Sunday, July 29, 2018

Here We Have Gathered

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve on July 29, 2018.  I have also included the Opening and Closing words, and hope UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray will understand their importance to the whole.

Opening Words:
As a people—a people of faith—that say we are committed to justice, compassion, and equity. As a faith that says we are committed to the inherent worth and dignity of all people. As a faith that says we are committed to respect for the interdependent web of all life—we have a critical role to play in this time.
Two things that are absolutely clear. #1—This is no time for a casual commitment to your faith, your community, and your values, and
#2—this is not time to think we are in this alone. 
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, from her sermon, “No Time for a Casual Faith,”
 delivered at the 2018 General Assembly Sunday service

Sermon:  “Here We Have Gathered”
It is not uncommon to hear people talk about being “cultural Christians.”  They are acknowledging that there is something Christian-ish about them, but don’t mistake them for strong adherents of the faith; these are not what you might call “committed Christians.”  The scholar of comparative religion, Winston Smith, was once asked why, after he’d studied the great religions of the world and incorporated into his own life many of the spiritual understandings and practices he’d encountered, why he still referred to himself as a Methodist.  He replied, without skipping a beat, “ancestor worship.”  He had been born into the Methodist tradition, and he continued to claim it long after it’d had ceased to have any claim on him.  (This is true in all religious traditions – there are “cultural” Jews, and Buddhists, and Hindus, and, for that matter, Atheists.  People for whom their relationship with the spiritual/religious tradition they claim has little or no claim on them; people who we might say are “casual” in their religious affiliations.)
Leia, our Director of Faith Development, and I once ran a two-day training for staff teams – ordained ministers and the professional religious educators with whom they worked.  One of the exercises that we’d borrowed from some place began with participants calling out things that the congregation they served did that they were particularly proud of.  “Our monthly food pantry!” one said.  “Our collaboration with other faith communities to provide housing for the homeless during the coldest months of the year,” said another.  “The work we do to keep the vision of the United Nations alive in the minds of our congregation.”  “Our ministry with, for, and by young adults.”  Someone said, “Our religious education programming,” with someone else quickly adding, “especially our youth!”  “Meaningful worship.”  (That came from one of the clergy people present.)  “Our covenant groups that bring small groups together in powerful ways.”  “Our support of the Movement for Black Lives.”  “Having become a Green Sanctuary.”  Having become a Welcoming Congregation.”  “Our program to bring food to members of the congregation when they are sick.”  “Our practice of raising money monthly for non-profits doing meaningful work in our wider community.” 
I could go on.  They certainly did.  They had no problem listing program after program, project after project, one after another, of which they were proud.  (The list I just read, by the way, didn’t come from my notes after that weekend: they’re all things we do here that I’m proud of.)
Like I said, this group had no problem coming up with a long list of things the congregations they served were doing that were making a difference in the lives of their members and their wider communities.  It was the second part of the exercise that we tough.  Participants were asked to read together an item from that list beginning with the words, “We do …” and ending with, “. . . because we’re Unitarian Universalists.”
·    We have a monthly food pantry because we’re Unitarian Universalists. 

·    We collaborate with other faith communities to provide housing for the homeless during the coldest months of the year because we’re Unitarian Universalists.

·    We have a ministry with, for, and by young adults because we’re Unitarian Universalists

·    We bring food to members of the congregation who are sick because we’re Unitarian Universalists.

