What should we do with our anger?
Shall we hold it inside?
Until it explodes
Scorching the earth with hate
Fight like there’s no tomorrow
Burn down every bridge that we see?
What should we do with our anger
Shall we bury it deep in our hearts
Feed it with resentment
A smoldering coal that smokes
And colors our vision grey.
What shall we do with our anger?
Shall we release it bit by bit
Hiding a nasty word with a smile
A dagger sly behind a hug
A pretended innocence
Oh, what shall you do with your anger
What shall I do with mine?
Can we build a fire to light our way
And warm our ragged hearts?
Can fury give us the energy
To build the world anew?
Can justice come from rage?
Can anger be guided by love?
Can it become a blessing
Instead of a curse?
Only love will make it so.
Our culture does not always teach us how to deal with anger in healthy ways. We are expected to be nice and polite and to act like everything is fine, even when it is not. We can hold our anger in, deny it and pretend it doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t make it go away. If we do not acknowledge our anger and treat it like the useful tool it is, then we run the risk of our anger exploding outward in destructive ways or staying inside of us and poisoning our spirits.
Anger is a normal human emotion, and as was stated by feminist theologian, Beverly Harrison, in this morning’s reading, it is best understood as a simple feeling-signal that all is not well.
If we are angry, it also means we care. We don’t often get really angry about things that don’t matter much. Maybe we get irritated at minor things, a slow car in front of us on the freeway, a houseguest that leaves dirty dishes in the sink for us to deal with, but unless we allow it to build, those types of irritations do not turn into rage.
Anger is a normal emotion, but it can also be complicated. It is not always clear what is making us angry; we just know that something does not feel right. Maybe something seems unfair, maybe we feel disrespected or ignored, or perhaps we feel betrayed. Underneath our anger there is often another emotion; sometimes it is hurt, disappointment, or fear.
You ask someone not to do something and they do it anyway. Someone does something that creates a situation that feels dangerous to you.
A precious object is broken and cannot be repaired.
Sometimes we are angry with others. Sometimes we are angry with ourselves. Sometimes we are angry with God.
Anger is energy – it doesn’t just go away. We need to do something with that energy and the choice of what to do with it is ours.
All of us carry pain, sometimes from our childhoods and sometimes from experiences we have had as adults. Sometimes in order to bury the pain we wrap it in anger, in resentment. It can be like carrying a time bomb around inside. If the wrong thing happens, maybe even if someone says the wrong thing in all innocence, it can be a trigger that can make the bomb explode. This is what I think happens in cases of road rage.
Let me give another example, a fairly easy one to understand. Perhaps when you were younger, a dog bit you, or at least scared you badly. As a result, you are now afraid of dogs. Many years later maybe you go hiking in an area where dogs are not allowed. Then suddenly you see a dog running loose, the owner close behind. You might very well want to scream at the owner. You might even do it. How dare they have a dog here!
But if you weren’t really afraid of dogs, if you hadn’t had that earlier experience, you might be irritated that someone was breaking the rules. You might even comment that the dog should not be there. Chances are, however, that you would not be particularly afraid and it would be very unlikely that you would start screaming angrily at the dog’s owner.
Fear and anger can be an explosive combination. How can we learn to manage anger in healthy ways?
Step one, I think is to simply acknowledge that we are angry. It is nothing to be ashamed of. As I said, it is a normal human emotion, something that tells us that something is wrong.
Step two would be to try and understand what you are angry about. This is where counting to ten can help. Taking a few breaths, pausing before you react to your angry feelings doesn’t make the anger go away, but it gives you a moment to think.
It might help now to be thinking about a time when you have felt angry. Maybe you want to think about a time when you have been furious, maybe even “blind with rage.” If you don’t want to go there right now, and that is OK, just think of a time when you have been seriously irritated.
What made you so angry? What were you feeling?
Our bodies usually produce adrenalin when we experience anger – the old flight or fight response of our brains that are programmed for survival. What was the immediate cause of your angry reaction? Did it remind you of anything else? Was your anger deeper and stronger than seems justified by the particular event?
Two examples: Sometimes when I am working on the computer, and having a hard time either writing a sermon or composing a sensitive email, I can get irritated if I am interrupted. I have even been known to speak too sharply to my lovely wife when she asks me about the shopping list.
It is clear that my reaction is all about me and is not at all a fair response to anything she did. It’s kind of like the old line about having a bad day at work and going home and kicking your dog.
That was an example of misplaced or misdirected anger, and if we take a minute to think before we speak, we can avoid hurting someone else’s feelings.
Sometimes our anger is directed correctly, however, but is much more intense that the particular situation calls for. The second example: your teenager’s room is filthy, as usual. You have calmly asked her to clean it up every day for the last week, but it hasn’t happened. Then she asks to go to the movies with a friend, and you explode and yell that she is not leaving the house until her room is clean.
Ever been there? After you explode, you realize that you let your anger build up to a point where you could no longer contain it. A better plan would have been to tell her earlier in the week that you were getting angry because her room was still a mess, and that she needed to clean it before she does anything fun.
Step three for managing anger, is figuring out what to do with it. No worries, there are only three steps. One: acknowledge it. Two: understand it. Three: do something with it.
Once we realize that we are angry and know why, only then we can know what we should do about it.
If you don’t acknowledge that you are angry, even to yourself, your anger festers inside of you.
It becomes easy to turn the anger against yourself. There must be something wrong with me for feeling this way. Anger is energy, and it will find somewhere to go. If there is too much social pressure to be polite and to not be angry, our anger will either make us sick or come out in other ways. How many of you have experienced passive aggressive behavior from others? How many of you have practiced it?
