Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog


Speaker Tuesday in Sacramento: Christian Right’s War on America’s Children

http://www.au-sac.org/
I spoke with a person from the local chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.  I think this author will be fascinating.  Sorry to say, I have a church meeting Tuesday night.

 



Busman’s Holiday/Minister’s Vacation #2– Sunday worship, July 15

While my pal Bruce was bringing his prophetic and heartfelt message to the flock at home (“Who Gets What:  Economic Inequality in America), I went to church at the smaller congregation in rural New England where I had done my seminary internship about 17 years ago.

Linda and Ed picked me up in the city; we got there early so they showed me the “new” building the congregation had bought a few years back and renovated.  It’s a former convent or monastery, with a lovely rectangular chapel and a decent-sized and bright fellowship hall next to a kitchen that’s too small to cook a meal for 150 adults (but not too small to heat up or refrigerate some of the potluck dishes).  Their capital campaign had a goal of over $300,000 and raised about $800,000.  The main level includes a library/meeting room, nice administrative office, and minister’s corner office; one of her windows looks out on a nearby pond!  The RE rooms were downstairs, but they opened onto a ground level since the facility is on a hill.  There is a long hallway with floor-ceiling windows outside all the classrooms, whose windows let in a lot of that light. Right outside is a playground, and you can see the pond.

Of course, a congregation is not a building, no matter how nice it is.  Linda told me on the ride there about the major losses by death of some beloved elders:  Joan and Elsa, both of whose husbands were there.  I was very choked up to think that they are not here anymore.  Linda also reminded me that her youngest is now 32 and a tattoo artist on the West Coast–how could that be:  he was only 16 just a couple of years ago, wasn’t he?  Here’s a bit of UU diversity for us to ponder:  Another kid from the church recently got married; she’s in her 30s.  Again:  How could that be; she was just a teenager.   Her mom told me she owns and runs a gallery for local artists in another town and makes jewelry.  Her husband is in marketing for an adult video (etc.) store, and they attend a nearby UU congregation.  The mom (his mother in law) works as an advocate/social worker for women who have been abused sexually or physically, so this is a challenging juxtaposition in the family.  Another mother told me about her four grown kids, one of whom is a son on his Mormon mission in another country.   The others are UUs or nearly UUs, but this one didn’t feel enough at home in our religious culture, and became a Mormon (while attending college at a major progressive university founded by Universalists).

The sermon was given by a lay leader in the church, a  young mother of two-year-old twins, a preschool teacher and permaculture farmer.  It was about mindfulness, the practice of noticing, thinking without words, observing what is and being gentle with ourselves.  Very nicely done.  This church has the practice I don’t like of–early in the service– inviting visitors to rise and introduce themselves.  I did so, since Linda would have done it for me if I had not.  I said it was good to see some familiar faces again.

I had noticed on arriving that a young heterosexual couple and two little children were there for the first time.

Though they had gotten name tags for all four, they did not rise to introduce themselves.  (And, nicely, the service leader said that all those feeling shy about standing up were welcome to stay after service for some ice water and conversation so the congregation could get to know them.)  I was disappointed to learn that there was no RE class or nursery care on summer Sundays, though a family could leave the service and go down and tend their own kids in the nursery).  One of the kids couldn’t handle much of the service, and mom left with him.  Dad stayed with the other, occasionally trying to get him to be still.  I felt uncomfortable knowing that they had made the effort to check out a spiritual community as a family but were not having an easy time of it.  I wanted to talk to them after service, but it seemed strange for me–another visitor–to say “thank you for being here today,” or “we’re glad you came.”  But after the benediction I did introduce myself to the dad and told him I was a family minister at another UU church.

“Is this your first time here?”  Yes, he said.  I responded:  “It’s a major undertaking for a family with kids to get out of the house to be at services and visit a church, and I admire you for making the effort.”  He said thanks and “We’re glad we came.”  They didn’t rush off, the mom and other kid came upstairs, and the lay preacher’s two twins came in and added to the mix of toddlers.

I was surprised to realize how much I care what kind of welcome families receive when they visit our congregations.  Whatever the reasons they decide to make the effort, the reasons are significant ones and their visits to check us out are a precious gift.



