The same week that Kate Kelly was excommunicated from the LDS church, my congregation named me “Minister Emerita”, one of the highest honors that can be granted to a Unitarian Universalist minister.
They did this even though I am a woman and a lesbian to boot. My faith tradition is not only open to the gifts that women and LGBT people can bring, we actually celebrate diversity in our ministry and in our congregations.
Kate was excommunicated, but frankly, she wasn’t asking for very much. Although her group is called Ordain Women, ordination in the LDS church is very different that what it is in most other faith traditions. Virtually ever 12 year old Mormon boy can be ordained into their priesthood. Catholic women who are working for ordination want women to be in a priesthood that really has a special status. The Pope has not excommunicated any of those feminists for their activism.
No, the Pope instead said last week that the mafia was excommunicated.
I don’t know Kate personally, but from everything I have heard, she is a fairly nice person and not a criminal by any stretch of the imagination. Has John Swallow, the disgraced and likely to be convicted ex-attorney general of Utah, been excommunicated? Will he be? I doubt it and I also suspect there are many Mormon men who have committed serious crimes, including rape and domestic violence, that still have their temple recommends.
Patriarchy stinks. It just does.
I have a lot of respect for Kate Kelly and the other women (and men) in the Ordain Women movement. But if they get tired of beating their heads against the temple walls, I hope they know that there are other churches that would welcome them with open arms, churches that would be grateful for the gifts of the spirit they have to offer. We won’t ordain them, unless they attend an accreditted seminary, get a Masters of Divinity, and successfully get through the intensive fellowshipping process, but the same is true for their husbands, brothers, and sons.
It is all about the difference between the love of power and the power of love.
When I woke today
Everything had changed
Yet the sun still rose
The birds still sang
Their ancestors’ songs
The melody is here
A timeless pattern
Deeper than memory
My bags are packed
Goodbyes all said
Going to sing my song
In another town
With a different drum
The beat goes on
And the sun will rise
And the day after that
With more clarity
So I pray
Grant us grace
Bless our journeys.
Call to worship (here)
Well, today really is the day, the day I say goodbye to being your minister. I will be in town for the next week, until June 30th, but I am taking vacation time so that we can pack up the house. So today is really it, the end of the ministry we have shared together for the last seven years.
I made this short so I could hopefully get through it, but we will see how that goes.
After we do the litany later in the service, I will no longer be the minister of this church. It doesn’t mean that I will never see any of you again, but if we do see each other, it will be in a very different relationship. Good professional boundaries mean that while I will, of course, respond to any requests for information or advice from the ministers that will follow me, I will not be available to any of you for anything that concerns this congregation. Similarly, I will not be available to any of you for pastoral care. This is standard practice when a minister leaves, and it is a good thing. It creates the necessary space that will allow you to develop a good relationship with your incoming minister.
Have I said enough times that I am really thrilled that the Reverend Shelley Paige will be here in August as your interim minister? I so love and respect Shelly. We went to seminary together. She is warm and smart, and I can’t think of a better person with whom to leave you. I have faith in her and I have faith in you.
This congregation will prosper and continue to do many fabulous things. I am counting on it! It would not be nice to disappoint your mother!
Our last hymn this morning was one we sang at my first service here. It has really been a dance we have done together. I now want to read the poem I wrote back in 2007, when I first learned I was coming to you. Catherine Zublin had it printed inside this stole, which she also made.
As the mountains rise
Above the salt flats
In majesty and wonder
We will listen
For the quiet call,
The still small voice,
A guide with measured steps,
Scouting out the trail.
And we may be amazed
By the thunders’ clap
The chance encounter,
A wild and crazy shout,
Rhythms that will make us dance.
And within it all
The precious beat of human hearts,
Of hopes and fears and dreams,
Open now in anticipation.
Live with patience
Grace, I must believe,
Awaits us all.
And then, in the spring of 2008, when you decided to call me as your settled minister, I wrote the following:
The mountains called to me
Their golden glow a beacon,
Shining, leading here.
Tears and laughter both
Mingled with the rain and snow,
Loving hearts and holding hands,
Good work to do.
This salty soil holds the miracle of life.
A garden, precious and rare,
Flourishes and grows.
Let us now dance together,
For a harvest time is here
And more are yet to come.