·    We became a Green Sanctuary and a Welcoming Congregation because we’re Unitarian Universalists
Not everyone had a hard time with this, but a lot of the people there found it really hard to say that they and the congregations they served do the good and important things they do because they are Unitarian Universalists.  They would have felt comfortable saying that they did them because they were good people, because they cared about each other and the world, because they were the right things to do.  But to say that they did them because of being Unitarian Universalists, because our faith traditions compels them to, because as Unitarian Universalists they felt a mandate to make the world a better place … well … a lot of the folks in that workshop weren’t all that comfortable saying that.  And these were religious professionals!
Last week during the annual “Questions & Responses” service I was asked what I found most frustrating about Unitarian Universalism (and, by extension, I’d think, “about Unitarian Universalists”).  In addition to the things I mentioned then, I’d add this – the number of people who are, for lack of a better phrase, cultural, or casual, UUs.  Oh we’re good-hearted people, just as are most “cultural Christians.”  If asked, we will claim our connection to this Unitarian Universalist tradition, yet if we’re being really honest, it has little to no claim on us.  It isn’t truly a part of our identity – our core ­identity.  It’s what we do, where we go on Sunday mornings (and a few other times during the week), yet it’s not really who we are.
And I find that frustrating – and more than a little sad, frankly – because our Unitarian Universalist faith is something.  Our tradition has a history, and an identity, and a power that is different than the history, identity, and power of other religious traditions or civic groups.  Unitarian Universalism is more than, as one joke at our expense puts it, “halfway between the Methodists and the golf course.”  Yet when we don’t feel, don’t know ourselves to be part of something larger than ourselves, larger than the congregation we happen to go to when we think there’ll be something interesting to us, it is so easy to become focused on our own congregation and what’s happening there right now.  This is true in and about Unitarian Universalist congregations wherever we’ve set up shop, and whatever is, or that we might think isn’t, happening in them at any particular moment.  (And how we feel about it.)
When we become so isolated and insular, we cut ourselves off from the power of our association, and I’m not talking about our institutional Association, but the reality that our congregations are associated with one another, connected with one another, can draw strength from and offer support to one another.  When we lose sight of the fact that we are part of something larger than merely the group of people who gather at 717 Rugby Road in Charlottesville, or 351 Boylston Street in Boston, or 2952 South Peoria Avenue in Tulsa, or online through the Church of the Larger Ministry, then we all too often also lose sight of the fact that we are a part of an association of several hundred thousand people, over 1,600 congregations, and a faith that, in the United States, can trace its roots back to the founding of the Universalist Church of America in 1793. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition is something, and we lose something when we don’t fully recognize, acknowledge, and own that as a part of who we are.  We lose something, and our congregations, and our wider Association loses much when we are just “cultural UUs” or, “casual” about our Unitarian Universalism.
In the sermon I quoted from as our Opening Words, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray also said,
“Friends, this is no time to go it alone—we as Unitarian Universalists can’t go it alone. We as individual congregations cannot be in this struggle alone.
This time we are living in is one of tremendous opportunity and needed change—and the health and strength of our communities and our commitment to our values, to this theology of love and interdependence is crucial”
And she said,
“This is no time for a casual faith. As Unitarian Universalists, we are first and foremost religious communities, religious communities that practice love as our foundation—and we are living in times of heartbreak, violence, struggle, and pain. In this time, we need communities that remind us of our humanity in this very inhumane time.”
And these are very “inhumane” times, indeed. 
Hate crimes “more than doubled the day after the 2016 election, with a 92 percent spike in average daily hate crimes in the two weeks following the election compared to the daily average from the beginning of the year. Crimes against Latinos increased by the greatest percent, followed by Muslims and Arabs and African-Americans.  (I quoted that from an article co-authored by the Director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University San Bernardino.)
These are inhumane times
This past Thursday the Justice Department issued a legal brief arguing that federal civil rights law does not ban discrimination on sexual orientation.  In April the administration rewrote a federal rule that had bared discrimination in health care due to “gender identity,” and the State Department reportedly has been, “retroactively revoking passports for transgender women, forcing them to provide proof of their gender.”  Some in the EPA have come out and said that under Trump their mission is changing, “from protecting human health and the environment to protecting industry.” 
These are inhumane times.
All this, and I haven’t yet mentioned that, according to U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, the administration is responsible for “losing several hundred parents” of the more than 2,700 children forcible separated at the U.S. boarder since October of last year, nor that, as a recent article in New York magazine put it, it seems increasingly plausible that “Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987.”
These are inhumane times indeed.  Frightening times.  Dangerous times.  And times that call on us to work, perhaps harder than we’ve ever worked before, to both stem and then reverse the rising tide of hatred.  These are times that call on us as Unitarian Universalists to do this work, because as Unitarian Universalists we have something rare and unique to offer.  We know more about interfaith collaboration than just about anyone, because every Sunday in every UU sanctuary is something of an interfaith service.  We know a lot about working for justice as an expression of our spirituality, because the work of justice has been at the core of our Unitarian Universalist faith and the Unitarian and Universalist faiths which preceded it.  We know so much about inclusion, for it has been a principle around which we have rallied since the beginning that every person has inherent worth and dignity.
I’m going to give the last words here to the Rev. Olympia Brown who, among other things, was the first woman ordained in the United States with the full support and backing of a denomination.  In a well-known passage from her writings (included in the back of our hymnal at #569) she said,
Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals, which has comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty and made the world beautiful. Do not demand immediate results but rejoice that we are worthy to be entrusted with this great message, that you are strong enough to work for a great true principle without counting the cost.

Parting Words
For our Parting Words I will once again return to Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s GA sermon:
The promise of our faith means liberating ourselves from the systems of dominance and exploitation we all suffer under. The promise of our faith means making compassion a way of being, it means creating a collective sense of both community and responsibility. It holds the vision of a yet to be realized future where our collective survival, our liberation, and a practice of the fullness of our theology is possible.
Theologically, our Universalism tells us that no one is outside the circle of love. However, we must understand that in our lives, in the context of oppression and discrimination, that the circle has never been drawn wider from the center. It has always grown wider because of the vision, leadership and organizing of people living on the margins who truly understand the limits and costs of oppressive policies—and what liberation means.
This time we are living in is one of tremendous opportunity and needed change—and the health and strength of our communities and our commitment to our values, to this theology of love and interdependence is crucial. I know this work is calling more from us, but I also know that we have been readying for it. And I know it will change us, but I also see that day when we will look back and see the measurable change in our hearts, in our communities, in our faith and in our society that were nurtured by our struggles and our courageous love today.
Now this change won’t come through optimistic hope or casual practice. It will take a greater commitment and generosity to communities that sustain courage, love, hope and resiliency. It will mean new ways of living our faith and reaching out more boldly, lovingly and faithfully with others for justice. And it will take each of us finding our work, our place—where our gifts help call something new—something life giving—into this world.
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray

Instead of our usual benediction, this morning I offer the words with which Susan concluded her sermon:
May the spiritual community that we practice strengthen all of our hearts, may it give us courage, may we not be silent or shrink back from the demands of love. May we hold one another in love as we follow new pathways of joy, of community, of change, of risk and of joy. And may we all be held the practice of agape love that leads us to the liberation we all need—until all are free.
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray

Introduction to the Closing Hymn
These are the words Jason Shelton spoke at the 2017 General Assembly when he premiered the updated lyrics for his beloved song, “Standing on the Side of Love” (now “Answering the Call of Love”).  This morning was the first time we sang the new words, so we shared Jason’s introduction:

Sometimes we build a barrier to keep love tightly bound.
Sometimes our words themselves are the barriers.
The metaphors we use for the work of justice matter.

If we are called to be in this work together, then we have to understand when our words become barriers to full participation.

What does love call us to do? For some, it’s standing on the side of love. For some, standing is not an option. And the continued use of that metaphor is a painful reminder of the barriers to full inclusion of people with disabilities in our congregations and at our General Assemblies.

What is my responsibility as an artist when awareness of this pain comes to my consciousness?

I am clear that the SSL metaphor — as I intended it — has nothing to do with the physical act of standing. It’s about aligning ourselves with what love calls us to do. But I am also clear that intent is not the same thing is impact, and the impact of this metaphor has become a barrier for some among us.

Friends, when love calls, it sometimes asks us to let go of our attachments, and maybe even our t-shirts. I’m not sure what to do about those t-shirts, but I do know that love is calling us to a new and deeper awareness, and I can do something about the song that I wrote.

So I ask you to rise not in body, but truly to rise in spirit — mindful of all that might mean for you — and join me in Answering the Call of Love.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Responses to Questions III

This past Sunday, July 22nd, I facilitated the "Questions & Responses" service we have annually in the congregation I serve.  Congregants write questions on index cards, which are then collected, and to which I offer my in-the-moment responses.  Over the next several weeks I plan to devote this page to attempts to offer written responses.  If you'd like to see the entire list of questions asked, they're the bulk of my post-Sunday post on July 23rd.

For the most part I expect my responses to the questions I was able to play with on Sunday to be very similar to what I said them.  (Although I reserve the right to have changed my mind in the meantime!)  There are also several questions that were asked more than once (in slightly different ways).  I'll group them together here.  (And I'd remind readers that these are only my responses, and my responses today, at that.)

You love superheroes.  What is a superhero with a particularly spiritual lesson?

I've just started reading what promises to be a fascinating book, The Caped Crusade:  Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, by Glenn Weldon.  (Simon & Schuster, 2017).  I heard about the book when an article appeared on my newsfeed titled, "Meet the Professor Who's Going to Teach a College Course All About Batman."  In that interview, the professor, Steven Levya of the University of Baltimore, talked about how Weldon's book had really inspired him to develop the course.  Part of Weldon's premise is that, besides being a human with no extraordinary super power, the Batman is also different from his heroic colleagues in at least one other way -- over the years he has changed.

Superman, for instance, over his more than 70 year run has always been basically Superman, "the Big Blue Schoolboy."  His personality, his way of being in the world has been pretty constant.  So too, let;s say, Spider Man, who has been almost invariably angst-ridden.  Batman, on the other hand, has been depicted in numerous ways, from the campy portrayal of Adam West in the TV show of the 1960s, to the quasi-fascist of Frank Miller's seminal (and truly awesome) The Dark Night Returns.  He has been unshakably self-assured, and neurotic as all get out.  And to a large extent, the various version of the Caped Crusader can be seen as reflecting the zeitgeist of the times.

Yet the many moods of the Batman can also be viewed as a mirror we can hold up to ourselves, for we're also filled with more than one version of ourselves.  As Whitman famously wrote, "Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes."  So the Batman shows us a hero with no special powers (except, perhaps, his fortune), who is able to overcome virtually any obstacle placed in this path, even while expressing a panoply of possible selves, a person who, like us, "contains multitudes."

How do we prepare for August 12th?

This is a hard one, because each of us had our own experiences of last August 12th which we'll be bringing to this August 12th.  And none of us know exactly what is going to happen -- there are no planned events like the "Unite the Right" rally, yet it is virtually certain that there will be some kind of hate-fueled presence.  It is likely that there'll be more than one "spontaneous" action popping up without (at least much) warning.  So ... how do we prepare when we're not really sure what we're preparing for?

I'd say that one think we can do is double down on whatever it is that connects us to "that inner place of peace" and that outer experience of connection to others and to all that is.  Call it Love, call it Community, call it The Interconnected Web of All Existence -- call it God, if you wish -- yet what we call it is not as important as being intentional about feeding ourselves with it.  For love to conquer hate we must do all that we can to be in touch ourselves with that Love ("known by many names yet by no name fully known").

