The Longest Night @BFUU

It is the dark time of the year. Each day has grown shorter as we have approached the winter solstice. So often we use light as a positive symbol. Our flaming chalice is only one example. The Hanukah Menorah is another. Don’t let the light go out we sang this morning. Light is a good thing, but we need the dark too. We need the night as a time to rest and to sleep, and we need the winter as a time to rest and recover before we begin yet another year.

Today, tonight really, is the winter solstice. The celebration of the winter solstice is an earth-centered tradition, a very ancient one. Christmas celebrations have always incorporated some of the solstice rituals, of food, of holly, and of fire. We are so connected to this earth. Our planet spins through space and tilts on its axis giving us seasons and changes in light and warmth.

The changing of the seasons can sometimes seem to mirror the changes in our lives. We grow older, we change jobs or we retire, we move up a grade in school, we make new friends. Very little in life stays the same for very long. We are always saying hello to something new, and we are always saying goodbye to things that we thought might be with us always. There is loss in life. There is grief. Loved ones die, we lose touch with good friends, relationships and things break and cannot be repaired.

Life is not all about the future. We carry our past within our hearts and minds. We carry our experiences in our bodies too, in our very bones. We carry them in our scars and in our strengths. Many of the lessons we have learned from living are much too valuable to cast aside. We have to learn to add and subtract before we can learn multiplication and long division, much less calculus.

There are lessons from the earth as well, if we let ourselves feel them. The earth in winter takes in all the brown leaves and the plants that have died in the fall, buries them beneath the snow in some climates, and changes them, making a rich loam from which new life might grow in the springtime.

Sometimes we need to let some of our old leaves fall to the ground so that new ones can be born. Yes, that is a metaphor.

In a few minutes we will do a ritual, common in various forms among those who celebrate the solstice for its darkness as well as for the promise of the coming light.

 

All of us have things we carry that we have outgrown, that no longer serve us, and that prevent us from moving forward. Sometimes we carry these for years. It can be anything.

The dry brittle twigs of old hurts and resentments can prevent us from reaching out to others in friendship or in love. Old failures can prevent us from trying again.

A bad grade on a science test, a fumbled fly ball, some mistake or disappointment that happened long ago might be keeping us from discovering a new invention or the joy of a game of soccer well played.

 

I invite you to ponder for a few minutes about what you have been holding within you that no longer serves you well. For the adults and older youth, try to think of things that happened a year or more ago that still plague you, things that you turn over again and again in your mind. Events you relive, perhaps in pain, perhaps in regret, perhaps in anger.

 

You also might want to consider some of the hopes or desires that you may be still holding on to, even though you know they will never happen, things that might prevent you from appreciating what you have. What old habits need to go?

 

Don’t worry now, if you can, about the fresher stuff.

Sometimes, most times, we need to process serious events for at least a year, to let them simply swirl within us just as our planet turns and circles all the way around the sun. Some things also can take longer just because they are very hard. Violence and betrayal are two things that can take years to heal, and if you have experienced that, you might not be ready yet to let them go. That is OK. But try now, if you can, to set all of those newer and all those still very difficult things aside for now, just for the rest of the hour.

Focus instead on something older, something you might be ready to put away, to bury in the healing darkness of the winter night.

For our younger people in particular, it might be difficult to think back to something that happened a long time ago. If that is true for you, just think of some feeling, some hurt, some regret, some wish even, that you don’t want to have anymore.   Even if it is something that happened yesterday, that is OK.

 

The children will now begin passing around a basket of pieces of tissue paper and felt tip pens. I’d like each of you to take a piece of that tissue paper. You may have to share the pens.

This ritual is sometimes done with fire, but today we are going to use water. We will have some time for you to settle on one thing that you would like to leave behind you, something that needs to be transformed or simply composted, thrown into the trash.

 

Holly will be playing her music as we do this. Listen to it for a while, and then when you are ready please come forward and drop your piece of paper into this bowl.

It isn’t necessary, but if you want to whisper a word or two naming what you are leaving behind, either to me or directly into the bowl, that is also fine.

After all who want to have had a chance to add something to the bowl, we will prepare it for composting.

 

Does everyone have a piece of paper and a pen? Share if you need to.

Now just listen to the music, think quietly, and then write or draw whatever comes to you. Don’t feel rushed. There is plenty of time.

Please come forward when you are ready. (Holly plays again)

 

We bless this bowl containing so many troubles, so many heartaches, so many hopes and unfulfilled dreams. Feeling them, living through them, has made us who we are and we are grateful.

They have served their purpose, however, and it is time to let them go. In this dark time of the winter solstice, when the sun seems to stand still in the sky, we give them back to the water and to the earth. (Pour water)

I also add some of the water gathered by this community each fall, symbol of the healing power of love, of friendship, and of faith. (pour water)

There is beauty in this bowl. There is beauty in all of us. We now add some pine needles, putting whatever pain and fear contained here safely to rest. This water will drain these things of their power to harm us in the coming days and years.

Spirits of the darkness, the air, the fire, the water, and the earth, we thank you for being with us and we bid you farewell.

We now turn toward the sun, a little lighter, ready for a new day, new life, and the New Year. Merry meet, and merry part, and merry meet again.  Blessed Be.

