Sermon: Faith, Belief and Unrest

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/20/16 looking at the differences between faith and belief. We also explore the tension between character and values, and how they struggle with broader ideologies in light of a nation with increasing frequencies of hate crimes.

Four years ago, my husband and I were entertaining out of town guests. They wanted to experience the NYC night life, so we took them to one of the then newer dance clubs in Hell’s Kitchen.I used to go out dancing pretty regularly in my twenties, but as the economy changed and the clubs died out, I slowly got out of the habit. This was probably the first time I had gone to a major dance club in over ten years. We got there and I simply couldn’t handle it. The sound, the vibrations, the smoke were all bad enough, though manageable. The twenty foot tall wall of LEDs was too much for me to handle. I started feeling like the beginnings of a seizure were happening – seriously. I left quickly and got into a cab.

On the car ride home, the cabbie was the friendly, talkative type. Now there are three places in the world where I try very hard not to reveal my vocation – bars, airplanes and yes, taxis. Despite my best efforts at dodging, he quickly zeroed in on what I do for a living. Ministry. The next 20 minutes were filled with conversation around theology, meaning, values, interfaith dialogue and my views on homosexuality, women’s rights, immigration, etc. Remember, I’m still feeling all sorts of wonky from the fading sensations induced by flashing lights and vivid screens. But I do my best. The driver was raised Catholic; came across as a progressive person of faith who felt a bit distant to organized religion, but remained a Christian.

My husband left the club shortly after me to make sure I was doing ok. He got into a cab and met a driver who was the talkative type. The cabbie also quickly zeroed in on Brian’s religious tradition – Pagan. They had a similar conversation around beliefs, practices and religious community. This driver turned out to be a practicing Pagan. When the taxi driver dropped him off, he said to Brian, “Funny, I just dropped a minister off at this same apartment a little while ago who came out of the same night club.”

It amazes me that the cabbie was Christian-sounding to me, and Pagan to Brian. The New York cynic in me wonders if part of that was playing to the tip. But there’s another side to it as well. The driver’s religious upbringing was still a large part of his values. Particular beliefs aside, he maintained the Christian sense of compassion to strangers, helping those in need, the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount. All of that came up explicitly or implicitly in our conversation. (We were both fast talkers.) And he held another set of beliefs as well. Does he get to do that and still call himself any particular religious tradition?

Yes. Yes, he does. There’s a difference between the words faith and belief. I feel this difference is both the source of unrest in our world, and the potential for healing. When values become secondary to belief, we walk dangerous ground; ideology then trumps character. Our American roots in 18th and 19th century Unitarianism, saw a direct connection between the state of our soul and the nature of our character. For preachers like Theodore Channing, character was a spiritual value; but character is based not on belief, but on action, values and commitments – living from a moral bedrock. Although coming from different places, we could argue what that bedrock should look like, but truth and facts seemed then to weigh more heavily than they appear to do these last 2 years with the expansion of social media, and the reduction of trust in journalism and Cable News. In a recent survey, only 32% of Americans trust the media these days.

Political gridlock in the House and the Senate, which ultimately impacted the future of the Presidency. Our recent (but frequent) history of voting pledges being demanded of potential politicians over reproductive rights and taxation – we saw this mostly strongly in the rise of the Tea Party; although campaign promises seem to now be able to be dropped at a faster rate than we’ve ever seen; maybe campaign loyalty to established figures matters less than the cult of personality or the cult of simply feeling wronged. These are symptoms of beliefs taking precedence over religious values of compassion, or free-will, or non-violence. Ideology, or party unity, seems to trump common values to the point where folks can’t even see that they are doing that in the slightest.

Since the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve tended to conflate the two in the United States. For example, “You’re only a true Christian if you adhere to these strict set of beliefs.” But that’s a modern sense of religious life. It’s also a Western sense of religious life. I will also suggest, it’s not in line with central Christian teachings. And sorting through this difference may become increasingly more important for our democracy as our nation becomes more and more polarized over beliefs – we need to find our way back to our central values.

How has faith shifted to it’s modern understanding? Historically, the word faith, as it appeared in the Bible, tended to be translated more with the sense of trust than belief. When the Jewish people were delivered from Pharaoh, and the importance of faith in God came up, the prophets weren’t trying to make the people believe that God existed, they were trying to convince the people that they could trust God to deliver them. In the biblical world, God was a given. The lesson to be learned was one of hope. Hope in a future, hope in a way forward, hope that the way of cruelty and tyranny was a thing of the past. …Faith demanded a new worldview, a new orientation to life, a letting go of baggage and an unclenching of our hands for a future of possibility.

The conflation of faith and belief is also a Western notion. In the East, millions of religious people can be categorized as having a “dual-belonging.” They hold to the religious values of two or more traditions simultaneously without intellectual conflict. In some countries, it is common for babies to be dedicated with Shinto practices and the dead to be honored with Buddhist practices. It’s both/and without the stigma of hypocrisy. Why is that? In many Eastern traditions, beliefs are seen to be ephemeral, secondary, or nuanced. Practice, actions and personal dedication take precedence. The way a person lives their life matters more than views on any particular thing.

From a Christian perspective, and this is the most radical thing I’m going to say today (I think), linking the adherence of belief to the practice of faith was not originally a core Christian value. In one of the most well known passages of Christian Scripture, Jesus tells a parable about the end times, of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The values that were critical to Judgment Day were not about belief. They were about acts of compassion. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…..” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[1] In other words, we can find the face of God in every person we meet, and how we treat each person becomes an encounter with the Holy. That becomes the utmost priority. Central to the Christian story is an opening of our sight to find the sacred around every corner.

I believe the connection we often make between the use of the word faith and the use of the world belief effects how we engage with religious life. If religion is about hollow views we no longer espouse then we’re less likely to allow our hearts to stir before the sublime. Our heads take over, and we get trapped up here (pointing to my head) rather than responding from a place of warmth (hand over heart.) We’re reading a few words ahead in our hymns making sure that whatever we’re saying matches exactly our opinions, rather than being present for the connection of the spiritual communal act.

This cuts both ways. If one’s faith is entirely dedicated to adherence to right beliefs, when those beliefs are challenged or insulted, so too is one’s religious life. Such an affront to the mind’s assessment of right and wrong can result in extreme emotional responses. It doesn’t take a long search in the news to learn the range of those tragedies. And we are sadly and tragically seeing that expand rapidly, even in the past week since the election. Hate crimes are on the rise. Swastikas and the word “Trump” are being graffitied in tandem on progressive church walls, and in playgrounds in Brooklyn Jewish neighborhoods. When right belief gets confused with right ideology and then right ideology gets connected with race, sexuality or religion, we have a real threat to our democracy and our basic American identity.