People often resort to passive aggressive behavior like saying something nasty with a smile, giving a backhanded compliment, asking a not-so-innocent question.
People do that when they don’t want to acknowledge even to themselves that they are angry or because they are afraid of the consequences of expressing their anger. I didn’t mean it that way. It’s OK. I am fine.
And then there is malicious compliance. Oh, I was just doing what you said you wanted.
Sometimes passive aggressive behavior and malicious compliance are simply coping mechanisms when the angry person feels powerless.
It is much better, if you can admit that you are angry and you can understand why, to express that anger in a direct and appropriate way. Using “I” statements is much better than the accusatory “you.” It is more effective to say, “I am angry” than “you made me angry”, because it is less likely to trigger a defensive reaction. It is also more effective if you can articulate why you are angry, and include at least some of reasons that your anger may be more intense than expected.
“It makes me angry when it seems like you aren’t listening to me. It really upsets me a lot partly because my mother never listened to me when I was a child.” Expressing anger in that way is very positive. It can create changed behavior and increase mutual understanding.
Beverly Harrison said,
“Where anger arises, the energy to act is present. . .
We must never lose touch with the fact that all serious human moral activity, especially action for social change, takes its bearings from the rising power of human anger.”
I don’t get really angry with individuals very often, but I am simply furious about much of what is going on in our world and our country. I am outraged at the increasing income disparity between the rich and the poor and that people can work full time and not earn enough to survive. I am furious that our politicians have put their votes up for sale and that corporations have been allowed to buy our democratic institutions. I am angry about what we are doing to our planet. I am angry that the police have killed so many unarmed young black men. I am angry that there have been so few prosecutions of those crimes. It fills me with rage when I think of all the young people who commit suicide, particularly our transgender youth. I could go on. Homelessness? I am old enough to remember the years before Ronald Reagan cut the federal housing budget and closed the state mental hospitals. Those were years when there were very few people without a place to live. Health care? Too many people still don’t have health care that is both affordable and decent. I could go on, there are so many things that merit our anger and our rage.
My solution to my own feelings of anger is to write, agitate, and OK yeah, preach about it. “Don’t mourn, organize,” is good advice for all of us.
Marge Piercy wrote the following poem:
Anger shines through me.
Anger shines through me.
I am a burning bush.
My rage is a cloud of flame.
My rage is a cloud of flame
in which I walk
like a precipice.
How the streets
of the iron city
and the dirty air
between me and things,
A good anger acted upon
is beautiful as lightning
and swift with power.
A good anger swallowed,
a good anger swallowed
clots the blood
Our anger can be good if we own it, understand it, and use it wisely. My prayer is that we will not use our righteous rage against ourselves or against innocent bystanders. My hope is that even when our eyes flash in anger, behind them is the light of love.
The warmth of compassion that lives in our hearts can help us understand that we all suffer from structures of oppression and habits of mistrust that surround us. Something is wrong, many things are wrong, our anger should provide the energy we will need to bring more love and justice into the world. We can go on if we take each other’s hand and move forward in love and in hope. May it be so.
Something seems wrong
When the words won’t flow
With the force of a waterfall
There is cause for fear
When old faithful fails
And there is no release.
The waters churn
The ocean rolls
The spirit tries
The spirit yearns
The earth it slowly turns
Until patience brings
An unexpected delight
Love is more
Than a valentine
A sunset beach
Or a fancy meal
Love is more than
Than a roaring fire
On a snowy night
Or dreams of sweet delight
Love runs deep
Flows on and on
It lives in all we do
Washing the dishes
Raking the leaves
Tending the children
We sing a song
Hearing our days drift by
We pray that love
Will grow and spread
To wrap the world around
Feeding the hungry
Caring for the sick
Healing the earth
The work of love
Is what we all must do
We talk about love a lot here. A big banner outside of this hall proclaims that we are standing on the side of love. It is how we describe our national social justice work for immigration, for racial justice and for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights. Love is part of our tradition. It is the doctrine of our church. Our Universalist ancestors believed in a loving God, one that would condemn no one to hell, no matter what they believed or did not believe and no matter what they did or did not do.
But what is this love we talk about? That is a complicated question. Most of you know by now that this fellowship is not a place to come if you are looking for easy answers.
We are doing some songs about love today. Some of you likely remember the Frank Sinatra song about love being a many splendored thing. We aren’t doing that one today, but it goes…
“It’s the April rose that only grows in the early spring. Love is nature’s way of giving a reason to be living.”
The Greeks, who were quite excellent at philosophy, broke love down into four different types: Eros, a passionate and intense love that arouses romantic feelings,
Storge, (store gay) which is family or brotherly love, something you might feel for your children or your very best friend, Phileo, is the affection you feel for the people you like, and last, but not least, there is Agape, (ah gah pee) which is love in the verb form, an unconditional love that requires action.
The Greeks distinguished their forms of love not only by the qualities of the different types of love they were defining, but also about where that love was directed: to a lover, a family member, a friend, or to the world.
What they left out was love of self, which is an odd and significant omission I think. I have no clue as to why, except maybe it was just assumed that people love themselves. The Greeks were much less guilt ridden and prone to self-esteem issues than are people in our modern culture.
It is very difficult to love anyone else if you don’t love and respect yourself. Can we apply all four of the Greek forms of love to ourselves? Can we like ourselves as in Phileo? Other people like us, so it shouldn’t be that hard for us to like ourselves as well. Can we love ourselves like a close family member? After all, we know ourselves better than we know anyone else. I also don’t think there is anything wrong with self-love in terms of Eros. We are all sexual beings; passion is part of our nature.
