Nightmare

A nightmare chased itself

Round the bend again

The serpent eats its tail

Saying facts are for fools

 

This power is corrupt

As vile as slime

Seeping into our foundations

Weakening the supports

 

Before the house falls

Around all of our heads

Pity the sad souls

That chose a poisoned apple.

 

We have to wake up

We have to stay woke

Truth is stronger than lies

Love lasts longer than hate.

 

 

 

Growing Pains @uup 12/4/16

I have held a lot of different jobs during my life, but after that reading, maybe I should add spiritual bartender to list. Like many bartenders, ministers are listeners and we try to provide what our congregants need in terms of pastoral care and spiritual nourishment.

So, what kind of spiritual cocktail are you looking for here? Is it pure humanism, with maybe just a dash of the mystical?  Do you want a pagan chaser or how about some wisdom from the Bible as the olive in your martini?  Some of you like wine, and some of you prefer beer.  Some just want the seven-up of social justice or the pure clear water of the spirit.  We serve up all sorts of theologies here, but we try to serve all of them from the perspective of Unitarian Universalism.   It is the container that holds us together and reminds us that reason and science are equal partners with mystery and spirit.

Being a minister of a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not an easy thing.  Everyone wants something different, and crafting a worship service where every individual’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs will be met is nearly an impossible task.  It is also very easy to trigger someone’s bad memories with a word or phrase.  It is nice if folks can try to remember that they aren’t the only person that this congregation is trying to serve.  You might prefer coffee, but we need to offer tea as well. If you hate it, no one will force you to drink it, but let other people have their caffeine in a way that works for them.

It is also possible that we may not have everyone’s preferred brand of spirit here.  Some people may want clear cut answers to all their questions and a set of beliefs that exactly match their own understanding of the world. Those folks might need to find what they want at another bar – er – church.

Enough with the bar metaphor!  I want to talk about church growth dynamics.

This congregation has been what is called a family church for most of its existence.   The easiest definition of a family church is an average of not much more than 50 people attending the Sunday services.

Congregations, particularly small ones, are called family churches because they tend to function in very similar ways to real families.   Some of this functioning is very emotionally satisfying. Family churches can be wonderful.  Everyone knows everyone else, and love and trust can be built over time. When an issue comes up, people just talk about whatever it is. The board has very little actual power in a family church, but a few trusted individuals can usually be depended upon to offer wise counsel to the group.

Those folks are the ones that usually welcome new people, bringing them into the circle and introducing them around.  Joining a small family church is kind of like being adopted.  It can feel great!  You have a new family, people that will love and accept you no matter what!

How we yearn for that, especially those of us who may have grown up in families that were less than accepting.

In a family style church, people that show up, do the work, and who often also donate a lot of money have the most real say in what happens.  Almost all of these folks sincerely believe that they have the best interests of the entire congregation at heart.  But it is not really democratic, at least not in the sense of “one person one vote.” Families just aren’t very democratic, something Anne and I made clear to our kids, but new church members can take a while to understand how decisions are really made in family sized churches.  It takes some time to be adopted and even longer to be known as a valued member of the family, someone whose opinion and feelings matter to almost everyone else.

As I said earlier, UUP has been a family church for years, and is, in fact, a very healthy one. You have had smart and dedicated leadership.  You have had vision and courage. You have also taken some steps toward growing larger.  Moving to this location was one such step. You also increased Rev. Mary’s hours until she was half-time and you gave her some authority as your minister.  You hired me, also half-time, to help you decide what you wanted to do about the future.

I have said to you before that there is nothing wrong with being a congregation with 50 or so members, functioning as a family church.

I have now changed my mind about that.

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I did not think there was anything wrong with deciding to stay a small close knit family church, tending mainly to the needs of the current members, and just inviting in a few new people every so often, people that fit in and that like the way you already do things.

But our world has changed.  We saw that when our attendance at worship right after the election doubled.  Many people in our wider community are looking for exactly what Unitarian Universalism can offer.  If we can have a truly open and inclusive theology, if our worship services are usually both deep and spirit-filled, we can help people renew their energy and soothe their souls so they can go back out into the world to do the work of justice.  We could actually be a center, a focal point, for justice making in this community, and a real-life model for what the world could be if we all really lived according to our life enhancing principles.

I don’t think deciding to stay small would be an ethical decision in these times.  Our town and our world need us too much now.

And I know that if I asked each of you, the vast majority of you would say that the growth of Unitarian Universalism is important to you and to the world at large.

But growth brings change and also requires change.

Continuing to function as a family church just won’t work if you want to grow.

The reason is a simple sociological truth.

The maximum number of people who can all know each other relatively well is roughly 50.  If you want to grow much beyond that then your organizational structure needs to change to accommodate growth.  Your membership is in the 90’s but the average attendance at most worship services has been well under 50.

The way to do that is to move into being a pastoral church. This type of church was described in our reading.