And come they did, those harvest times. We have done so much good work together. This church has changed in the time we have been together and so has this town. Those two things are not unrelated. It has always been a partnership and a shared ministry. We have learned from each other and we have all grown as a result.
We have lived through troubles and we have held each other’s hands for courage. We have stood together in graveyards, saying goodbye, and we have blessed the new babies that were born, saying hello.
Those memories will last, those tender connections of the heart are one of the greatest blessings of ministry, giving and receiving. Saying hello, and saying goodbye, is part of it all.
Another poem which expresses some what ministry has felt like to me here:
A traveler can get weary
The mountains are so high
A boulder comes from nowhere
To roll onto the path
You push it back
It comes again
Is there a way around?
Your compass has a crack
You did not see before
Supplies are getting low
Rest awhile; take in the view
Rejoice in all you’ve seen
You are only human and
The desert takes its toll
Let the fog wash over you
Listen to your dreams
Hear the sweet birds singing
Their melody’s for you.
Share your water
Share your food
With dear souls you will meet
Hold their hands
Wipe their tears
Find courage in their prayers
A traveler does get weary
Before the journey’s done
The ground beneath us all
Is what will help us stand.
God, give us the strength
To travel on again
Guide our feet
Lead us to our home.
And as a message for your future, this poem:
If God could weep
For all the pain
That in this world abides
The tears would flow like rivers
The rain would never stop
Ocean waves like thunder
Would reach the mountain tops
If God could shout
A message out
For all the world to hear
The roar of words
Would echo round
This green and spinning sphere
If God could act
We’d surely have
Peace in all the lands
Food for all the hungry souls
And care for all the sick
If God is sleeping
I’d like to know
How to wake the Holy up
Most likely God is asking
That same question
Of every one of us.
This church is awake. You have the spirit and you have the will. Blessing to all of you. I love you. May you fare well as I bid you a heartfelt farewell. Namaste.
A Litany of Farewell
Catherine Zublin: In the Unitarian Universalist tradition of religious freedom, the authority and privilege of calling a minister rests solely and completely with the members of the local congregation. Likewise, a Unitarian Universalist minister freely chooses how to respond to that call. Minster and congregation enter a sacred covenant, a committed promise to be in relationship in a particular way. As the chair of the search committee that brought you here, I affirm that our relationship has been one where that promise was fulfilled.
Bill Hackett: As the board president when you first arrived, my goal was to help create an environment in which the minister could succeed. This has been a successful ministry for you and for us.
Laura Anderson: As the second of the three board presidents who served with you, I affirm that as you have dwelt among us as our minister, you have lived and spoken the truth in love as best as you were able. You have been our minister in times of sorrow and of celebration. You have helped us live our values as we worked for justice and as we gathered in religious community.
The Reverend Theresa Novak: I began serving as your minister in September of 2007. Over the years, I have loved you both as individuals and as a church community. You have inspired me and you have reaffirmed my faith each and every day. We have been together in sorrow and in celebration. We have made this town and the world a better place. I am very proud and very humbled to have served as your minister.
Doris Lang: As the President of the Board of Trustees of this congregation, it is now my duty to relieve you of your role as minister of this congregation. Will the members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden please now rise in body and/or in spirit? Please join me in reading the words printed in your order of service.
Members of Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden: We chose you, Reverend Theresa, to be our Minister. You have served us well, and you have been a strong advocate for love and for justice. It is now time to let you go. We are grateful for the years we have spent with you, for the gifts and the wisdom you have brought to us. We wish you well, as we release you from your calling as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden.
The Reverend Theresa Jane Novak: I chose you, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, to be my church. We have shared tender times as well as exciting ones. They have been some of the very best years of my life. It is now time to let you go. I am grateful for the years we have spent together and for all you have given me. I wish you well, as you release me from my calling as the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden.
Doris Lang: Although you will no longer be our minister, the love that is between us will not go away. I offer you now this small vial of our sacred water, symbol of our gathered community. Please take it with you, knowing that our prayers and love will follow you for the rest of your days.
The Reverend Theresa Novak: Thank you. Please know that my prayers and love will be with all of you for the rest of my days.
Posting a sermon form June 21, 2012
“It is the sound of freedom calling.”
It is hard to hear that sound sometimes. It is easy to feel trapped, that there is no way out of a situation that feels like slavery. We get stuck sometimes, in old habits and patterns, in relationships that aren’t working, and in jobs that drain and depress us. We slave away trying to make ends meet, knowing that it is, in the end, hopeless.
