Friday, December 3, 2010
I drafted the following letter to the editor and submitted it for publication on behalf of the Westmoreland County LGBTQ Interfaith Network, a group of clergy and lay people who affirm the spirituality of all LBGTQ people and their friends and allies. With a limit of 200 words, the challenge was daunting, but I hope it makes a good first step in promoting education and compassion in the region.
To the editor:
Two recent opinion pieces cruelly vilified transgender people, oversimplifying this complex issue. We encourage fairer and more balanced dialogue.
Our culture limits its understanding of sex to male and female, and gender to man and woman. “Transgender” as an umbrella term describes other gender identities. Specifically, transgender people are born one sex, but self-identify as a different gender. Many simply live their identity as crossdressers, third gender, or genderqueer.
Transsexuals actually make the physical transition from one sex to another. This well-defined procedure involves surgery and years of hormone treatment and psychiatric therapy.
Perhaps one in every 1,500 births results in an intersex child, in which both sexes are present. The Intersex Society of North America recommends assigning a gender without surgery, using medical procedures to sustain good physical health until the child can later decide on a gender identity.
Transgender folk do not make gender identity decisions frivolously. People deserve respect for their identities and labels they choose, particularly when making choices that result in discrimination. As marvelous creations in a wondrous universe, every person has inherent worth and dignity. Compassionate responses include first educating ourselves to facts, not allowing unfounded bias and fear to dictate our judgment.
Jeff Liebmann (Consulting Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton) writing for the Westmoreland LGBTQ Interfaith Network
Thursday, November 25, 2010
I give thanks for men and women who have moved me to tears and mountaintops of emotion through their acts of commitment and the fire of their devotion to what is right. May we all be granted such inspiration.
I give thanks for those unique attributes that make us human -- the ability to reason beyond base needs for sustenance and survival; the capacity to act courageously, especially when logic tells us not to; and the power to love with every fiber of our souls. May we all proudly own our humanity.
I give thanks for the wondrous engine of the universe and every accidental collision of molecules that created stars, rivers and mountains, and every form of life from the moss to the sequoia and the whale to bacteria. May we learn to be better stewards of our planet.
I give thanks for the opportunity to forgive those who have wronged me; I especially give thanks for the chance to, despite my best efforts, forgive myself for my mistakes. May each of us be granted the gift of such forgiveness.
I give thanks that every day life provides me the chance to be a better person and to help others to do good. May we never rest until all slaves are set free, all hungry are fed, and all lost find a path.
I am thankful for young people, who through their innocence and fearless curiosity have been my best teachers. May everyone have children like my own who every day show us the reality of eternal life.
So, to dear friends and caring relatives; to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Servetus, Norbert Capek, and Theodore Parker; to past, present, and future congregants; to Mom and Dad; to Ashley and Tyler...Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
I have prepared daily readings for Chalica this year, which individuals and families can use in their home celebrations. I encourage you to read this draft and offer any suggestions or comments you may have to improve it. I plan to record these readings and post them to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton web site for all to use this year.
Day One (Monday)
Within us all burns the fire of life.
We share this common flame,
symbol of our precious being.
Each flame burns with a unique glow,
signifying the inherent worth and dignity
of every person.
Hymn 131, Love Will Guide Us, has the following lyric:
If you cannot sing like angels,
if you cannot speak before thousands,
you can give from deep within you.
You can change the world with your love.
Each of you is one of billions of humans inhabiting this planet. Billions – a scary number. But, a billion represents just a tiny fraction of the grains of sand here on earth, or snowflakes that fall every winter. And yet, each grain of sand, each snowflake is different. In every case, perhaps microscopic variations make every grain, every flake unique.
But, sand does not think. The snow crystal has no capacity to reason. The desert feels no emotion. And the blizzard cannot love.
On the other hand, each and every person thinks and has the capacity to reason. Each and every person feels and has within them the seeds of love. So, while sand has usefulness when melted into glass and the snow melts to provide life sustaining water, one would not miss a single grain, a stray flake.
Each and every person, however, has worth. Regardless of our status or our accomplishments, we impact the lives of others. In addition, each and every person possesses dignity – the right to self-determination, the right to pursue noble deeds, and the right to grant and earn respect inherent in the human soul.
On this first day of Chalica, we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Amen.
So, today, exchange gifts that honor people in your life. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are there people I don’t understand, and what can I do to bridge the divide between us?
- Are there people with whom I have disagreements, and can I work to find a common path for us to walk together?
- Is there someone I have disrespected to whom I can make amends?
- Is there someone who has helped me that deserves my special thanks?
- Is there someone in need of assistance that I can help and what can I do to help them?
- Are there local charities to which I can offer time or talents?
- Can I donate food, clothes, whatever I can afford to others in need?
- Are the people near me to whom a simple kindness would make a world of difference?
- How can I learn or participate in ways that promote justice and equity in my community?
- Can I take some time to look through a hymnal or book of reflections in order to better appreciate different points of view in our movement?
- Are there words of peace or forgiveness I can extend to a fellow Unitarian Universalist?
- Is there a unique gift or leadership role I can offer to my congregation?
- Are there events I can attend more often to show my support for our religious community?
Prophetic church, the future waits your liberating ministry;
Go forward in the power of love, proclaim the truth that makes us free.
A freedom that reveres the past, but trusts the dawning future more;
And bids the soul, in search of truth, adventure boldly and explore.
The list of famous Unitarian Universalist thinkers runs long and deep in every field of human inquiry. But, thought without reflection breeds vanity and false pride. And ideas without the wisdom of application allow tyrants to run unchecked and the immoral to prey on the innocent.
Unitarian Universalism stands not just for unfettered research and learning; we stand for careful consideration of consequences. The hands that splice genes can unleash monstrous outcomes and the mind capable of splitting atoms can also lay waste to cities.
Education has the power to level all inequalities in life, but only if pursued with good intent and abiding will. Only the search for knowledge and wisdom will yield the fruits of meaning. And that harvest can soothe the greatest hurt and heal the deepest wound.
On this fourth day of Chalica, we affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Amen.
So, today, exchange gifts that honor another tradition, or to honor education. Ask yourself these questions:
- Can you take time to read about, or participate in an event that celebrates another religion or tradition?
- What do you know or love that you can teach others
- What knowledge or talent have you wanted to learn and what is stopping you from doing so?
- Can you give the gift of a favorite book to someone?
So, how do we find liberation by binding ourselves repeatedly? For some, the bond is dogmatic acceptance of a common creed. For others, it is the relinquishing of certain choices and responsibilities to divine Providence.
But, Unitarian Universalists viewed themselves as working hands of Providence in the world. We seek and achieve liberation through democratic community; by finding and celebrating our common commitments with souls engaged on the same spiritual journey. In our congregations, we give voice to our beliefs, and we amplify those voices through free discourse and a pulpit that inspires without dictating.
On this fifth day of Chalica, we affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. Amen.
So, today, exchange gifts that honor democracy. Ask yourself these questions:
- What can you do to be of public service, or help those willing to serve in office?
- Can you write a letter to an elected official on a matter of importance?
- How can you help a committee in your congregation?
- Would you be willing to host a dinner or gathering to discuss an important issue, or perhaps lead a class to study a significant ethical issue?
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight, too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.
Nearly every religion preaches peace. And yet, our world still labors under the wraith of war, omnipresent poverty, and persistent harbingers of hate. We will never achieve peace in the world until each and every one of us finds peace within our own hearts; a peace that cannot be attained while the body hungers, limbs are shackled, and free will lies imprisoned.
- Can I find a way to volunteer with, or donate to an organization that has global influence, such as UNICEF, or Doctors Without Borders?
- Can I write a letter for Amnesty International?
- How can I help the social justice committee in my congregation to hold a fundraiser, or run an alternative gift market?
- Have I looked at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee web site recently, and updated my membership?
- How can I do more to recycle bottles, cans, and more? If I can sell my recyclables, what environmental/animal aid society would I support?
- Could I rescue an animal from a shelter?
- How can I help plan and conduct an outdoor worship service in my congregation, weather permitting?