“The Pastoral Church averages 50 to 150 people on Sundays. In this size of church, the role of both the minister and the board shifts toward the center of the system. The board’s responsibility for making decisions on behalf of the church increases.”

In this representative style democracy, the influence of some individuals will decrease, especially for those who are not on the board or on a committee. At the same time, the influence of newer members can increase because when the board of a pastoral church gets input from the membership, everyone is invited. It is one person one vote.

The board holds the vision of the congregation and works to fulfill its mission. The minister is both a member of the board and in an equal partnership with them in both caring for and leading the congregation.

In a pastoral church, the minister usually full-time, preaches at least 3 times a month and is granted full authority over all worship services so that there is consistency both in quality and grounding in our faith tradition.  New people in a pastoral sized church tend to connect with the minister first, rather than being “adopted” by one of the church lay leaders.  Everyone no longer knows everyone else, but the minister can know almost everyone.  One person can easily know 100-150 people.  150 people can also know the minister and all of the board members.

If attendance increases, but the style of functioning doesn’t also change, some people will inevitably become marginalized.  There just isn’t room in the family-style system for more that 50 people. Marginalized people will leave.

Change is not easy.  All change involves some loss.

For those of you who have really loved being part of a small church that feels like family, where you know almost everyone, where you are comfortable, the idea of growth can be frightening.

So, what will need to change if you really want to grow?

Worship is one area.  You have a fine worship committee, they understand worship and they work very hard.  But some of the services you have can work against growth.

Sometimes you pass the microphone around during the service and everyone gets a chance to comment on the topic. Services like that can be great for a small group of people that all know each other well.  It can increase intimacy for people that are already part of the family system.  Even a less than stellar lay lead service can be heartwarming for the members that know and love the individual presenting.  Both of those types of services, however, can be very off-putting and alienating for many new people.  If you want to grow, services like that won’t work well anymore. Chalice Circles, our small group ministry, can fulfill some of need for intimacy, but not having it in worship would be a loss that most of you will grieve.

And then there is content.  I have been asked if using “God” language is necessary for growth.  The short answer is “yes.”

No one expects that everyone in the congregation will want to pray or will find meaning in the language of reverence, but excluding the spiritual, not talking about the great mystery of life in all kinds of different ways, including prayer and “God” language excludes people that are looking for that very thing in an atmosphere of acceptance and diversity of beliefs.  If you want to grow, your worship needs to feed the spirits of people with a wide variety of beliefs.

We can’t turn hungry people from our doors, people that need us, people that we need.  We need to offer them bread that will feed them.

None of us are here to hurt each other, but it is hard work learning how to be in a really diverse religious community. If we can accept and be gentle with one another here, we can heal some of the old hurts of our individual pasts, while finding the courage to really embrace diversity.  It is part of how we can bring more hope and compassion into the world.

There is one more change I have to mention.  At our last congregational listening circle, no one said their name before they spoke.  The assumption was that “everyone knows everyone.” It wasn’t true that day and it definitely won’t be true if we continue to grow. Please say who you are and wear your name tags.  You may know everyone, but everyone doesn’t know you.

The board will be scheduling a meeting after the first of the year to discuss issues of growth and some of the possibilities for a future minister after my time with you is done. I hope most of you will attend, to listen and learn from others, as well as to express your own opinions and preferences.

It was hard for me to do this sermon today, focusing on issues that don’t seem to have much to do with what is happening in the world.  I do believe, however, that it is all connected.  I believe that love is deep and love is wide. I will end with this poem I read at the gathering last Thursday, where people gathered to begin the work of creating safety for Petaluma’s diverse population.  It is by Denise Levertov.  I will read it twice,

For the New Year, 1981

I have a small grain of hope–

one small crystal that gleams

clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment

to send you.

Please take

this grain of a grain of hope

so that mine won’t shrink.

 

Please share your fragment

so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,

will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower

unless you distribute

the clustered roots, unlikely source–

clumsy and earth-covered–

of grace.

 

May we all share our small fragments of hope, may we all find the grace to meet fear and hate with grace and love.  Always love.  Blessed Be.

Finding Gratitude @UUP 11-20-16

Thanksgiving is a time for gratitude, and I have found that over time the thing about life that I am most grateful for is laughter.  Laughter keeps us going I think.  It can call attention to some of the absurdities of life in a way that helps us cope when reality doesn’t live up to our expectations. And how often does that happen?  Even the Thanksgiving meal doesn’t always turn out perfectly.  Sometimes the pies are burnt, and sometimes the conversations around the table can be hurtful.  I know some of us may be facing awkward family situations over the holidays.  If that is true for you, please know that we are holding you and feel free to call a friend or your minister for emotional support, debriefing, or just to rant a bit.  Holidays can be hard.  There is always some sadness among the fun.  We miss people that have died, loneliness can be worse if we don’t have a family with which to share holidays.  So, all of you, if you have space at your table, invite someone who might be alone.  And if you are alone, and don’t want to be, call someone and offer to bake some pies.  If they are slightly burnt, who cares? Sometimes we have to work to create joy in our lives.  Put a stone in the pot, keep the faith, and we can find ways to be fed together.

