Friday, January 23, 2009

A Story of Heresy

During the last session of my Oral Traditions class here at Meadville Lombard Theological School this week, we ended with a storytelling festival. I thought about what story I wanted to tell, and came back to the story that is central to who I am as a Unitarian Universalist, an aspiring minister, and as a person.

You see, for me, the history of Unitarian Universalism centers on heresy. I take the meaning of heresy literally from the Greek hairesis, to choose. From Arius and Origen in ancient times, to Servetus and the Polish Brethren in the Middle Ages, to Theodore Parker and the Humanist Manifesto to modern times, our religion has been about free choice, and the free practice of religion. That story for me is best told by a fairy tale.

Once upon a time years ago, lived a young man named Henry. Henry was not a king or a prince; he wasn't a famous soldier or a general. He was a simple man just like everybody else. He dreamed dreams like other people. He studied hard in school like other people. He grew up and began working like other people. And, he lived by a code of ethics that influenced the choices he made throughout his life.

For instance, when Henry’s parents fell on hard times, he gave up some of his goals and used all the money he had saved to secure a home for them. When Henry married, he and his wife worked for years building their own home. As his children grew, Henry scrimped and saved all of the money he could, so that they would have a chance at a better life. Henry worked for 50 years and retired. After 50 years of marriage, his wife died. Henry died peacefully a few years later. And, his children and grandchildren continue to live happily ever after.

I know Henry’s story does not make a very glamorous fairy tale. I see no Pixar productions of Henry’s life anytime in the future. There are no mythical creatures, enchanted frogs, or genies who grant wishes. No talking animals populate the narrative, and nothing happens by magic. This fairy tale contains only the choices made throughout a lifetime and the consequences of those choices. Probably every one of you here today knows a Henry, or can identify yourselves in many ways with my father. Much of his story occurs in many typical lives.

My father’s parents immigrated to America from Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. My grandfather was skilled in construction using timber – not a promising vocation for a nation of steel and skyscrapers. But, he chose to come to America to find a better life. My grandmother was excommunicated by the Catholic Church for divorcing her abusive husband. She chose to come to America to live free of dogma and oppression. They met and married here, raised four children, and struggled through the Great War, the Great Depression, and another great war.

When my father returned home from the Pacific in 1945, he could have joined the thousands of servicemen entering college. Instead, he chose to invest his life savings buying his parents a farm. He then took a job as a draftsman and worked his way up the ranks in a division of a major Pittsburgh corporation. He chose a job that allowed him to spend many hours each day at home with his family. And, he chose to spend his weekends volunteering to run his children’s activities, serving his city and his church, and carrying on his father’s tradition by creating works of art out of wood.

To my father, one’s investment choices reflect one’s values. He treasured family. He believed in neighborhood and community. He respected the creative process. Most of all, he was a futurist. No matter how distressing the news, or cruel the fates, my father could see the potential for good in a situation. With enough hard work and commitment, people can always make the world a better place. Sometimes, a helping hand or a just reward is all it takes for humankind to achieve its potential for good.

My father taught me many of the values that comprise my own philosophy of life. In the end, without family, community, love of and for others, and self-respect, money and possessions cannot fulfill our lives. His life may not have been the stuff of fairy tales, but he provided me with all of the will to dream and the desire to achieve them that I will ever need. Our stories require no magic lamps and leprechauns to grant us our wishes. We only need the will and the courage to make choices.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Nonbelievers Are Now at the Table

In his 2009 Inaugural speech today, President Barack Obama discussed the religious landscape of the United States. "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers." When I heard this word, my heart leaped in my chest. For the first time in my recollection, an elected official welcomed me to the table of religious Americans.

A twinge in my mind wished he had chosen a more positive word -- one that did not focus on the negative of our belief. But, the joy of being included at all quickly swept away any sense of disappointment or argument. For once, my President recognized me as a person. My President honored my journey and did not recoil in fear from fellow seekers on the path of truth and meaning. My President opened a space in the national dialogue for me to enter, not as a combatant or even an enemy, but as a colleague and as a friend.

In some ways, nonbelievers are one of the largest closeted minorities in this country. Public declaration of atheism is, in many venues, a killing blow. A 2006 study showed that atheists are the least trusted group of people in this nation. And, while my argumentative spirit always enjoys a good challenge, the prevailing attitude against my fellow atheists, agnostics, and other nonbelievers hurts on a deep personal level.

Last year, during my clinical pastoral education unit, I was dismissed by a hospital staff member after leading a worship service in the chapel. He asked me what I believed about Jesus. I did not even finish my first sentence before he held his hand up, told me he would pray for me, and walked away. I was not surprised -- I have had the experience before no matter how respectfully I respond to the question. But, this one hurt.

I made it down to the car to return to chaplain's office at the main hospital site. Then, I broke down in tears. That hand thrust in my face could not have hurt more had it wielded a knife. Once again, I had been rejected, refused entry into the discourse, and reviled as someone unworthy of breath to hold a conversation.

But, today, my President opened his arms to me and welcomed me into the conversation. I may have my doubts about Barack Obama's ability to lead us through the myriad of challenges we face as a nation. At least now, however, I feel that my contributions to the effort will be warmly accepted and appreciated.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Network of Mutuality

I have just returned from a worship service at our seminary in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. During the service the words of his Network of Mutuality were read.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that. We must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamation of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war. One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. We shall hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

Reminded of these powerful and prophetic words, I am even more deeply saddened by our recent draft Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking.

At first, I was willing to shrug my shoulders at the inevitability of its ambiguity. We are, after all, a diverse denomination in many ways, especially regarding the philosophy of international law and politics. But, Dr. King reminds me that we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.

I am not asking that the Statement of Conscience be couched in a dogmatic framework of certainly, shutting out those pursuing anything less than absolute pacifism. I wrestled with Just War theory for decades myself, so I of all people respect the intellectual struggle this topic engenders. I am asking, however, that we consider adding language to the statement not only open to pacifism, language not merely welcoming of pacifism, but language that takes pacifism within the bosom of Unitarian Universalism and embraces it with all of the love we can muster for its challenge and its promise.

I propose that we seek language that expresses the opinion that, in time, we must commit ourselves to the belief that killing can never end killing, and diplomacy can never end injustice. Only love can lead us to a world where humanity can seek the promise of a community of hope without war. I cannot imagine better words than those written by Dr. King as a framework for committing Unitarian Universalism to a path to becoming a peace church.