Thursday, November 11, 2010
This holiday began life in 1919 as Armistice Day, in recognition of the ending of World War I, with these words by President Woodrow Wilson: "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations."
But, it was a shoe store owner in Emporia, Kansas who turned this day into one honoring the service of all veterans to their country. Even though he never officially served in uniform, Al King always had a great respect for the military. He promoted his notion so much that the Chamber of Commerce of Emporia (a town not all that much larger than West Newton) decided to get involved, and businesses closed their doors that November 11, 1953, to celebrate the first-ever all-inclusive Veterans Day.
Today, many conflicts later, we recognize that those brave souls in uniform are not alone in their dedication and commitment to the ideals of this country. Spouses and family, friends and neighbors, teachers and colleagues stand behind each soldier wherever and however they serve. This holiday celebrates all of the sacrifices, large and small, of every veteran and everyone who has loved and supported a veteran.
We look forward to the day when there will be no war. We imagine, someday, children may ask their parents, “What was Veterans Day all about?” because the circumstances that cause nations to take up arms against each other with become passé, an anachronism in a world without hunger, disease, or want.
But, until that day, tyrants will arise to suck the will from the common person, and threaten our lives, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness. Until that time, each and every one of us has a role to play defending our universal belief in human worth against those who would desecrate our humanity and defile our spirit. Whether we wear the uniform, or provide support for those that do – whether motivated by divine sources, words of inspiration, or real life heroes – our task as citizens is to remember, to honor, and to live lives of service.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
As the Congregational Record encourages congregational self-disclosure, so the Ministerial Record encourages self-disclosure by the minister. In most cases ministers have invested a great deal of themselves in completing the MR and look upon their expression of interest as an offer of their ministry and themselves. Their sense of vulnerability is often high at this point.This statement succinctly expressed my feeling as I send my Ministerial Record out for the world to review -- vulnerable. But, as frightening as the prospect of bearing my soul to all interested parties may be, the wonderful anticipation grows.
And, of course, anyone who knows me will tell you that I have never been shy when talking about myself. So, self-disclosure is not the real concern. Rather, I can't help wonder if I have crossed every "t" and dotted every "i" sufficiently, so that the perfect match for me will read my Ministerial Record and call.
I have the luxury of not being geographically bound, so I have been reading incredibly interesting Congregational Records from Maine to California, Iowa to Florida, Texas to Michigan. The congregations range from just under 100 members to just over 500. Every record is different, but in other ways they are remarkably similar. Virtually every congregation wants a minister who will lead, inspire, share, and empower. Every church in search wants a preacher, teacher, administrator, counselor, and visionary. It is a daunting list.
What makes it all seem possible, however, is the level of honesty I detect in the Congregational Records. I have read dozens of accounts of church conflict, troubled ministries, resource challenges, and unfulfilled dreams. So whenever I grow anxious thinking of the challenge before me, I just remember how vulnerable these congregations have allowed themselves to be in looking for new ministers.
Wherever I end up this time next year, I know that I will not be facing the beautiful unknown future alone. I will be walking alongside hundreds of souls, braving the uncertainty with joy, with energy, and with love.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Yesterday, my 92-year-old mother-in-law Ruby was returning from one of her favorite outings, a trip to the casino. Getting off the mini-bus, the woman in front of her stumbled and Ruby tried to help her. In the process, she fell herself and struck her head on the pavement.
At the hospital, we were told that the extensive bleeding in her brain was inoperable. She never regained consciousness and died a few hours later.
Ruby lived a long and momentous life. She leaves two adult children and three grandchildren who all love her. Her death leaves a hole and an admirable collection of memories in many lives.
As this coming weekend approaches, we acknowledge various observances honoring the dead, from All Soul's Day, All Hallow's Eve, Samhain, and El Día de los Muertos. These holidays afford us the opportunity to remember our loved ones now gone and to honor their memory in our lives. These holidays also remind us not to procrastinate.
With medical advances lengthening our lifespans every day, we take for granted that friends and family will be alive for many decades. But, the universe can be a cruel classroom. So, if there is someone in your life with which you have had a disagreement, or with whom you have unresolved conflict or issues, then stop reading this message right now. Pick up the phone, or better yet, walk, drive, or fly to that person and talk with them. Tell them what they mean to you and try to work out whatever differences are keeping you from being an active part of each other's lives.
Do it now, because the winter is approaching for us all, and tomorrow may be too late.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
First of all, we Pittsburghers like to pay homage to one of our own, George A. Romero. Romero redefined the horror movie in 1968 with the release of Night of the Living Dead, bringing a gritty reality to a genre that had long ceased to really frighten anybody. Films like Frankenstein, which had caused heart attacks in the 1930’s, had become quaint anachronisms. And, viewers needed something at least more grisly that the nightly details of senseless mayhem occurring in Vietnam entering our homes daily on the evening news.
Second, Romero brought social consciousness to horror films. From his courageous depiction of strong minority and women characters to the insistence that only reason can overcome bureaucratic incompetence, mindless consumerism, and greed, Romero’s films exude a concern for the future welfare of human society. By showing the slow evolution of the zombies to greater awareness and unified action, he held up his mirror to our society rife with decay and self-destruction.
And, in the end, it’s just fun. The fake blood, plastic brains, groaning and shambling are just a riotous good time, especially when you watch the faces of unsuspecting onlookers. In a world that appears too often to be going mad, dressing up like a zombie seems to me one of saner activities. So, this Halloween, get out the makeup, tear some clothes, and drag that leg with the rest of us zombies!
Monday, September 13, 2010
Or like a stubborn tree, I’ve let the wind shape me
But now I’m feelin’ bold, enough to let go my hold
And I’ll not be a blade of grass again
I’m gonna be the wind
I’ll be the wind, I can wear the mountain down
And I’ll be the wind of hope, I can lift you off the ground
And I’ll fan the flames of love
You know they’ll never die again
Oh, I’m gonna be the wind.
-- lyrics from “I’m Gonna Be the Wind” by Laurie Lewis
Reflection from Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong
Perhaps the central paradox of the religious life is that it seeks transcendence, a dimension of existence that goes beyond our mundane lives, but that human beings can only experience this transcendent reality in earthly, physical phenomena. People have sensed the divine in rocks, mountains, temple buildings, law codes, written texts, or in other men and women. We never experience transcendence directly; our ecstasy is always “earthed,” enshrined in something or someone here below. Religious people are trained…to use their creative imagination.
In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Qur’an, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God’s will…
Muslims developed their own rituals, mysticism, philosophy, doctrines, sacred texts, laws and shrines just like everybody else. But all these religious pursuits sprang directly from the Muslims’ frequently anguished contemplation of the political affairs of Islamic society. If state institutions did not measure up to the Quranic ideal, if their political leaders were cruel or exploitative, or if their community was humiliated by apparently irreligious enemies, a Muslim could feel that his or her faith in life’s ultimate purpose and value was in jeopardy…Consequently, the historical trials and tribulations of the Muslim community – political assassinations, civil wars, invasions, and the rise and fall of ruling dynasties – were not divorced from the interior religious quest, but were the essence of the Islamic vision.
Becoming the Wind
Popular lyricists love their metaphors. Sometimes, a musical phrase takes on so much meaning, that our language and cultural understanding adopts the new interpretation. Pink Floyd made “another brick in the wall” synonymous with mindless bureaucracy and compliance. The “bridge over troubled water” is the loving support we offer each other when we are weary and tears are in our eyes. And whenever I use the word “imagine,” I cannot help but think about John Lennon’s utopian vision and Strawberry Fields forever.
Another often-used nature metaphor involves singing about the wind.
- To Kerry Livgren of the group Kansas, the wind offers the vehicle for our searching, as we are all just “Dust in the Wind.” We are just drops of water in an endless sea, and all that we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see. Our physical bodies are insignificant next to the power of the wind. Wind is the endless, timeless, and steady progress of change in nature and only our spirits can connect with this force.
- To Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind,” represents a more specific harbinger of change, of a coming time when injustice and war will no longer be tolerated. Wind sweeps away the wrongs of society and encourages us to act upon more important considerations of our life’s purpose.