It's also really important to remember that we are always stronger together than we are alone.  There a whole lot of people throughout Charlottesville who are also trying to figure out how best to prepare for this date -- both the way it will bring up memories of the past, and whatever may happen this year.  The Charlottesville Clergy Collective is offering a number of events leading up to, and on, August 12th.  (We have them listed on our website.)  There's also the #resilientcville website, the city's effort to inform people of the constructive things being planned.  Congregate Charlottesville, a group that began as a subset of the Clergy Collective membership and which favors nonviolent direct action, has also been making plans for the 12th of August.  Each of these, all of these resources offer ways to connect with, and be with, others both as that anniversary approaches, and on the day(s) itself.

Our congregation is going to be proactively organized than we knew to be last year.  We will be asking people who plan to participate in one or more of the events to let our leadership know so that we can spread the word -- "There'll be a group of UUs meeting at such-and-such a time, in such-and-such a place.  Contact so-and-so for more information."  This way folks can know that they do not participate alone, even in the midst of a crowd.

One last thought -- it may take a long time, it may not seem as though it is true, but love is always stronger than hate.  Always.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Responses to the Questions II

This past Sunday, July 22nd, I facilitated the "Questions & Responses" service we have annually in the congregation I serve.  Congregants write questions on index cards, which are then collected, and to which I offer my in-the-moment responses.  Over the next several weeks I plan to devote this page to attempts to offer written responses.  If you'd like to see the entire list of questions asked, they're the bulk of my post-Sunday post on July 23rd.

For the most part I expect my responses to the questions I was able to play with on Sunday to be very similar to what I said them.  (Although I reserve the right to have changed my mind in the meantime!)  There are also several questions that were asked more than once (in slightly different ways).  I'll group them together here.  (And I'd remind readers that these are only my responses, and my responses today, at that.)

Help me learn to pray, please.

Given that I've literally written a book on prayer, this feels something like a softball.  (Simply Pray: a modern spiritual practice to deepen your life, Skinner House Books, 2005.)  Yet before responding to this question specifically, I want to pull back and address the larger issue of "spirituality."

I think that the heart of "spirituality," shorn of any particular theological overly, is the universal observation that there are, let's say, two ways of living -- living in such a way that we are truly and deeply alive, and, well not that.  Our Unitarian Transcendentalist ancestor Henry David Thoreau wrote in his classic book Walden that he wished to live in such a way that when he came to die he would not discover that he had not lived.  (That's a rough paraphrase.)  And this sense that there are two kinds of living can be found in nearly every religious tradition we humans have developed -- alive and dead, living in sin and living in the spirit, deluded and enlightened, asleep and awake.  I could go on, but probably don't have to.  "Spirituality," then, has to do with this living life rather than not-life.  This would mean that spiritual practices -- like prayer -- are tools to use in the effort to be alive.

How, then, do you pray?  I'd say that we should pray in the way that "works" for us.  It's not necessary to believe in some anthropomorphic deity with whom we "talk."  It's not necessary for "prayer" to involve "talking" at all -- either externally or interiorly.
I'll digress here to make a plug for another book project I've been involved with.  In 1999, Skinner House Books published the ground-breaking Everyday Spiritual Practice:  simple pathways for enriching your life.  It's an anthology which offers an extremely wide variety of understanding of just what could justifiably be called a spiritual practice.  Earlier this year, Skinner House Books published something of a successor -- Faithful Practices:  Everyday Ways to Feed Your Spirit.  I was honored to have been the editor for this anthology, which includes examples of spiritual practices as wide ranging as sitting zazen, blowing bubbles, walking through your neighborhood, chopping vegetables, playing roller derby, and "playing" with action figures.  (Guess who wrote that chapter?)
To learn to pray, then, in it's most expansive understanding, is to (again) feel your way to the answer.  What are you doing when you're feeling most alive?  Most connected to the universe?  I'd say that you could call that "prayer" and that, after defining it that way, paying attention to how your experience of it might change.

[If, of course, this question was actually a specific request for help in learning to do the "talking to" kind of prayer, this response may not have been at all helpful.  I would, somewhat modestly, recommend my book as one resource.  There are many others I could suggest, and I know that I would be glad to talk with you directly if this is your question.  (Whether you actually wrote this question or not.)]

I am trying to find my space in this liberal religion -- where there are more questions than anything else.  Where do I start?

I'll begin my response by saying that, properly understood, Unitarian Universalism is filled with lots of answers as well as questions.  It should!  What would be the point of asking questions if we were never to find an answer to them?  That said, our faith tradition encourages us to hold on to the answers we've found ... lightly.  We're encouraged to be willing to let them go when new experiences lead us to new ways of thinking.  There are two quotes I love which speak to this.  The first comes from someplace I've never known, "if you're not willing (or able) to change your mind, how do you know you still have one?"  The other, which I just heard a week or so ago, comes from the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton.  He once wrote, "If the you of five years ago doesn't consider the you of today a heretic, you're not growing spiritually."

