiences here at TJMC.  You provide a safe place for us to bring our questions, comments, concerns (and praise).  We thank you for your willingness to listen to us and to help our voices be heard.   We bless you and your ministry as members of the Committee on the Ministry.

Commissioning of the Board of Trustees
To our Board of Trustees:  we thank you for your work as ministers of leadership.  We have elected you to represent the whole of us and to act on our behalf in fulfilling the mission of this church in collaboration with our staff.  We offer you our support and trust, and thank you for your willingness to give of your time and your talent.    We bless you and your ministry as trustees of our beloved community.

Commissioning of all the Ministers at TJMC
And to all who serve this congregation and the wider world around us, know that your ministries are recognized, honored, and celebrated too.  Each of us have gifts to give, and our faith calls on us to share them.  May we at this time commission one another to our individual ministries, and our congregation as a whole to the fulfillment of its mission in the world.  We bless one another, and receive each other’s blessing.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Next Thing

It's been said that there are only two ways of living in the world, two motivations that fuel every decision we make and action we take:  love and fear.  Further, these two are said to be incompatable ... mutually exclusive.  In the Christian scriptures it's written, "love casts out all fear."  The inverse appears to be true, too -- when we are overcome with fear, our ability to live our lives from a place of love is seriously undermined, if not made impossible.  The more we live in fear, the less we live in love; and the more we live lives of love, the less fear can overtake us.

It's a funny thing about fear:  it is never, never, based in reality.  Not ever.  The truth that is so hard to remember, if we've ever understood it in the first place, is that there is quite truly nothing to fear.  That seems to fly in the face of everything we know and just about every experience of fear we've ever had, but that doesn't mean it's not true.  It just means that we don't really understand the nature of fear.

Fear is never based on what is happening now.  It is always based on what we think is going to happen next.  Read those last two sentences again and let their ramifications sink in.  If this is right -- if we really are afraid of what's coming next rather than what's happening now -- then it is clear that we're really afraid of nothing, since "what is coming next," by definition, isn't real.  And if this is true, it means that there's nothing to be afraid of.

I know what you're probably thinking.  You're probably thinking of a thousand and one times that you've been afraid and you're pretty sure that you were afraid of something.  Let me play out a scenario, though, to demonstrate what I mean.  It's exagerated, to be sure, but it should make my point.  (I don't remember any longer where I first encountered this teaching, but I am grateful to whoever it was both for the illustration and the lesson.)

Let's say that you're walking through the woods, having been told that there have been a number of bear sightings recently, and you hear something rustling nearby.  You, understandably, begin to feel fear.  But you're not really afraid of that sound are you?  You're actually afraid that you're about to come fact-to-face with a bear.  You're not afraid of what's happening now (hearing a rustling sound); you're afraid of what you think is going to happen next (encountering a bear up close and personal).
So let's say a bear does come out of the underbrush.  I'd suggest that it's still not what's happening now that has you afraid.  It's not the sight of the bear that you're afraid of.  It's the idea that the bear is going to rush you.  And when it does, indeed, rush you, your fear is really about what's going to happen when it catches you. 

Here's the kicker, though.  Even if the bear does catch you, and rakes you with its claws, the thing you're afraid of in that moment is not that you're being clawed by a bear.  You don't like it, of course.  You'd really rather it not be happening.  But what you're afraid of is that it's going to happen again.  You're afraid that it's going to keep happening, and that maybe the teeth are going to get involved.  Yet in each moment, as this attack unfolds, the actual elements of the attack -- while they're happening -- is not what you're really afraid of.

See?  Fear is never based on what's happening now; it 's always based on what we think is going to happen next.  Our fear is always one step ahead of what's actually happening; one step removed from reality.

Okay.  In this illustration you could say that even if you're fear is "one ahead" of what's happening it still makes sense.  Especially once the bear begins to charge, the rest is pretty inevitable.  It's highly improbable that a bear will break from the underbrush, run up to you, and then give you a hug.  Could happen, but not too likely.  So you might argue that it's not at all unreasonable to be afraid in this situation, and that your fear would be about something real.