Loving yourself, satisfying yourself sexually, is not a sin.
For me, a sin is something that actually causes harm, not just something that someone says you shouldn’t do.
And then there is Agape, love as a verb, love as unconditional. Agape love directed inward is a form of radical self-acceptance. It drives us toward spiritual health, and moves us to make the changes in our own lives that allow us to focus that Agape love on other people and on the planet.
And it is agape love that helps us love our neighbor, and we know that everyone on this planet is our neighbor. Agape also helps us feel love toward people we don’t like, and even toward our enemies. Both of those can be difficult, and it is important to remember that it is fine to set boundaries. Spiritual maturity can even mean that you decide not to be around people whose behavior is harmful to you or others. You can love them but you can also set limits on your interactions with them. Communities, and even churches, can also define what is acceptable behavior and what is not. That can be confusing in a liberal faith such as ours. We don’t judge people for who they are or who they love, and we say we welcome everyone, but we also don’t want to let pedophiles near our children. We don’t think it is ok to steal from the offering plate or another member’s wallet. We don’t think it OK to spread malicious gossip or to demonize other people.
Let me repeat that. It is not OK to demonize other people, even when their actions are really offensive. It is hard to do that when you are hurting. It can be hard not to see the other to a conflict as having purely evil intentions.
But love calls us to see that differently, to remember that everyone has pain, and that most of the time, unpleasant or even evil behavior comes from that pain. Abusers have often been abused themselves. Limits and boundaries are important ways that can help us still feel some love and compassion, even for those who behave very badly.
Healing, reconciliation, restoration, is always possible. The God imagined by the Universalists loved everyone and they believed that everyone would eventually find salvation in that holy love.
So what do you think love is? Do you think it can be divided into categories like the Greeks did?
Some quotes about love:
Rita Mae Brown: “Sorrow is how we learn to love. Your heart isn’t breaking. It hurts because it’s getting larger. The larger it gets, the more love it holds.”
Marianne Williamson:”Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth.
Lord Byron: “There are four questions of value in life: What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love.”
Everyone, it seems, has something to say about love. The minister who officiated at my wedding asked both Anne and I what we had learned about love what was then our 39 years together. This is what I wrote:
“What I have learned about love is this: it doesn’t come easy. It isn’t a happily ever after riding into the sunset with a prince or princess by your side. Soul mates aren’t magic mirrors reflecting back how you want to see yourself or them. Reach through the mirror, pay attention to the cracks. They are how the love – and light gets in. Leonard Cohen taught me a lot with that line. You aren’t royalty either, just a frog like other frogs. Life is the swamp can be lovely though. It is not necessary to sing every song in tune or dance in time with a perfect rhythm.
Marriage means so much more if you have been engaged for decades.
I know this from experience. Because engagement is the thing, one of them, that can make a marriage, a partnership work. Be real and honest and yourself. Listen carefully. Pay attention. Hold your lover’s hand, but don’t hold them back, and try to catch them when they fall. You will stumble too. Stay engaged even after you are married. I think that might be the key. In any case be grateful. If someone really loves you, it is a miracle
Love, like justice, does not come easy, but with enough grace, with enough effort, it comes. Engagement is the key, in marriage, in justice work, and in congregational life.
After the wedding reception, our daughter gave a toast that expressed what she had learned from Anne and I about love. It really moved me, and I am going to read part of it for you.
“Some of you might know that last summer, I hiked the John Muir Trail. It’s a backcountry trail that runs 218 miles from Yosemite, over 8 mountain passes to Mt. Whitney, all in the backcountry. This is something I would never have considered if not for the wonderful summers my mothers spent taking the three of us camping in Yosemite, in Yellowstone, in Glacier national parks.
One of the things I was thinking about as I was hiking, was my moms. I had called them from an outpost a week into the hike, and they told me that they had been officially married in California.
It’s good I had my moms to think about because while the trail was beautiful, actually hiking it was also the hardest thing I have ever done.
My backpack was too heavy; it weighed 45 pounds. I had to clamber up these endless 10-mile inclines, up thousands of feet in elevation, to get to each peak. And then I had to do it all over again. Those climbs were absolutely horrible.
But then, I’d get to the top.
And the top was unfailingly the most beautiful place I’d ever been, each peak more breathtaking than the last. There were turquoise alpine lakes, wildflowers, and snowcapped peaks, the whole world spread out below your feet.
And I realized, this is what I know about love. And I learned it from my moms. It is hard sometimes. It can be horrible. There are endless switchbacks and sometimes you don’t know if they’ll end, you’re not sure if you’ll make it to the top.
But you keep working at it, you put your head down and put one foot in front of the other and you make it to the top. And at the top is the most beautiful place you’ve ever been.
And then you do it all over again.
Her words made me cry when I heard them, and they still make me a bit teary-eyed.
All of us here have known many hard times over the years. This congregation has also suffered some hard times. There has been conflict and there has been grief. Life can be like that. But even in the midst of pain, we know that life is better because of love. Love can make life better.
I want to end this sermon with some words paraphrased from 1 John 4.
Let us love one another, because love is from God.
No one has ever seen God, if we love one another, God lives in us.
Those who say “I love God” and hate their brothers and sisters are liars, for those who do not love a brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
God is love, love is God. It is all we need.
Namaste my friends, Namaste.