But freedom is calling us, just as it was in Galveston on that day so long ago. In amazement and disbelief the slaves heard that not only were they now free, but that they had been free for months, for years even, but no one had told them and they did not know.
“Two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the slaves of Texas learned that they were free. Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.” (juneteenth.com)
It is important to remember that the Mexican-American War which was fought in the years 1846 to 1848 had a lot to do with slavery as well as with imperialism.
American settlers in Texas were illegal immigrants who brought their slaves with them, but slavery was illegal in Mexico and became one of the main sources of conflict between the American Settlers and the Mexican government. When the Republic of Texas was annexed by the United States, over the bitter objections of the anti-slavery movement, war with Mexico was inevitable.
“Generally, the officers of the army were indifferent whether the annexation was consummated or not; but not so all of them. For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”
“Grant also expressed the view that the war against Mexico had brought punishment on the United States in the form of the American Civil War:
The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
We should not be proud of the Mexican American War, a war in which we basically stole the lands of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah from Mexico. I wish those who are so hostile to modern day immigrants would remember this history.
But back to Juneteenth, which was the shorthand name given to the event by the slaves, almost all of whom were illiterate because it was a crime for them to be taught to read.
When the proclamation of freedom was read, after the initial shock, there was much jubilation and celebration. Many of the newly freed slaves left immediately.
“North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.” Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America. Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territory. The celebration of June 19th was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.”
“On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition.”
The holiday is not well known outside of Texas and outside of the African American community, but is one that I think is worthwhile for all of us.
What if you were free and didn’t know it? What does that mean? From the beginning of slavery, people hear the sound of freedom calling and did all they could to make it so. They ran away from their masters, risking death. Runaway slaves were killed or tortured, branded and mutilated. The risk was great, but still they ran.
What would you risk for freedom? We all hear freedom calling us, but we don’t always have the courage to answer the call. What is holding you in chains? Chains can be physical, but they can also be emotional, psychological and spiritual. We all have them: habits, addictions, patterns developed from how we were brought up perhaps, perceptions tainted by where we have lived, by our experiences and by our assumptions. What would happen if we were to cast them aside?
Now I am not advising that you all quit your jobs tomorrow or leave your families. But if you are feeling trapped in some situation, some aspect of your life, some attitude of mind that you just can’t shake, it might be useful to imagine what it would be like to really feel like you were free. As our opening hymn, I think we all wish we knew how it would feel to be free.
So try this. Think about something you would like to do for yourself; something that when it crosses your mind even as a faint hope, your first response is “I can’t.” Can all of you think of something like that? Whatever it is, there are probably plenty of reasons why you can’t do it. The list of why you can’t is probably a long one: not enough money, not enough time, and too many other responsibilities.
My fourth grade teacher was fond of saying, “Can’t lives on won’t street.” Ever heard that one? I hated the expression. I mean, there are some things you just can’t do even if you want to.
Many times, however, I think we say “I can’t” not because something is truly impossible, but because we don’t want it enough to spend the time or take all the risks that would be involved. There may be obstacles, but they are not really chains but merely limitations that we can choose to accept or not. We are much freer sometimes than we think we are.
Let me give an example. Let’s say you really hate your job. Not just getting up and going to work, but every minute while you are on the job you are miserable. You feel like you are wasting your time doing something that has no meaning for you. The boss is a real creep. Your co-workers are dull. The work is mind-numbing and exhausting. Some of you have been in that kind of situation and some of you still are. You want to quit, or at least complain to the boss, but you are afraid.
But what is the worst case scenario? You will be fired and won’t find another job. You will get behind on your rent and you will lose your home.
You won’t have enough to eat, you will get sick, and then you will freeze to death under a freeway overpass. It could happen. It does happen.
Most likely, however, you will find another job, and maybe even one you like better. The slaves in Texas had to weigh their chances of freedom very carefully. The odds were never good. Almost all of them were too afraid to take the risk of attempting to escape.
Then, on Juneteenth, they discovered that not only were they finally free, they had been free for a long time and just didn’t know it. If they had decided to run earlier, the journey to safety and freedom was not nearly as long as they had imagined.