Luckily few of us will ever go through something so dramatic, yet even our more pedestrian experiences with fear follow this same pattern.  You're not afraid of going to your bosses office; you're afraid that she's going to tell you that you're fired.  And while she's telling you that you're fired it's not that that you're afraid of.  You're afraid of what your spouse will say when you share the bad news.  And while the two of you are talking it's the next thing that's scaring you.  We're always afraid of the thing that's coming next, not the thing that's happening now.  And that means that our fear is always directed toward something that isn't real.  (At least, not yet.)  The next thing to happen is just that -- the next thing.  It's not what's happening now, and what's happening now -- this present moment -- is the only thing that's ever really real.

Yet as I said, when you are pretty sure of what the next thing is going to be, it seems to make a lot of sense to be afraid now.  Yes, it certainly seems to make sense.  Still, if fear and love cast one another out, then it would also seem that we would want to do whatever we can do to decrease our fear so that we can increase our love.  Recognizing that our fear is always based in the yet-to-be can be quite helpful.

I remember a woman in the first congregation I served.  The doctor thought that she might very well have developed a really serious illness and had ordered some tests.  I asked her if she was afraid and, solid Mainer that she was, she replied, "Why be scared 'till there's something to be scared of?"  She didn't want to be debilitated by fear; she wanted to keep her heart open for love.  And knowing that there really is nothing to be afraid of -- until, as she said, there is something -- she was able keep her mind and her heart calm it what could have been an extremely stressful situation.  (A situation that would have been stressful for most of us.)

It can be hard to remember this, yet it can be spiritually and literally life-saving.  There's a reason fear is often called "blind," yet in times like that brear attack it would behoove us to be more clear-headed rather than less so.  The same is true when we, or someone we love, receives a serious diagnosis, or we can see a relationship falling apart, or the boss calls us in for a sit-down.  To remember that the fear we're feeling isn't about what's happening at that moment but about what we think is going to happen next can free us to more effectively prepare for whatever it is that does come next.  And it can help to keep us open ... open to love.

Pax tecum,


Monday, September 14, 2015

Can UUs Believe Anything We Want?

This is the sermon delievered on Sunday, September 13th, 2015 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  You can listen to a podcast if you prefer.

I love that story we heard earlier ["A Small Jar Called Freedom" from the book What if Nobody Forgave?], and I love the image of creation being something of a kitchen experiment.  There’s a whimsical mischievousness in the God of that story, and the idea of a playfulness built into our very existence.  And, of course, there’s that freedom … that freedom that’s liberally sprinkled into the mix … the freedom to think for ourselves, and make choices for ourselves, and to act on the choices we make.  All of our choices have consequences, of course – and those we often don’t have any choice about – yet still we remain free to choose for ourselves.

A lot of people ask if we Unitarian Universalists are free to believe anything we want.  And, actually, a lot of Unitarian Universalists say that we can believe anything we want.  We are, after all, a “free faith.”   We don’t demand adherence to a dogma; we don’t have a catechism to memorize; and it’s pretty darned hard to be a UU heretic.  (Although, thank goodness, it is possible.)

Yet I don’t think our faith does allow us to believe just anything we might want to.  Because we all need something to ground our lives on and in.  We all need something to hold on to and something that can hold on to us when times are hard.  And as the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs taught us – in a reading that’s in the back of the hymnal (#657) – not all beliefs are equal in their effect upon us.  It matters what we believe, as she said.

Many UUs lift up the so-called “seven principles” when asked about what it is we believe.  These well-known words actually come from the bylaws of our Association, yet it’s no dry text.  There’s a copy on the insert, and in a moment I’m going to invite each of us to read these words together.  The first line of each section is the formal and official words of this covenant, so if you’re feeling formal and official you should read those.  The second has the principles put into child-friendly language (our kids here know them as the “rainbow chalice” which is why there’s a color noted after each one).  If you’re feeling kid-like, then, please read those italicized words.  And while we read, Leia will light the candles of our rainbow chalice.