How many of you have seen or read, “The Hunger Games”? Quite a few of you have, I see. I haven’t read the book yet, and probably won’t go to see any of the movies. I get a large enough dose of violence just reading about world events. Watching violence on the big screen just freaks me out.
But from what I have learned from reading about it, the hunger games are very deadly.
So, unfortunately, are many of the gender games we play.
It is much more than just stunting the potential of more than half of our population. We do that when we limit the possibilities and career paths open to girls. We are still guiding them mostly toward the caregiving roles. We are also stunting the emotional growth and the career possibilities for our boys, trapping them in the stereotypes of what it means to be a man.
That is deadly enough because it means that we are killing people’s spirits by not allowing them to flourish into their own individuality, with their own unique gifts. It is a huge loss for the person and a huge loss for the world.
The rules of the gender games are enforced primarily by social pressure. If someone really breaks the rules, however, the penalty can be not only violence, but too often it is death.
When Malaya Yousafzai broke the rules in her native land of Pakistan by trying to get an education, an attempt was made on her life. That young girl’s courage and persistence should inspire us all.
How much would you risk to get an education? How much would you risk to be what your culture tells you is not only impossible but wrong?
Every year, on November 20th a day is set aside internationally to remember those who have been killed in the last year because of their gender identity. Transgender Remembrance Day reminds us that Pakistan is not the only country where the penalty for breaking gender rules is violence and death.
For many years, I have held either an evening service on that day, or addressed the issue during a Sunday Service. We missed it this year here at the fellowship; there were just too many other things going on at the same time.
Part of the format of a Transgender Day of Remembrance service is to read the list of names of those people who have been killed in the last year. It is always a partial list. It also includes only those who have been murdered, not those who took their own lives.
I want to lift up the story of one young person who died by suicide on December 28 of this year.
Leelah Alcorn was born Joshua Ryan Alcorn on November 15, 1997
Alcorn was raised in a conservative Christian household in Ohio. At age 14, she came out as trans to her parents, Carla and Doug Alcorn, who refused to accept her gender identity. When she was 16, they denied her request to undergo transition treatment, instead sending her to Christian conversion therapy with the intention of convincing her to reject her gender identity and accept her gender as assigned at birth. After she revealed her attraction toward males to her classmates, her parents removed her from school and revoked her access to social media. In her suicide note, Alcorn cited loneliness and alienation as key reasons for her decision to end her life and blamed her parents for causing these feelings. She committed suicide by walking out in front of oncoming traffic on the Interstate 71 highway.
Alcorn arranged for her suicide note to be posted online several hours after her death, and it soon attracted international attention across mainstream and social media. (info on Leelah Alcorn from wikipedia)
Dominic wrote an original song about Leelah, which he will sing during the offering.
Leelah was a victim of our static gender roles no less so that those who have been murdered by direct violence. She broke the rules by not living within the cultural norms of how women and men should be.
Those norms are maintained by violence, and people who appear to be transgender bare the brunt of that violence.
As horrible as these crimes are, it is important to understand that that they are not isolated aberrations. They are not simply crimes committed by warped individuals. They are part of the gender system. It is hard to call it a game because it is so deadly, but they are only the most obvious means of social control and punishment for when you break the gender rules.
You know this. How many of the men here have been called a sissy when you were young simply because you dared to shed a tear or two? How many of you were beaten up or called a faggot because you were lousy at sports?
Girls are called dykes if they are too assertive. If they are brave, they are told they have balls.
It is crazy. It is mean. It does damage to people’s souls and their sense of wholeness and worth.
It is where a lot of homophobia comes from I think. If gay people have all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that heterosexuals do, then what will we threaten our children with if they want to do something that is out of the norm for their gender?
Telling a child that they “must be gay,” loses all of its negative punch if it is no big deal to be gay.
There may be some natural differences between the genders. Anne and I have three children. One of our sons is an accountant and the other is a chemist.
Our daughter has been a special education teacher and she is now working for an educational non-profit. They all seem well suited as individuals for what they are doing, even though they have chosen careers that match the stereotypical gender roles in our culture.
Our children should be able to choose the lives they want for themselves, but we have to make sure that they are real choices, not just the results of the limitations imposed upon them because of their gender. We always told our kids that they could choose to be and do whatever they wanted. There was no guarantee of success, but ours was definitely a family that did not have specific gender roles that they felt compelled to follow.
Which is why the legalization and acceptance of same gender marriage really is a threat to traditional marriage. It isn’t a threat to heterosexual marriage at all, but it does directly challenge traditional gender roles. Guess what, though, all you straight couples who try and equalize the power dynamics within your relationships, you too are a threat to traditional marriage.
Congratulations! It is work well worth doing for your daughters and for your sons.
But let me go back to the issue of violence for a minute. The violence against people who are transgender is the most extreme example of punishment for breaking the gender rules. Anti-gay violence is another.
We also have sexual violence, usually used against women and girls, but sometimes against men as well. Some have referred to it as a culture of rape. Women and even young girls are sexualized to the extent that their bodies are seen as primarily objects of sexual desire. Fashion and popular culture play into it. Girls are cautioned not to go out at night unless they are in a large group or have a male escort. The risk of assault and rape is high, so it is understandable that parents offer this advice. The fear of rape limits the choices of women. It too is a form of social control based on violence or the threat of violence. The killings in Santa Barbara last year were only an extreme example of why women (#yesallwomen) too often live in fear.