All that said, I think it's important to remember that there are not set answers for you to find.  Unitarian Universalism invites us to look to our own lives as "sacred scriptures," as full of depth and meaning as any text revered by one of the world's great religions.  I've often said that for UUs, "experience precedes theology."  I mean that, in a great many other traditions, we are told what, for instance, God is like, and are then encouraged to go out and look for experiences of that in our lives and in the world.  We, on the other hand, invite us to first look to our own lived experiences to identify what we would consider "sacred" or "holy" (whether or not those are the words we'd use).  Then, after discovering our own experience, we can apply more traditional religious language, or not.  (I once wrote what I think was a pretty good sermon about this.  I'll see if I can find it, and I'll post it here sometime in the future.)

Well ... those two questions took up a lot of space, so I'll hold it here for today and come back tomorrow with more responses to more questions.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Response to the Questions I

This past Sunday, July 22nd, I facilitated the "Questions & Responses" service we have annually in the congregation I serve.  Congregants write questions on index cards, which are then collected, and to which I offer my in-the-moment responses.  Over the next several weeks I plan to devote this page to attempts to offer written responses.  If you'd like to see the entire list of questions asked, they're the bulk of my post-Sunday post on July 23rd.

For the most part I expect my responses to the questions I was able to play with on Sunday to be very similar to what I said them.  (Although I reserve the right to have changed my mind in the meantime!)  There are also several questions that were asked more than once (in slightly different ways).  I'll group them together here.  (And I'd remind readers that these are only my responses, and my responses today, at that.)

Why have Jews been hated/killed/ostracized for millennia (including, of course, in many quarters now)?

I think that there are at least two answers.  From a traditional, orthodox Jewish theological perspective (as I understand it), I might say that it is in some ways "G_d's will."  What I mean is that a tenant of Judaism is that the Jewish people are singled out, specially and specifically chosen by G_d -- "G_d's chosen people."  And throughout the Jewish scriptures were told of a G_d who tests and challenges people.  (Think of Job, for instance.)  These "tests" are, in my understanding of the most orthodox thinking, a means by which G_d demonstrates G_d's magnificence and magnaminousn-ess.  Individuals, and the people of Israel as a whole, go though untold persecution of many kinds, in order to demonstrate G_d's ability to bring them through it to safety.  (I want to be clear -- this is far from a universally held understanding, and no doubt many Jews would find such thinking abhorrent.  I also want to acknowledge that I may have this entirely wrong, and am viewing orthodox Jewish teachings through the lens of orthodox Christian teachings.  I would be very happy to be corrected!)

The other answer that makes sense to me is that Jewish monotheism was in stark contrast to the polytheism which prevailed all around them.  In places like Greece or Rome, for instance, worship of the gods was both assumed and expected.  But the people of Israel wouldn't engage in the traditional practices, because their one G_d had specifically commanded them not to worship idols and false gods.  This put them at odds with the prevailing culture, which is never a good place to be.

This alienation was further expanded as the early Christian church was being born.  The earliest Christians were actually Jews who say no reason to give up their Jewish-ness, believing that Jesus represented the fulfillment of Jewish teaching.  Most other Jews didn't agree, and these Jewish-Christians were pushed out of synagogues and denigrated as heretics.  In their efforts to gain more converts to this nascent faith, Jewish-Christians (and, then, Gentile-Christians) needed to show how their religion was "better" than the Jewish faith from which they'd sprung.  That, and perhaps an all too human impulse to attack those who've attacked you, led to a number of anti-semetic sentiments written into the New Testament and embedded in practice.  Over time, this animosity became normative, and as Christianity developed into a temporal power as well as a spiritual one, it became increasingly acceptable to use the Jews as scapegoats for all sorts of imagined problems.

From a religious perspective, what does "community" mean?

"Community" comes from the same root as "common" and "communion," and as it applies specifically to human communities, it denotes a group of people who have something in common and who have with one another a deep connection (perhaps the underlying meaning of "communion").  A "community," then, is a group of people with whom a person can be their true self, knowing that they will be accepted, loved, and even celebrated for who they are in their wholeness.

Finding a place?  Finding a passion?

Assuming that these are questions about how to find a place and one's passion, I would say that this isn't something you can think your way to.  I believe that the path to one's place and passion is through feelings.  When do you feel most alive?  Where do you feel most yourself?  Where, and to what, do you feel yourself drawn?  More than making a list of pros and cons, tuning in to how you feel is most likely to lead you toward your answers.  And they will be your answers.  No one else can answer these questions for you ... although a lot of people may try.  (I'd also note that attempting to passively "find" you place and your passion is not enough, and might not even have much chance of success.  I think you need to be active in creating your place, and  developing you passion.  Waiting for them to come to you might make it a long wait.)

So ... there are my responses to the first three questions.  I think I'll try to keep responding to about three questions a day.

Pax tecum,


Monday, July 23, 2018

Questions & Responses 2018

These are the Opening and Closing words I offered for the "Questions & Responses" service at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia on July 22, 2018.  I responded to as many of the questions as I could, as best I could in the moment.  This post also includes all of the questions to come out of the congregation.