 

How the Unitarians Saved Christmas @ BFUU 12/14/14

The religious right has been going on for years about how there is a war against Christmas. If you make the mistake of saying “Happy Holidays” to one of them, you might get blasted. Heaven forbid you say something like Happy Hanukkah, Merry Solstice, or good Kwanza. It is rather bizarre really; because it is in fact corporations that are waging the real war against Christmas. They urge you to spend way more than you can afford and to get in fistfights over parking spots at the mall.

As Unitarian Universalists, we tend to believe that all religious traditions contain some truth, and that we can learn from them. The song we sang with the children last week has the line, “What we know about God is a piece of the truth.” We don’t feel we have a lock on the truth, or on wisdom or on goodness. Because of this we think it is a rather good thing to recognize and try to appreciate the various holidays of this season. So yeah, I say happy holidays quite a bit.

And I love Christmas, the real Christmas, and the one that came after the first war against Christmas. That first war was also about social justice, something that is also dear to my heart.

This morning’s reading from Dicken’s Christmas Carol raised some social justice issues, didn’t it? The two children were called “Ignorance” and “Want.” Doom was written on the boy’s forehead, for ignorance was even more frightening than want, than poverty. The ghost mocked Scrooge with his own words – “Are there no jails, are there no workhouses?”

It reminds me of the modern day war against the poor. Except for the pope, few of the leaders of conservative religions are saying much about predatory capitalism. That was the complaint Dickens had about his society.

Did I mention that Dicken’s was a Unitarian? At the end of the story, Scrooge is saved from himself, by his change of heart and by his actions of generosity. The story ends as follows:

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. ….and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Dicken’s Christmas Carol is a classic. I have always loved it, and I am sure many of you do as well. It really is pure Unitarian Universalist propaganda. God Bless us every One, indeed. The story teaches generosity, kindness, repentance and forgiveness. Scrooge is also saved in this world, not the hereafter.

In a very real way, the Christmas celebrations we know today in the United States would not be happening quite the way they are without the efforts of Unitarians and Universalists. We saved Christmas, yes we did! It is very fitting for a faith that maintains that all are saved. Can I hear a hallelujah? Hallelujah is similar to rock on. Say that if it is more comfortable for you.

Now some of you may not know that Christmas ever needed saving. Our pilgrim fathers (along with the Native Americans who fed the starving strangers) may have been responsible for promoting the Thanksgiving holiday, but they were not fond of Christmas. They even went so far as to try and outlaw it. In 1659, a law was passed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that imposed a fine of five shillings on anyone found to be celebrating Christmas. They were opposed to Christmas for several reasons.

It isn’t biblical of course. No one knows when Jesus was born and the puritans knew that. A Puritan minister at the time wrote:

It can never be proved that Christ was born on December 25. Had it been the will of Christ that the Anniversary of his Nativity should have been celebrated; he would at least have let us known the day.

The second reason is that they were well – Puritans – and they didn’t like the wild Christmas celebrations that were common in Europe, which included lots of drinking and well – rather shall we say rowdy behavior that was a very far cry from “puritanical.”   They also rejected Christmas as a pagan celebration, which of course it was.

They were actually pretty successful for a time in outlawing it. Most people today don’t realize that Christmas Day did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

Unitarian Universalists were largely responsible for that act of Congress. I am indebted to the Reverend Richard Nugent, a Unitarian Universalist minister who a few years ago pulled together much of the history that I will share with you this morning.

The Universalist community in Boston held a special Christmas Day service in 1789, much to the chagrin of the surrounding clergy. The Unitarians began promoting Christmas in the early 1800’s. They didn’t believe that Christmas was the actual birthday of Jesus either, but they liked the idea of a family centered holiday and thought a special season with a tradition of helping the poor and less fortunate was a pretty fine idea.

The celebration of Christmas was the most controversial subject, second only to slavery, within churches at that time.

Liberal clergy like the Unitarians and Universalists, denounced slavery and promoted Christmas, while their conservative colleagues did the exact opposite.

The issue with Christmas tied into both theology and politics. The conservative religion of the time believed in original sin, believed that only some were saved, and even worse, believed that the state of your soul was directly related to your material wealth. No need for charity. The poor were damned by their own sin anyway. Dickens Christmas Carol with his bald statement that ignorance and want were the real evils was in direct contrast to the theology and social policies of his day. The solution to poverty was to punish those who were poor, to put them in workhouses or debtors prisons.

Christmas was the only time of the year when the poor could expect, even demand, some charity from the wealthy. The carol, “We wish you a Merry Christmas” references those times with the figgy pudding verse Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding; Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer: We won’t go until we get some; We won’t go until we get some.” The wealthy did not like this tradition of the unwashed masses gathering at their doors demanding both food and drink.

Unitarians were also responsible for creating or at least spreading several of our most popular Christmas traditions. Dutch and German immigrants first brought the custom of Christmas trees to the United States, but in 1832 Rev. Charles Follen, a Unitarian minister and a professor at Harvard College, put up a tree in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and decorated it. Follen remembered the German Christmases of his youth, and wanted to recreate that magic for his son. He cut a small tree and decorated it with candles, eggshells, and other ornaments. Two women visited his house that year, both authors and Unitarians.