A poem by Kristina Kay called “We Rose”
From Africa’s heart, we rose
Already a people, our faces ebon, our bodies lean,
Skills of art, life, beauty and family
Crushed by forces we knew nothing of, we rose
Survive we must, we did,
We rose to be you, we rose to be me,
Above everything expected, we rose
To become the knowledge we never knew,
Dream, we did
Act we must
There is no shame in being afraid, but it is important to know that there is almost always at least some choice involved. The choice may just be to survive, to dream, and to wait for the time when action will become possible.
That day will come.
“I feel it more and more
It’s the rumble of freedom calling
Climbing up to the sky
It’s the rumble of the old ways a falling
You can feel it if you try”
Upon hearing that two faithful Mormons are being threatened with excommunication from the LDS church for daring to question the heirarchy’s policies on GLBT people and women, I thought immediately of the reading below:
Read NY Times news article (here)
Cherish your Doubts, by Robert T. Weston
Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the handmaiden of truth.
Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.
A belief which may not be questioned binds us to error,
for there is incompleteness and imperfection in every belief.
Doubt is the touchstone of truth; it is an acid which eats away the false.
Let no man fear for the truth, that doubt may consume it;
for doubt is a testing of belief.
The truth stands boldly and unafraid; it is not shaken by the testing;
For truth, if it be truth, arises from each testing stronger, more secure.
He that would silence doubt is filled with fear;
the house of his spirit is built on shifting sands.
But he that fears no doubt, and knows its use, is founded on a rock.
He shall walk in the light of growing knowledge;
the work of his hands shall endure.
Therefore let us not fear doubt, but let us rejoice in its help:
It is to the wise as a staff to the blind; doubt is the handmaiden of truth.
Opening words (here)
We have talked about change a lot in the last few months. I admit that it has really been on my mind and in my heart particularly after I decided in the late fall that I would leave you at the end of June. That is coming up pretty quick now, isn’t it? My last worship service with you will be June 22.
Change is natural; we know that. And some changes are ones we feel sad about while others fill us with eager anticipation. Often both emotions are present at the same time.
The choir’s song this morning about summer reflects the gladness that most people feel when a hard winter is over and the long warm summer days have finally come. Today we have also put out our summer runners, one of the ways we mark the changing seasons in this congregation. It is important to acknowledge change and the passage of time.
Nic’s wonderful song is also about the excitement of change, about following a dream.
I love the song, but one line in it gives me some pause.
“Don’t look back – you can never look back where you’ve been. You can only look where you’re going.”
I love the image that birds don’t look back over their shoulders when they are flying, but it also makes me think about the Bible story about Lot’s wife.
The book of Genesis does not tell us her name, as is often the case with female characters in Bible stories. She is just “Lot’s wife.” Some Jewish Midrash refers to her as Edith. Midrash is a tradition that tries to fill in some of the gaps in the ancient stories; sort of a description of what might also have been happening that can help explain the story better. Anyway, as the story goes, Edith and Lot were fleeing the city of Sodom right before it was to be destroyed. They were told not to look back. Edith looked back anyway and God turned her into a pillar of salt. Why did she look back? Was she having a hard time letting go of what her life had been in that city? She must have had friends and family members living there. It must have been impossible for her to just walk away and not give it at least one parting glance. She must have been crying as she left, and perhaps the whole pillar of salt thing is just a metaphor of the salty tears she shed knowing that all she had known before was going to be destroyed.
Change always involves some loss. Always. Even when the change is overall a very positive one, there is some grief involved. Ending a bad marriage or relationship can be a very good thing, particularly if abuse has been involved, but there still can be some grief when it ends. Maybe it is just sadness over the loss of the hope for what might have been. I think it is important to recognize the full spectrum of emotions that come up around change.
Some of you who have left other religions to become Unitarian Universalists may still feel some grief about the things you left behind in your other faith tradition.
Whatever the change is, it is important to look back, to know what you are leaving, and to grieve the loss. Only then can you really look forward and step into the future. I promise, you won’t turn into a pillar of salt, although you may shed a few tears.
What isn’t always so healthy is to not look back at all, to just shut the door to the past and pretend it doesn’t matter anymore, even that it never mattered at all.
The past always matters. Good or bad or in-between, it matters. The future is built on what has gone before.
I found our reading about the train this morning a little nerve-wracking. The train could have come as it did once before and caught more young boys mid-span. More lives could have been lost. Some changes, some bridges that we need to cross in our lives, can be simply terrifying. They can take real courage to navigate.