In Unitarian Universalism, we’re asked to embody our faith through our relationships. It’s an act of faith to assume the worth and dignity of one another, and to live in a way that matches this given. It means sometimes tamping down our egos so that compassion and equity can take precedence. Even harder, it means that when another is not acting with grace, that it doesn’t prevent us from continuing to act with grace – ourselves. In this way, faith can almost be the opposite of belief. Belief keeps us from living our faith – or rather I should say that strict adherence to our beliefs have a cost to them. What’s foundational to our religious tradition is a sense that there is an awe at the center of life, and we should live as if it were always obvious.

I was talking with a former student minister of mine, now a UU clergy colleague, the Rev. Beth Dana. This Sunday last year, I had the privilege of offering the prayer of ordination and the laying on hands for her service of ordination in Dallas, Texas. She mentioned (with amazement) how many folks have said to her that they used to feel like they needed to check their brains at the door when they went to a church, and with UU they didn’t need to check their brains any longer. Beth is a life-long UU, so she never had the experience of a religious tradition that didn’t match with her intellectual understanding of the world. I think it’s a common experience for converts though. It can be a very freeing experience to finally find a religious home that allows for science and reason in its core values. (Starr Austin and I are leading a 7 part class on Adult Coming of Age, a sort of Credo Workshop on Second Sundays. Check in with her if you’d like to sign up, and you’ll have the refreshing chance to get support while working through your own beliefs in light of our UU tradition.)

The free and responsible search for truth and meaning is a central pillar to our 7 principles. That being said – I want to challenge you by saying, “Check your brain at the door.” (W’oh, we might have just had our first UU heresy spoken from this pulpit.)… “Check your brain at the door.” I don’t mean stop being reasonable, or begin accepting of what anyone tells you as truth. I mean lets put a check on our brains – they’re in charge most of the time anyway. Let’s not give them a free ticket to running all aspects of our lives. Living in Long Island, there’s a high likelihood that you’re stressed by the cost of your rent or mortgage, or the weight of your student debt, or the credit card collectors calling, or a long stretch of unemployment, or the next regional test to make sure you get into the school you want to get into (or the school your kids want to get into), or your incredible work schedule, or the demands of your vocation. Just saying all these out loud raises my own anxiety level. These are all rational problems that require rational solutions to them. The technical steps we take to addressing them are matters for the brain.

When you walk through this threshold, I want to ask you to let another part of yourself take the reigns. We often think of this in terms of the heart. I would go a step further, let your soul come to the forefront. Let your guard down a little. Let go of your assumptions around the worst of religious life, and leave space for the best to grow here. I don’t mean to start buying whatever foolish thing someone says, but rather, allow who you are to shine without the running internal monologue categorizing everything. We have a million things that need our attention and care in the wider world; and you probably come here to work toward that as well. Ease down the trappings of the head, and let your heart give more guidance. Let values of love, and care override hate and indifference. Let character lead away from ideology. May relationships overcome intellectual isolations.

Robert Frost once said that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Good rational boundaries are helpful. But living perched on that fence all the time also makes it hard to go play in your yard. We might not have fundamentalism of the right in our congregation, but we sometimes have fundamentalism of the left. Take a step back from your beliefs, and search for the openness of the yard. That openness is what religion is about. Openness is what faith is really about.

And as, maybe we travel to see family for the holidays, or they travel to see us; let us remember this openness over difficult meals. Not an openness to empty unity in the face of difference of opinion, but an openness to get off our fences, or the need for fences in the first place. An openness to finding our shared values that build up our national character. For a healthy unity comes in values, not ideology. Matthew 25, which we briefly quoted in our sermon last Sunday, and I referenced at length today, reminds us what our central values are in caring for those in need (the hungry, and naked, and homeless, and imprisoned, and thirsty.) If you hear an ideology that calls for unity that denies this central value of the teachings of Jesus, it’s a false ideology and give it no room in your heart. Give it no room. Unity at the expense of our neighbor, is no unity, it’s the old lie of power and oppression dressed up in pretty words that ring hollow, and offer nothing but brokenness.

[1] Matthew 25:32-46

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Broken Twigs

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/6/16 for our annual All Souls day service.

I recently attended ten days of working conferences for religious professionals. One part of those conferences was primarily about having difficult conversations. How do we as leaders, how do we as religious people, have the difficult conversations around the big topics: money, race, death and sexuality. I was also asked to lead part of the workshops around race, identity and racism. Not surprisingly, the week started with the comparatively easy (I kid) topic of money, and (not surprisingly) saved sexuality for the last day.

One of the premises of the conference was that we needed to understand our frameworks around each of these topics if we’re to have the difficult conversations within our communities of faith. Where we start from, when we’re thinking about race or death, has as big (or even bigger) an impact than any set of facts or subset of knowledge on the topics. What’s our story about money or sexuality, and how do we tell it? One of the odd stand-outs for a very unusual conference for religious professionals, was realizing that if something happened to me, my husband would have a hard time figuring out where all of my investments, or retirement portfolios are, where my bank accounts are and so on. That’s something we’re working on fixing, but it taught me something about myself that I hadn’t quite realized: Part of me is still living, in some ways, a story of individuality.

Don’t get me wrong; almost everything that impacts our household goes through a rigorous schedule of fretting, and arguing – like any very happily married couple. But there are some habits of the single years, that I haven’t quite put to rest: shared documentation, shared calendars, and negotiating where we go for Thanksgiving and Christmas – all still trip us up – even after six years together. How do we start a shared google calendar – has become a near weekly refrain that despite all my tech savvy, I find extremely onerous. Individuality runs deep in our culture, and it’s a hard practice to unlearn – and I don’t think I’m alone here on this.

Another side of individuality is isolation. We all live in isolation at some time in our lives, even if we’re surrounded by people all the time. (And we don’t have to be alone to be in isolation.) It’s another story we tell ourselves: how alone are we…We can become most aware of it when we’re going through times of crisis – whether or not we have all the communal support we can ever dream of – how we relate to crisis can determine if we tell our story as individuals, or tell our story as part of something larger. Do we fight that struggle with cancer as lone warriors, or do we let ourselves lean on our friends and neighbors for moral support, even knowing still that we are the ones that have to go in for chemo? When our relationships wither, do we reach out, or do we hunker down? Having good friends and family – even when we have many of them – doesn’t necessarily mean we let them in when the road gets rough. Sometimes that might be the right choice – only you know that answer for yourself – but sometimes we think isolation is the best choice – even when it’s not.