We are taught to count our blessings, to cultivate gratitude.  This is a good thing in many ways, and it is part of the task of religious community to remind us to celebrate, to savor the good times, to appreciate beauty, to rest easy, and to simply let the love that surrounds us enter into our hearts and our souls.   When we are truly aware of all the gifts we have received, we can be filled with a sense of abundance, a sense of generosity.

For myself, there are many things that I feel grateful for, things that are gifts in the sense that they are not things that I necessarily earned or was owed somehow.

I am grateful that I am alive.

I am grateful for my wife Anne, who for more than 41 years has stood by me, comforting me when I have been sick or sad and always calling me back to honest self-awareness when I am in danger of losing that important connection.

I am grateful for our three adult children and all they have taught me about life and about patience and letting go.

I am grateful for my education, for the opportunity to engage ideas.

I am grateful for the chance to have led a productive life when I worked for Social Security, for helping those that needed help.

I am grateful for the work of ministry, work that seems so close sometimes to the very meaning of life, and may be the exact reason that I am on this planet at all.

I am grateful for all of you. To look out on your faces this morning is a blessing indeed.

The list could go on.  I am thankful for the flowers and trees, the sunsets, the mountains and rivers, friends, good food to eat, small kittens to hold, and for lessons I have learned.  It is important to be grateful for the truly wonderful things and people in our lives, those that remind us how precious life is, those that inspire awe, that call us to reverence, and to humility.  These are blessings in every sense of the word and it is easy to be thankful for them.

But things, and people, don’t have to be perfect for us to feel gratitude for them.  And sometimes the less than ideal is even better.  Sometimes folks have a better time laughing at a partially raw turkey on Thanksgiving Day than they would in a tense atmosphere at a gourmet meal. It is much better, I think, to have small children around than not, even if they sometimes spill things.  Adults spill too and the tablecloth should always be much less important than the guests.

To really cultivate gratitude means to look for the positives in those less than perfect situations.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make things nice.  The undercooked turkey usually only happens once in the lifetime of all but the most disastrous cooks.  We should be grateful that we are able to learn from our mistakes.  I only carved into a raw turkey once.

Gratitude can also help us accept the things we cannot change.  It matters how we look at things, and I am talking about more than the old glass empty/ glass full dichotomy.  It also isn’t about blind optimism or simply looking for a silver lining to a dark and dangerous cloud.  I am not sure that the recent election results have much of a silver lining at all.

When we accept reality, however, both the good parts and the bad, we may also grow more grateful, and so appreciate the good things more.

Ill health will come to us all with time, especially if we are lucky enough to live until old age.  I love the following poem by May Sarton.  She calls it

Friend or Enemy

I can look

At my body

As an old friend

Who needs my help,

Or an enemy

Who frustrates me

In every way

With its frailty

And inability to cope.

Old friend,

I shall try

To be of comfort to you

To the end.

May Sarton

Sarton’s words are so full of love!  She is not particularly grateful for the frailty of her aging body, but she loves it, treasures it in fact as a friend.

To cultivate gratitude also does not mean we have to be grateful for everything.

There are many things I am not grateful for.  The list is a long one.  I am sure you all have your own lists.

Having gratitude does not mean you have to be happy with the way things are. Many of us are outraged at the growth of racism and white supremacy.

Perhaps, though, we can be grateful for the outrage because outrage can provide energy for action, for change.  Outrage, by its very nature contains a seed of hope.  It is the passive acceptance of evil, of injustice, that is soul killing.

Gratitude is a religious issue.  It has to do with reverence and with what we value.

Sometimes appreciating the good things of the world, really valuing them, can lead us to make things better.

The Reverend Doctor Rebecca Parker says that,

 

“Our society is currently guided by a worldview that is insufficiently grounded in reverence.  Religiously, it is a worldview that regards the world itself as trash—a planet that God is soon going to discard in a plan to wipe this world away and create a new one.  Economically, the dominant worldview regards human beings as self-interested individuals, motivated only by their personal desire to consume. 

 

 

And scientifically, it sees existence as devoid of value, atomistic, disconnected, and mechanistic.  Such inadequate views are tearing our world to tatters by lack of regard for the communal character of life.”

“We must learn again to live with reverence.” She says, “Reverence is a form of love. It is a response to life that falls on its knees before the rising sun and bows down before the mountains. It puts its palms together in the presence of the night sky and the myriad galaxies and recognizes, as poet Langston Hughes tells us, “beautiful are the stars, beautiful too are the faces of my people.” Reverence greets all humanity as sacred. It genuflects before the splendor of the grass and the magnificence of the trees. It respects the complexity, beauty, and magnitude of creation and does not presume to undo its intricate miracles. Instead, it gives life reverent attention, seeking to know, understand, and cooperate with life’s ways.”