As Unitarian Universalists we covenant to affirm and promote:
·         The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
o   respect the inherent worth & dignity of every person [red]
·         Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
o   offer fair and kind treatment to others [orange]
·         Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
o   yearn to learn throughout life [yellow]
·         A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
o   grow in our ongoing search for truth and meaning [green]
·         The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
o   believe in our ideas and act on them [blue]
·         The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
o   insist on peace, freedom and justice for all [indigo]
·         Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
o   value our interdependence with all living things—the web of life [violet]

I’m the first to point out that this is not a statement of beliefs; it’s not a creed.  It’s a covenant statement, promises that our congregations make to one another in the coming-together that creates the UUA, like the covenant we have with each other that we read earlier.  And even if it were a creed statement, I’ve heard people say that they are so general that they don’t really mean much of anything – pretty much anybody of good will would agree with them.

Let’s just take a look at the first one, though:  we UUs covenant with one another to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.  Every person – not just the ones who think the way we do, or look the way we do, or vote the way we do.  Every person – not just good people, or successful people, or happy people; not just liberal people, or people who’ve had their consciousness raised about racism and hetero-sexism and transphobia.  We Unitarian Universalists affirm a principle that’s based on the belief that every person … each and every person who is, was, or ever will be … every person without exceptions … absolutely every person has inherent worth and dignity.  And “inherent” means that we’re born with it, don’t have to do anything to earn it, can’t do anything to lose it, and, according to the dictionary, this worth and dignity is, “permanent, essential, [and a] characteristic attribute” of every person on the planet.

That’s definitely not something everyone would agree with, nor is it so general as to have no meaning.  It’s incredibly specific … and demanding.  From the playground to geopolitics, affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person is hard work.  It’s hard to remember it when people are being mean to us, or we watch them being mean to each other; it’s hard to remind other people about it when it seems that everyone else thinks these other people are bad, or don’t belong here, or are just trying to cause trouble.  Yet even in these situations – especially in these situations – our faith calls on us to both remember and to act from the awareness that each and every person has worth, has value … just because they are a person. This means that we have to work for justice; that we have to stand up for what is right; that we have to stand with those people others would push aside and ignore.

It also means – and for some of us, maybe a lot of us, this can be even harder – our faith’s assertion that every person has inherent worth and dignity means us too.  It can be hard to remember that when we’re feeling not too good about ourselves.  When we’ve done something wrong, or let somebody down, or not performed up to our potential, or made a mistake that hurt someone else … even then we need to remember that we have worth and that it’s inherent worth, which means that we don’t have to do anything to deserve it and nothing we can do – no matter how embarrassing or regrettable – can take it away.

That’s a belief we can hold on to and that can hold on to us in the hard times.  That’s a belief that can help us make those choices we’re free to make, because it gives us a foundation on which to make them.  We UUs are called by our faith to wrestle with this foundational belief.  Each of the other Principles is as equally deep and demanding.

Now … I do want to say something that ties all of this into Balloon Sunday.  Here goes:  our Unitarian Universalist Principles – the core concepts on which our faith is built and which makes demands of us because we’re UU – these Principles are kind of like balloons.  When you see a hot air balloon it’s kind of hard not to look up, isn’t it?  Our Principles help us to keep looking up so that we don’t get so trapped in the day-to-day details of our lives that we forget the big picture.

And like balloons – like these balloons – they’re really pretty when we hold them down here by our chests.  They have that, I don’t know, balloon smell; and the light shines off of them; and their colors are so bright.  But that’s really not what balloons are for.  Balloons are meant to be aloft so that they can be seen, so that they can share their beauty, and so that others can be cheered by them.  Our Principles are like that, too.  That’s what the “promote” part of “affirm and promote” means.  We’re called on to do more than simply admire the beauty of our Principles, we’re called to put them into action, to show others how they make the world more fair, and just, and, well, beautiful and loving.

We believe these things because we’re UUs, and we’re UUs because we believe these things.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Human to Human

"Laughing Christ" by Fred Berger
My kids like to watch the online talk show, "Good Mythical Morning."  This morning my older son came downstairs and said that he'd just watched an episode that mentioned a man named Alex Mitchell.  Mitchell had some fame in his native England back in 1975.  While watching an episode of The Goodies, a British comedy troupe, he suddenly died ... apparently from laughing.  (Okay, from a rare heart condition, but it was his laughing that triggered the heart attack.)  It turns out that he wasn't the first.  There's even a Wikipedia entry -- "Death from Laughter" -- that chronicles reports of these deaths (reports of which go back as far as the 5th century BCE!).