I was listening to an interview with a comedian some of you may know, Patton Oswalt. He was being interviewed on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier this week. He’s a man in his mid to late forties with a 7 year old daughter. Six months ago, his wife suddenly died in her sleep – there was no warning. She had been working very long hours and he finally convinced her to stay home and get some sleep; there was an accidental and very tragic dose of sleeping medication…. He’s been very public with his grief, and is only now getting back to work in comedy. Something he said about grief in the interview really struck me as true. “If you don’t talk about it, then grief really gets to setup and fortify its positions inside of you and begin to immobilize you. But the more you talk, the more you expose it to the air and to the light, then grief doesn’t get the chance to organize itself, and maybe you can move on better and easier…

…[grief] can’t be remedied, it must be endured – and it’s the endurance, oddly enough, that becomes the remedy.”

He goes on to talk about how he’s found that not only has talking about his grief with others helped him to move forward with his life as an individual and now as a widowed dad of a young child, but he’s learned that his sharing has helped others in extreme grief find avenues for healing. Speaking our stories has a healing power that can help us get back to living more fully after times of great loss.

This reminds me of the old folk saying about twigs. Take any twig you find and try to snap it. It’ll break pretty easily. Put that same twig into a bundle with other twigs, and it gets harder and harder to break. I think when we separate ourselves too long from one another, from community or friends, we can become like that singular twig. Life’s pressures can become too much; grief or loss can become too much – and we don’t have to do it alone.

Alone or together – the story we tell about our life changes us. British fiction author Terry Pratchett said, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” All this month we are imagining what it means to be a people of story. Well, we are a people of story. Our services just about begin weekly with a story, and most of my sermons start by telling another type of story – basically parables of daily living. For us, we don’t have to imagine being a people of story as much as consciously realize how deeply stories impact our lives and our living.

What are the stories you come back to year after year? What stories do we raise our kids on, and why? Which stories defined your character, or pull on your heart strings, or get you in the gut when they resonate with what’s happening in your life? As Pratchett writes, people are shaped by stories – we should choose our stories wisely. And we should choose the stories we tell about our lives just as wisely. What negative story do you choose to try to convince yourself is true about you? I spoke about separation and isolation before, but there are many other stories we tell about ourselves that harm more than help.

A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine was sharing a story about their congregation on Facebook. (I have permission to share this here.) He wrote, “One thing that I never expected to be quite so good at – helping calm really little kids down who are missing their parents. I wonder if this sort of inherent knowledge came when I was hired as a DRE, or if it was there all along.” On one level, there’s a story we all tell about our capacity to be in the world; what we’re good at, what we’re bad at, and what our roles are in our lives. But on the spiritual level, his story reminded me about the central purpose of communities of faith – and I don’t say this flippantly.All religious life is essentially helping one another struggle through our separation anxiety: our sense of separation from the Holy, from God, from one another. In times of grief, we remember those who have died in our lives. In times of change, we hold one another’s hands to remember we’re not alone. In the every day, or maybe for you only a few times in your life, we struggle with whether there is meaning and depth to this world; whether we’re part of something greater. For some the answer is community, or compassion, or justice-building. For the more mystical among us, I believe we’re never truly alone – but despair sets in when we forget that truth. Religious life is helping one another through our struggle with separation and isolation, through grief and loss. And the other side of that struggle is a question of the spirit – and an answer that draws us back out – again and again.

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When Goodness Happens

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/16/16. It explores our endemic culture of misogyny, and how our theology can help us through to a new creation.

When I was a child, one of the worst insults another kid could make toward a boy was to say they acted like a girl; or threw like a girl, or ran or walked like a girl. “Man up”, meant toughen up. Being a guy meant being strong, and loud, and taking up space. And the barbs would come from boys for sure – but those barbs would also come from girls. It would be engrained by implicit actions by adult men, and by adult women. As kids we would voice aloud the stuff that we would quietly live by as adults.

It’s sick. It’s a sickness in our culture that strives to denigrate half our population in order to apparently lift up the other half. But it only does so in appearance. When boys and men are raised to think masculinity has only one form, we box in our boys’ potential as we diminish the worth of our girls. No one wins; everyone loses. The pain is merely felt differently for each of us; but the pain is real. And although we’re all diminished, girls’ and women’s safety is put up as the gamble.

And it continues well on into adulthood. The worst excesses get normalized as harmless ‘locker room talk’, when what is actually being bantered about amounts to sexual assault. But we don’t have to go to that extreme to see it in our daily lives. At work, or at our Fellowship, note who takes up room in discussions. Note how we are trained and raised to speak or not to speak. Who gets to repeat the same tired point over and over until folks are beaten into submission, and who struggles to whisper their view even once? Misogyny is a sickness, and we’re swimming in it – we’re swimming in in so some of us normalize it, some never notice it, and some are being killed by it.

We’re living in a culture where several women can accuse a public or political figure of sexual assault, and a mainstream media pundit/newscaster (Lou Dobbs) will punish them by tweeting out the women’s home address and phone number. If we wonder why women do not speak aloud in a timely manner after being assaulted, we only have to look to that to know one of the reasons. How is that even legal?! We give the whole public direct access to the potential victim of sexual assault. How traumatic that is for the victim. But there’s also a way in which that punishment for speaking out gets felt by all women, by all victims of sexual assault (not just women.) They’re put in their place – once again. Misogyny is a sickness that demoralizes, victimizes, and sometimes kills.

Theologically, misogyny is another form of Original Sin. We don’t need to have done anything to be infected by it. Men, women, all people raised in our culture must deal with its imprint on our psyches and on our souls. We’re born into, infected by it, and live lives that replicate the systems of abuse – knowingly or unwittingly – even if we’re also victims of it; because we’re all victims of it. But even if we’ve done nothing to deserve the sin of misogyny, in order for healing, we need to address it. For some of us we’re victims and a whole range of support systems may need to be relied on for healing, for safety, or for justice. If that’s true for you, and you need help, please reach out, and our Fellowship will help in every way we possibly can.

Some of us have internalized it so much, that we contribute without knowing the damage we do – in some ways large, and in some ways small. If I go back to my childhood – being a guy meant being strong, and loud, and taking up space. The flip side meant that being a girl meant being weaker and being a door-mouse. When we find ourselves living by either of those false truths, we need to seek to push ourselves to break free from that bind. Binding lies, break our spirits, harm our world, and risk our lives.

And for the men in the room, we need to do better. We need to be a little more believing of women who say they are in danger. We need to be a little more gracious with the space we dominate. We need to be less permissive of supposed “locker room talk” when we hear it. Women become less safe, and men become less human, when we pretend that language that perpetuates sexual assault is harmless in our personal fantasies. It’s not harmless; it doesn’t further the peace; it doesn’t make space for women to be themselves without fear of harm. We have to do better.