Parker is right.  We as a culture have to learn more reverence for life in all of its diverse glory.  Learn to be grateful for our lives, for the health of this planet, for our relationships with others.  If we learn to recognize these as the blessings they are, to treasure them, then we will work to care for them, to protect them. 

Our Unitarian Universalist faith should inspire us to use both our hearts and our minds.  To discern the good that is inherent in almost all of life, to treasure life and the world, to refuse to fall victim to the idea that what is not ideal is somehow trash.  To cultivate beauty and wholeness, to recognize that our lives are our own and that it is up to us to spend them in ways that reflect appreciation of the miracle, the chance that we have been given to make a difference.

I will end another poem, by Rebecca Parker, particularly fitting in these times.

Benevolent Rage

Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.

The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting

Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.

Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Hoard bread,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.

You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?

Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.

More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,

The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.

None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.

The choice to bless the world is more than act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the intention to do good.

It is an act of recognition,
A confession of surprise,
A grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.

There is an embrace of kindness,
That encompasses all life,
Even yours.

And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
There moves a holy disturbance,
A benevolent rage,
A revolutionary love
Protesting, urging insisting

That which is sacred will not be defiled.

Those who bless the world live their life
As a gesture of thanks
For this beauty
And this rage.

Amen and blessed BE

After the Election – 11/13/16

This has been a very hard week for most of us.  It has been for me.  I have been going through all the stages of grief, trying to understand how the election turned out the way it did.  I have been through denial, thinking I would soon wake up from a nightmare.  My disappointment soon turned to anger and to rage. I started hoping that maybe it won’t be so bad, that perhaps our President Elect is really not as horrifying as he seems. I went through bargaining, maybe the electoral college will save us, maybe Trump will be impeached or even jailed before the inauguration.  I have been depressed, wanting to pull the metaphorical covers over my head so I did not have to face the reality of the country we now find ourselves living in.  I wrote 3 poems in the first 3 days as all of those emotions swirled inside of me.  I was trying to find some hope in the midst of my grief.

 

Let me read them.

 

The Morning After

Morning comes

Even if sleep has not

The dawning sun laughs

Look at me she says

I have seen far worse

On your poor planet.

Get up.

Get a grip.

We have a light

That needs to shine.

It might take years

But the nightmare will end

If we stay strong.

 

 

2 Days After

Grief comes

The tears flow

Denial is sweet

Then I remember

Anger comes

How could they?

Even some of my family

Grief comes

The bitter taste of fear

Pain in my stomach

But most of all in my heart

Where is Love?

Then I remember

It is everywhere

We can find it

If we look

Hope lives inside me

For a moment

Bargaining

Before the tears come again

The cycle of grief

Goes on

Then when it is over

We get busy

We are the lovers

And protectors

Of the planet

And of the vulnerable

Acceptance and then

Action

 

And on the Third Day

I felt it last night

Just before I fell asleep

Something stirred

That I thought had died.

It came awake

A force, a power.

Three days of pain

Fear anger grief

Buried deep

In a cold tomb of despair.

But then

On this third day

The Spirit rose again to say

Life lives and

Love will never be denied.

Go into the world

It said

Spread the message

Be fierce be bold

Be brave

Resurrection is not easy

But faith will be reborn

 

 

 

The last poem contains some Christian imagery, but I think the Easter story has some relevance for all of us on this November Day.  When Jesus was murdered by the Roman empire, his followers were in despair.  Their dreams had died with him.  The forces of the empire were too strong, the future would hold nothing but more death and destruction.

 

A lot of us feel exactly that way right now.  There will surely be more scapegoating and increase in violence against Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and gay lesbian bisexual and transgender people. That is already happening. Mass deportations will be implemented if we can’t stop them. The first amendment, including freedom of the press is in danger, and all of us may need to learn how to survive in a time of heavy surveillance and very possibly a police state.

 

Somehow, more than 2000 years ago, people found the courage, in the midst of their despair, to go out into the wolrd and preach the message of their faith, the core of which is “Love your neighbor.”

 

I pray that we can find a similarly strong faith in the saving message of Unitarian Universalism.  With this new reality we no longer have the luxury of resting on our laurels, of doing social justice only when it is convenient, of hiding away in a liberal enclave while we watch our planet and our very civilization be destroyed.  We are now called to act, to speak out, to put our very bodies on the line when necessary.  We need to reach out to others – to those who are afraid – to pledge that we will protect them – to other religious and non-religious communities who can be allies in this struggle.

We might start with the church that owns this building asking perhaps that if necessary, can we make this a physical sanctuary for those who may be deported.

Can we pledge to feed and clothe the families we may need to shelter?  Will we hide them in our own homes and help them escape in our own cars? Can we commit fully in support of Native American water protectors, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, with everyone who is committed to the inherent worth and dignity of all and to protecting our planet which sustains all of our lives?