But some of what I like about that story is the description of what it felt like to be in the middle of that bridge:
“We were in between. We were off balance. We were unknown to our own selves. As if on cue, the breeze picked up, whipping through the wooden beams.
It tousled Terry’s hair. He smiled. Another gust, cooler, caused me to stop. Christian hollered and tossed his t-shirt high above our heads, and for a moment it rode the wind out beyond the bridge. I shut my eyes, threw open my arms, wide, and let that same wind rush across my skin. Then, with eyes open, we stepped forward.”
That in between space is important, it is where transformation happens. They were free floating in the wind and then they stepped forward with courage and joy. They suddenly knew they had the power to cross that bridge safely and discover what was on the other side.
This congregation is currently in an in-between space. I am currently in-between too. Beginning July 1, I will no longer be your minister. We are saying goodbye to a relationship we have shared and valued. We will do that formally and ritually on the 22nd of this month. Although I am sure I will see some of you again, it will be a completely different relationship than the one we have now.
You are also looking forward to the future. You will soon have a fabulous new minister and with her you will enter a time of reevaluating your mission and goals.
The wind will blow about you and through you and you will move boldly to the other side of the bridge. I know you will, because you are courageous and faithful people.
And for me, I am going home and will be close to family and old friends. I will also be starting a new part-time ministry in a congregation very different from this one. I will still be a minister, but I won’t be your minister anymore, and that is something that in some ways is heartbreaking for me and, I know, for many of you. We have done good work together and your hearts really are entwined with mine.
As in the poem I wrote and read this morning at the beginning of the service, we need to unravel the threads that have bound us together carefully. They are not going away, just being transformed and woven into a different tapestry, one that I suspect will be even more beautiful that the amazing one we have created together. The new one will come from your collective dreams, so dream deeply and dream well.
We will all, I hope, look back on our time together with love and gratitude, but not with any kind of nostalgia that will inhibit our welcome embrace of the future. Great things really do await, the only real limit is a failure of imagination.
It is pride weekend here in Utah and I need to say something about the incredible progress that has been made because courageous people lived their dreams. When I first came out, it was illegal in most states to even be in a relationship with someone of the same gender. If someone caught you kissing, you could be arrested and thrown in jail.
Today marriage equality is real in, I forget how many states it is now, and Wisconsin is the latest. It will happen, again, in Utah.
But even achieving marriage equality throughout this nation will not mean the work for justice will end. Not until everyone, no matter who they are, who they love, their immigration status, or how much money they have, not until everyone, and I mean everyone can count on being always treated with dignity and respect then we will not have true justice and equity in this world of ours.
Our closing hymn today is one of our favorites I know. I chose it for that reason, but also because of some of the words.
“From the light of days remembered burns a beacon bright and clear. Guiding hands and hearts and spirits into faith set free from fear.” It is good to look back at the past as long as looking back becomes an inspiration that gives us the courage to meet the future.
“From the stories of our living rings a song both brave and free calling pilgrims still to witness to the life of liberty,”
How we live, right now, today, matters.
“From the dreams of youthful vision comes a new prophetic voice which demands a deeper justice built by our courageous choice.” And I just need to say that a youthful vision can come from someone of any chronological age.
But yes, deeper justice can come to one and all. We just need to keep the fire burning and the dreams alive. I love you. Nameste.
I have hesitated on whether or not to write this post. Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) is important to me. It is the seminary where I studied for the ministry, and there is so much pain there right now. I don’t want to add to that pain. But it seems to me in all the discussion about the disclosure of confidential information and the board’s response to that disclosure, several important points have been lost. Three of them are, in my opinion:
1. The underlying racism of the reaction to the selection of the Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt as SKSM’s next president
2. Ignorance of the power dynamics of institutions, including those of small religiously liberal seminaries
3. Hubris and confusion about what the “empowerment ” of students actually means.
You can read the public documents from the school here.
Facebook has been totally popping, but I only know of one UU blogger who has commented so far. Scott Well’s comments are here. I found some of Scott’s comments less than generous in tone and that is partly why I have decided to add my own voice.
Disclaimer first: I have no inside information, just what I have gleaned online. Most of the discussion seems to be about an anonymous email that contained confidential information and the students whose degrees have not been granted while the school investigates to see if they were involved. Publicly disclosing confidential information is a serious ethical breech, not something that a minister should ever intentionally do, except in cases where there are legal reporting requirements. This wasn’t that kind of case, however. It was instead because a student or students (or others) were upset with the selection of the next president of the seminary and believed the selection process was flawed.