On the other hand, it's long been said that "laughter is the best medicine," and in his famous 1985 book, Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins claimed to have "laughed himself to health," setting the stage for the modern "laughter therapy" movement.  The poet (and Unitarian!) E. E. Cummings once wrote, "the most wasted of all days is one without laughter."  As a juggler/magician/clown myself (in a previous life) I would have to concur.  It is good to laugh.  In fact, on an episode of the PBS program Nova titled, "What Makes Us Human?," one of the things lifted up was laughter.

So why does the picture above surprise so many people?  It's a picture of Jesus ... laughing.  That's not the way he is generally depicted, nor is it the way most people think of him.  Serious.  Otherworldly.  Detached yet intense.  Sorrowful.  Judgemental.  Spiritual (whatever that's supposed to look like).  These are all ways we've been taught to imagine Jesus.  But laughing?

Whatever else this Jesus was, he was a man.  Even those who affirm that he was God and man together have to agree that he was a man.  Yeshua ben Miriam.  Jesus, son of Mary.  He ate.  He slept.  (Those are both in the Bible!)  He also went to the bathroom, and bathed, and stubbed his toe, and burped, and got angry, and wept (those last two are in the Bible, too).  And if he was human, he laughed.

That might be part of the problem with thinking about Jesus laughing, that whole thinking-of-him-as-human thing.  The Jesus I was taught about in Sunday School was somehow above all of that mere-human stuff.  His hair was always neatly quaffed, his robe a brilliant white; his teeth sparkled, and despite wearing sandals in the desert his toenails were always clean.  (Maybe that's because he didn't so much walk as glide along the ground.)

Here's the thing, though -- what would such a being have to teach me?  Any lessons he could impart wouldn't be relevant to me because I live fully in this world -- the dust and dirt, blood and sweat of it.  I falter.  I fall.  I fail.  And even with the miracle of modern washing machine technology my clothes get dingy after a time.  So maybe this is one of the reasons so many people have felt the need to leave the Christian traditions -- because they intuit that this all-too-perfect God/man really has nothing to say to them ... nothing that could really apply to their own lived experiences.

And maybe that's one of the reasons he's been depicted like this.  It is likely that in the begining this gandiosity was intended to make him more relevant, more important, more trustworth.  Just as one might believe a king because he is, well, a King, so too this King of Kings should be listened to.  Yet over time this elevated status made it harder and harder to take Jesus seriously and, so, gave Christians an "out."  Perhaps if only unconsciously we were able to say, "these are good teachings, yes, profound, but not really anything I have to pay attention to because they can't be meant for me.  I'm a mere man, and he's a God-man."

Marcus Borg, Stephen Peterson, and so many others have made their careers on trying to re-introduce and reclaim the human Jesus.  (This was the intent of my first book, too -- Teacher, Guide, Companion:  Rediscovering Jesus in a Secular World.)  Because if this Jesus was a human being like me, who understood the kinds of trials I know ... then maybe his message could have meaning in my life.  Should have meaning in my life.

So it's important to me to know that Jesus laughed.  He asked his disciples to let children come to him -- and who can have a bunch of children hanging off them without laughing?  His first miracle was recorded as the turning of water into wine at a wedding.  You think he could do that without a smile on his face?  And if he could laugh, and he could cry, then maybe he could get scared, and feel alone, and worry about what to do next.  Maybe he could understand what it is to be human because he was really human too.  And when a wise human has something to say to me, something drawn directly from his own human experiences, then I don't really  have an "out."  Then it's harder for me not to listen.

One last thing -- if you are still having trouble imagining Jesus with a smile on his face, check out this collection on Pinterest.