 

Get ready people.  Get ready.  It is OK to continue to grieve.  Rest in denial when you need to, make your bargains, hide in your beds, let the drug of anger soothe your soul.

 

And while you are doing those things, prepare yourselves.  Get ready.  Pray if that helps you, and then decide what you will do.

 

During WWII, Unitarians Martha and Waitsill Sharp risked their own their lives to save people from the Nazi Regime.  Courage in the face of injustice is in our DNA.  We can and will rise to the challenge.  There is no other choice.

Will you be ready to join with us?

(Explain safety pins and what they mean)

 

And on the Third Day

I felt it last night

Just before I fell asleep

Something stirred

That I thought had died.

It came awake

A force, a power.

Three days of pain

Fear anger grief

Buried deep

In a cold tomb of despair.

But then

On this third day

The Spirit rose again to say

Life lives and

Love will never be denied.

Go into the world

It said

Spread the message

Be fierce be bold

Be brave

Resurrection is not easy

But faith will be reborn

This is the 3rd in a series of poems in the aftermath of the US election of 2016.

Links to the first two are below.

2 days after

The Morning After

2 Days After

Grief comes

The tears flow

Denial is sweet

Then I remember

Anger comes

How could they?

Even some of my family

Grief comes

The bitter taste of fear

Pain in my stomach

But most of all in my heart

Where is Love?

Then I remember

It is everywhere

We can find it

If we look

Hope lives inside me

For a moment

Bargaining

Before the tears come again

The cycle of grief

Goes on

Then when it is over

We get busy

We are the lovers

And protectors

Of the planet

And of the vulnerable

Acceptance and then

Action

 

The Morning After

 

 

 

 

The Morning After

Morning comes

Even if sleep has not

The dawning sun laughs

Look at me she says

I have seen far worse

On your poor planet.

Get up.

Get a grip.

We have a light

That needs to shine.

It might take years

But the nightmare will end

If we stay strong.

 

 

 

 

Remembering #Janet Reno

Janet Reno died yesterday, the day before an election in which (I hope) this country elects another fierce and courageous woman as our President.

Janet Reno was hated by right wing extremists, just as Hillary Clinton is.  I love them both.

As the first female Attorney General, Reno had to be tough in order to survive.  I don’t know her sexual orientation, but she walked like a dyke.  It was just how she moved in the world, like a woman who refused to be dependent on men to protect her.  She was fierce and courageous in her fight for justice,

She was vilified by the right for Waco and the disaster with the Branch Davidians on 4/19/93.  Two years afterward, on April 19, 1995, right wing terrorist Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people including 19 children at the Oklahoma City Federal Building.  It was a planned act of revenge for Waco.

One thing people tend to forget about Waco, is that the FBI waited almost 2 months before trying to gain enter by using teargas.  There were reports of children being abused by cult members.  How the fires started has never been clear.

I wasn’t in Janet Reno’s head, but she must have been thinking of Jonestown and the People’s Temple, when over 900 people died in 1978.  Another cult leader, Jim Jones, convinced most of the adults to commit suicide and to kill their children by giving them poisoned KoolAid to drink.  That was the fear during the siege at Waco, that David Koresh would do what Jim Jones had done.  And perhaps that is what he did, if the fires were set by the cult members and not ignited by tear gas canisters.

Reno had a tough decisions to make, but she was tough.  She may have miscalculated as times, but she always took responsibility for her decisions and she always tried to do what was right.  Her moral core was as solid as steel.

We lost a good one yesterday.  I hope we elect another good one today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

Voting our values UUP 11/6/16

Is anyone else stressed out about the election?  I know I am.  The changing poll numbers and the “October Surprises” have made it hard for me to stay centered and hopeful.

As a minister, I am pretty much a professional optimist. Sometimes that is one of the hardest parts of the job.

Democracy is just stressful at its core.  I have been nervous before every election I can remember. Who knows how the votes will turn out in the end?  And the issues are much more significant than flavors of ice cream.  What if our country elects a president that would be as life threatening to some people as peanuts are those who are allergic? Peanut butter looks kind of orange, so don’t laugh, it could happen.

As scary as elections can be, part of my religious practice is to carefully study candidates and issues and then to vote my values in every single election.

I have opinions about methods and policies, about what might work better than something else, but bottom-line, it is values I care about.  Does a policy or a candidate promote the inherent worth and dignity of all?  What about liberty and justice for all or world community? Is there an element of compassion contained in the plan? Is there some respect for diversity as well as the realization that we are all connected? How do our religious values relate to the death penalty? To the plastic bag ban?  To support for schools and libraries?

Those are the questions I asked myself before I voted.

You might consider asking yourself some similar questions.

Please note that I am not telling any of you how to vote because 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 voice, a say, in what affects them.  You all need to make up your own minds about how to vote.

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.  This is true in matters of politics as well as religion.