Let me share some statistics:
Average number of rape cases reported in the US annually 89,000
Percent of women who experienced an attempted or completed rape 16%
Percent of men who experienced an attempted or completed rape 3%
Percent of victims raped by a friend or acquaintance 38%
Percent raped by a stranger 26%
And perhaps the scariest statistic of all:
Percent of rapes that are never reported to authorities 60%
That is a truly horrifying number. All the numbers are disturbing because violence is disturbing, but why are so few rapes reported?
If someone is robbed or their home is burglarized, it is almost always going to be reported to the police. People are not afraid of admitting that their wallet was stolen. They know that no one will say it was their own fault. No one will consider them “damaged goods.”
So we have the violence of rape, coupled with the social stigma that, in some circles at least, becomes attached to the victim. No wonder young women are afraid to go out alone at night. No wonder some boys learn that they don’t have to take no for an answer.
But some young women do go out at night. Some, like Malaya dare to learn what girls are not supposed to learn. Some young men learn that no means no and that the freely given love and respect of an equal is so much sweeter than anything they can demand or try to force.
The gender games don’t have to be so violent. We all really can be just who we are, respected and treasured. We need to recognize the courage of those who dare to live authentic lives. I am so proud of and grateful for the openly transgender people who are a part of this community.
They are heroes who refuse to play the gender game by someone else’s rules.
In my sermon blurb describing this service, I said there were theological issues about this topic.
You will discover, if you haven’t already, that I think there are always theological issues. Defining God as male is a problem. It is also not an accident that the religious institutions that refuse to ordain women are also the most homophobic and trans-phobic. If you need examples, think of the Southern Baptists, the Missouri Synod Lutherans, the LDS church and the Catholic Church. Think of all but the most liberal of the many Muslim groups. The rules of the gender game were written by these conservative faiths so unlike our own.
Our Universalist ancestors believed God loved everyone, no exceptions. Our Unitarian ancestors believed that every human being had the potential within them to be divine.
Holly Near wrote a song that has the words:
“Something changes in me when I witness someone’s courage. Something changes in me anytime there’s someone standing. For the right to be completely all the good things that we are
Do not forget the children, they are singers in the storm
And when their hearts are threatened, well a fire is bound to start. It wakes us up at midnight, we feel an ancient pain
And I do believe that loves directs the flame”
May we let love direct our own flames. May we let its bright light shine upon the gender games and help us know we can play by healthier and happier rules. Blessed Be
How hard it is to chip away
At stones so tightly held
Ancient hurt and anger
Wrapped around them
Like a glove.
Don’t hurt yourself
I want to say.
Lashing out at others
Only rips your gloves apart
The sharp edges of your pain
Will cut you deeper
Than you know.
Remove your gloves
Don’t try to fight
Let life’s waters flow
Free and warm and gentle
Erosion will do the work.
Call to worship (here)
Dreams. We all have dreams and we need to keep dreaming them. Langston Hughes, an African American poet who was part of the Harlem Renaissance and also a gay man, had this to say about dreams:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
We cannot let our dreams die, no matter how long or how hard we have to work to make them real. Faith can help, as in our reading, “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
We have all known despair. Even after all these years, Martin Luther King’s dream is not yet realized. People still need to proclaim that black lives matter, because too often, it seems that they don’t.
The Rev. Dr. King was not a Unitarian Universalist, although he and his wife did attend one of our churches for a time.
It was not an accident, however, that there were more Unitarian Universalist ministers involved in the civil rights struggle movement than from any other predominantly white denomination. Some of them gave their lives, most notably the Rev. James Rheeb, who died after being beaten by a gang of white segregationists. Clark Olsen, who then served as your minister here at the Berkeley Fellowship, was with Rheeb in Alabama during the attack.
Our faith tradition is one that lives in this world and what we do in the world matters.
As Dr. King said from the Birmingham jail,
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men (and women) willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
The time is always right. And the time is always right to do our owning healing. To live our lives with compassion and forgiveness and with hope. Sometimes we need to turn inward at times to find the peace that can come from a recognition of just how precious life is and yes, just how precious each of us are. Dr. King must have prayed very hard that night in Birmingham before he agreed to let those children march. The prayer centered him and gave him strength.
Dr. King always tried to live his life guided by love. He was a visionary, an activist, but most of all; he was a man of faith that believed in love.
He stood tall and he walked proud. He faced dogs and fire hoses, and finally an assassin’s bullet, but he never lost sight of love. He reached out to both his enemies and to those that hung back on the sidelines.
Near the end of his life he also worked to end the Viet Nam war and he worked to end poverty. His life was not about a single issue.
Our faith gives us so much, a welcoming place, a place where we can all feel accepted, where we can be free to be who we are, where we can follow both our heads and our hearts, where we can find a place to be whole. But our faith also is a demanding one, one that asks us repeatedly to keep learning and growing, and doing. It isn’t easy to walk our talk. It isn’t easy to live according to our values.
Unitarian Universalists worked to abolish slavery in this country. We worked for child labor laws, and for women’s rights. Many of us marched with Dr. King. We have been in the front lines in the struggle for full equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
But action can be risky. James Reeb and Martin Luther King were both murdered. Vic has a song he will sing later about how King was killed. Many others have also lost their lives in similar ways. But what is most important is not how they died, but how they lived.
It is unlikely that any of us here today will ever be asked to risk death for living out our faith. Instead, we are called to risk life, to risk our lives by actually living them.
We might not be asked again to boycott a bus system; we might be asked to ride the bus instead of driving in order to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
We might not asked to sit at a lunch counter demonstrating for the right of all to be served; we might instead be asked to not go out to lunch at all and to instead spend our hard earned and shrinking dollars on something that will make a difference in the world. We might even be asked to give more to our religious faith, to support the work we need to do.