A month ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. After many requests, I promised I would work through each of the stones in successive weeks. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After today we have one more to cover, but today, I want to focus on the 4th stone in Adams’ theology. That precept paraphrased is: “Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another.

Each child that’s born is another redeemer. Theologically, what does that mean for our culture? If every child that’s born is another redeemer, then misogyny is a lie. We’re not better than any other soul because of the happenstance of our birth. Any ethic that lifts one group over another is a spiritual lie that erodes our conscience and diminishes our humanity. Each girl that’s born is another redeemer, and we ought to treat one another appropriately with care and support. Our common humanity is wrapped up in the common redemption of all people. Each of us has the potential to redeem the broken corners of our world.

We just came through the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On Tuesday evening, we celebrated the Kol Nidre service where we sought to admit our failings, and atone for the harm we’ve brought into this world – through our actions or due to our inactions. There was a quote in the service that comes from an 18th century Chasidic proverb. “Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be, “For my sake was the world created.” And the other, “I am dust and ashes.”

This wisdom speaks to us based on where our ego and where our sense of self lie. When we’re allowing the world to step on us, and destroy our sense of worth, we need to remember that for our sake was the world created. When we’re doing the soul-crushing of another we need to find more humility and remember that we’re dust and ashes. Misogyny confuses the world into thinking those two proverbs apply distinctly based on gender; as if the world were created only for men, and women were but dust and ashes. If that feels extreme, take a closer look at how men and women are spoken of in the general public, on the schoolyard, and in your work meetings. I don’t think it’s that far off how culture functions at its worst. And it functions at its worst far too much.

But if each child that’s born is another redeemer; if we each have worth and we each having a saving agency to bring to Creation, then that potential for goodness is inherent. That potential for goodness also obligates us in the face of a world full of struggle. If we have agency, goodness obligates us to use that agency for the betterment of one another. To do otherwise is to turn our heads from another’s needs; to become complicit in systems of oppression and indifference that churn through the lives of our children and adults, and through our own lives. The demand this fourth stone places upon us is the perennial question: Do I live into this holy work? At times of hardship, it may be enough to simply try to survive, or to heal. But when we have the capacity to ease the suffering of those around, goodness obligates us to live into this holy work. At those times of strength, living into this holy work means taking seriously when another speaks up about violence or coercion done to them. And to be sure, when we’re going through those times of hardship, living our authentic self is the first step to living into this holy work.

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Choose Hope

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/9/16 for Rosh Hashanah. During this time of High Holy Days in the Jewish liturgical calendar, how do we begin again in hope after times of hardship? 

There’s a notion – I’m not sure where I first encountered it – that makes a distinction about the evolution of science and the evolution of ethics. It suggests that they differ in one notable way. As science unfolds, it progresses on what came before. Each generation is faced with new learnings that are rooted in old learnings, and the body of scientific knowing gets passed on to the next generation to pick up from where prior scientists left off. Barring catastrophes like the Dark Ages, science isn’t lost, it perennially moves forward.

Ethics is a different creature. Although our scholars in the field may function in the same way, building off what came before – as a people – each generation needs to learn and relearn the same lessons. Why is war the worst solution? Why are basic civil rights a thing each generation needs to fight for over and over? Why do we enter and return financial crises that we knew would occur – the proverbial market bubbles that we force upon ourselves again and again? It’s because as human creatures, our communal intellect may be willing to build off the lego blocks of past advancements, but our hearts have to start from the beginning with each new generation. For communities, ethics is learned from the ground up, and science starts from the shoulders of past giants.

Now that statement has a way about it that’s painted in broad strokes. Even if science can give a clear answer – like on the question (or non-question) of climate change – ethics deeply influences our ability to accept it as answer. Likewise, we seem to be able to make the processing power of computers multiple by 1.5 times annually, but ethics seems to stall our improvement of fuel efficiency and our choices to even research renewable resources. But the basic notion is still accurate – we have all the resources to transform the world, but we don’t always choose to do so.

Spiritually, there’s a way in which that feels exhausting. We have all the capacity to affect the changes we need, but we often don’t have the moral courage, or maybe the moral willpower, to pass on the lessons in ways that seem to match. But we can choose to flip that script. A month ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After popular request, I will continue to lift up a different stone each week till we cover all five. Today, I want to focus on the 5th stone in Adams’ theology (after today we’ve got two more stones to visit.) That fifth precept paraphrased is: “We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.”

Despair sets in when we think we can’t affect change. That’s either rooted in cynicism, or that’s rooted in facts that paint a bleak picture. Let’s look at both. Staying with the science road, history tells us that the facts of science seem to indicate we have all the capacity we need to affect change in the world. From polio, to penicillin, to the moon landing, to the ozone layer – give us a challenge that we can unite behind, and give us generations to accomplish it, and we can do it. That’s the fact. Cynicism looks at perfect outcomes and pretends that those perfect outcomes are the new benchmark to follow. If we don’t meet the benchmark of perfect, then the solution is flawed and what’s the point. There’s some interesting blogs out there wrestling with our political situations and the impact of cynicism that I won’t go into here, but there’s a lot of thought out there on this topic of cynicism that you might want to look into on your own.

Our resources, both sublime and mundane, hold all the capacity we need to transform the world. History presents both an onerous and a hopeful record. Each generation must imprint humanity’s moral progress upon the tablets of our hearts anew. We can choose to look at that with despair for the effort, or we can choose to look upon that with awe. We have the capacity to impress humanity’s moral progress anew!!!  It’s a matter of will; it’s a matter of personal and communal choice. That’s our spiritual charge as a religious community.

During this time of High Holy Days in the Jewish liturgical calendar, how do we begin again in hope after seasons of hardship? As we are coming to the end of these days of awe, can we take their lessons and apply them to the choice for hope? Do we look upon past choices with despair, or do we choose to look upon them with awe? In this month of imagining what it means to be a people of healing, how do our choices impact that imagination?

I was hosting our annual Fall Chapter meeting of the UU clergy group for the Metro NY area on Wednesday. Our regional lead for the Central East Region, the Rev. Megan Foley, was leading worship for 40+ clergy and she had a metaphor that’s really helpful here. She spoke of earlobes and nostrils. I’m going from memory, so I’ll get the gist, rather than quote – but I thank her for getting me to think in this direction. In the body of life, we all have a role. If you’re an earlobe, your role is to be the best earlobe you can be. It’s not to create more earlobes; it’s not to make the nostril over there act more like an earlobe. You may want to put in some effort to help the nostril be the best nostril it can be, but that’s as far as you should go from your role as earlobe – because the world still needs someone to be an earlobe.