We are a liberal religion, by definition, because we promote that first hand authority of the individual conscience, because we don’t expect everyone to agree about everything, particularly when it comes to theology.  There should be room in this congregation for atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, and followers of just about any other religious tradition.

To be comfortable here, however, most folks 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.

Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion, but that doesn’t mean we are all liberal Democrats.  There are many thoughtful and faithful Republicans in our churches.

A little history: Unitarian Universalism is deeply rooted in American cultural values. There is a reason most people agree with our seven principles the first time they hear them. Liberty and justice are words contained in the pledge of allegiance after all.

There have been 5 US presidents who either attended Unitarian churches or professed Unitarian beliefs: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and William Taft. While he did not specifically identify with any organized religion, Abraham Lincoln had Universalist leanings.  Some of you may also know that our current president, Barack Obama, attended a Unitarian Universalist church as a child.

But let’s talk about William Taft for a minute.  He was president between 1909 and 1913, and he was a Republican.

His great-grandson, John Taft wrote an article a few years ago where he said he was a genetic Republican, claiming that 5 generations of Tafts have served our nation as unwaveringly stalwart Republicans.

(http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/opinion/the-cry-of-the-true-republican.html?_r=0)

In his article he also says this:

“Throughout my family’s more than 170-year legacy of public service, Republicans have represented the voice of fiscal conservatism. Republicans have been the adults in the room.”

He went on to say:

“The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is (or should be) about responsible behavior. The Republican Party is (or should be) at long last, about decency.”

The Republican values he speaks of are quite consistent with Unitarian Universalism.

But here is where it gets a bit more complicated.  Clearly, there have been, and are, a lot of politically liberal Unitarian Universalists.  If we did a survey, I suspect most of our members vote for Democrats most of the time.  I also suspect that the number of Democrats among us is increasing over time and the number of Republicans is declining.

I don’t think it is anything that we are doing, however.  Instead, I think the right wing of Republican Party has been systematically driving religiously liberal people away.

Marriage Equality should not be a partisan issue, but it has become so.  A plan for compassionate immigration reform should have nothing to do with whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat. How to deal with global climate change is a scientific problem.  Science is not a left wing conspiracy.  The right of a woman to control her own body should have nothing to do with whether or not you are a fiscal conservative.

It started years ago, when economic conservatives began wooing religious conservatives.  They became the “family values party,” but they were very restrictive in how they defined a family.

When you have agreed to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it becomes difficult to demonize others, no matter who they are.  Immigrants, gays, poor people, Muslims, women, people with disabilities, have all been demonized or mocked. This is in clear conflict with our values.

But listen to me now, many on the left have cast all Trump supporters as racist sexist bigots, – it isn’t a moral equivalent as angry white men aren’t an oppressed group, but it still isn’t OK.

It is hard not to hate your political opponents.  It is hard not to hate those you are afraid of.  I do think fear is at the root of much of the political discord these days.

“America as we know it will end if the other party gains control of the presidency and gets to appoint justices to the Supreme Court.”   Both sides are saying that.  Some people really hate Clinton; others hate Trump. Very few people are really completely evil; they just have very different views of the world and sometimes serve different interests.

This is where liberal religion can help begin a dialogue.  Open hearted, open minded, curious as to what the other thinks and feels.  It doesn’t always work, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

Listen for the middle ground, listen for where you might agree, or at least have something to learn. Speak with bravest fire, but hold love at the center of it all.

It is how we try to do theology here.  We listen to each other.  Christians, pagans, and atheists really can get along, and form an awesome religious community together.  So why can’t Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Libertarians get along in the political sphere?

In this congregation we need radical visionaries willing to take some risks, but we also need fiscally conservative financial stewards.  Our country needs more people willing to listen to others, whatever their party affiliation.

I believe there is an important role for religion in politics. Gandhi said that “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

Gandhi was a Hindu, but the Judeo-Christian tradition is also full of calls for the faithful to be engaged in social and political issues.  To love all of creation, but in particular to be concerned for those who have the least power in the wider culture.

Virtually all of the Biblical prophets spoke out for justice for the weak, for the poor, and for the oppressed.

From the prophet Amos who said let justice roll down like waters, to Isaiah who said that the spirit of God sent him to bring good news to the oppressed, to the prophet Jesus who told us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and to, in modern times, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who led a faith based movement against racial discrimination, the religious voice has been a powerful and important one.

That is the prophetic tradition, and one that I think Unitarian Universalism identifies with very strongly.  We have always spoken out against unjust laws and argued for just ones.  From opposing the fugitive slave act to working with Black Lives Matter, we have been a tradition that championed the rights of the oppressed.  Respect for the inherent dignity of all is our first principle.  The key here is that this prophetic tradition is about religion and religious people working to protect the weak, to enhance life, to care for all of creation.  This type of religious activism serves democracy well because it is fundamentally about caring, respect, and love.  It is not about restriction and punishment.