- To Jimi Hendrix, the “Wind Cries Mary” as a constant reminder of actions we wish we could take back, of words better left unspoken, of a love now lost. Wind reminds us to appreciate what we have and those we love and to never allow thoughtless deeds to jeopardize what really matters.
- To Elton John, the wind represents a more permanent loss – the snuffing of a “Candle in the Wind” of a prematurely shortened life full of energy and promise. Wind is not just the methodical erosion of mountains, but can also be a tornado touching down with mighty destruction for just seconds.
Nine years ago yesterday, September 11, 2001, we suffered a tragic act of violence and hate. To some, the horror of that day's events still burns vividly in their minds – images of smoke and flame, of destruction and death. The personal loss of loved ones and the broader shattering of confidence in our security and safety affected us all to some degree. The process of grief challenges each of us during our lives. But, grieving is made all the more difficult when the loss occurred through the intentional or irresponsible acts of others.
Every year at this time, we seem to hear sentiments from those still coping with the aftermath of that horrific day. While some focus on remembering the victims and the heroic efforts of rescuers, others stress their desire to punish any and everyone on which blame for the attacks can be assigned. Sadly, there are those whose wish to paint that brush of blame on any Muslim, as if all adherents of Islam supported radical acts of fundamentalist violence.
Recently, people have expressed much public consternation over the proposed opening of a mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center in New York City. One particularly troubling response came from the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, which decided to make yesterday its first annual Burn-A-Koran-athon, finding and destroying as many copies of the Qur’an as a statement. Thankfully, the planners canceled the event, but not before raising concerned eyebrows across the globe.
Historically, book burning is a favorite tool of totalitarians and bigots with philosophies grounded in intolerance and contempt for the rights of others. Now, within the bounds of necessary local ordinances, I will affirm the right of anyone to build a fire, even for the purpose of burning whatever combustible products they choose. We Unitarian Universalists certainly affirm using flame as a symbol for the transformative power of love in our lives. But, I condemn as ignorant and hateful the burning of any books, let alone one deemed sacred by the followers of its teachings.
For the Qur’an is not just a book to a Muslim, and burning a Qur’an is not simply the misguided act of small minded people. Most traditional schools of Islamic law generally forbid Muslims, unless in a state of ritual purity, from even touching a Qur'an. The Qur’an is regarded as the literal word of God in its untranslated Arabic form. Muslims must always treat the book with reverence, and discarding worn copies requires specific rituals. Desecrating a copy of the Qur'an is punishable by imprisonment in some countries.
According to their web site, the “Dove World Outreach Center is a New Testament Church – based on the Bible, the Word of God.” The non-denominational church has a history of provocative public protests against what it considers sins. In the past, it has put up a sign on its property reading, “Islam is of the Devil,” and has joined the extremist Westboro Baptist Church in protesting homosexuality. Its self-proclaimed purpose is to get Christians to stand up for the “truth” of the Bible.
Now I wonder, is this the truth of the Bible where Jesus says in Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law of the prophets?” Or is this the truth of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:44), when Jesus invoked listeners to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?”
Perhaps, finding the truth in the Bible compels us to look for the truth in the Qur’an. So, in our spirit of promoting the free and responsible search for truth and meaning (and opposing the tyranny of the book burners of the world) let us examine what the Qur’an has to say about the wind. In Surah 3, The Family of Imram, verse 117 says:
The likeness of what they spend in the life of this world is as the likeness of wind in which is intense cold (that) smites the seed produce of a people who have done injustice to their souls and destroys it; and Allah is not unjust to them, but they are unjust to themselves.
Therefore, our acts during our lives that violate the commonly-held beliefs of the people act like an icy blast of wind that kills our crops. In other words, you get back from life what you put into it. Don’t blame God for punishing you, for you laid the seeds of your own destruction through your own misdeeds, unbelief, or disobedience. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? It should. Because in Matthew 26, verse 52, Jesus tells Peter to sheathe his sword drawn against the Romans, “for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Paul later tells the Galatians:
…you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
And Buddhists, like many other adherents of various Asian religions, believe that we possess free will to choose between good or evil without the need of God’s intervention to implement the consequences of karma.
Quite the opposite of what some proponents claim, the Qur’an is far more than a simple list of prescribed behaviors for all Muslims. The text often reads quite poetically. For instance, up until now, all of our metaphors described wind not just as a benign force of erosion and passing on, but of violent turbulence and destruction. Frequently, however, the Qur’an describes the wind quite differently. The wind is portrayed as sustainer, the medium by which nature spreads our seed and waters our crops.
In Surah 15, verse 22, the wind fertilizes, sending down the water from the clouds for us to drink. In Surahs 35 and 45, the wind brings the clouds that actually bring life back to earth that has died. This wind resurrects and is a sign of blessings to come. Other citations specifically label the wind as the medium for the good news before the Mercy of Allah. In Surahs 25 and 30, God uses the wind to send the pure water from the clouds, for which we should be grateful.
So, how may we apply this notion of the wind to our own circumstances? For 150 years, this congregation (the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton), rooted firmly in the Mon Valley of Southwestern Pennsylvania, swayed with the gentle breezes of the passing years, bent under the impact of shifting population demographics, and suffered the battering of economic downturns. These roots were important, for without roots, we wander aimlessly, with no past, no anchor. Lacking roots, our traditions and rituals lose their impact and the gifts of our ancestors crumble to the dust of discarded relics in forgotten attic crawlspaces.
Perhaps, however, there comes a time when we must uproot – when we must no longer be satisfied with being a blade of grass blowing in the wind. I don’t mean that we consider moving our building physically – although such a shift could someday reap benefits. I’m talking about lifting ourselves out of the packed earth of complacency. I am talking not just about the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton, but of our entire denomination moving beyond the self-satisfaction of having emancipated ourselves from dogmatic beliefs and creedal churches.
For many years, we as a congregation and as a denomination have stood firmly rooted in a belief in the unity of all that we find holy and in the basic goodness of humankind. Our own tall tree of knowledge has affirmed the use of reason to make of our own earth and lives the paradise that lies within our will and determination to create. Our branches have stretched far and wide into schools and universities, courtrooms and congresses, clinics and hospitals.
But, maybe the time has come to change our passive approach. We can retain our convictions, our strength of belief. We might want to consider, however, leaving the comfort of our houses of worship, spreading our message of universal love, freedom, and justice across a land growing ever more barren of those marvelous gifts.
Surah 90, The City, tells of how humankind is born with two eyes, a tongue and two lips, and that we know that two paths of life exist.
But [we] would not attempt the uphill road,
And what will make you comprehend what the uphill road is?
(It is) the setting free of a slave,
Or the giving of food in a day of hunger to an orphan,
Or to the poor man lying in the dust.
Then [we are] of those who believe and charge one another
to show patience, and charge one another to show compassion.
Like our abolitionist ancestors, we need to fight our modern slavery to money, material goods, and the bindings of social class. We must find ways to eat more ethically and to feed the hundreds of millions who hunger. We must seek ways to live nonviolently, to love unconditionally, and to dispel the dark clouds of fear and oppression.
In order to do that, we must become the wind. We must become agents of change – not the destructive change of fundamentalist certitude and prejudice, or the corrosive erosion of indifference and stale tradition; but nurturing change raining down on a land thirsty for a saving message from a drought of hope. Like a wind, we can blow onto the streets of the physical world. We can waft through the communities of social media, into the world of cyberspace. We can become the wind of good news, evangelizing our saving message.
Now, some equate such evangelism with proselytizing. You might worry that our message will get tied up in telling folks that ours is the only true religious option. So, in the name of tolerance, we end up not saying anything. But Unitarian Universalist evangelism is not about converting people to the “one true church.” It's certainly not about holding the keys to the doors of a kingdom locked forever to those who do not accept our version of the truth. Unitarian Universalist evangelism is about letting people know that we are here; it is about telling the world that there is a vibrant and compassionate alternative to the hate-filled, fear mongers who despise anyone who is different from them.
Unitarian Universalist minister Tony Larsen was raised Catholic. He went to parochial schools and attended catechism classes, where students were drilled on the important questions of their religion, and where they learned the right answers to those questions. Because of his experiences as a child, Larsen believes that our kids need something to help them formulate their own answers to those ultimate questions in life.