There were 3 finalists for the position, all well respected and highly qualified individuals. When the African American woman was selected as the new president it triggered a lot of frankly racist nonsense about her being somehow less qualified than the other two candidates. This is a major problem for a school that has as an emphasis on social justice work and educating to counter oppressions. It is also something that always happens when a person of color rises to a position of power and authority, so I guess no one should have been surprised. Think of those that still question where President Obama was born. It happens to women too, and there was a very similar reaction when the now outgoing president, Rebecca Parker was first selected. Everyone can have a favorite candidate and is certainly entitled to be disappointed if someone else is chosen, but would the reaction have been the same if the white male had been selected instead? Would his qualifications and credentials be disparaged? Would the selection process have been declared corrupt by anyone?
2. Ignorance of power dynamics
If you chose to attend a small school or if you chose to work for that school, there is an expectation that you will generally support the institution, and also the board and administration. Don’t bite the hand that you want to feed you. Understand where the power lies and approach it with respect. Constructive criticism is one thing, advice offered in love is a gift that, in my experience, is usually reasonably well received, even if it is not followed. A milder version of this incident occurred while I was a student there. One student took it upon herself to state publically that academic standards were being ignored by the school’s administration in certain selections. She at least signed her name, but the personal advice I gave her was that if she really felt that way, it was probably time for her to look at transferring to a different school. Similarly, faculty at a small school need to support school policies and the decisions of the board and administration, at least in all public discussion. If you can’t do that, you don’t belong there. You might even be fired. By the way, this is also true for the staff who work for our local congregations. An office administrator should not be trash talking about the minister – or visa versa for that matter. The whole really is greater than the parts.
Whoever said that the students at the school should get to pick the faculty and the new president? Being able to give some input into such decisions is a gift, so to be outraged when another decision is made is just hubris in my opinion. This may be one of the systemic issues going on. Students are encouraged to speak truth to power and to be vocal on all sorts of social justice issues, but not enough attention appears to be given to the need for humility. The school is about so much more than the current student body and their opinions or even their careers. The outraged students don’t seem to understand that. If they hope to be effective ministers someday then they need to understand that the good of the congregation as a whole always trumps whatever personal issues the minister might have. Always. It can be a very difficult discernment process, but it is one that needs to be done. It should never just be about you; it has to be what is good for the whole, not what individuals think they want necessarily, but what will help them grow in their faith and also make a positive difference in their own lives and in the wider world.
I hope all involved can spend some reflection time on the following question:
What is the best thing I can do for the future of the school, for Unitarian Universalism, and ultimately for our world?
I happen to believe that both Unitarian Universalism and the world need the Starr King School for the Ministry. It is a very special place. It isn’t perfect, nothing is. If we want to be faithful and effective religious leaders then our mission must be to build things up and to make things better. Let’s all try and pray about it. That could help.
Tom Shade has some important things to say about power and authority (here)
I believe that we all have the light of the sacred within us. How do we make that light stronger? How do we let it shine out from our eyes and through the work of our hands?
How do we help others find the holy light that is within them too?
Today is Religious Exploration Sunday, a service when we traditionally enjoy some special presentations by our children and youth and when we also thank those adults who have lead their classes. Our classes for both adults and children run from September through May and represent quite a commitment.
We all need to be committed to help each other to learn and to grow, to answer the questions we all have about what it means to be alive.
Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? How do I know what is true? What should I do? Who am I? Is there a God? What is God? How can I find peace and purpose? How can I live my life so as to make a positive difference in the world?
The search for the answers to those questions, and for other similar ones, is what calls human beings to gather together in religious community.
Our faith does not offer just one answer to these questions, but offers a place and a way to explore them and discover what makes sense to us both as a congregation and as individuals.
The Sufi poet Rumi says,
“There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?”
He also said, “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”
This, my friends, is the essence of our 4th principle, affirming and promoting “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Note that the words are “free and responsible”, not “free and independent.” Searching for truth and meaning is something we do together, not in lock step marching to what someone tells us to believe, but a hand in hand walk through the various sources of wisdom, places where others have found comfort and meaning.