One was Harriet Martineau who was visiting from England and she wrote of the tree and of the gifts given to the Follen children. The other woman was Catherine Sedgwick. She wrote a short story about a Christmas tree that was published in 1836.  Their writings helped spread the tradition of bringing a tree indoors and decorating it.

Another Unitarian minister, Alfred Shurtleff, is supposed to have been the first to put lights in his windows at Christmas. I wonder what he would say about some of the elaborate displays we now see. Even if it is only an historical rumor, I love the idea of a Unitarian starting the whole Christmas light thing. As the religion of love instead of fear, it seems very appropriate to have offered the joy of multicolored lights to this season. It even speaks to the beauty of diversity, doesn’t it? How dull it would be if all the Christmas lights were of one color only, and how sad if none of them twinkled off and on in the night.

Edward Sears, a Unitarian minister, wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” We will sing it at the end of the service. Please pay particular attention to the third verse. Sears lived through the civil war.   His phrase “beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong,” is a clear call for peace and justice in this life, in this world.

In case anyone is starting to wonder, no, the 12 days of Christmas was NOT written by a UU – at least as far as I know.

But back to the antiwar message,

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a contemporary of Edward Sears and also, yes, a Unitarian, wrote the poem about Christmas Bells, which is in our hymnal as #240 which we sang earlier. It was written about the civil war.

 

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

 

Peace on earth, good will to men. Hate is still strong today, isn’t it? It is why young men of color are being killed and why people have needed to be in the streets proclaiming that black lives matter.

 

The Christmas spirit as described by these good Unitarians of our past, is something that can help lead us to change our lives, to change the world for the better. And in keeping with our long standing Unitarian Universalist tradition of changing with the times, and with new understandings, the hymnal words read ‘to all good will” rather than good will to men. Yes, being willing to change CAN be traditional!

Christmas really didn’t become popular, however, until one really important thing happened. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book, The Battle for Christmas, says that a new faith (began) to sweep over American society.

It was the religion of domesticity, which would be represented at Christmas-time not by Jesus of Nazareth but a newer and more worldly deity- Santa Claus.”

Santa Claus. A favorite character of adults and children was really created when a famous poem was written and published. You know the poem, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. It was read to me as a child. I have read it to my own children.   I am sure most of you have read it many times.

Originally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, it may have instead been the work of Henry Livingston.

The poem with its Jolly Old Elf, the sleigh with 8 tiny reindeer, all of it contains the defining cultural creation of Santa Claus.

Now, Moore and Livingston were not Unitarians, BUT the book was illustrated by the political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who was. Nast created the pictures that are how we see Santa Claus today. His engravings, 76 in all, were published in Harper’s Weekly beginning in 1862. He used many images from the poem, but also added his own ideas – he was responsible for placing Santa’s home at the North Pole, for instance. A nice idea that was, as takes Santa beyond the boundaries of any one country. He also created Santa’s elf helpers, and he introduced the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe to the United States.

Christmas imagery was furthered enhanced when another Unitarian, Nathaniel Currier, and his partner, Jims Ives, began making their famous Christmas lithographs

And last but not least in this litany of Unitarians and Christmas cheer, James Pierpont, son of a Unitarian minister and a church musician wrote the popular “Jingle Bells”.

So Unitarians had a really big role in creating Christmas, as we know it. But did they really save it? Can a holiday be saved?

Let’s listen to Dicken’s Scrooge again,

“Merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in them through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?

 

 

If I could work my will,’ said Scrooge indignantly, ‘every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!’

His nephew replied, ‘There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!’

Christmas is a time to think of other people, regardless of their station in life, as fellow passengers in life. I think that is salvation. We may have to save the holiday again because many seem to have forgotten that it is not about greed, about plenty for some, salvation for some, about over-spending, or about arguing about whose holiday it is. It belongs to all of us.   And even though, as Unitarians and Universalists, we helped create this holiday, we are with full hearts more than willing to share it with everyone, in the spirit of the season. Merry Christmas Happy Holidays and God bless us all.

Help for the Holidays

Happy holidays, but what if the holidays aren’t happy?

My heart has been heavy what with the news from Ferguson and New York City. Too many people of color are being killed being by the police, both for minor crimes and for doing nothing at all but trying to live their lives.

They go into a stairwell with their girlfriend and they are killed.   They are 12 years old and playing in a playground with a toy gun and they are killed. They are walking down the street or standing on a corner, driving a car, or simply at home with their families. No one is really being held accountable for these deaths.

We are all, in fact, accountable. It has been going on a long time, this violence. It isn’t about individual prejudices, this oppression. It isn’t about a few racist individuals, although they do play their parts. It is about systemic and structural racism. It will take all of us working together to change the system.

My heart is heavy, but I am also encouraged that the pain and outrage that people of color have lived with so long is being voiced in the streets of every major city. Change does not come easy.

One news clip I saw this week keeps running through my head. Eric Garner’s widow cried out the words, “Who is going to play Santa Claus for our grandkids. Who, indeed, will do that? Who will play Santa Claus or maybe even the savior, for this hurting broken world of ours? If ever we needed a Prince of Peace, we need one now.

No, this holiday season is not a happy one in too many ways. But I do hope that we can still enjoy them. I hope we can slow down enough to look at the lights, to rest a bit, like that turkey described in our reading.