That metaphor got me thinking a lot about our mission as a religious community in the face of hardship and hope. We function as a group of individuals; but we also function as a group of groups. There are bodies (committees) that help move forward our social justice work; who help to maintain our grounds; who run our cold weather men’s shelter; who teach our children and who care for our ill. We don’t need our membership team to take over our memorial garden, but maybe our membership team can help identify folks who are well suited for caring for the grounds that are the final resting place for our loved ones. Our Board of Trustees doesn’t need to figure out the solutions to a better office system, but maybe it can help our volunteers who do that with our staff, to better set policies around responsibility and authority that we all learn to follow and honor.  In a community as large as ours, the minutia matters if we want to achieve our common purpose. The earlobes and nostrils of fellowship work lead to a common purpose.

Our mission: In religious community, we nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world.  Those are the words, but the impact is larger. We care for our members in times of crisis as best we can, when we know of the challenge; we offer a shelter in the cold weather months and grow vegetables for the pantry in the warm weather months. We partner with non-profits the world over to offer funds in times of need, and we send our people abroad to help communities that we’ve partnered with – and those communities send their members here – speaking from our pulpit – to deepen our connections. We collaborate with the NAACP for their work in the community, and they collaborate with us in our work in the community for justice and anti-racism. We maintain safe space for members of AA, and Al-Anon, as well as a rehearsal space for Long Island’s LGBT Choir. And the list goes on and on – and that list takes a ton of minutia to happen. We need earlobes and nostrils – as unexciting as that work sometimes sounds – makes the life-saving and life-affirming ministries happen. In these days of awe, it’s not just the sublime sunset, or the quiet of the garden that affirm our spirits, it’s the mundane everyday task that takes 25 years to build or rebuild our grounds – that also affirms our spirits and blesses our hands to do the work ahead.

If our mission statement were three words what would they be? Community, Individual and World? If that were it, it would mean community draws the individual into the world. That’s true – and that’s one of our goals. Maybe, Nurture, Caring and Healing. In a too often broken-feeling world, healing can only come when people choose the path of compassion and support. That’s true too. What I see as central to our mission is the reality that we need to be drawn out of our individual concerns into an accountable community that chooses to heal these corners of the world through care and justice. Sometimes that will be hard; sometimes that will be uncomfortable; sometimes that means that our individual opinions will be in conflict with another’s views, but we do so together.

I’ll close with a matched theological demand to James Luther Adam’s 5th stone. I see the matching demand of progressive faith to be this questions: Does it remind me to live with hope? When we are faced with a belief that challenges us, or leads us to despair, our faith tells us that it’s misleading. If our faith truly teaches us that – Our resources, both sublime and mundane, hold all the capacity we need to transform the world  -(and it does) – then any theology that seeks to cause us to forget hope is a theology that is misleading. Hope doesn’t mean easy; it doesn’t mean perfect; it doesn’t protect us from having to endure through periods of exhaustion or boredom or minutia – but it does make sure we face the world with a healthy sense of awe and possibility. Awe and possibility.

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The Promise of the Unknown

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 9/25/16. It explores the painful sense of our national “new normal” of violence and unrest.

We are coming to a close this month reflecting on what it means to be a people of covenant. One of the more precious forms covenant is the one we share with one another person; our marital vows. Some of us have never been married, some never plan to, others have been there and moved onto other roads, and the rest of us are walking that path right now. The marital covenant is in some ways personal, and in some ways universal. And if you have a family through it, it turns out not to be just about those who got married. A whole other set of obligations and expectations arise. But I’ll begin with my experience.

My husband and I have been together for almost 6 years, but we’ve only been married for just under a year and a half. So in some ways the relationship feels in the early years, and some ways it feels like a well known road we’re traveling together. It begins though, grounded in a sense of the familiar. Most of us enter marriage – for those who do enter marriage – into a covenant with someone who we know well. We think we know what to expect, and we think we know how they’ll handle the hurdles on the road ahead of us. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we’re wrong; but we’re making that commitment based on a history that has told us something about our relationship.

There’s a way in which we can throw all of that out once we’re married. Things do change. The new extended family acts differently; sometimes it’s more confrontational, sometimes you’re welcomed with open arms to new cries of “brother!” I’ve married close to 90 couples and I don’t think I’ve every recalled a time when siblings didn’t say something to that effect – often for the first time. Something changes because of the ritual and the commitment. I’ve even seen this for couples that took a long time to get married – like 7 or more years before settling down. Even in those extended dating relationships, siblings started to act differently once the relationship turned formal.

Marriage can offer a promise in the unknown. Whatever comes our way, we’ll deal with together. That’s the ideal, and recent divorce rates prove that not to be fully accurate about half the time. But there’s still a reason to have hope in it. When we are entering into that relationship, we’re often doing it knowing a history, and there’s good reason to let history teach us what we might accomplish together on our better days; especially if all those involved have a similar sense of how to honor the covenant they’ve made with one another. I know that’s too often a big “if” but it’s still worth mentioning since it still works half the time – even today. But when it does work, it works because of a shared history that has meaning, value and purpose. The road ahead is a little bit less unknown because we know what’s come before – it should be less of a surprise. In these cases covenant can help us keep on track.

But what about those times when the track record isn’t so good. I’m looking right now at the broader world. I’ve tried to keep the tone of the sermons this month lighter than what the world news might indicate. And there’s a certain impossibility to that, particular with our In-Gathering service falling on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. But I know how world-weary so many of us are in light of world events, and national politics. But the last 8 days have seemed to be particularly maddening, even for our “new normal” in world affairs. I know I need to work from there, and we’ll find our way to what the planned sermon topic “the promise of the unknown” may teach us.

Last Saturday, my husband and I were supposed to be going to a friend of his’ birthday party in Manhattan on 23rd and 8th – a block from where the bomb went off – around the same time the bomb went off. Earlier on I decided I needed to cancel. I wasn’t fully ready for Sunday’s worship service, and I’m usually in my pajamas anyway by 8pm on a Saturday night. Sunday’s a big day here every week. Around 5pm, Brian decided that his head cold was turning into too much, and cancelled also. I think about the Chinese folk tale I told earlier this service, where we never know what good or bad may come from the next thing that changes our course, and it’s sometimes better not to place judgement on it till we get further down the road. We can get real depressed over any disappointment, and not always see the bigger picture.