So, Larsen developed a Unitarian Universalist catechism that provides children, as well as people of all ages, with an answer to the question, “What do you believe in?” His catechism consists of three simple points:
- Love your neighbor as yourself, which includes trying not to hurt people in any way;
- Make the world a better place, which includes working for justice, peace, and freedom for all people; and
- Search for the truth with an open mind.
Show patience and compassion; free the slaves and feed the hungry; and search for truth wherever that search leads you, whether it is the Bible or the Qur’an, the Bhagavad-Gita or the Tao Te Ching.
The popular 1980 Bob Segar song describes the experience of many adult Unitarian Universalists, who like Tony Larsen were raised in other faith traditions:
The years rolled slowly past and I found myself alone
Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends
I found myself further and further from my home
And I guess I lost my way, there were oh so many roads.
I was living to run and running to live
Never worried about paying or even how much I owed.
Moving eight miles a minute for months at a time
Breaking all of the rules that would bend
I began to find myself searching for shelter again and again.
We found in our congregations shelter against the winds that rocked us. We found in our heritage and history the roots we had long sought that welcomed diversity and freed people from oppression.
But, we have also grown comfortable in these shelters, our loving religious communities. We have grown comfortable while countless others out there are buffeted as they run against the wind. Let us, therefore, stream out into the world. Let us spread the good news of Unitarian Universalism whenever someone wants to burn a Qur’an. Let us spread our good news when a gay youth gets beat up. Let us spread our good news when another corporation carelessly pillages our interdependent web of life. Let us spread our good news when hard-working, but undocumented families are ripped apart and denied the promise of America afforded to each and every one of us at some time in our past. Let us bring life, the life-giving waters of Unitarian Universalism, to a dying land, and let them know that we are here – that we are here to stay.
To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people.
It does not need rosaries, prayer carpets, or robes.
All peoples are members of the same body, created from one essence.
If fate brings suffering to one member
The others cannot stay at rest.
-- “To Serve the People,” by Saadi, Persian Poet
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Like many of my colleagues, I plan to read from the Qur'an during our Sunday morning worship service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton as a show of support of our Muslim brothers and sisters across the globe. But, after watching a CNN reporter interviewing the head of the Center, I must ask myself where are the same questions from the Christian majority of this nation? The silence of religious leaders, if to do nothing more but to ask them not to commit such a misguided act of desecration, is deafening.
To Terry Jones and the members of the Dove World Outreach Center, please do not go through with this planned action. Frankly, the threat alone of your protest has already accomplished its mission. But, do you not understand that to a Muslim, the paper containing the holy words of the Qur'an has the same import as the steel and stone of the World Trade Centers? By burning this sacred text, you are no better than those who flew planes on that fateful day. And no matter how you read your sacred texts, this is not how Jesus taught us to live in religious community with others.
I know you will cite the angry outburst at the Temple as the lesson that Jesus offered for the occasional need to "make an example." Do you not see that your action is not the same? Jesus did not defy the Pharisees by burning the Torah. He did not defile the idols of the Romans. Yes, he got angry, showing his all-to-human side. I put it to you and your congregation that that is the actual lesson of this incident - that his singular act of intemperance was so unusual, that even Jesus was not immune from feeling the hurt and betrayal of religious leaders gone astray.
And, from that lesson, we should learn that violence accomplishes nothing but breeding and spreading more violence. Religious leaders, please reach out to Terry Jones and his congregation and implore him to cancel this event. Encourage him to find more productive venues to express his opinions and make his points heard. Stand on the side of love for the hundreds of millions of Muslims who do not support terrorism and who will be devastated by this planned act of mutilation of their holy text.
Instead, join with me and others who this Sunday will explore the writings of a religion that also honors the contributions of Abraham and Jesus to our religious heritage.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
But, one time I do miss the ability to discern colors better is walking among nature. I often cannot see certain creatures because they blend too well into the background. And I often cannot determine species of birds or insects because their color scheme eludes me. I imagine, however, that I compensate by perhaps seeing motion better than most, or that I can more frequently detect specific shapes in the mosaic of life (I have an uncanny eye for spotting coins in the dirt). I also have a deep fondness for brilliant colors, the bright yellows, oranges, and purples that stand out so magnificently among the green leaves.
Today, I wandered down along the railroad tracks, unaware that I was about to be ambushed by all manner of life. For one, I am not alone in noticing the abundant varieties of butterflies in the area this year. In just 30 minutes or so, I spied a Red-Spotted Purple, Silver-Bordered Fritillary, a Mourning Cloak, a Red Admiral and the ever-present Woollybear Moths, often dancing in pairs among the wild daisies.
As I took my usual place on the switchman's shed platform, I saw an old friend - a big Mallard - standing guard at his usual post at the end of the sand spit in the middle of the river. Suddenly, a goose or heron of some kind swooped over to the island from the other side of the river and I quickly lost it in the foliage.
Motion in my lower field of vision brought a young groundhog to my attention, just 20 feet or so below the platform. He kept eying me suspiciously and I tried not to move and startle him. Of course, behind it all was the constant droning of crickets and the deafening buzzing of male cicadas looking for a mate.
As I continued my journey along the tracks, a brilliant goldfinch darted by. I felt something on my arm. Looking down, I examined a bright red Ladybug with no spots. Now, depending on what culture I choose to acknowledge, that means that I will have no children (sorry Ashley and Tyler!), will soon get a pair of gloves, whatever ailment I have flew away with it (wouldn't that be nice), my crops will be good, or that fair weather is ahead.
Who knows what other critters busily went about their business as I walked along the tracks? Some I will always have difficulty seeing. Some may forever elude my observation, no matter how diligently I hone my visual skills. But, many of them lie within my ability to perceive them if I will only take the time to look.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
1. Why do you blog? What goals do you have for your blog?
Well, that's a really good question. The main reason I blog is that I believe that all ministers should be blogging, offering our opinions, feelings, and insights in this important venue for modern seekers. For me, it is a form of Unitarian Universalist evangelism -- a chance for people to connect to our movement in one more way beyond the Sunday morning worship service or the weeknight committee/program meeting.
My goals are many: to continue my process of reflection and discernment as I prepare to enter into fellowship with other ministers; to interact with others in a public forum on relevant issues; and to let my muse run wild on occasion.
2. Who is your intended audience?
Anyone interested in the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; anyone who wants to sit across the table from me and share a pizza.
3. Who owns your blog? Does it belong to you as individual or to your congregation or other organization?
The muse kennel and pizzatorium is all me. I will certainly refer to my congregation on occasion, and post sermons, but my blog is my side of this virtual conversation.
4. How frequently do you post?
Not nearly often enough! I am one of the world's worst journalists. And, I guess that I feel that the only time I want to blog is when I really have something important to say. Needless to say, I don't "get" Twitter.
5. What is the tone of your blog?
I suppose the tone is essentially professional with an important touch of the personal. I really just go where my muse takes me in regards to tone.
6. What steps do you take to make sure that your blog is a safe space, both for you and for other participants? Do you have a code of conduct?
I filter comments (most of which are spam anyway) and will not post comments that are snarky or combative to the point of killing dialogue. As for me, anything I post is fair game and I assume is public. If I feel unsafe posting it, then I simply won't.
7. What kinds of boundaries do you observe around confidentiality?
I generally don't name people I discuss, but my stories are mostly about me anyway. I would endeavor never to discuss someone else in a way that they could be identified without asking their permission first. But, generally, if I do mention someone else, it is to praise them or give them props for helping me in some way.
8. How do you respond to comments and email from readers?
I will always post and respond to comments and emails that are respectful and that contribute to the ongoing dialogue. Sarcastic and excessively argumentative (those that in my opinion shut down discourse) comments are generally ignored.
9. What are the most challenging aspects of blogging in your experience?
Inertia is the biggest problem and I am my own worst critic. If I don't feel particularly qualified to comment on a topic, or feel that my opinion is not all that unique, then I tend to not post. I suppose that I just need to grant myself the permission to let others make that call.