The holidays are always complicated.

This season is an emotionally loaded one. There are so many expectations! It is hard to resist the intense advertising, the message that if you don’t go into debt, you are not in the Christmas spirit. There is also, and this is the most damaging I think, the intense social and psychological pressure to be happy, no matter what is going on in your life, no matter how you are actually feeling.

So let me say, right now, and if you remember nothing else from this service, your feelings are OK, whatever they are. Your feelings are OK. If you aren’t happy, let your tears flow. If you are down and a bit grumpy, give yourself a break. If you are outraged over injustice, go ahead and rant about it. You don’t have to be jolly old St Nick for the entire month or the tranquil Mother Mary either. Trust me, I may share a name with Mother Theresa, but I rarely live up to it. I suspect that sainted lady had her off moments as well.

Even if most of the year we can manage to be content to be merely human, Christmas really puts the pressure on.   Parents can work very hard trying to create magical moments for their children, and then be really disappointed when a young child collapses in tears from simple exhaustion. Disappointments large and small abound. The present that isn’t quite right, the sweater that doesn’t fit. The words that should be spoken and aren’t. The ones said out loud that shouldn’t have been. Christmas happens in the real world, not in the magical kingdom, not in fantasyland. Sometimes the whipping cream has gone rancid. We need to rein in our expectations a bit. Ice cream works just fine on pie, and if it has gone a little icy in the freezer, just scrape it off a little and dig down to the good stuff.

While Christmas lights and carols can cheer you up, they can also bring you down, especially if you are down already. Christmas is the stuff of memories, if it is a holiday we have celebrated. We remember a lot more about the December 25th’s that we have lived through than we do most other dates in the year. Our memories of those other Christmases are very close at hand in this season. Maybe they are of happier times; times spent with loved ones who have since died.

If you are ill, maybe you remember the Christmases when you were healthy, maybe you remember when you were young, when your children were young. Happier times, much happier times, they might seem to you now. Try and remember, though, that even those golden glowing memories were probably not picture perfect when they were happening. Enjoy them in memory, but try not to let them turn the present totally to gray.

Some of you may also be planning on going somewhere this Christmas that you wish you didn’t have to go. Maybe your extended family does more than simply irritate you; perhaps they are truly toxic to your soul, to your sense of self worth and dignity. Maybe your parents – or your children – just seem to love to criticize and nag you. Maybe they go out of the way to antagonize your partner, to question your life choices, your politics, and your religion. Maybe they just are a pain to be around. Try and remember that family is just that, family.

They aren’t your friends necessarily although they can be, and the biological accident of blood relationship doesn’t have to define your self worth. If it is really bad, it is very OK to decide to spend your holidays with friends or even alone.

Or maybe in your heart of hearts your wish for Christmas is to be with that crazy family of yours and have it be a simple nice time for once. A bit of laughter together shared that could heal so many of the wounds. Wishing won’t make it so, but having that dream, and making the attempt year after year is also OK.

Are you getting my message, yet? Your feelings are OK. And for those of you who don’t face any such challenges with your family members – I know there are at least a couple of you out there – Hey, your feelings are OK too. Count your blessings as you are very lucky.

When you are grieving, in the midst of a divorce, or out of work, the holiday cheer around you can become depressing. “Happy Holidays” is a wish; it isn’t an order, a command, a requirement. If you don’t have a lot to be happy about, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. You are just having a hard time, and we all have hard times, especially it seems around holidays.

It is really OK to cry around the Christmas tree or when you light the menorah. Don’t make it worse by beating yourself up about not “really being in the Holiday Spirit.”

We all have many memories of different holiday times, some are good and some are not. If you have ever lived with domestic violence or substance abuse, you know that holidays can be truly horrible when those things are involved. Those unpleasant memories can resurface even in happier times. Shed a tear for them, and if they are in the past, be grateful that the present is better.

It helps, I think, to follow some of the advice of our earlier reading. Enjoy the lights. Enjoy looking at them and enjoy thinking about them and about what they mean.

Light a candle, light a chalice, and make some promises to yourself to keep the flame of hope burning. Like the light in our chalice, the world needs symbols of hope.

Take time to rest, to just relax. It really isn’t necessary to spend every spare moment shopping and stressing out.

Many of us have more things than we need anyway. Spend what money you have in true acts of generosity. Just remember to save that half hour for yourself each and every day.

The last piece of advice from the reading was to make a list of “Things you want for Christmas that aren’t things.” What might be on that list for you?

What do you hope for what do you wish for in the deepest part of your soul?

It could be a wish you have for yourself. Maybe you want work that means something to you, that makes a difference. Maybe you just want a job that pays enough to live on. Maybe there is a relationship that needs healing, someone you used to love that seems like a stranger now. Perhaps you are yearning for a lover, or even for a friend.

Maybe you want to just have a pleasant gathering of family and friends.

It could be a wish for someone else and it could be a wish for the world.

Don’t we all want love and don’t we all want health and happiness? Don’t we all want to be valued for who we are? Can we give those gifts to ourselves, and can we give them to each other?

What about wanting world peace, about wanting justice for all? Wishes don’t always come true, even Christmas wishes, but spending some time with even the seemingly impossible ones can help us to remember what is truly important, and that is very much in keeping with this season.