I know for us, we were a little bummed to be missing the birthday celebration, but when the news came along around 8:30pm that an explosion occurred, we seriously began to wonder would we have been on that street at that time. There would have been a very good chance of it.  …And we still have to live our lives without being mired down in the what if’s of the world. But a broader perspective, can sometimes help us through.  The Late Night TV circuit would joke that New Yorkers were largely more upset that they couldn’t get their rental cars back in time, or the subway was running slower than usual, or even more notably being woken up at 7am to a screen alert on their phones about a suspect for the bombings. …Sometimes cynicism is part of the broader perspective.

The suspect was ultimately identified by other New Yorkers who found another pressure cooker bomb when they were busy stealing the suitcase that was in it. (Classic New York.) But despite it all, this is now a new normal in our sense of world affairs. The alleged bomber managed to set off 4 bombs, get into a shootout with police, tragically injure two police, before finally being taken alive into custody.

We also heard this week about two more unarmed black civilians – who apparently were also not in any way being confrontational (one was a disabled man reading a book in his car waiting for his kid) – were shot and killed by police officers. I saw photos Tuesday night of Charlotte, North Carolina with police in riot gear and reading updates from a clergy colleague of mine who was talking about the peaceful protests of the executions and the riot gear response. She spoke of the first time being targeted with teargas as a peaceful clergy witness. We’ll undoubtably learn more over the coming days, but this too is the new normal for our sense of world affairs. As an informative aside, this morning I woke to the news that in Knoxville, Tennessee there were riots with people burning furniture – apparently Tennessee came back from a 21-0 deficit to beat Florida 38-28 on Saturday in Knoxville. Police were onsite but not attempting to stop the public destruction.)

I’m not in a place this week where I can stomach too close an examination of every detail and sort out who was at fault and who wasn’t in Tusla and in Charlotte. I hope our judicial system will rise to the occasion this time. But I do want to reflect on the road that’s led to here and wonder what it promises for our unknown future ahead. We know of one story (the Chelsea and Seaside bombings) where an alleged bomber can set off 4 bombs, get into a shootout with police, tragically injure two police and still be taken into custody. Whereas a disabled dad waiting for his kid, reading a book in his car, can be shot dead as a threat. There’s a disparity there that is hard to miss and even harder to white-wash. Even if we learn tomorrow that there was more to the stories in Tulsa and Charlotte, we still have to wonder how can a suspected terrorist get into a shootout and still be taken alive, when these other black men are shot on sight? What’s the difference.

That disparity, that tragic tension, is where I challenge us to go when folks argue that everything is working as it should; that things are just; that everything is a simple right and wrong, and those in authority or always right. Don’t walk away from that tragic tension too soon, or we will continue to be faced with new tragedies.

There’s clearly a sense that our new reality is faced with daily turmoil and heightened moments of rage and violence. Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a poll “that showed that 63% of people say that the Civil Rights movement pushes too fast; that 58% said they were violent; 58% said they hurt their own cause.” You would think I was talking about today and the Black Lives Matter movement. But I’m not. I’m talking about the Civil Rights Movement of 1964. Some of you were alive and very actively engaged in that movement. Were you violent? Were you hurting your own cause? Were you pushing too fast? Do those words echo what gets repeated over and over in today’s news and over the broader family dinner table?

We never fully know where our next steps will take us. And all too often we rewrite history once it’s past us. The same folks that may have critiqued Martin Luther King Jr. for moving too fast, or hurting his own cause, or being too violent (as if he were ever violent in the pursuit of civil rights), may be the same people who look back at that movement and extol its virtues of pacifism and justice now – as the quintessential application of our freedom of speech. Will we recreate that same short-sighted error again in this generation?

Two Sundays ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After popular request, I will continue to lift up a different stone each week till we cover all five. Next month I’ll get to the 4th and 5th stone. But today, I want to focus on the 1st stone in Adams’ theology. That precept paraphrased is: “Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth.” Revelation is not sealed – the promise of the unknown. How can that be true in the face of the weekly tragedies we continue to be plagued with?

Some of that is mediated by the question posed by comedian, Stephen Colbert, (paraphrased) “How can these things continue to happen when we continue to do nothing different?” Our theology states that Revelation is not sealed; it doesn’t say that if we continue to act as if nothing can change, or nothing new can come about, that newness and healing will spring forth on it’s own. That sometimes happens – we call it Grace or a miracle or just good dumb luck. But systems of oppression or systems of disparity, don’t change through dumb luck; they change through intention and attention.

And there are cases where our actions are different and it changes the world. The NY times reports “The number of people living in extreme poverty ($1.90 per person per day) has tumbled by half in two decades, and the number of small children dying has dropped by a similar proportion — that’s six million lives a year saved by vaccines, breast-feeding promotion, pneumonia medicine and diarrhea treatments!” The UN is meeting this week discussing their plan “to eliminate – (yes eliminate) – extreme poverty by 2030, and experts believe it is possible to get quite close.” The history of the world says neither of these things are possible, but revelation is not sealed and there are new ways and news truths forever in our grasp if we treat it so.

If we were to live as though we believed that revelation was not sealed, we would commit to a spiritual discipline of openness; with especial care to was the weakest or the most abused among us have to say. In the Christian tradition, that was what Jesus was most known for – caring for the least among us. The meek shall inherit the earth. As we move further and further into cycles of struggle and power and suffering, we denounce our birthright in this one, precious life. How do we return? To some openness can come across as weakness. I find that it takes a lot of strength to listen to what we may not agree with, and decide for ourselves a new path.

Sometimes what has come before teaches us how horrible what may some day come. Sometimes what came before teaches us how beautiful the possibilities can be. Depending on where we’ve come from, we’re going to imagine a different future. But if we believe our theology that says revelation is not sealed, each new page offers another possibility. Will we act for the world we aspire to, or will we accept the dominion of the past?

I see these five stones as precepts of our faith that offer concurrent demands upon our actions if we’re going to live ethically as engaged Unitarian Universalists. The matched demand to this first stone is the question: “Does this action or view leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit?” If we continue to accept the new normal as fact and immutable, do we leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit? Our faith demands that we don’t accept the new normal. Our faith challenges us to continuously experience life in new ways as we make room for the continuing evolution of the human spirit. It’s not a cold creed or set of belief; it’s a call to action to make this truth so. Stay informed; stay engaged; lovingly call your neighbors to face the hardships of a world divided by power and privilege – and do so so that another soul may live and grow to their fullest potential.

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Out of Isolation

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/18/16 and looks at the role of community in light of the personal ego.