Opening Words:

It is common in a great many Unitarian Universalist congregations for the settled preacher to offer what’s often called a “Question Box Sermon” – congregants write questions on index cards, which are then collected and which the preacher does her best to answer.  I first encountered this practice in our congregation in Yarmouth, Maine, where it was known instead as “Stump the Minister Sunday.”  It had become the tradition there to ask questions so complex, so erudite, or so niche that it was unlikely that the preacher would be able to answer.  It was also a chance to have some fun.  In my first year, for instance, I was asked for the average air speed velocity of an unladen swallow, to which I replied, “African or European?”  (I have since learned that the average air speed velocity of an unladen European swallow, at least is roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles an hour.)

Fun though this was, I have always that these “Question Box Sermons” shouldn’t be a challenge to the congregation to come up with ever more esoteric questions for the minister but, instead, an opportunity for a congregation to “test” their ordained minister and to see how their mind works (in situ, as it were).  In some of the schools within the Zen Buddhist traditions there is something known as “dharma combat. “  As I understand it, a student who is preparing to become a teacher comes before the sangha which then questions him to test the breadth of their knowledge and the depth of their understanding. 

“Question Box Sermons” also provide an opportunity for both the ordained minister – and the congregation itself – to learn just what questions members are wrestling, or dancing, with.  What’s on your minds?  What questions, what concerns, what issues are “uppermost on your minds and deepest in your hearts”?  What, if you could ask me anything, what would you ask?

One other thought:  I have learned that the author Brian McLaren no longer offers Q&A sessions after his talks.  He used to, but he no longer does.  Instead, he now offers a time for “Q&R”.  He’s said that he now realizes that he will have answers to people’s questions may be a little presumptuous– especially if they are deep and meaningful ones.  Now he promises only to offer his most considered response.

The Questions:
  • Why have Jews been hated/killed/ostracized for millennia?  (Including, of course, in many quarters now?)
  • From a religious perspective, what does "community" mean?
  • Finding a place?  Finding a passion?
  • Help me to learn to pray, please.
  • I am trying to find my space in this liberal religion, where there are more questions than anything else.  Where do I start?
  • You love superheroes.  What is a superhero with a particularly spiritual lesson?
  • How do we discourage harmful "group-think" bandwagons?
  • How do we explain the evil in the world, such as terrorism, to our young children?
  • I'm 77.  My grandchildren are grown.  What do I do with the rest of my life?
  • What was your most spiritually fulfilling moment?
  • What is your least favorite thing about Unitarian Universalism?
  • Sometimes there are questions that ministers wish they were asked.  Is there a question you wish to be asked and to answer?
  • Define "prayer."
  • How do you discern when a decision is selfish or healthy self-care?  Particularly regards limiting contact with family members with mental health issues?
  • As an atheist, with no belief in an afterlife, reward or punishment (eternal or otherwise), what is the point of being virtuous or "good"?
Those were the questions I was able to answer during the service.  Here are the rest:
  • It breaks my heart to see the dissension here these days.  How can we come together again -- respecting our differences and honoring mutual love again?
  • What can Unitarian Universalists learn from Christianity (or from Jesus) that can help guide our lives?
  • How do different religions in the world offer support for those who are persecuted?
  • We love TJMC and all who work in it so arduously.  Is it possible that the anxious disunity fostered by current political establishment might undermine Unitarian Universalist's attempt to unify everyone?
  • How do you stay in community with family members who have racist views?
  • Where can I find hope or joy?  I used to find them in nature.  Now I am saddened by man's destruction of the earth.  I used to have faith in the goodness o humans.  It is overshadowed by evil.  How do we face despair?
  • In this world, this hurting world, both large and in my small world, where the needs are huge and often conflicting, how do I choose where to put my energy, and how do I find peace in myself in the midst of so much?
  • How much would could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
  • Is he church available for hosting  U.S. Chess Federation sponsored chess tournaments (on occasional weekends)?
  • "Love" and "Spirituality," are they the same thing?
  • How does racial justice work and social action affect you in your day-to-day life?
  • I once heard a minister say that Unitarian Universalists do not believe in an afterlife.  Is this a universal doctrine for UUs?  I want to believe that there is something next!
  • Please translate your closing words.  Thank you.
  • Why do so many choose to follow religious beliefs based on impossible miraculous and likely mythical events, rather than use critical reasoning to form their belief systems?
  • Why does racism exist in Charlottesville?  Or anywhere?
  • Why is music an important part of many different religious services?
  • How can I soothe myself and others when there is so much pain in our world?
  • How can we deal, spiritual, with our sense that this country is heading into an existential crisis?
  • What hymn do you love or think is particularly meaningful?
  • How do we encourage more volunteers?
  • Would you be willing to take a pay cut to stay?
  • Could we have more music?
  • Tell me just shy I am here when Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth are both in contention at the British Open?
  • What would you like us to know about the many challenges of [being] lead minister?
  • When your child (who is 6) asks you if there is a god, and her parents don't agree on the answer, how do you answer her?  Explain how Unitarian Universalism can help her figure it out?
  • What can an atheist say as a pre-meal "grace" when asked to do so by conventionally religious persons?

A lot of really good questions, no?  I've never done this before, but I think that I will write responses to these on this blog over the next several weeks.  Stay tuned!