Pax tecum,


PS -- that bricklayer in England who died while laughing at an episode of The Goodies?  His wife wrote the group a "thank you" card, thanking them for making his last moments so enjoyable.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Where Have We Gathered? (Reflections for In-Gathering Water Communion)

Date Taken: 28 Dec 2011
Place: Bangalore, Karnataka, India

This is the text of the sermon I delivered to the congregation I serve, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist.  You can listen to the podcast if you'd prefer.

In Spanish it’s, “Bienvenidos.”  Our friends in Oltheviz Transylvania would say, “Isten hozott mindenkit.”  Our other overseas partner, the Nongkrem Unitarian Church in the Khasi Hills of India, might offer a simple, “Phi long kumno.”  I’ll just say, “Welcome everyone.”
<go into our usual welcoming words>

First Reflection
Good morning!  How many of you are back in school already, or have a sibling who’s back in school?  Any of you know an adult who’s back in school now?
For a lot of people this feels like the start of the year.  I know that New Year’s Day is the first of January, and that Chinese New Year is in February.  Some people think that the new year begins in springtime, and some feel like their birthday is the start of a new year.  (My younger son was born on December 31, so I’ve always told him that all those fireworks are to celebrate his birthday!)  The Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah – begins at sundown next Sunday.  (And did you know that on the Jewish calendar it’s not 2015?  It’s 5775!)

Lots of days and lots of ways of marking and celebrating the start of a new year.  We have In-Gathering Sunday with its wonderful Water Communion.  This is how we start a new year of being together.  I don’t know how long we’ve been doing it, but I know that it’s been quite a while.  I also know that in Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country people recently have done, are doing today, or are soon about to do what we’re going to do in a little while – pour our individual containers of water into one big container so that they all get mixed up with one another  Anybody know why we do this?

The Water Communion is a way of acting out with our water what we do as people.  We come together here, each of us unique and each of us different from everybody else.  Yet when we come together week after week for worship – here or in the children’s worship room (which this year, you know, is going to be next door over in Summit House) – when we come together week after week to learn together, and sing together, and play together, and laugh together, and sometimes cry together … when we come together over and over again to do these kinds of things we also – just like the water – start to become one big something instead of just a whole bunch of separate somethings.  And that big thing we could call, “community.”  Each of these separate people – including you, including me – come together and become a community.

Now … the water has something to hold it:  the bowl.  What do you think holds us?  Our covenant.  (Some of you may remember that at the start of RE year last year you made a covenant together for your class.)  A covenant is really just a promise, but it’s not a one-sided promise like when I would promise my mom that I’d never put my dirty shoes on the couch again, or that when I was done with something I’d put things back where I’d found them.  A covenant’s not like that. A covenant is a two-way promise – you and me, we both promise it to each other.  I promise to you, and you promise to me.

And here at TJMC we have a covenant, a promise that we all make to one another as a way of holding our beloved community.

I’d like to read our covenant to you this morning, and I’ve put it in less formal language than you’d find it on our website, in the framed picture in the Church Office, or on the big sign in the Social Hall.  Here’s our covenant, our promise, in words that even I can understand:

So that we can make TJMC the kind of place we all want it to be, we promise to each other:

·         That we’ll talk to each other with kindness and respect, especially when we don’t agree with each other;
·         That we’ll make room for all of our differences and work really hard at including everybody;
·         That we’ll be there to help each other;
·         That we’ll work for justice, fairness, what is right, both here in our congregation and in the world around us;
·         That we’ll give happily to this church with our time, our money, and our energy;
·         And that when we forget these promises, we will remind one another in loving ways.

I think that those are pretty good promises.

I hope this new school year, and this new church year will be really fun and full of wonder for each of us.  And all of us together.

So … here we are.  As one of the hymns I’d thought about having us sing puts it, “Here we have gathered; gathered side by side.  Circle of kindship, come and step inside.”  Whether you have been away for the summer, or just for part of it, or have been here doing the day-to-day as if summer was just another season no different than any other (except for the humidity) – welcome back.  To students coming back to town for a new semester, and parents whose children have gone back to school, and children whose vacations are over, and people who for a myriad of reasons “took the summer off” from church – it’s good to see you all again at the start of this “new” year, this new church season.  To those who’ve been here pretty much each and every Sunday throughout the summer – it’s been nice to see you all along and it’s nice to see you now amidst all these returning folks.  Kumno.  Isten hozott mindenkit. Bienvenidos.