10. What are the most rewarding aspects of blogging in your experience?
I feel the most reward when I can give voice to an idea or experience that would not likely have been expressed via other avenues open to me. I guess I feel that if my posts affect just one other person in some way, then the effort is worthwhile.
11. What advice would you give to Unitarian Universalists who are new to blogging and want to get started?
Stop worrying about it and let your muse off its leash! You will never please anyone, and you can never please anyone unless you give yourself the chance. So, just run off that diving board and cannonball into the pool!
12. How do you evaluate the success of your blog? What have been your most successful blog posts or series?
I don't. I'll admit to a twinge of pride when The World mentions my blog in its weekly summary. But, my blog simply is what it is. It is successful if I let it be what it is.
I believe that my best series was the one I did on my trip to New Orleans.
13. What do you wish you had done differently in your blogging?
Hmmm, nothing that I can think of.
14. What other online tools do you use to promote your blog? (i.e. social networking sites, Twitter, social bookmarking tools, etc.)
I set up my blog to automatically post to my Facebook account. I tell people about my blog on various web pages and other avenues.
15. Do you use an Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed? How many subscribers do you have?
I honestly have never even looked at that to figure it out.
16. Do you track site traffic? How many unique visitors do you have per day (on average)?
No, I think I would only find that depressing! And, I'm way too obsessive-compulsive, so I would waste too much time analyzing numbers. Frankly, I am always pleasantly surprised when I find that anyone has spent any of their valuable time reading my ramblings.
17. Do you find Unitarian Universalist Association resources helpful to you as a blogger? What additional resources could we provide to Unitarian Universalist bloggers?
Not really, although I use UUA resources for lots of other things. I'm not really sure how the UUA could contribute to my blogging. One possible idea might be for someone to come up with a weekly suggestion on a topic for UU bloggers to address. Then the posts could be assembled, or even summarized in some way. Such a resource might be really useful to somebody researching that topic.
18. Please write any additional comments or suggestions.
Peter Bowden is the man, and has been enormously helpful to me on a number of occasions regarding all things technical. And, if you read me blog, then please write/comment and let me know what you like, don't like, want to see more of, whatever!
Friday, July 23, 2010
America has an immigration problem. The good news is that so many people willing to work and especially perform some of the toughest, menial tasks gladly sacrifice everything to come here. They face a frightening unknown, often toil under intolerable conditions, and suffer great deprivation. The bad news is that the terrible state of our administration of immigration leaves states like Arizona little choice but to pass absurd and unconstitutional laws in a misguided attempt to solve their own local problems.
Ancestors of every citizen of this nation were at one time immigrants. Whether your people migrated across the Bering Strait thousands of years ago, sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, a slave ship, or a crowded passenger liner, every American has roots from other lands. They came here for the same reason people cross our borders today – for opportunities, for a chance to better themselves, for the hope that this country stands for.
I am no immigration attorney. But, a better way must exist to extend a welcoming hand to those willing to become contributing citizens and to expanding the legacy of the fantastic ethnic and cultural diversity of this land. And, there certainly must be a way to prevent the breaking up of families over bureaucratic details.
By the way, one more detail about this couple. They are both women. Although married (in Canada), our federal government refuses to grant the rights to same-sex married couples given to heterosexual couples. There is a word for this. Discrimination.
And there is another word for this. Wrong.
Monday, June 7, 2010
Before being carved up into four ridiculously sized "cinemas," the South Hills Theatre was a cavernous place with a huge balcony. In the old days, the place had hosted all sorts of performances, such as organ concerts, before becoming predominately a movie house. But, I wouldn't know about the rest of the building because I sat in the same seat every time I visited.
It began in the summer of 1972 or 1973, when the theatre ran a promotion, showing a different classic film every night for $1.00 admission. My best friend Frank and I must have seen at least 30 movies that summer, mostly old black and white films like they would later show on AMC and Turner Classics. But, of course, this was before cable TV took over our leisure time. Frank and I would sit in the same two seats, about three or four rows from the front, on the right aisle. We often joked that we would someday buy those seats and have them bronzed in memorial of our loyalty.
Of course, summer came to an end as it always does. After high school, I found less reason and time to visit the South Hills. Like little jackie paper, I left my magic dragon behind and over time its scales fell off as well. I remember returning some years ago and feeling great sadness for its dilapidated condition. I suppose that the place (now renamed Cinema 4) actually died for me that day.
So, now the South Hills Theatre is irretrievably gone forever. Gone are those fantasies of hitting the lottery and buying the place on a lark. Gone are those dreams of reliving that wonderful summer of discovering a new classic every night in my personal seat. Like my youth, those wonderful times of learning to drive and eating Mineo's pizza with high school friends, live only in my memories.
But, while the bricks and mortar may no longer retain their solid configuration in the real world, the South Hills Theatre stands unmolested in my mind. My love of films engendered by that wonderful place lives on strong. My appreciation of classics stands strong against the wrecking balls of unimaginative writing and needless remakes. The body of the South Hills Theatre may be dead, but its soul lives on with every film I recommend to a young person who thinks that CGI can substitute for good acting. Rest in Peace, South Hills Theatre!
from “The Rainy Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the moldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall…
Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
Time for All Ages
Following World War I and the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia, Norbert Ĉapek founded a Unitarian congregation in Prague called the Liberal Religious Fellowship. He introduced the Flower Festival service on June 4, 1923 as a symbolic ritual to unite people in the new congregation. The traditional Christian communion service was unacceptable to many who had joined the new fellowship after leaving the Catholic church. Ĉapek decided to utilize the native beauty of the land to create a ritual unique to the new religious body.
People were asked to bring a flower of their choice to church and to place them in large vases at the entrance. During the worship service, Ĉapek consecrated the collected flowers. Afterwards, people returned to the vases and took a different flower home with them. It was such a success that it was held yearly just before the summer recess of the church. His fellowship grew into the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, with a membership of almost 3,400 by 1932.
With the outbreak of World War II, Ĉapek chose to remain in Europe, despite invitations to come to America. He delivered a series of sermons on the topic of freedom and justice that got the attention of Nazi authorities. In March 1941, the Gestapo broke into Ĉapek’s apartment, confiscated his books and sermons, and arrested him and his 29-year-old daughter, Zora. Ĉapek was charged with listening to BBC broadcasts (a capital offense) and with treason. The Nazis cited several of his sermons as evidence. A year later, he and his daughter were found guilty.
The court found Ĉapek innocent of the treason charge and recommended that, given his age, the year served in prison be counted toward his jail time. The Gestapo, however, ignored the court's recommendation, sending Ĉapek to Dachau and Zora to forced labor in Germany. Ĉapek's name appears among a list of prisoners sent on an invalid transport on October 12, 1942 to Hartheim Castle, near Linz, Austria, where he died from poison gas.
from Norbert Ĉapek’s 1927 sermon “Salvation”
This relying on help from outside instead of upon ourselves flows from the doctrine of salvation which various churches still impose on us…The Catholic Church…and many varieties of…evangelical churches teach us to look for salvation from some supernatural source and think it blasphemous when someone feels he must seek salvation through his own moral effort.
Jesus did not have the superstitious belief that an angry God required a sacrifice to reconcile himself with mankind because of Adam’s sin. We owe [that belief] to the apostle Paul, whereas Jesus’ teaching about salvation is expressed in the parable of the prodigal son…
Christian people were much harmed by the notion of the necessity of pacifying God’s anger through the blood sacrifice of Jesus…Jesus’ gospel was meant for the poor, the oppressed, the unjustly handicapped, and all other unfortunate people.
The German reformers, Luther and Calvin, tore the heart out of Jesus’ gospel and instead inserted the dogma about Jesus’ sacrifice for the atonement of sins…The[ir] religion…was suitable for a feudal social system, but how much did it do for the oppressed, the poor, and the enslaved people?
Salvation cannot come from something or someone outside ourselves… Salvation comes only through what a person achieves through his own effort and ability.
Sermon – Behind the Clouds
Once upon a time, in a not-so-magical kingdom, there was an ogre who owned a factory. Now, as befitted his natural demeanor, the ogre was very cruel to the factory workers. He would beat them regularly, and if a worker ever gave him cause for displeasure, the ogre would cast him out of the factory forever. In fact, it sometimes seemed that the ogre enjoyed mistreating his workers more than actually running the factory effectively.