Closing Words:

For closing words how could I not offer this well-known passage from Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1903 book,  Letters to a Young Poet:

...I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Pax tecum,


Sunday, July 15, 2018


This is the text of the reflections I offered at the congregation I serve on Sunday, July 15, 2018.

In the late 80s, early 90s, Sam, Diane, and, of course, Norm, were household names.   They were part of the TV “family” that gathered in a fictional Boston bar, and whose various ups and downs and absurdities formed the content of each episode.  The heart of the show, though, was the idea of a place, “where everybody knows your name.”  It wasn’t an instant hit, though.  Out of the 77 shows in its timeslot on the night of Cheers’ premier in September of 1982, it ranked 74th.  Thirty years later, however, roughly twenty years after the show ended, TV Guide put it at #11 on their list of the “60 Greatest Shows of All Time.”  For many, during the decade it was on, Cheers was the epitome of “Must See Thursday.”

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came;
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same;
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

[Feeling a little nostalgic?  Of course, the fact that I think of this as bringing a contemporary reference into these reflections shows just how old I really am.]

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”   I come back to this quote from the English novelist Jane Howard over and over again.  “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”

Since its inception in 1972, the General Social Survey has gathered data on contemporary American society in order to monitor and explain trends and constants in attitudes, behaviors, and attributes.  Hundreds of trends have been tracked in those years. Actually, since the GSS adopted questions from earlier surveys, trends can be followed for nearly 7 decades.

1985 was the first year that the GSS collected data on the number of confidants with whom Americans discuss important matters. In the 2004 GSS the authors replicated those questions to assess social change in core network structures. Discussion networks, as they’re called, were significantly smaller in 2004 than in 1985. The number of people who said that there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled.  In her article, “The Loneliness of American Society,” Janice Shaw Crouse interpreted the data like this: 

“a quarter of the respondents — one in four — said that they have no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs. If family members are not counted, the number doubles to more than half of Americans who have no one outside their immediate family with whom they can share confidences. Sadly, the researchers noted increases in “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connection to close friends and family.”

This has become almost a mantra:  we are the most connected society in the history of humanity, and also the loneliest.

Dr. Emma M. Seppälä is Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University and Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project at Yale University She wrote an article for Psychology Today titled, Connect To Thrive:  Social Connection Improves Health, Well-Being & Longevity.”  In it she wrote:

Social connection improves physical health and psychological well-being. One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. On the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity.  Social connection strengthens our immune system […], helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life.   [She notes research by Steve Cole, Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences in the UCLA School of Medicine, which shows that there are actually genes impacted by social connection, and that these also code for immune function and inflammation.]

It’s easy to scape goat technology – the rise of social media, in particular – to explain the seeming conundrum of our being connected yet alone.  “All that time spent on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat,” many people say, “and maybe particularly all the MMORPGs, those Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, that “all the kids” seem so obsessed with, look like they’re providing community, yet it’s a very shallow kind of community.”  (I said, “all the kids” are obsessed with these games, yet there are quite a few adults who are massively pumped and have already bought their Season Five Battle Pass in hopes of finding out just what the heck is up with those cracks in the sky in Fortnite.  Or so I’ve heard.  But I digress.)  It’s common to hear people opine that social media offers only pseudo-connectivity, a mere simulacrum of the real thing.

Not so fast, other experts say.  A study carried out at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, reported in Science Daily, observed, “Training older people in the use of social media improves cognitive capacity, increases a sense of self-competence and could have a beneficial overall impact on mental health and well-being.”  And a 2010 study led by Abilene Christian University found that, “students who returned to school after freshman year had significantly more Facebook friends and wall posts than those who didn't return.”  Reporting on it for Wired, Brian Chen wrote, “Rather than being an escape from reality, social media may mirror real life: More actively connected students on Facebook were most likely also connectors in the real world.  He quotes the lead on the research saying, "The study was able to show that these students who are more active on Facebook are also out there getting involved, making new friends and taking part of activities that the university provides for them."

So what is this all about, this apparent fact that we, as a society, are increasingly disconnected even in our overly-connected world?  I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that at least part of the reason is that relationships – real, deep, meaningful relationships – are a lot of work.  And I think they’re hard in at least three ways.

First, relationships take time.  Real, deep, genuine, heart-to-heart relationships don’t appear suddenly, out of nowhere, fully formed from the head of Zeus (as it were); they don’t get heated up in a microwave, they need to simmer, to slow cook.  Part of it is longevity – our deepest relationships are often with people who’ve known for a long, long time.  They’re with people with whom we don’t have to recount the details of our lives again and again, because these friends have been there through the good times and the bad.  This means they also take time invested.  Being there through the good times and the bad times requires us to actually be there through the good times and the bad times, and that takes time.

Oh, I know that a lot of folks have friends with whom we’re in touch only sporadically yet with whom, when we are in touch, it seems that we pick up right where we left off as if no time had passed at all.  Of course, usually such relationships were already deep, yet often these aren’t people who’d meet the criteria the GSS uses in their studies.  I once heard the kind friendship the GSS is talking about as people I know I could call in the middle of the night and who would drop everything and get in their cars or on a plane to go from wherever they are to wherever I am in order to be with me.  That significantly lowers the number of people on my list.