We don’t have to be a James Rheeb, or a Martin Luther King to follow in their footsteps, to keep their dreams alive. Not just their dreams, but also our own dreams, and the dreams of our children and all who will come after them.
I want tell you some of what MLK said in a speech he gave, at our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in 1966. It wasn’t one of his most famous speeches and it isn’t quoted often, but it was addressed directly to Unitarian Universalists and can, I think, speak to us today.
He titled his talk, “Don’t sleep through the Revolution.” Do you know the story of Rip van Winkle? Dr King said,
“One thing that we usually remember about the story of Rip Van Winkle is that he slept twenty years.
But there is another point in that story which is almost always completely overlooked: it is the sign on the inn of the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountains for his long sleep.
When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States.
When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington he was amazed, he was completely lost. He knew not who he was. This incident reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that he slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution. While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountains a revolution was taking place in the world that would alter the face of human history. Yet Rip knew nothing about it; he was asleep. One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.”
Dr King went on to say that the church needs to stay awake and be responsive to what is going on in the world.
“Certainly the church has a great responsibility because when the church is true to its nature, it stands as a moral guardian of the community and of society.
It has always been the role of the church to broaden horizons, to challenge the status quo, and to question and break mores if necessary. “
Dr King said, that “First, we are challenged to instill within the people of our congregations a world perspective. The world in which we live is geographically one. “
“We must live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. This is a fact of life. No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone.”
“All I’m saying is this: that all life is inter-related, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
“It is not enough for the church to work in the ideological realm, and to clear up misguided ideas. To remain awake through this social revolution, the church must engage in strong action programs”
MLK changed hearts and minds. He changed the world. But he didn’t do it alone. Thousands marched with him, thousands went to jail, and many were killed, as he was, by violence.
Martin Luther King did the eulogy for James Rheeb, and in that eulogy he spoke of hope, saying he was not discouraged by the future, despite the heartache, despite the tragedy that was all around him.
He faced despair, a whole mountain of it. A system of segregation that many believed would never really change. But in his dream he climbed that mountain of despair and saw a vision of the other side. He carved a stone of hope from that mountain, one that kept his dream alive.
Many of us are in despair today. We are in despair over the state of the world, the wars, the impending environmental disasters, the racism; the massive scale of human suffering that exists on the streets in this city and all around the world. Some of us may also be in despair over something that is going on in our own individual lives, a relationship gone bad, a health crises, a job loss, a need for housing, or for even a little bit of financial security. As a congregation, many of you have been in despair for a number of years over the future of this fellowship. Will it thrive; will it even survive?
We need to keep dreaming. We need to keep doing, to keep on working, making the effort, taking the risks. The largest problem can be tackled, step-by-step and piece-by-piece. Work for justice. Do your part to help heal the planet. Ask for help when you need it. Dare to keep on dreaming. I am still dreaming. If we keep dreaming together we can make those dreams, those visions of a better world, of a better life, of a rocking religious community; we can make those dreams come true.
I will end with these words by Rev. Wayne Arnason
Take courage friends,
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
And the stakes are very high.
For deep down , there is another truth:
You are not alone.
Amen and blessed be.
After last week, with all the Dog and God jokes after the service, the line in the reading about the minister of a pastoral-sized church being a spiritual bartender, made me wonder what sort of jokes we would come up with this week.
What kind of spiritual cocktail are you looking for? 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 at least some of every individual’s spiritual, emotional, and intellectual needs will be met is nearly an impossible task. 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.
It is also possible that we may not have everyone’s preferred brand of spirit here and some people will need to find what they want at another bar – er – church.
Enough with the bar metaphor! I want to talk about our family church.
This congregation has been what is called a family church for most of its existence. The easiest definition is an average of not much more than 50 people attending the Sunday services. You were much larger at one time, however, and I have heard you even had a very large religious education program with many children enrolled.
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. Pretty much everyone knows everyone else. When an issue comes up, people just talk about whatever it is. They have “town hall meetings” where decisions are made. The board has very little actual power in a family church. Family churches can be wonderful. Everyone knows everyone else, and love and trust can be built over time. A few trusted individuals can usually be depended upon to offer wise counsel to the group and to get the important things done.
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.
Those same trusted individuals, in a family church pretty much run everything. They decide what newcomers get adopted. They usually have veto power over anything new that that they don’t think is a particularly good idea. They have this power because they are loved and trusted, because everyone knows them well and listens to them. In the literature on church governance, they are referred to as the matriarchs and patriarchs. There can be one or two, but usually not more than four. Usually they are elders, but not always.
A matriarch or patriarch can be anyone who has a lot of personal power and influence, regardless of whether or not they have an official role as a board member or committee chair.
All of you who have been around for a while can probably name several people who have had this kind of personal power here over the years.
The individuals with the power can change over time, lay leaders can be driven out if the congregation feels they have exceeded their authority – or worse, made a bad decision. I suspect this has happened more than once here.
People who challenge the authority of the church leaders can also be driven out. I also suspect that has happened here.
There is an emotional component to all of this too.