And then. And then. Slowly try to take a deep breath and just look around you. Find something that warms your spirit. There are miracles in nature, the way the winter light shines after a cleansing rain. Feel the warmth of a fire or the heater coming on. There are small miracles all around you, if you look, no matter what else is going on. Cool water. Warm tea. The way a hot bath can be so relaxing. Notice how the colored lights shine.

Listen to the music. Listen to the children when they laugh. Know that you are not alone, even if you are feeling lonely at the moment. There are people just waiting to exchange a smile with you or to hold you when you cry, to share a clasp of hands, perhaps a meal. There are communities of love not fear.

Look around at each other. This world, this reality, is all we truly need.

Happy Holidays and Blessed Be.

Two Old Poems from my time at Starr King School for the Ministry

With all the negative attention that Starr King School for the Ministry is getting in the press these days, I thought I would share these two poems that I wrote while a student.  I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to study there.  Bless this school….

This prayer was presented at the school’s orientation worship service on Friday, Aug. 27, 2004.

Divine Spirit,

Bless this school,
Bless all of the staff, the students, and the very bones of this building.

Bless our collective hopes and our universal fears. Bless the congregations that nurture and support us, And those we nurture and support in turn.

Teach us to speak the truth,
Both with power and with care.
The world is so full of hurt,
The weight of oppression so heavy,
It sometimes threatens to still our very hearts. Add your endless compassion
To our awkward words and faltering phrases. Guide us to wisdom.
Steep us in humility.

Lend us your strength and power, Soul of all understanding,
May we ride your deep river of Grace Into the valley of justice revealed.

 

A poem from May 2006 when I graduated from SKSM

Seminary Garden

We live in a wild garden here.

Strange plants
Surround us as we wander.
Some with thorns
And some with — Oh so fantastic blooms.

f

Sometimes we tarry on a bench
In rapture captured by
What feels like awesome possibilities found. Other times we struggle,
Bodies and souls clenched in yearning,
Lost amidst the tough weeds
Deep in the dank muck of despair.
Twisting paths through shade and light Cooling breeze and warming sun
Graced by solemn mysteries
Giddy laughter
Leads us on.
Forever on
And back
Again, again
To where it seems we started.

Gates we find,
Some open
Some locked and rusted shut.
We enter –
Or we don’t.
We leave the gate unlatched behind us — Or we don’t.
Others wander with us for a time
Dear souls.

f

Our fingertips touch in passing A whispered exchange Passwords shared,
Promises given.

The garden feeds us as we grow Then
Too suddenly it seems
It is time.

f

Farewell friends
There are more gardens
And wonders to share
We may meet again.
— Or not
But still
Always
We have shared this particular garden, This particular time.
Many blessings on the journey.

Promises, Promises

promise

 

Call to worship (here)

Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, not a creedal one. What does that mean?

Theodore Parker had this to say:

“Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere, its temple all space, its shrine the good heart, its creed all truth, its ritual works of love.”

Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian Minister, is one of my favorites partly because it is said he wrote his sermons with a pistol on his desk because he usually had fugitive slaves hidden in the parsonage.

His ritual really was works of love. Naming our creed all truth was also a definite challenge to the religious mainstream of his day.

Being a creedless faith does not mean we don’t believe in anything.

Creed, by definition, is a system, doctrine, or formula of religious belief. The most famous is the Apostles Creed, the Roman Catholic version:

I believe in God,

the Father almighty,

Creator of heaven and earth,

and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died and was buried;

he descended into hell;

on the third day he rose again from the dead;

he ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;

from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic Church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and life everlasting.

 

There are variations – the Lutherans say “Holy Christian Church” rather than holy catholic church, I guess to avoid confusion.

 

A creed is a statement of beliefs that are taken on faith. Members of religious institutions that have creeds are expected to agree with the beliefs specified in that creed. If you question the Virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or his unique divinity as the only son of God, you can be labeled a heretic. During the reformation, many were burned at the stake for that kind of questioning. Today, people are excommunicated from some faiths because they do not believe or follow all of a church’s teaching.

Parker’s line, “creed all truth,” was an affirmation that people should believe what is true and that truth is subject to testing, to analysis, to science as well as personal experience. Unitarian Universalists believe things. As individuals we all have beliefs, some of which we hold fiercely and passionately. There are also a lot of beliefs that we hold in common with one another. Those beliefs are not a creed, however, because they are not a requirement. They are also subject to change based upon new knowledge or new experience. “Our Creed all truth” but what that truth may be at any given time or for any given person is open to both questioning and doubt.

 

Some people consider our seven principles a creed. Many of us when we first read them, say, “oh yes, that is exactly what I believe!” Let’s look at them now if you will. They are on the back of the order of service. Please note the introductory lines. It does not begin with “I believe” like the apostles creed.   It says instead that we covenant – and what does covenant mean? Simply, a covenant is just a promise. As Unitarian Universalists we make promises; promises to do things. The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are not statements of belief, but rather action plans that we try to follow both as congregations and as individuals. Action plans! Don’t you love it?

 

 

What matters most is not what we believe, but what we do, how we treat other people and how we care for our planet. That is a lot harder work than simply saying you believe in the virgin birth.