We accept each other and our different ideas about the truth and we encourage spiritual growth in each other and in our congregations. We do this whenever we gather, at book club or potluck video, over coffee after the service, in meetings, in worship, while we mow the lawn or work at a yard sale, and most especially we do it in our religious exploration classes.
There, with children and adults, we explore in more detail our direct experience of mystery and wonder, we learn of the words and deeds of others which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil, we study the wisdom of the world’s religions, the teachings of our Jewish and Christian heritage, we investigate humanism, use the guidance of reason and the results of science, and we discover the spiritual wealth contained in the earth-centered traditions.
All of this requires commitment. Someone needs to volunteer to lead the classes, and others need to attend them. Showing up is one of the most important things you can do in life.
If you haven’t attended one of these classes you are really missing something important. Classes will start again in the fall. Take the time to go. Send your children. It will be time very well spent.
Tending to your own spiritual growth is one of the responsibilities of being a Unitarian Universalist. Undertaking that free and responsible search for truth and meaning cannot be done without serious religious exploration.
“There is a void in your soul, ready to be filled.
You feel it, don’t you?” Tend to it. You don’t have to do it alone.
We don’t do many things alone here. It is kind of like a potluck. Everyone brings something to the table and we all enjoy the feast. Sometimes negotiations are required. We don’t always agree. Some of us are vegan, some are gluten free, and some of us will eat anything that isn’t currently moving.
We celebrate that diversity and we honor differences, but it isn’t always easy. Our covenant of right relations helps. If we follow it, or come back to it when we forget, it will serve us well.
We used to call what we do in our classrooms religious education, RE for short, but we renamed it religious exploration a couple of years ago. It is still RE for short. Acronyms can have a life of their own. Why the change? We still have classes, and the students do learn things. It is education. Changing the name to exploration wasn’t something we came up with here in Ogden, but is an idea that has been spreading around the country in various Unitarian Universalist churches. The dedicated volunteers that lead our religious exploration classes are in reality more guides and companions than they are simply instructors. We have curricula, we impart knowledge in our classes, we cover the history of our faith tradition, we include wisdom for the various religions of the world, but the main purpose is, as in the words of William Ellery Channing,
“The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own.”
Has that happened to you in one of our classes? Has your mind been stirred up? Have you left still thinking about the things that were discussed, about what others have shared about their own lives and experiences?
He also said the purpose was
“To inspire a fervent love of truth, to touch inward springs, to strengthen the power of thought, to awaken the conscience, to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish spiritual life…”
It is quite a task, and is some ways both harder and easier that simply imparting factual information or helping someone memorize a standard creed.
It is more difficult because if one is going to succeed in opening others to the spirit, you need to open yourself as well. Most of the curricula we use include a section on “spiritual preparation” for the teachers to use for themselves before the class.
Opening to the spirit means listening to others as well as talking. It means listening to that inner voice that I believe is in each of us. Our classes are designed to help this happen. That is the easy part, receiving the gifts that the participants offer to the class leaders.
Having fun is an important part of religious exploration too and we try to do that especially with the children and youth, but also with the adults. It certainly does not need to be dreary or boring. Having fun is an important part of worship too, I think. How can we appreciate the gift of life, of spirit, if we don’t enjoy it? There are times to be serious and there are times to cry, but laughter is simply critical. I suspect most of you agree.
Opening to the spirit also requires a sense of safety.
Questions are encouraged and everyone does not have to have the same answer. They are also allowed to pass if they don’t want to say anything. The most important thing is that individuals are treated with dignity and respect.
Sometimes people say that children are our future. That may be true, but more importantly they are our present as well. They are with us now and they have so much to offer right now. Childhood should be much more I think than simple preparation for adulthood.
I love that the children worship with us every Sunday.
The point of religious exploration, for both children and adults, is to help us open our minds and our hearts to the mystery and to the spirit. We want our children to know they are loved and we want our adults to know that as well.
I will end with these words by Sara Campbell
Give us the spirit of the child.
Give us the child who lives within;
The child who trusts, the child who imagines, the child who sings.
The child who receives without reservation, the child who gives without judgment.
Give us a child’s eyes, that we may receive the beauty and freshness of this day like a sunrise;
Give us a child’s ears, that we may hear the music of mythical times;
Give us a child’s heart that we may be filled with wonder and delight;
Give us a child’s faith, that we may be cured of our cynicism;
Give us the spirit of the child, who is not afraid to need; who is not afraid to love.
May it be so,