A second reason real, deep, genuine, heart-to-heart relationships are hard is because they require commitment.  They require us to hang in there even when the relationship gets strained.  We have to be there for each other “through thick and thin” not only in relation to the world around us, but the world between us as well.  The “good times and the bad times” doesn’t just refer to the promise that you will be there for me when I experience good times and bad times, and that I’ll do the same for you.  It means that we’re there for and with each other when we, together, when our relationship is going through good times or bad ones. To take something I often say to my kids, it means continuing to love each other even when we don’t particularly like each other very much.

And that’s hard, isn’t it?  That’s really hard.  When you think that I’ve offended you; when I think that you’re being unfair and nasty to me.  When I’ve hurt you, and you’ve hurt me.  I’m not talking about obviously unhealthy, abusive relationships.  Let’s be clear about that.  I’m not talking about “sticking it out” through any kind of abuse “for the sake of the relationship.”  There’s a power imbalance there, and can be real danger, and that’s not what I’m talking about.  (I would argue, that’s not really – can’t really be – the kind of deep and genuine relationship we’re talking about here in the first place.)  I’m talking about otherwise healthy, equal, mutual relationships which have stood the test of time yet which are, right now, strained to the point perhaps even of breaking.  I’m talking about taking a deep breath and leaning into that discomfort, knowing that the relationship is, ultimately, worth it.

Because that experience of someone knowing our name, really knowing who we are, and always being glad we came, no matter what’s going on with me or between us – that’s a deep human longing.  More than that, it’s a deep human need.

And it’s one of the reasons for faith communities.  It’s one of the reasons that people come together in places like this – we’re looking for a place in which we feel known, seen for who we are, appreciated, and loved.  We’re looking for a place, and a people, in which, and by which, we feel that we belong.  And think about it – if a real, deep, genuine, heart-to-heart relationship is really hard work between two people, then it’s got to be a whole lot harder among hundreds.  The complexity, the challenges, the opportunities for disappointments and pain, the work of it, is all exponentially increased.

Those of you who have been waiting for me to name the third reason I think relationships in which we’re really known are such hard work, here it is.  Truth be told, they’re scary.  For many of us it is so, so, very, very scary.  Because being known, deeply and fully, requires us to open ourselves up deeply and fully.  It requires me to really trust showing you who I really am, allowing you to see who I really am down beneath what I show to the world; it requires my showing you the truths of who I am that I don’t want anyone to see. 

A few years ago, when we did the Beloved Conversations program here, quite a number of us took part in the weekend workshop with which it begins.  The last exercise of the first evening had a profound impact on a lot of us, I’d dare say on most of us.  I won’t go through the whole thing this morning, but suffice it to say that it brought us in deep enough to look at, and name, our deepest, most fundamental fear.  We did this on our own, but then we were asked, if we were willing, to share them with one another.  And here, in this sanctuary, with the protective shroud of nighttime’s darkness around us, person after person dared to speak aloud their deepest fear.  These were folks many of us would identify as leaders in the congregation, people we’d identify as those we admire, and some we might say we aspire to be more like.  And nearly every one of these strong, wise, successful people said nearly exactly the same thing:  “I’m afraid that if people really knew me, they wouldn’t like me.”  I’m afraid that if people really knew me, really knew “my name,” really knew me deeply, genuinely, and in a truly heart-to-heart way, they wouldn’t like me.  I wouldn’t be accepted. I wouldn’t be loved.

And that’s the Catch-22, isn’t it?  In our desire to belong, to be deeply known, we hide sometimes great swaths of ourselves for fear of being rejected, being told that we don’t belong.  The third thing that makes these real relationship we seek so very, very hard is that we want to be known, and yet we don’t want to risk actually being known.  We don’t think we can risk it.

So here’s the thing – to the extent that we do risk it, to the extent that we do allow both the good times and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad times to have equal freedom between and among us, to that extent and only to that extent will our relationships be the kind of real, deep, genuine, heart-to-heart relationships we want and which, ultimately, we need (not just for the sake of our immune and inflammation related genes, but for our souls).

This can be such a community, my friends.  This has been such a community for many of us over the years, and hard as it can be to believe at times, I truly believe that this is such a community right now.  Challenges, difficulties, disagreements – even hard and harsh ones – are not necessarily a sign that things are going wrong.  It’s what we do with them that determines what they mean for us.  If we lean into them; if we commit ourselves to sticking with it and each other; if we do lean into the discomfort (while clearly rejecting any abusiveness we might see); if we remember that the relationships that are this community are, ultimately, more important than the transitory happiness and satisfaction of any one of us; if, in other words, we do the hard, hard work real relationships require, we can, we will, prove to one another and to ourselves that even when we do show each other who we really are, we will be accepted and loved for who we are.  This then will be for us – each of us and all of us; you, me, and those who’ve not yet even found this community – this will then truly be a place where everybody knows our name, and really, truly are glad we came.  It is my hope that each of us can find even a taste of that here, and that each of us will do what we can to ensure that this is such a place for others.

Pax tecum,