 

Am I treating that person that bugs me with respect? Am I fair and just when I deal with others?

Am I working toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all?

OK, I guess you have to believe that these are good things to do, so beliefs are a part of it. But the key is not the belief, but the promise of action.

 

We are described as a covenantal faith because we are a promise making people. We make promises to each other and do our best to be faithful to those promises.

 

Many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations have also adopted congregational covenants that contain promises about how we will be together in a religious community. A sample is as follows:

 

“As a member of our Unitarian Universalist community, I covenant to affirm and promote our Unitarian Universalist principles. I am mindful, that as an individual and as a member of this community, I am accountable for my words, deeds, and behavior.   Therefore, whenever we worship, work, or relate to one another, I covenant that I will:

 

 

 

Treat others with kindness and care, dignity and respect;

Foster an environment of compassion, generosity, fellowship, and
creativity;

Share in the responsibilities of congregational life;

Speak truth as I experience it and listen to all points of view;

Practice direct communication.  Speak to the individual -

not about them;

Act with respect and humility when I disagree with others;

Seek out understanding and wisdom in the presence of conflict;

Be true to my chosen path although the way may twist and turn, and
 support others on their journeys;

Resolve conflicts through intentional compromise and collaboration
 and, when necessary, request facilitation and/or mediation. “

 

Our board of trustees is in the midst of discussing adopting such a covenant for themselves, and is also considering proposing something similar for the congregation to discuss and then vote on. Such covenants have been proven to enhance the positive feeling of community and to reduce the rancor that can be involved in some conflict situations.

 

Speaking directly to each other and not about each other is probably the hardest promise in that covenant.   What fun it is to complain to a sympathetic ear about something someone else has done! How much harder it is to tell the person directly that you don’t like what they did and why.

 

One point on that: it really isn’t necessary to tell people to their face every little thing we don’t like about them. We all have personal flaws and quirks that it would be a bit rude to have pointed out to us. We all make mistakes. But if we are upset enough about something that we begin to gossip or complain to others about someone else, then we need to express those feelings directly.   It is about respect. It is how most of us would like to be treated. It also prevents misinformation from being spread and the community being torn apart by rumor and innuendo. Acting with respect and humility when you disagree with someone is also important. None of us can be right all of the time, and opinions expressed in arrogance are destructive in a religious community.

 

So no creed, but what do Unitarian Universalists believe? Has anyone here ever been asked that question? It can be a hard one, because there is not a simple answer to what is really the wrong question.

 

When someone asks that question, they are usually asking for a creed, for something that all Unitarian Universalists believe.

One way to answer is to say that we believe different things based on what makes sense to us as individuals. Some of us believe in God and some of us don’t. It can help here to say what you believe.

We don’t have a creed as a faith community, but as individuals many of us have personal credos. (kree- dough)

 

There is a curriculum for youth which includes drafting their own statements of belief, which is what a credo is. It is a good exercise for adults as well. What do you believe about God, about what happens after you die, about the purpose and meaning of life? Those are questions worth exploring.

 

Creeds, in and of themselves, are not bad things. It helps to know what you believe, because what you believe matters. Is all human life sacred? What does that mean to you in terms of supporting the death penalty? Are children born good, evil, or do they have potential for both? What does that mean to you if you are a parent or a teacher?

 

One of the especially sweet things about Unitarian Universalism is that we can have a wide variety of individual credos, a wide variety of beliefs, but can still decide to be together in religious community.   You can believe in the Apostles creed that I read earlier and be a Unitarian Universalist.

 

You can be an atheist, a pagan, a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, you can hold any theology that makes sense to you.

 

You can still be figuring out what you believe, and you can change your mind about what that is over time.

 

The question, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” as I said, is really the wrong question. A better one is perhaps, “What is Unitarian Universalism?”

The best answer is that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith. We are bound together by our promises. Covenants are not contracts, but statements of intent. How we live into those promises, the actions we take in our lives and in the world are what matters.

 

Covenants also aren’t rules or laws. You don’t go to jail or get throw out of the community if you break your promises from time to time. We all break our promises sometimes. We are human and we do not always live up to our best intentions. But living according to covenant can bring us back to those intentions when we fail short. We can forgive each other and ourselves. Then, we can we begin again together in love.

 

Bottom line, the test of faith in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not about believing the right thing; it is rather about doing what is right. May we all strive to live up to our highest aspirations for the good.

Namaste

Promises

Promises, promises

Which ones will we make?

Are they ones we will keep

Or ones we will break?

 

What does it matter?

Do we really care?

Will we look for the courage?

To take up the dare?

 

It is not always easy

To be kind or be good

We’ll fall on our faces

We won’t do as we should

 

But it’s still worth the effort

Although we will fail

Even when we blow it

We won’t end up in jail

 

A promise is a promise

It’s not a command

It is pledge for the future

So we know where to stand

 

I’ll remind you of yours

You’ll remind me of mine

Our promises together

Will bear fruit in good time

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Muscle of Ministry

9232583-cartoon-of-woman-picking-up-a-heavy-box-it-causes-her-back-pain

They ache sometimes

My arms my legs

The work is hard

The path is steep

The lifting can be heavy

Sometimes sweat drips down

Into my eyes

My hair a wet halo

A crown of tears

One could imagine

 

None of that matters

In the end

That ultimate reality

That stands beneath us all

Did I love enough

Did I speak the truth

Did I find some ways

To help the spirit do

What the spirit needs to do

 

One beating heart

It’s all I have

To share

With hurting souls

It keeps me going

That strong muscle

Not mine alone

A gift of grace

I pray it will not quit

Until my work is done

 

 

 

California’s Prop 47: a Matter of Religious Principles

(a excerpt from a sermon given on 10/12/14)

I am definitely a values voter.