Most of the matriarchs and patriarchs do a lot of the work, or give a lot of the money, and as a result feel like their opinion really should count for more. In a family style church, that is exactly what happens. They insist, and no one really wants to offend them so they get what they want most of the time. If they don’t get what they want, sometimes they leave in a huff, taking their money and their time and energy elsewhere. Almost all of these folks sincerely believe that they have the best interests of the congregation at heart. But it is not really democratic, at least not in the sense of “one person one vote. “
Family churches are just like real families in other ways. Some are healthy and others are, well, pretty dysfunctional. Some of you probably gathered with some difficult family members over the holidays. Healthy families and churches establish good boundaries for their more troubled members. All of us have some issues; all of us have been damaged in some way by our life experiences. No one is perfect and we all have a need for both healing and growth. But sometimes it is more than that. All families and all churches have members whose issues are so serious that clear boundaries on their behavior need to be established for the protection of the other members and the family or church as a whole.
A real family might invite the cousin who has a conviction for child pornography to dinner, but they don’t let him hang out after dinner playing computer games with the kids.
The uncle who can’t seem to help making sexual and sexist comments, might be tolerated by his family. But he is also told to be quiet when he gets really offensive. No one ever asks him to say grace.
We all also have different skill levels. Someone who can’t cook isn’t asked to bake the pies for a family dinner, at least not without some serious supervision.
Boundaries are important in families and in churches. Everyone can be accepted and loved, but not just any one should be on the board of trustees or chair a committee.
As I said earlier, this fellowship has been a family church for years, sometimes growing toward health and sometimes struggling.
You have worked hard on improving how you are with each other, and you have tried to grow. It has worked for a time, but in reality, things have stayed pretty much the same over the long term: 50 members, a few more of less. There have been periods of good boundaries and improved communication styles and times where dysfunction has ruled and people were even known to disrupt the Sunday service.
There is nothing wrong with being a congregation with 50 or so members, functioning as a family church.
It is important to understand, however, that in order to grow beyond that number and to become financially sustainable, continuing to function as a family church just won’t work.
The reason is simple. The maximum number of people who can all know each other is roughly 50. If you want to be larger than that, and frankly you need to be larger to be able to afford both a minister and a building, then your organizational structure needs to change to accommodate growth.
In the meetings you held with your interim minister, the Rev. Joy Atkinson it was clear that most of you wanted to change. An overall goal was described by the phrase.
“Catalyzing the transformation of BFUU into a sustainable and vibrant congregation, capable of thriving in a challenging future.”
This is what your board of trustees and I have been trying to achieve.
The only way to do that is to move into being a pastoral church. This type of church was described in our reading as well.
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.
The individual power of the matriarchs and the patriarchs decreases. Town hall meetings are no longer where most decisions are made. The board gets input from the congregation when needed, but they establish almost all the policies during their meetings. They hold the vision and work to fulfill the mission. The minister in a pastoral church is also granted full authority over the worship services so that there is some consistency in quality and grounding in our faith tradition. 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 change, some people will inevitably become marginalized. There just isn’t room in the family-style system for more that 50 people. Marginalized people leave.
Alice Mann, in her GA workshop on navigating size transitions in congregations, said this,
“When a church is changing sizes, it has to dismantle one way of doing things, and construct a new way…that’s called transition, and it is always uncomfortable. It can be stimulating and life giving, but it is always uncomfortable. Sizes can go upward and downward…but it is hard to be in a growing church that doesn’t want to let go of the old way of doing things.
People need to sociologically ‘rearrange the chairs’ to accommodate the change.”
Transformation, a fancy word for deep substantive change, is not easy. All change involves some loss. Even leaving a bad relationship involves some grief over what might have been. This congregation is undergoing deep change. It is undergoing fairly rapid change. We are rearranging the chairs, sometimes literally.
Some think we are going to fast, but slow and very incremental change usually fails, as the desire to retain what is comfortable and safe is strong. Sometimes you just have to go cold turkey. We need to make the changes that need to be made and get on with what we need to do. Has anyone ever successfully quit smoking by just “cutting back” on a few cigarettes a day?
The board has been stepping up to their role of being a real governing body. As your minister, I have changed the Sunday service format and content so that the services are hopefully more focused and more spiritual. Some elements that were popular with some have been eliminated. Joys and sorrows is the big one and having a variety of different people making their own announcements is another. The restriction on announcements is simply to limit the “business aspects” of our gatherings so that is clearer that we are a religious gathering and not just a social club. That we have stopped passing a microphone around for people to express their own joys and sorrows is very hard for some people. I understand that.
We all remember times when something particularly moving was shared. Sometimes speaking of a deep pain in front of a congregation of friends is been truly healing. Something very special and precious was lost when we stopped passing the microphone around. It is OK to grieve that loss.
But we have lost other things too. Things most of you likely don’t miss very much. Because always, there will be someone in any room, if given a microphone, who will take the floor and just ramble on. People will share trivial things just to have a chance to speak. Sometimes what they say can be deeply offensive. In a small family church, inappropriate behavior is often excused. Oh, that’s just Joe, he always talks about the same thing. We know him and love him anyway. Mary always sounds like she is angry with the whole congregation, maybe the whole world, but we know her and know she is doing it from a place of love.
If you have experienced joys and sorrows in this or other Unitarian Universalist congregations, you likely have your own examples of things that most likely should have been better left unsaid.
My sense of this congregation is that while some people would like to return to that practice, there are others who are quite relieved that we aren’t doing it anymore. Anyone?
But the truth is, even if most people like it, it is a practice that tends to keep a congregation small.
It can work OK when “everyone knows everyone” and excuses can be made when individuals get carried away, but if you have more that 50 people in the room, there will be some people who have no idea who the speaker is and it can be a real turn off and embarrassing – especially for an introverted newcomer who is looking for a safe and meaningful Sunday morning experience.