There was a man who worked for the ogre. The man worked behind a tiny desk helping the ogre keep track of production in the factory and utilizing resources most efficiently. The ogre was terrible at counting, and so needed the man’s skills. But, that did not stop the ogre from tormenting him mercilessly. And the man could not complain because he needed the work to support his family. Over time, the man learned ways to please the ogre and to keep the ogre from getting too mad at him.
The workers in the factory toiled for years under the cloud of the ogre’s wrath. The workers were talented and committed to their craft, but the ogre took any joy they might have felt out of the work. It seemed that the factory always lay in darkness – not the black of night, but the murkiness of a sunless day.
Sadly, this all-too-real fairy tale is one with which each of us can likely identify. In school, at work, even at home, it sometimes seems that there are people whose sole purpose in life is to cause others suffering. We endure this suffering out of love, or duty, or obligation, or simply out of habit. And we pay a toll for our efforts, whether we realize it or not.
Thankfully, few of us will ever know the hardship possible under the fist of a tyrant. Oh, we may complain about our taxes, incompetent legislators, or soulless government bureaucracies. If you are non-White, a woman, gay, or a member of other oppressed minorities in our country, you probably have experienced abridgements of your rights, or prejudice at the hands and from the lips of bigots with the ability to affect your life and livelihood.
But, few Americans can even begin to comprehend genocide – police and soldiers dragging our neighbors into trucks and trains. Most of us will never experience living under the cloud of a dictator, where the sun is blocked not only by repressive rule, but by the ashes of people targeted as threats to those in control.
And yet, that is what Norbert Ĉapek faced when his beloved Czechoslovakia was consumed by Hitler’s power play with the Allies. At the global poker table, we blinked and in September 1938, the Nazis raked in the pot – more than one-third of Czechoslovakia. Seven months later, the Nazis occupied the remainder of the country.
As a Unitarian minister, Ĉapek would have been unquestionably suspect in their eyes. The Gestapo regularly attended his Sunday morning and Tuesday evening worship services. But, Ĉapek carefully measured his message and tone to one that might irritate, but not inflame the German authorities. In June 1940, Ĉapek was summoned to Gestapo headquarters, interviewed, and released. Like the man in our fairy tale, Ĉapek learned the craft of survival under the ogre.
In the ensuing months, Nazi rule over Czechoslovakia worsened. Jews were spirited away; school children were photographed and their racial characteristics measured. Ĉapek maintained his ministry and his church continued to grow.
Then, on March 28, 1941, five men in plain clothes burst into his apartment. Over four hours, they ransacked his belongings, taking hundreds of sermons and lectures, manuscripts and letters, his typewriter, and the radio given to him on his 70th birthday by his congregation. They arrested Ĉapek and his youngest daughter, and led them away from the home they would never see again.
Now, often in stories like the one I told earlier, a shining knight comes along. He slays the ogre, brings light to the factory, and frees the workers. But, in our all-too-real world, ogres are much too smart and cunning to fall victim of the knight’s lance. They convince the knight that fighting will entail a terrible cost and that the outcome may be worse than allowing the status quo to continue.
Even more often, the ogre persuades the knight that keeping his armor shiny requires lots of money and that new weapons are constantly needed to maintain the knight’s power. In time, the knight comes to rely on the ogre and ceases to hear the cries of the workers in the factory. The armor tarnishes and the clouds thicken.
Other times in our stories of fantasy, a fairy godmother flits down, wand in hand, to grant us our fondest desires by taking us from the drudgery of the factory to the magnificent castle. With a simple wave of her hand, she promises immediate gratification. With no effort on our part, she offers us the winning lottery ticket of life. But, in the world of non-fiction, the person promising to fulfill your wishes is a con artist at best, and at worst a predator poised to rob you of your very soul.
Am I recommending that we banish fairy tales from our children’s bedside? Would I relegate Cinderella to her ash heap and leave Camelot unimagined? No. Dreams are healthy things and the sign of an imaginative and optimistic mind. Envisioning a better future beyond today and tomorrow, or even beyond our own lives sets us apart from other species on this planet. Dreaming may sometimes lead us down frivolous paths, but dreams plant the seeds of great accomplishment and happiness.
There exist many people out there, however, who prey on our dreams to turn a profit without any real concern for our well being. Others pollute the air with their clouds of fear and despair to keep us sedated and inactive. The clouds we live under obscure from us the worlds of the possible, the lands of growth and change, the vistas of our dreams.
So, what happened to the man in the factory? Over the years, he learned not just survival under the ogre’s reign, but how to find joy in other parts of his life beyond the factory. He found love in his children and family. He found fulfillment serving his community and causes that helped other workers. And, he found peace and even moments of ecstasy in his house of worship. He began to realize that the factory, while a significant part of his life, did not define him as a person. Most important, he began to imagine what lie behind the clouds surrounding the factory.
These were not the passive dreams of one waiting to be rescued, or the unfulfilled wishes of one wiling away free time on idle pursuits. His dreams were not the wispy stuff of sleep or the intangible unreality of wonder. His dreams were solid things, built brick-by-brick through hard work and commitment. His dreams became a stairway of sacrifice, cutting through the clouds of the factory and extending beyond the reach of the ogre’s fickle anger.
And when the man ascended the structure he had built and climbed through the clouds, what did he find? He found what Norbert Ĉapek found. He saw in the bright light of day countless flowers of every conceivable color decorating the countryside. He saw the marvelous diversity of living things and the remarkable individuality we share that makes life interesting.
He felt an enormous burden lifted from his body. Gone was the pressure of the constant criticism and deriding doubt. But, also missing were the shame and the guilt from within; the resentment and even hatred that had festered and grown against the ogre. Vanished were those debilitating emotions that had distracted the man with their false hopes of self-satisfaction and their sugar-coated rationalizations of self-righteousness.
Behind the clouds, the man heard the calling of his life. Gone were the allure of salary and financial security. Banished were the accolades of double talk and the bromides of bureaucracy. He heard clearly his calling to become the person life had prepared him to be.
Twelve years before his arrest and imprisonment, Capek had prepared himself spiritually, oddly predicting the hardships he now faced, when he wrote:
How can a person be ready to undergo difficult trials? He must ask himself: “What is mine and what is not mine?” Suppose I am to be imprisoned; must I also then lament and be discouraged? Suppose I am to be exiled; is there anyone able to prevent my going peacefully with a smile, good humor, and my head held high? “We will put you in chains!” “Ah, dear friends, the chains you mean to put upon my legs may restrain me but no chains can restrain my will or my spirit.”…The result is a will that is very disciplined; no force on earth can make it do what it doesn’t want to do. Cleanse your own heart and put out of your mind pain and envy, ill will and passions you can’t control; then no one will be able to force you to do their will. You will be free as the west wind.
Throughout Ĉapek’s incarceration, he continued writing hymns. In Dachau, he was assigned to the “clergy hut” and ministered to other prisoners. A Catholic priest wrote to Ĉapek’s daughter: “Your papa…always was in a good mood and was able to encourage all the people around him, to bring them out of their bad situations…I cannot understand it in any other way than there was in it a higher power. “ Another prisoner told Ĉapek’s biographer, “If it hadn’t been for Ĉapek, I probably wouldn’t be alive now, nor would others who survived.”
No, thankfully we are unlikely to face the experience of Norbert Ĉapek. But, we can learn from his life and find inspiration in his work. The flowers we celebrate today represent not simply life, but the life that lifts us behind the clouds to the land of light. We can pull from his example the energy to strive, the commitment to sacrifice, and the courage to endure. Ĉapek saw these fragile representatives of nature as the heart of his congregation’s communion. And, while flowers may sometimes be crushed by the ogres of the world, flowers will always endure; flowers will always reach through the clouds until they find the light; the light of dreams, the light of love.
Norbert Ĉapek wrote these words just before his death:
It is worthwhile to live and fight courageously for sacred ideals. Oh, blow, you evil winds, into my body's fire. My soul, you'll never unravel. Even though disappointed a thousand times or fallen in the fight, and everything worthless seem, I have lived amidst eternity. Be grateful, my soul. My life was worth living. The one who was pressed from all sides but remained victorious in spirit is welcomed into the choir of heroes.