When faced with a political choice, I measure both candidates and ballot measures against the 7 principles of our faith. Will my vote help promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Will it bring more justice, equity and compassion into human relationships? Does it serve to forward the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all? Does it respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part?

There is one important proposition on the ballot in the upcoming election that I think can be directly to the 4 principles I just mentioned. Our Social Justice Committee has taken it on as a major focus this year, and they were very right to do so. I am talking about Proposition 47.

Like all proposed laws, the proposition is complicated. It very likely isn’t perfect, very little is. The main thrust of the initiative is to redefine many non-violent crimes, such a drug possession and petty theft, as misdemeanors rather than felonies. This will reduce our prison population significantly and will allow those convicted to perform community service or other methods of restitution instead of just serving time. The money saved will be diverted to the schools, to drug treatment programs, and to mental health and victim services.

Currently there are 2.2 million Americans in prison or in jail. We have less than 5% of the world’s population and almost 25% of the prison population. We have the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. This makes no sense.

Some of reason for this is the amount of money that is being made by the privatized prison industry. Those corporations give generously to politicians and they lobby for measures that will increase their income stream.

Some of it, too, is due to racism. African Americans are six times more likely to be sent to prison than are whites. They also serve longer sentences, often for the same type of crimes. Roughly a third of all black men are involved in the criminal justice system in some way, which can lead directly to police violence as police officers tend to see all people of color as criminals. They shoot first and ask questions later.

Racism in this country runs very deep. Rooted in the sin of slavery, buttressed by a false mythology of equal opportunity, America has held too many people of color captive as an economic underclass. Now we are simply sending them to jail, partly as a political strategy. People in jail cannot vote. In many states, people with felonies on their records cannot vote. That too is a violation of our fifth principle.

I could go on, but in many ways, I am just preaching to the choir here. I am, instead, going to refer all of you to the Social Justice Committee. They will be in the back of the hall after the service to answer any questions you might have and they also have lots of ways for you to get involved to help California make this small step toward both equity and compassion.

I do believe that passing proposition 47 will be a very good thing, and that it is very much in keeping with all of our seven principles. I am not, however, telling you how to vote. Do your research, listen to your heart, and vote your conscience. We don’t have to think alike to love alike.

5th Principle

 

 

ballot-box.jpg-w=jpg

 

I really do believe in our fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” People should have a vote, a say, in what affects them.

Mark Twain said that, “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others.”

Mark Twain was not a member of a Unitarian Church, but he did have a lot of Unitarian friends. He clearly thought that people should examine their beliefs and convictions for themselves, and not take them on second hand authority. It is what our faith asks us to do. Our principles call us to examine our beliefs, to test them against our reason, our experience, and our hearts. They call on us to do the research, to check our sources, to search for truth and meaning in matters of politics as well as religion.

We can’t just believe the slogans, and we can’t just expect our leaders to save the day.

We are a liberal religion, by definition, because we promote the first hand authority of the individual conscience, because we don’t expect everyone to agree about everything, particularly when it comes to theology.

There is room in this faith for atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, and followers of just about any other religious tradition.   To be comfortable in one of our congregations, however, most people find that it is important to at least be open to the idea that spiritual traditions and practices other than their own just might be very valid for other people. The same is true of opinions about options and decisions, whether they are political or about congregational life. Quoting 15th century Unitarian minister Francis David once again, “we need not think alike to love alike.”

Democracy is one of the methods we use to move forward despite, and sometimes even because of our differences.

It is tricky business, democracy. Too often the majority can tend to vote to deny the rights of a minority. We have seen that often in this country. If it was up for a simple vote, we would still have Jim Crow laws in the south, we might even still have chattel slavery. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people would forever be treated as second-class citizens or even sent to jail, simply because of who they are and who they love. For our country, we have a court system that tries to balance the will of the majority and the rights of individuals.

As Unitarian Universalists, we also have our other principles to guide us as we practice democracy both in the public square and in our congregations.

I am definitely a values voter.

When faced with a political choice, I measure both candidates and ballot measures against the 7 principles of our faith. Will my vote help promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Will it bring more justice, equity and compassion into human relationships? Does it serve to forward the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all? Does it respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part?

There is one important proposition on the ballot in the upcoming election that I think can be directly to the 4 principles I just mentioned. Our Social Justice Committee has taken it on as a major focus this year, and they were very right to do so. I am talking about Proposition 47.

Like all proposed laws, the proposition is complicated. It very likely isn’t perfect, very little is. The main thrust of the initiative is to redefine many non-violent crimes, such a drug possession and petty theft, as misdemeanors rather than felonies. This will reduce our prison population significantly and will allow those convicted to perform community service or other methods of restitution instead of just serving time. The money saved will be diverted to the schools, to drug treatment programs, and to mental health and victim services.