Earlier we did our annual Water Communion.  Our separate vials of water comingling in the bowl to create one common pool.  At some level we all get it – each of us comes here as an individual and together we create a community.  I’ve found myself wondering, though, just what kind of community is it that we’re creating?  “Community” in the abstract?  Some kind of generic community?  Somebody’s probably thinking, “a Unitarian Universalist community!” but that’s kind of a generalization too, isn’t it?  Liberal, progressive, free thinking, spiritual, loving, welcoming – these are all a part of it, yet I don’t think that any of them really captures it.

From time to time I remind us that each week we create a unique congregation – this particular combination of people has never been together before and won’t all be together, in this same way, ever again.  Even if next week everyone here returned and no one else joined us, it still wouldn’t be the same as it is right here and right now because many of us would be in a different place physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.  The energy, the feel, of the group would be different.  We would be different.

So this community thing that we say we are building, that we join and say we’re a part of, that we come home to in this homecoming, is a kind of fluid thing, isn’t it?  In fact, there are people who think of themselves as part of TJMC who haven’t attended worship or anything else in a long time yet who still feel that connection.  And there are people who’ve moved away yet who also feel a tie to this place and these people.  And there are people in book groups who’ve never met some of the people who have breakfast together every week, who may not know the new families that have been coming for the past couple of weeks or the widower who’s dipped his toes in every now and again for the past couple of years and thinks he’s now ready for more of a commitment.  The truth is that we’re never all together at the same time in the same place, yet still, almost despite ourselves, we are one community.

And it’s sure not theology that holds us together.  It might not be immediately obvious, because we UUs often hold our religious beliefs and practices pretty privately, but there are a lot of folk here who are really deeply and passionately trying to live their lives in accord with their beliefs.  Of course, the person sitting next to them might be equally passionate for entirely different reasons.  As the quote so long erroneously attributed to Transylvanian martyr Francis David says, “We need not think alike to love alike.”  So it’s not our theology that holds us together, nor is this the kind of community that is built by constant face-to-face encounters with one another.

What holds us together, as I said earlier, is our promise.  Our covenant.  I’ll bet that many of you didn’t know we had one, or were surprised to hear that it’s posted in several places.  I would bet good money that there’s no one here who could recite it from memory.  And I am fairly sure that its unpacking wasn’t a part of any Newcomer Orientation, nor was it even explicitly shared at the time of “signing the book.”  (In preparing for this sermon it dawned on me that this would probably be a pretty good idea –asking people to think about and then actually make these promises as part of formalizing their membership.  How can we expect each other to keep them if it was never really clear that we were expected to make them?)

So … we’re going to try to make up for that oversight this morning.  I would like to ask you all to rise in body or spirit, and for the folks on this side to look at the folks on that side (and vice versa).  Here’s our formal covenant:

In order to create the beloved community we all desire for ourselves, we, the Congregation of [and I realized that that probably should be “we, the members of …”] Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist Covenant to:

·         Communicate with compassion and respect, especially when we disagree,
·         Celebrate diversity and nurture our inclusivity,
·         Embrace one another spiritually and emotionally,
·         Promote social justice within our congregation and the larger community,
·         Generously support the ministries of the church with time, money and enthusiasm, and
·         When we have fallen short, lovingly call each other back into covenant. 

As I said earlier – I think those are pretty good promises.  I think they are strong enough to hold us together even as entropy – and elemental group dynamics – work to undo us.  These promises tell us who we are as a community – we are a people of covenant, of mutual promise, and these are the things we have promised to one another.  May these promises guide us in the coming year.  May they keep us safe; may the encourage us to try new things; may they get us through any hard times (and there probably will be some of those!); may they remind us inspire us to go deeper and reach higher; and my they be there to catch us when we have – as each of us at some point no doubt surely will – forgotten and fallen short of them.

Welcome home, everyone.  I think it’s going to be a great year.

Pax tecum,