Monday, May 31, 2010
I walked over to the Legion (literally in the building behind my place) around 11:30 and started talking with folks. Dozens of Legion members in uniform, active duty soldiers, and women in the Auxiliary were buzzing around laying out food, setting up chairs, and preparing for the ceremony. Soldiers practiced retiring the flag and prepared to fire the salute. They couldn't find their microphone, so I ran (well, walked as far as my poor ailing heart allows) to the church and grabbed our karaoke machine.
At 12:30, I walked over to the main street to watch the parade. Hundreds lined the street to watch the procession. Vets and soldiers, classic cars, fire engines, the Yough Senior High School Band, little leaguers, and flag-adorned trucks passed by. In all, the parade took maybe 10 minutes. But, for a town like Smithton, it was Macy's on Thanksgiving.
Returning to the Legion, I saw that everyone was gathering for the ceremony. Families and children, old and young gathered all around. Suddenly I began to wonder if my words were going to be adequate for this auspicious gathering, this moment in the history of the town. Suddenly I realized the community role I was about to play in Smithton. Suddenly I thought that the next few minutes was going to define how people in town saw my congregation for the next few months, or even longer.
I delivered my invocation and returned to my seat. Several speakers and presentations followed, the band played, and we sang the national anthem. The main speaker, an impressive young man who lives two doors down from the church, spoke about remembering our soldiers throughout the year and not just on Memorial Day. I cheered inside, as my benediction was Rabbi Roland Gittlesohn's piece on remembering the lost during spring, summer, autumn, and winter, as well as other times.
The ceremony ended and the feast began. Chicken, deviled eggs, potato salad, the best baked beans I've had in ages, and endless cookies. I walked through the crowd chatting. While I have experienced this ever since moving in last February, I knew that I was now cemented in the community's mind as Pastor Jeff of that church down Second Street across from the old brewery.
I also felt proud of the work I did today. As a pacifist, it is challenging to commemorate the sacrifices of so many to causes I might find questionable - to honor the commitment, the expression of the best of human character, without condoning the violence of war. As an atheist, it is difficult to find ways to invoke the powers of the universe in ways that a largely theistic public can embrace without compromising my own beliefs. I did both today.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
But, in spite of our Sears Craftsman toolbox with a thousand little drawers, we do manage to fit into certain types.
- The Inspirer, the amazing preacher who should never be allowed into any committee meeting;
- The Organizer, who can juggle a million tasks but has little skill at motivating others;
- The Artiste, who designs moving worship services, but can't connect with children; and
- The Counselor, whose one-on-one skills cannot translate to the pulpit.
But, I was reminded yesterday of one simple way of identifying members of the clergy, and that is by which rite of passage energizes them the most. Specifically, I'm talking about weddings and funerals.
Now, some ministers simply rock at funerals. They tend to view times of loss and grief as our best opportunities to evaluate our lives and assess what is truly important. These clergy tend to be fantastic at hospice care, hospital chaplaincies, and emotional presence. Other ministers shine at weddings, where the purity and innocence shines light on all that is possible in our lives. These clergy tend to be outstanding teachers, public relations, and ministerial presence. Now, I'm sure that some ministers are great at both weddings and funerals, but even the most ambidextrous person probably has a preferred hand.
Yesterday, I officiated at a wedding at my church. It was a simple affair - just the couple and immediate family on both sides. No flowers, or fancy clothes. No wedding party or family drama. Brothers and sisters were moving around snapping pictures. At the end of the short ceremony, the groom's little sister wiped her eyes and said, "I don't know why I'm crying."
But, I do. Because weddings hold the potential for such raw joy that we forget all of those devices we carefully construct to shield us from sharing emotions with others. For that one moment, we feel no doubt, no fear, no hate - just unadorned, unrefined love. At that moment in space and time, only hope abounds.
For me, weddings are the one big surprise of ministry. I always knew that I would love preaching and teaching, and that I could comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But, the rush I get from weddings, whether small and simple or massively elaborate, continues to surprise me.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
'Tis the cup seen, not tasted, that makes the infant moan.
For once let me press firm my lips upon the moment‟s brow,
For once let me distinctly feel I am all happy now,
And bliss shall seal a blessing upon that moment‟s brow.1
Time for All Ages
The subject of our service today is Margaret Fuller, born on this day 200 years ago. As was the case with some other prominent women of her day, including many famous Unitarians and Universalists, Margaret did not have opportunities for formal education like that available to boys and young men. So, as a young girl, she obtained a classical education at home from her father.
Later, however, she was sent to a traditional finishing school, to learn the arts taught to women of the day in preparation for being wives and mothers. This was a difficult time for Margaret, as she was torn between the wishes of her progressive father and a society that did not yet allow women to enter libraries, enroll in colleges, or speak on the lecture circuit.
So, today, I would like to lead you in a brief guided meditation. Close your eyes and imagine that you are in a large gymnasium, standing on the floor in front of a crowd of onlookers…You are a gymnast and before you stands the balance beam…As you mount the beam, your feet grip the four inch plank beneath you…The arena is silent as your arms stretch out to your sides for balance.
Imagine how women like Margaret Fuller felt in the early 19th century…pulled on one side by societal expectations and limitations defining the roles of women…pulled on the other by a well-meaning father who cultivated a love of learning and knowledge…Imagine these forces pulling you one way, then another…your feet cling tightly to the beam while your body makes constant adjustments…The pressure is intense, giving you a taste of the conflict women like Margaret Fuller experienced…outcast in one world, but not fully welcomed in another.
Now, feel within your core, at the pit of your torso, an inner strength…Something that helps you maintain your balance…This force sends tendrils of power through your arms and legs to your feet and hands, helping you to maneuver on the narrow path. As we will learn, Margaret Fuller found her core strength, her unique gift, that helped her to cope and to thrive in life. You, too, can find that gift, or if you have found it already, you can work constantly to hone that gift not only for your own benefit, but for the good of all humanity.
Margaret Fuller was born 200 years ago today, on May 23, 1810. Although an educated and intelligent person, many occupations were closed to Margaret and other women of her day. So, at the age of 29, she began holding Conversations at Elizabeth Peabody‟s bookstore in Boston. For four years, Margaret offered two conversation series for women each year on subjects like education, health, and culture that were not typically part of a young woman‟s education.
She also regularly met with transcendentalists of the day, such as her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. In that same year of 1839, Margaret was asked to serve as the editor of The Dial, a transcendentalist literary quarterly journal. As one of America‟s first literary critics, she began working on a manuscript eventually published in 1844 titled Woman in the Nineteenth Century. The work was the first book-length treatment on the equality of men and women, and spoke frankly on issues including economic and social barriers, prostitution, and homosexuality.
Hired as a journalist on Horace Greeley‟s New York Daily Tribune, Fuller became one of America‟s first foreign correspondents when she sailed to Europe, met famous authors, and wrote about the conditions of the poor and the common worker. In Rome, she met and fell in love with a nobleman named Ossoli who fathered her son Angelino. Both were active in the Italian Revolution, and were eventually forced to flee, sailing for America. In July 1850, their ship struck a sand bar during a storm off the shores of Fire Island, drowning Margaret, Ossoli, and their son. She died at the age of 40 and her manuscript on the history of the Italian Revolution was never recovered.
Sermon – Discerning Our Gifts
Imagine at the moment that you are born, you sit in a large chair at the head of a long table. This table stretches out away from you, so far that you cannot see the end in the dim shadows. Covering the table are wrapped presents of every conceivable shape and size. Some are wrapped in bright cartoonish patterns and colors. Some have elaborate ribbons and bows adorning their sides. Others sit simply in plain shades or foil.
Without lifting or unwrapping them, you can guess the contents of many of the packages. One large, irregular shape is clearly a bicycle. Another box has circular holes, perhaps providing air for a puppy or kitten. A spherical shape is almost certainly a bowling ball. And many have that distinctive shape of a folded shirt, or even worse, a row of socks.