 

I have a small garden that wraps around my terrace – think herbs and some wild flowers and grasses. When the weather is nice, I write my sermons from there. It’s probably why I have so many nature references in my sermons. My dog will lay down in the shade of one of the flower boxes, and my cat gets the proverbial popcorn and watches the “Nature Channel” in my garden. Everything is extremely fascinating to our cat – Toby. He’ll stare at ants like they are alien creatures, but won’t go too close or engage. Bees on the other hand – bees turn him into a jerk. He’ll stalk them and swipe at them if they linger too long on a flower.

At first I was horrified – without a clue as to what to do about it. I have a mild allergy to bees, so I’m not going to get too close to intervene, but they also don’t deserve that fate before the claws of my cat. In another feat of dog-training magic, I’ve figured out how to train our dog to tackle the cat when he goes for a bee. It was based off an earlier essential lesson in tackling-the-cat when the cat scratches the furniture. Basically, we’ve trained our dog to tackle small cats on command. I think it’s fun for everyone really, but I’m sure the bee appreciates it as much as my couch does – I dare say moreso. Enough times being tackled by the dog, the cat is becoming increasingly hesitant to swipe at bees (it doesn’t seem to stop him though from destroying our furniture though. Can’t have everything I guess.)

Bees are interesting creatures. The common wisdom is that they defy all laws of aerodynamics in order to fly with their wings that should be too light for their bodies to get lift; but they still do. They live cloistered away with several thousand of their closest family members. They work tirelessly, so that the next generation which they may not live to see, can be born in another season. How many millions of worker bee hours does it take to produce one jar of honey for our toast and tea? …Then they return, again and again, to the field, to gather more and more food for the honeycombed table.

From the perspective of us humans in the northeast, they are gone for half the year, isolated from the cold and inclement weather. Even raindrops can be a challenge when you’re that small. When I water my garden, they head for the hills. Then as the weather turns to spring and summer, they fly back out of seeming isolation, and live fully in the wider world. Food, and garden hoses, and allergic bystanders, and yes, even psycho-killer felines are here to greet them as they return. It’s a microcosm of the world we live in, and just as true.

We all have our times of quiet, introversion, renewal, in between the periods of work, or study. For the bee, it’s the call of physical nourishment, that brings them out of their quasi-isolation from the world. No matter how much we hunker down, at some point, the reserves run dry and it’s time to go back out for connection.

This month we are imagining what it would mean to be a people of covenant. Maybe you know the word covenant mostly from Jewish and Christian and Muslim stories about God and God’s people. That understanding is about the promises we are given, and the promises we are held to, in light of the demands and support given to us by God in those stories. I plan to discuss that even more fully next month in one of my sermons – how goodness presses obligations upon us. But for today, I want to focus more on what promise is held in covenant. Community and covenant draws us out of loneliness into a shared humanity that defines our lives.

Our Fellowship crafted a congregational covenant – that can be found on our website, and in our membership directory. It has several points to it – and we hand it out to all new members who formally join our Fellowship. And if you’re considering joining our Fellowship, please do reach out to me after the service, or later in the week if that works better for you. But the essence of the covenant centers around our desire to be accountable to one another. In a secular world where consumerism and convenience trumps a sense of a common ethic of mutual support, it’s imperative for religious communities to stretch out to, and within, one another to build the common good. Covenant is about building the common good – or what Martin Luther King Jr commonly referred to as the Beloved Community.

Last Sunday, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. In short, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. Right now, after popular request, I’d like to focus on one of those stones. Next month I’ll try to get to the 4th and 5th stone. But today, I want to focus on the 3rd stone in Adams’ theology – and go a bit further with it than I was able to in last week’s sermon. That precept paraphrased is: “We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression.”

As I paraphrase it, community has a corrective effect on systems of oppressions. Theologically, covenant is the antithesis of oppression. You only build a covenant when folks come to it with equal footing, and when we have equal footing, we can hold one another accountable from an equal place. So when we talk here about someone falling out of covenant, we’re talking about a situation in our Fellowship, where one person is leveraging their power, or their feelings, over and beyond the shared agreement of how we work together collaboratively. It’s referring to a situation where the individual ego is leading over another person’s worth, or another person’s pain. And to be fair, we all fall for the tricks of the ego. Falling short of our covenant doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it means that you’ve let your ego run before the rest of us, before all of us, and that’s something we all do from time to time. We all do it. It’s human, and it’s our quintessential challenge to overcome as humans. As UU’s we choose to face that challenge together; publicly, and to do that together publicly fosters some awkward moments. So when we fall for it, and someone points it out, try to hear it with love, and begin again and again. It’s being human at our best.

Last week, I also spoke about demands that our faith places upon us in relation to those precepts – those “stones” Adams proverbially spoke about. The matched demand to this third precept would be the theological question, “Does this thing or value before us, seek to bring more harmony and more equity in our relationships (– even if the work is very difficult?)” What does that mean though in every day language? When we’re trying to decide on an action, or a belief, or a value, or an angered reply to something someone says or does in our community – the essential question follows: Does our response bring more harmony and equity to our relationship? If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, then we are straying from the religious path our faith challenges us to adhere to. When we ask ourselves if our response or actions bring more harmony or equity, and the answer is no, we’re falling prey once more to our lone ego. The domain of the ego is isolation, and community calls us out from that lonely place. I believe that progressive faith calls us out of isolation, to do much in the world, but it also calls us out of isolation to spiritually mature through our attachment to ego. And it’s in that maturing through our attachment to ego, that we also begin to do much good in the world.

See that? We sometimes joke that we can believe anything. I don’t agree with that, and if you think I’m wrong, then next week let’s plan for me to preach about whatever I personally feel like and see what happens. Because we can’t. We can’t believe anything. We’re not about belief, but we have central values that are very specific, even if we don’t always see it. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring together what demands our theology places upon us. Our actions in the world, as UUs, as religious people of faithful purpose – demand that we act so that we nurture harmony and equity in human relations. When we act from anger, or ego, we’re being very human, but we’re falling short of our theological convictions. We’re not evil for doing it necessarily, but we have fallen short, and our faith calls us out, calls us in, and calls us for more.

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The Five Stones

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/11/16. It addresses a faith with no creeds.

 

I’ve told this story about how I found UU before, so I’ll be brief, but it’s important for today’s wider message. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.

In many ways, the Morristown UU Fellowship was the last place I would have imagined myself joining. They were a staunch atheist fellowship that had severe allergies to theological language – and I very much believe in God. H forbid anyone use the G word. And the J word was right out! Buddhist influence wasn’t wide-spread enough yet in the mid-nineties to inform the spirituality of the services overtly. And yet there was a lot of heart in their meeting space on Sunday morning. There was a there – there – that I couldn’t exactly place at the time. If I’m honest with myself, my younger self appreciated the stark contrast to conservative Christian teachings that I hadn’t yet worked through. It was a community that was wrestling with the nature of being. And that was enough for me. I didn’t need an answer, I needed a space to find myself, and live into community.