There is another Biblical tradition, however, one that most of the prophets I listed above were in direct opposition to.  There is also a priestly tradition that focused on religious laws. The scribes and Pharisees that took Jesus to task for violating the law were a part of that tradition.  Leviticus, with its long list of rules, many of which are a little weird to our modern sensibilities, is another example.

This priestly tradition is very dangerous to democracy, I think, especially when it argues that religious laws should be enforced by the state.

Some Muslim countries follow Sharia law, and most Americans find that appalling, but Leviticus is the primary reason that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people still do not have full civil rights in this country.

It is one thing to follow your religious values by asking for help for the vulnerable, and it is quite another to ask the state to promote your religious values over those of others and to create legislation to ensure that it is your rules that are followed.

So what do we do?  How to we hold on to hope?

I love the following poem by ee cummings.

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)

Dive deep for your dreams, trust your heart.  Live by love though the stars walk backward. No matter what happens on Tuesday, there will be work for us to do. Love can guide us on our way. Amen and Blessed Be.

This I Believe About God @UUP 10/23/16

Opening words:

What should I call you

He, she or it

Are you a person, a thing, an idea?

Where are you now

While I call out your name

Are you high on a cloud

Or under a bush

A fire in the daytime

Or warmth in the night?

Do you live in a mansion

Or outside in the woods

Should I tremble in fear

Or relax in your love?

Are you father or mother

Brother or child?

Do you dwell deep inside me

Or around the next bend

My questions are many

My answers are few

Oh God be my witness

I am doing my best

Come down from your heavens

To live in our souls

Bring peace to this planet

Comfort the lost

Care for the children

The hungry the hurting

Who cares what we call you

I know you don’t mind

Living and loving

We’ll just try and be kind

Reading:

from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple 

 “Here’s the thing, say Shug. The thing I believe. God is inside you and inside everybody else. You come into this world with God. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for. Trouble do it for most folks, I think. Sorrow, lord. Feeling like shit. It? I ast.Yeah, it. God ain’t a he or a she, but a it.But what it look like? I ast.         Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It aint something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it… Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t, but more than anything else, God love admiration.         You saying God vain? I ast.Naw, she say.  Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.           What it do when it pissed off? I ast.Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

sermon notes:

“Autumn lies down to rest having shared all her best, comes a soul and comforter, autumn gives her hand to winter.”

That line from the anthem the choir just sang reminds me of the words of John Muir.

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

The changing of the seasons can sometimes seem to mirror the changes in our lives. Very little in life stays the same for very long.

This morning I want to share with you some of the changes that have happened within me as I have tried to follow our 4th principle, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Some of this will be about what I have come to believe about God.

First, how many people here have dogs?  Do you love your dog?  There are a lot of jokes around the fact that God is Dog spelled backwards.  That makes sense if you love dogs – and for some of you, loving a dog is much easier than loving God.

This leads me to wonder that if God were in fact a dog, what kind of dog would God be?  A stately Great Dane perhaps, high above it all? A St Bernard, coming to the rescue?

A practical Collie like Lassie or maybe a Golden Retriever who just wiggles with love? Some people may see God as a Pit Bull waiting to snarl everyone into hell in short order if they don’t shape up. When I look at a Pug, I sometimes wonder if God might often have a similar expression.

Now, I know, and you know, that God is not really a dog, except of course in the sense that there is a spark of the divine in all living creatures.  But I think sometimes we humans can treat God like a dog.  Not badly, I don’t mean that.  But I think sometimes we tend to treat God as our own personal pet.  We keep God on a leash, in a box, under our control.  I think this is true even for folks that don’t believe in God. They usually have a quite definite image of the God they don’t believe in.

When I was young, I thought of God as an old bearded white man who sat on a golden throne, high in the sky, amidst fluffy clouds, with sweet-faced plump cherubs fluttering about him.  A child, if they have courage, might want to climb up into the lap of that sort of God, the view alone would be worth it I think.  If that God became angry, however, the clouds went gray and lightening flashed.  Any sensible child would run for cover.   Which is exactly what I did, and I stopped believing in God for a very long time.  Those childhood images of God stayed with me, though.  I didn’t believe in that old man in the sky, but it was him that I didn’t believe in if anyone asked me about God.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, in Genesis 1, it says, “So God created humankind in God’s image.”

Some sociologists say that the process is just the reverse, that humans create God in their own image, or an image that signifies an ideal in the common culture.  Old white men were the ones with all the power while I was growing up.  No wonder that is what God looked like to me.

Earlier, I told a story about playing hide and seek with God.  It is easier to find something if you know what you are looking for. Think for a moment if you will, think about how you picture God.  You don’t have to believe in God to do this. (pause)

All of us, whether we are believers or unbelievers, tend to carry around with us images of what God is and is not.  We need to pay attention to those images, to what we think about even the God we may not believe in.  Because God is a cultural symbol of what is ideal, what is the most valued; our image of God can affect how we are with ourselves and with each other.

If we see God as perfect and unchanging, how do we see our own need for change?