Smaller packages abound as well. Flat and rectangular boxes for ties or scarves, long and thin boxes for bracelets and a few small cubes for earrings and, perhaps, even a ring? But, many of the contents remain mysterious, with no obvious clues to divulge their identities merely based on visual observation.
As you scan the horizon of colors and shapes, you sense that one of these packages somehow differs from all the rest. You perceive, perhaps on an instinctual, irrational level, that one of these presents contains something special and unique. You feel that there is one gift before you that no other person has on their table of life.
You have no idea what this special gift looks like, its shape or size, where it lies on the table, or what other presents surround or even cover it. Perhaps it sits in clear view, apart from other gifts. Or perhaps it lies buried beneath a mountain of other gifts of varying importance. Your special gift may be the first one on the table, right under your nose. Or it may lay far off in the unseeable future. But, somehow, you know that that gift is there, somewhere, in the world of things you will receive in your life.
“Discernment” is a very popular word among those involved in preparing candidates for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. Evaluations rely very little on actual knowledge or accomplishments. Instead, committees charged with admitting aspiring ministers into fellowship place the most emphasis on the growth the person showed during the process of preparing for the ministry, the discernment process.
Sadly, we don‟t place a similar emphasis on discernment in everyone‟s life. Instead, our schools and places of work depend on memorized facts and formulae, rather than the actual course of learning itself to evaluate students and employees. In fact, I might argue that far more important than diplomas and certifications rank the development of the love of learning, the openness to new ways of thinking, and the appreciation of the unique over the mundane.
So, with the help of Margaret Fuller, let us today explore a three-pronged hypothesis: first, we must acknowledge that we have gifts to be discerned; second, that in order to discern these gifts, we must suffer as that is the natural catalyst for identification; and third, we must know that this gift is not ours alone, but belongs to all of humanity.
Margaret Fuller‟s work on women‟s rights and equality helped people understand that the possession of unique gifts was not merely the purview of men. The classical education she developed with her father equipped her to consider life options outside the realm of possibility for most women of her era. After a brief career as a teacher, Margaret realized that education was not her life‟s vocation. Her felicity with language, however – both in conversation and in writing – was her expertise. In her landmark treatise on the status of women, Fuller wrote:
Whether much or little has been done or will be done, whether women will add to the talent of narration, the power of systematizing, whether they will carve marble, as well as draw and paint, is not important. But that it should be acknowledged that they have intellect which needs developing, that they should not be considered complete, is important.This last part offers a spectacular wisdom from this otherwise common sense advice. If you find your unique gift and put yourself wholly into it, the result will prepare you to face every challenge of your life. The return on your investment in your gift will
So much is said of women being better educated, that they may become better companions and mothers for men. They should be fit for such companionship. Earth knows no fairer, holier relations than that of a mother. It is one which, rightly understood, must both promote and require the highest attainments. But a being of infinite scope must not be treated with an exclusive view to any one relation.
Give the soul free course, let the organization, both of body and mind, be freely developed, and the being will be fit for any and every relation to which it may be called.2
far exceed any specific goals associated with its direct tasks in ways unknowable at the outset.
As we learned during our Time for All Ages, Margaret was deeply conflicted by her father‟s views on women‟s education that varied wildly from the social norms of the day. The conflict handicapped Margaret in her young adult years, leaving her feeling isolated among her friends. Unitarian Universalist religious educator Betsy Hill Williams writes that Margaret Fuller‟s life was “a constant balancing act between being part of the world in which she lived and being her own true self…She loved being a sister, daughter, wife, and mother, but she hated that many women were forced into being those things – even when they didn't want to be.”
Beyond this conflict of spirit, Fuller also suffered from chronic migraines and insomnia for much of her life. The notion of the centrality of suffering in our lives would have been one of common discussion among Margaret‟s transcendentalist friends. The recent influx of the writings of Asian philosophers and religions would have exposed her circle to Buddhist thought on the subject.
The four Noble Truths of Buddhism center on the knowledge that Life is suffering. The source of suffering is our attachment to transient things, things that lack permanence. The core of Buddhist teaching consists of instruction in how to cease the suffering in one‟s life. In her Memoirs, she indicated an awareness of this philosophy when she wrote:
When disappointed, I do not ask or wish consolation – I wish to know and feel my pain, to investigate its nature and its source; I will not have my thoughts diverted, or my feelings soothed; ‘tis therefore that my young life is so singularly barren of illusions. I know, I feel the time must come when this proud and impatient heart shall be stilled, and turn from the ardors of Search and Action, to lean on something above. But – shall I say it? – the thought of that calmer era is to me a thought of deepest sadness; so remote from my present being is that future existence, which still the mind may conceive.3Therefore, while no Buddhist herself, Fuller acknowledged the relationship of Life to suffering. Rather than simply ignore pain, she sought out ways to better understand how pain arose in her life. And, rather than avoid pain, she inquired into its revelatory possibilities.
The study of religion, and beyond to the nature of the human spirit, was a subject of deep interest to Margaret Fuller. Throughout her adult years, she identified increasingly with mysticism and that the “real church was the inward life of solitary spiritual illumination, not the building…whose very steeple pointed beyond itself.”4 Again, from her seminal work on women:
Mysticism, which may be defined as the brooding soul of the world, cannot fail of its oracular promise as to Woman. "The mothers," "The mother of all things," are expressions of thought which lead the mind towards this side of universal growth…if it be true, as the legend says, that Humanity withers through a fault committed by and a curse laid upon Woman, through her pure child, or influence, shall the new Adam, the redemption, arise. Innocence is to be replaced by virtue, dependence by a willing submission, in the heart of the Virgin-Mother of the new race.Fuller and the other Transcendentalists saw mysticism as an intuitive quest for spiritual emancipation. Margaret especially saw mysticism as critical to defining the democratic individuality at the heart of this world view for women. And yet, she also possessed a Taoist appreciation for the cosmic implications of mysticism – what would today be a very modern quantum approach to a Universalist theology. Once more from her Memoirs:
I remember how, as a little child, I had stopped myself one day on the stairs and asked, how came I here? How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it? I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space and human nature; but I saw, also, that it MUST do it – that it must make all this false true – and sow new and immortal plants in the garden of God before it could return again. I saw that there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the ALL, and all was mine.5So, our conversation with Margaret Fuller today explored the notion that we must acknowledge that each of us has a unique gift to be discerned; that in order to discern these gifts, we must suffer as that is the natural catalyst for identification; and that we must know that this gift is not ours alone, but belongs to all of humanity. In a sense, we check this gift out of the cosmic library and may use of it throughout our lifetimes. Margaret Fuller‟s gift was her ability to see women as complete souls, deserving of the same rights and privileges of men, and able to contribute equally not only in the home, but in the community and the world. And, her gift included possessing the voice and the hand to speak and write that vision for others to heed. We have Margaret Fuller to thank for an unknown number of women and men influenced by her words.
The tragedy of our modern world is that, perhaps for the first time in human existence, every person has the capacity to discern their truly unique gift, their purpose in life. And yet, greed and ignorance, lingering tribalism, and ever present courage-sapping fear keep us from achieving this marvelous transformation of society. For if every person were free to discern and to act upon their gift, our reliance on systems of ownership and control would shrink into insignificance; our worship of celebrity would dwindle into the quaint purview of nostalgia; and our culture of violence would fade into a pseudo-history of myth and legend whose only remaining purpose would be to frighten small children and provide us with amusing anecdotes.
Have you sought out and identified your unique gift? What forces push and pull you as you walk the balance beam of life? And, once you find your gift, how will you utilize it to better not only your own life, but the lives of those around you?
Let me but gather from the earth one full-grown fragrant flower;
Within my bosom let it bloom through its one blooming hour;
Within my bosom let it die, and to its latest breath
My own shall answer, “Having lived, I shrink not now from death.”6
1 From Memoirs, (cited in The Wit and Wisdom of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, ed. by Laurie James, p. 1)
2 From Woman in the Nineteenth Century, (cited in James, p. 29)
3 From Memoirs, (cited in James, p. 17)
4 Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, p. 48.
5 From Memoirs, (cited in James, p. 16)
6 From Memoirs, (cited in James, p. 1)