The next congregation I was a member of, couldn’t have been further afield in style or expressed theology: All Souls in Manhattan. Largely toted as NYC’s only New England Style white-steeple church. A 1500 member churchy-church, with an organ, actual pews, multiple pulpits, and monthly communion services. I joined there while I was in graduate school.

Both settings are Unitarian Universalist. Both hold the same values. Both are seeking a faith path that is open to hope, possibility and joy. Openness, mindfulness, reverence – have become central in most of our congregations. All of our communities have religious humanists and religious theists among us. Trappings are the difference, not content. All of our congregations have a central UU theology – in some locations it’s more clear and others it’s simply felt beneath the skin.

I’ve long identified as a sort of hybrid UU. Denominationally speaking, most of us are converts and some of us are life-long UU’s. I have converted to this faith, but I did so right at adulthood – so in many ways this feels like my life-long choice. By a show of hands, how many of you have been attending our Fellowship for 2 years or less? How many of you have been a UU since childhood (prior to turning 18?) How many for 30 years or more? (I love watching the changing demographics!)

Now I’m guessing that the folks that have been attending for 2 years or less are thinking – “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.” I think it would be safe to guess that the folks who have been UU for 30 years or more are thinking, “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.”

Being a non-creedal faith is both a strength and a challenge. Folks are reticent to assert theological claims when we have no test of belief. We don’t want to make any theological truth statement because we appreciate that we all see the world differently and that’s not what we’re about. Some years ago, I was attending an annual conference of religious professionals in Williamsburg, Virginia. One Sunday evening I attended worship at their local Episcopal church – which was led by a former professor of mine when I was studying in England, and who became a dear friend of mine over the years when he moved to the States. They got to the point in the service where the community recited the Nicene Creed. For those who are unfamiliar, this is a minute or two long creed with some very specific theological details in it (just about none of which I actually agree with.) My UU colleagues next to me were visibly shocked (one actually jumped – and he’s not a jumper by nature) when I began reciting it from memory. For context – it had been over 20 years since I had attended a Catholic Mass, and left the Catholic church in my high school years. …We have nothing like that. Although I imagine we could begin the practice of reciting our 7 principles as a covenant and it would fit that role. Our principles are promises we struggle to keep with each other. But they’re action statements – not creedal assertions.

Our UU theology is rooted in our six sources. But our sources themselves are not strictly a theology. Our sources are not an interfaith smorgasbord, although we sometimes treat them as such. “I prefer the course of cultural Christianity and a heavy dose of agnosticism please.” They ground us in our religious meaning. Any theology would need to reckon with them to be true to our core. Here they are more simply put: Transcendent mystery and wonder moves us to a renewal of spirit. Prophetic deeds challenge us to confront systems of oppression with compassion. All world religions hold wisdom to inspire our ethical and spiritual lives. Love our neighbors as ourselves. Reason and science warn us against idolatries of mind and spirit. We are part of this world and ought to live in harmony with it. (Ok, maybe that could work as our Nicene Creed.) None of these sources answer whether we ought to believe in God or not, but frankly – that’s not what our theology could ever look like again. But our Six Sources are rich in very different ways. They give us space to be true to ourselves, to learn how to live into community, and hold a rich depth in themselves. And we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a reason to disagree with any individual source – except for maybe how we apply them.

That’s a framework though, and not a theology. One friend once asked me, “but isn’t the central theology of Universal Unitarianism that there isn’t a central theology of universal unitarianism? Theological Switzerland, so to speak?” I won’t fault him on his placement of U’s in that sentence. And he’s right in a way. We tend to live with an explicit theological message that this is so: All are welcome. All can see the world the way they see it. (The only really important theological question is the nature of God so let’s just say we don’t have a theology because we’re not going to touch that one!) But that’s not the case.

I’ve been heavily inspired by the writings of James Luther Adams. He’s a mid-20th century theologian, minister and academic from the US who lived in Germany in the 1930s and was active in the clandestine resistance to the rise of Nazism. We often take our theologians out of context. And as I talk about his thoughts, keep his experience in Germany in mind.

After the breadth of his 40+ years of writing were complete, folks started pulling together bits and pieces of his thinking, jumbled them together, and came up with some pretty helpful combinations. One such is an essay on “The Five Stones.” It’s a metaphor back to David and Goliath. In the Jewish story, a teenager “David” manages to defeat the Giant named Goliath on the field of battle with a sling and five stones. It’s a violent story, but a course of action that prevented two armies from colliding. There was one death instead of thousands. For JLA, the five stones become a metaphor for how we can combat systems of oppression in the world. What are the five things we can do that will unbind the oppressed? In modern language – how do we end Racism, Homophobia, Classism and Misogyny – to name a few.

What does our liberal faith say about living? I will paraphrase the much longer piece, which itself is an edit of a sort, using language that might be more familiar to us: 1. Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth. 2. Relationships between people ought to be free — mutuality and consent are both ethical and theological principles 3. We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression 4. Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another. 5. We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.[1]

This faith statement is central to our UU theology. If you are craving an affirmation or a negation of the nature or existence of God, I can only say again – that’s not how we do theology. Our kind of theology is like the scientific method. When we learn that Newtonian Physics is only correct at certain speeds and certain proximities to really big gravitational objects (like the Earth going at about the speed we happen to be going) we don’t throw out physics and say Science (I hope you can hear the capital S) is wrong. We say that there’s a process of testing and observation to follow. Likewise, our theology is one of testing and observation. When you have questions of purpose, belief, or values ask yourself – Does this thing or view leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit? Does it draw me closer into a community that is mutually supportive? Does it seek to bring more harmony and more equity in those relationships – even if the work is very difficult? Does it falsely make me forget that I have the capacity to live into this holy work? Does it remind me to live with hope?

Our theology is both a faith statement and a process of reflection. Our faith teaches us that we can expect to continue to be inspired, to learn from one another, and to seek out that spiritual growth. Wheresoever we freely choose to enter into communities with one another we are doing sacred work – not easy work – not convenient work but holy work. In this we are obligated to vigilantly transform systems of oppression with acts of love and compassion. We all have the capacity to make this happen, and everything that we need to do so already exists. There is a reason to hope in this world.

[1] This is a paraphrase of James Luther Adams. Various sources include “On Being Human Religiously”, The Tapestry of Faith Online Curricula, The GOLDMINE Youth Leadership School and the 2012 Keynote address at the LREDA Fall Conference by Dr. Raser.

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