The shift from family church to pastoral church, trying to break the 50 member maximum is what the board and I have been working on as a way of “Catalyzing the transformation of BFUU into a sustainable and vibrant congregation, capable of thriving in a challenging future.”
Even if we can accomplish this change, and the jury is still out although I believe much progress has been made, it doesn’t mean we can’t keep the feeling of being a family. We can be warm and welcoming to everyone who enters this space, whoever they are. We can love each other. We can forgive each other. We can honor our past and move boldly into the future. May it be so!
Call to worship (here)
I like bumper stickers. One that I used to see a lot said, “Dog is my copilot.” You may have seen that one too. It was a play on the phrase, “God is my copilot.” Dog is God spelled backwards after all. The dog one was much more popular for a time though. People do love their dogs, and most dogs just love riding in cars. Some folks may also have wanted to poke a bit of fun at the idea that God is standing around waiting to help us find our way home, through traffic.
This all 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 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 liked 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. (pause)
Talking about God in a Unitarian Universalist church can be a tricky business at times.
Some Unitarian Universalists, when the idea of God is even mentioned, bring out the metaphorical garlic. Usually these are folks who, like me, were raised with a fairly traditional idea of God.
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? Do we remain stubborn in our own Divine right to stay the way we are, hanging on to maybe some bad habits just because they are our own? Or do we maybe feel bad, because we aren’t perfect, and feel we should be? Are we too harsh with our friends and family, seeking perfection in them too, and becoming angry and disappointed when they inevitably fall short? Do we let others change and grow, even if we are afraid that if they change that they will somehow leave us behind?
If we see God as all knowing do we somehow get the idea that it is possible to know everything? What does it say about the need for lifelong learning, about humility even in our strong opinions? Do we feel stupid because we don’t know everything, or do we tend to act like “know it alls?
It plays out at the societal level, our image of God. If we imagine a judgmental God, we might believe that only the so-called “deserving poor” should be helped by society. We can be impatient with those who don’t agree with us, judging them stupid and ill-informed. If we see God as all powerful, we may be tempted to sit back and let some divine force do all the work for justice that is in fact our work to do. Even if we don’t put that on God, we can put it on others. We get the idea that if we don’t have the power to change things in a very powerful, in an absolute Godlike way, then we can sometimes feel that it is not worth trying. We relinquish what power we do have and yearn for the “government”, the “democrats”, the board of trustees, the minister, the committee chair to see the light and take the appropriate action.
Most important, though, on a spiritual level, how we image God can affect our own sense of well being, our sense of our purpose in life. A limited image can narrow our sense of possibility, of who we are, and who we can become.
It is also deeply insulting to the Divine Spirit of creative force that is within us all. If we put God on a pedestal, way up in the clouds, it is harder to feel the spirit fully as it moves in our daily lives. God becomes an abstract concept, disembodied, something that has no relevance for us at work, in our homes, or even in our churches.
Charles Hartshorne, a UU theologian, in his book, Divine Relativity, critiques this traditional image of God.
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 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. Shouldn’t that be part of the definition?
Power and perfection are two of the traditional attributes of God that I think most need reconstruction. If God is all powerful, then God is responsible for all the horrors in the world as well as all the goodness and beauty. Do we want to honor and worship power in this way? Doesn’t worshiping power lead to unjust wars, to imperialism? Does it serve our local communities when the powerful are more honored than the weak and vulnerable? A God who shares power with us, who helps us develop our own strengths, is more the kind of God I believe we need. Not a tyrant or a dictator. If we worship a dictator God, it is too easy to search for that in our human leadership as well.
Martin Luther King said that “power without love is abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” He said that “power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and that justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” That old image of God hurling thunderbolts and hurricanes from the sky is an abusive and limited one.
I think we can honor God and still 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.
Maybe we could begin to see change as something good, that growth in ourselves and in other people is a natural thing. Maybe we could also stop beating ourselves up for who we are now and stop worrying so much about who we aren’t yet, what dreams are still out of our reach. Maybe we will even stop being embarrassed about who we used to be. We might learn to accept and love ourselves and each other in our actually quite glorious imperfections.
If we carried the ideal of relationality into the world, if we identified the divine nature as one who is supremely sensitive to others, maybe we would learn to listen to one another better. Maybe we could begin to understand those with different life experiences from ours, those with different views, different politics. Maybe we could find some common ground if we aren’t all stuck in the paradigm of always being perfectly and absolutely correct.
On a spiritual level, if we understand God as a presence that truly interacts with us, that changes when we change, a tremendous power could be released into the world and into our own souls. We could work with the God force, not simply for it or against it.
We could be major players on the Divine team, in partnership, in community. 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?
How different than that judgmental lordly figure – a God that is wounded, that weeps, that is vulnerable.
I have never been able to really wrap my brain around the orthodox version of the Christian trinity, and I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was fully human, but I can see the appeal of a God who suffers with us, one who really knows our pain, because that God feels pain too. What draws us closer to other people? Do we really like best those who seem perfect? Don’t we instead appreciate more someone who is trying?
When it comes to love of other people it is usually their imperfections that draw us. We want to help a friend in pain. Our best friends are often those who are willing to share some of their vulnerability, some of their fears. The ones that are patient with us, that listen. We can trust them with our failures and also cheer their triumphs and successes with full and open hearts because we know something about their struggles. Can we love God in the way we love those friends?
Perhaps, if God were really a dog, it wouldn’t be a purebred at all, but a shaggy, floppy eared mutt who loves freedom and is interested in the world. A God who is not perfect, who is not all powerful and unchanging, 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 let run free through our lives and through the world. Blessed be.
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.
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.