If we see God as all-knowing do we somehow get the idea that it is possible to know everything?

If we see God as all powerful, do we think that if we don’t have the power to change things in an absolutely Godlike way, then we can feel that it is not worth trying.

Several things happened to me that shattered my old image of the God I did not believe in.  The first was shortly after I retired from Social Security.

I was in the hospital for several days, undergoing a number of tests.  Everything turned out fine for me, but in the next bed was a woman who had just been told that her heart was giving out and she had only a month or so left to live.  She was crying and worrying that she was going to hell because of how she had lived her life.  I started channeling John Murray.  I told her firmly that there was no hell, that a God that would send people to hell makes absolutely no sense at all.  I still didn’t believe in God, but it was a different God whose existence I questioned.

Then I read Rebecca Parker’s Proverbs of Ashes.  A lot of that book is about her being sexually molested as a child.  While talking with her therapist, she comes to the realization that God was with her in those moments when she was being abused, holding her in love, and that even if she died, would continue to hold her.  What most struck me while reading that was the God she was talking about wasn’t all powerful.  That God could love her and hold her, but could not prevent what happened.

I still didn’t believe in God, but I stopped believing in a God I could blame for all the bad things in the world.

In seminary, I dove into theology and in particular I loved Charles Hartshorne, a UU theologian.  In his book, Divine Relativity, he critiques the traditional image of God.

He said,  

A wholly absolute God can provide no lasting good inclusive of human achievement….

A wholly absolute God is power divorced from responsiveness or sensitivity;

and power which is not responsive is irresponsible and, if held to settle all issues, enslaving.  (Hartshorne148-149)

 

Hartshorne also said, “In trying to conceive God, are we to forget everything we know about values?”

Hartshorne’s question about values is a good one.  Our conception of God should be composed of the highest human values.  It leads to the question of what kind of God would be most valuable; what kind of God does the world need?  Bernard Loomer, another theologian, says that

“value is greater than truth… the problem with being addicted to truth is that it can throw you off from many of the deeper dimensions of life.” (Religious Experience and Process Theology  pg 71)

Maybe God is like that, a value deeper than truth, or what we can conceivably know as factual, provable truth.  Maybe it even doesn’t matter so much what God really is, what the “truth is,” but instead it may be more important to believe – or even not believe – in the sort of God we need.    If God is truly God, then God will be the God the world needs.  That should, I think, be part of the definition.

I then started to ask the question, “What kind of God would serve us well, here, today, in the twenty-first century?”   What God could be more inclusive of diversity, more responsive to oppression, better able to help us get along with others in peaceful and loving ways?  What kind of God could help us face and do what is before us now to face and do?

What could it mean to us if we began to see God not as absolute and unchanging, but as relational?  What if God was a sensitive, changeable presence, one that interacted with the world rather than ruled it?  What if we took God out of the box, off leash so to speak?  Maybe we could start imagining God as the best of what humans have the potential to be.

Unlike the image of the old man in the sky, this relational image of God can inspire love and compassion rather than awe and fear. The following poem by WEB Du Bois, an African American born shortly after slavery, expresses this well I think.

 Help! I sense that low and awful cry — Who cries? Who weeps? With silent sob that rends and tears — Can God sob? Who prays? I hear strong prayers throng by, Like mighty winds on dusky moors — Can God pray? Prayest Thou, Lord, and to me?  Thou needest me? Thou needest me? Thou needest me? Poor, wounded soul! Of this I never dreamed. I thought — Courage, God,  I come!

Du Bois’ poem is somewhat startling.   It portrays a God who is not all powerful, who needs our help in fact.  Can we imagine God that way?

When it comes to love of other people it is usually their imperfections that draw us. Our best friends are often those who are willing to share some of their vulnerability, some of their fears. We can trust these friends with our own failures and also cheer their triumphs and successes with full and open hearts because we know something about their struggles.  Can we learn love God in the way we love those friends?

After learning about different ways to imagine God, I decided to stop worrying about whether God existed or not.  Once I did that I began to both remember and experience moments in my life where I felt the presence of something deeper and larger than just me.  Those moments I would describe as transcendent and they have happened at relatively random times.  Sometimes when I am writing or speaking from the heart I get the feeling that the words are coming from someplace else.  I have also sometimes felt something powerful in hospital rooms where I sat people who were in the process of dying.

Call it the spirit of life, call the strength of the human spirit, call it magic, call it whatever you will, or call it nothing at all.  I choose to name that awesome something, that mystery that cannot be fully described, I choose to call it God.

And perhaps, if God were really a dog, it wouldn’t be a purebred at all, but instead a shaggy, floppy eared mutt who loves freedom and is interested in the world. A street dog that knows the ways of the world. A dog who is not perfect, who is not all powerful and unchanging, and who, like us, needs both courage and compassion.

May we all find courage.  May we all find compassion.  May we all find an image of God that we can unleash and let run free through our lives and through the world.  Blessed be.