Currently there are 2.2 million Americans in prison or in jail. We have less than 5% of the world’s population and almost 25% of the prison population. We have the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. This makes no sense.

 

Some of reason for this is the amount of money that is being made by the privatized prison industry. Those corporations give generously to politicians and they lobby for measures that will increase their income stream.

Some of it, too, is due to racism. African Americans are six times more likely to be sent to prison than are whites. They also serve longer sentences, often for the same type of crimes. Roughly a third of all black men are involved in the criminal justice system in some way, which can lead directly to police violence as police officers tend to see all people of color as criminals. They shoot first and ask questions later.

Racism in this country runs very deep. Rooted in the sin of slavery, buttressed by a false mythology of equal opportunity, America has held too many people of color captive as an economic underclass. Now we are simply sending them to jail, partly as a political strategy. People in jail cannot vote. In many states, people with felonies on their records cannot vote. That too is a violation of our fifth principle.

I could go on, but in many ways, I am just preaching to the choir here. I am, instead, going to refer all of you to the Social Justice Committee. They will be in the back of the hall after the service to answer any questions you might have and they also have lots of ways for you to get involved to help California make this small step toward both equity and compassion.

 

I do believe that passing proposition 47 will be a very good thing, and that it is very much in keeping with all of our seven principles. I am not, however, telling you how to vote. Do your research, listen to your heart, and vote your conscience. We don’t have to think alike to love alike.

Our opening words this morning, a poem I wrote awhile back, is in some ways a song of praise to being liberal, a term that has a bad rap on both the right and the left these days. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion.

 

Definitions of liberal include the following:

 

Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes. “We have always done it that way,” is not a good answer in one of our churches.  It might be an explanation, but it doesn’t or shouldn’t close off the consideration of other options.

 

To be liberal is also to be open to new ideas, to be broad minded and tolerant of the ideas and opinions of others. It is to be generous in spirit.

 

I have been here as your developmental minister for 7 weeks now. Your leadership asked for a developmental minister because, I quote:

 

“Our fellowship is aging out, as are our buildings. We are treading water in every conceivable manner.

On our present trajectory of asset drawdown, our endowment will be gone in 4-5 years. We need to radically reinvent ourselves to thrive in a challenging era.”

 

The charge I received from your board of trustees, as described in their application to the UUA who sent them my name in response, was as follows.

 

“Catalyzing the transformation of BFUU into a sustainable and vibrant congregation, capable of thriving in a challenging future.”

 

It is a challenging task, and one that will take the efforts of all of us, working together. There will be mistakes and missteps and conflicts along the way. Some of you may even feel that transformation is not necessary, that everything was just fine the way things were.

 

We have made some fairly significant changes recently to the format of our Sunday services. Some of you like the changes and some of you miss what was done before. That is OK – remember – We need not think alike to love alike.

 

Because the feedback has been mixed, I want to keep trying what we have been doing for at least several more months, tweaking as we go along, but not simply going back to the old format.

The board and I will evaluate how it is going at some point in the future, with input, of course, from all of you. This is a democratic instituion.

 

Our 5th principlestates that we will use the democratic process within our congregations. It is important to notice that word, “process”.

 

Democracy does not mean that everyone gets their way. That is frankly impossible in any human community. We are diverse. We have different opinions, ideas, concerns and needs.

 

Your elected board of trustees and I are doing the best we can to lead this fellowship into a future that will encourage both the spiritual and numerical growth of this community. We want it to continue to exist and to serve not only those who are here today, but also those who may come in the future. The Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists is never going to be a mega-church, and I don’t know anyone who wants it to be. It does have the potential, however, to be perhaps a hundred members strong, financially sustainable, and providing a welcoming community to all who come.

 

Your board and I are doing what we are doing because of our love for this congregation and for this faith of ours. Please give us a chance.

 

There is a wonderful poem by ee Cummings, that I think applies here:

It is called “dive for dreams,”

Dive for dreams
Or a slogan may topple you
(trees are their roots
and wind is wind)

trust your heart
if the seas catch fire
(and live by love
though the stars walk backward)

honour the past
but welcome the future
(and dance your death
away at this wedding)

A slogan may topple you. Don’t believe the slogans. Dive deep for your dreams, trust your heart, and honor the past while welcoming the future. Try new things. You might find you like them.

I am not at all sure that it is possible to not be afraid of change.  Change always brings some loss. Rather, I would hope for us all to grow courage in spite of our fears.

May it be so! Namaste

Marriage Equality again in Utah

 

197

 

I moved from Utah back to California at the end of June, partly to live in a state where my marriage would be recognized.  The photo above is of our wedding cake.  It has been nice.  No issues come up when I introduce my spouse as my wife.  No one even blinks an eye.  Now, finally, all marriages are recognized in Utah again.  Things have been bad there since the brief window where people married last December after a federal court ruling.  The state officials continued to fight against equality in increasingly nasty ways.  They are still trying to do so, but have to realize at this point that they really are on the wrong side of history.  Blessings to all my Utah friends today.  Your steadfast work in planting the seeds for justice is finally bring the harvest end. Congratulations!  I won’t fly back for the celebrations, but my heart is with you today.

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