Busman’s Holiday/Minister’s Vacation–Northeast Worship visit July 8

In Ithaca, NY, area on Sunday, July 8, it was the second Sunday in the pulpit for the new pastor at the liberal United Methodist church.  He had started his job with them on July 1, when many clergy are starting vacations.  We two UU ministers (traveling companions and friends for 16 years) skipped UU alternatives because we had done some research:  We wanted a real service, not a “talk” with “feedback” by the congregation on some issue that might be interesting to the regular UU church friends and community of the lay speaker but might not spiritually feed first time visitors.  And another UU church in the area was shut down for the summer.  We enjoyed a warm congregation (and warm, humid sanctuary), robust hymn singing to organ music, a strong soloist (as the choir was off), a relevant prayer for the challenges of life (even while one is on vacation), a kids’ story before they went out for Backyard Bible Study, the summer RE program there.

The Bible reading was from the Gospel of Mark 6:13–Jesus says a prophet is welcome everywhere but in his home town, he urges his disciples to take no possessions with them and not to be picky about accommodations in the towns they visit, and if they are ignored or spurned by the towns to which they seek to minister and witness, they should shake the dust off their sandals and move on to the next stop.

The sermon was not a stem-winder, but thoughtful, subtle, delivered in front of the pulpit with no notes, with the middle aged man in a shirt and tie but no jacket or robe).

Folks were friendly but not so outgoing to intercept us before we left.  Two of them gave us walking directions to our next stop.  One note:  At the start of the service, they ask you to pass “pew pads” down the row, signing in your name and whether you are a visitor or member, and if you have any requests.  The pad of paper makes its way back and forth, so you can read to see who else is there with you.  I asked a man in our row if he was related to a UU minister with the same last name, but he wasn’t.

We got the impression that this was a genuine spiritual community with a lot of health, a progressive heritage, a presence in the local college-oriented community–not perfect or stellar, but solid.  It was also explicitly and clearly in opposition to the official stance of the United Methodist Church on full inclusion and affirmation of LGBT people.  (The denomination recently had voted not to accept non-celibate gay persons as clergy or to affirm marriage covenants in same-gender couples.)  This church was having a series of films like “Fish Out of Water” and “Incompatible with Christian Teaching.”  Gotta love those progressive Protestants who keep the faith, and maintain a stance of open doors, open minds, open hearts.

We discussed the sermon with interest and appreciation while walking to meet my friend’s daughter (26), who had spent the morning with coffee and the Sunday New York Times at a bakery.



Immigration Nation–a well-argued commentary about Mario Rubio, Barack Obama, and our country

I think Steve Coll’s article is interesting, and makes a lot of sense.  The key to reform, he says, is having a system for temporary workers from other countries, rather than a brutal system for deportation and a duplicitous one of stealth immigration and selective enforcement of laws, depending on what employers need at the time.  Take a read and let me know your questions.

http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2012/07/02/120702taco_talk_coll



Beyond Control–Embracing the Divine Embracing: Charles Hartshorne and ProcessTheology (UU Sermon Jun 17, 2012)

 Sacramento, California

Hymns

#8 Mother Spirit, Father Spirit; #16 ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple; #15 The Lone Wild Bird; Doxology (English & Spanish; tune Old Hundredth);

Readings

1) This reading comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, in the Hebrew Bible.  In this passage, God is speaking to Moses, offering a covenant to the Jews:

“I call on heaven and earth to witness . . . today that I have set before you life death, blessing and cursing:  therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.”

2)  This reading comes from Paul Monette’s essay, “Priests.”  A well-known gay activist and writer, Monette died of AIDS in the year 2000.  The essay appeared in his book Last Watch of the Night.  He writes:

There is no God, I’m sure of that.  But the more they’ve sought me out, the more convinced I am that there are holy men and women.

So I send blessings, such as they are, to all my priests who

constitute the Resistance.

And if they like, they’re welcome to include me in their prayers.  Can’t hurt. None of us will free the world of intolerance alone.  We need the people of God, especially if God isn’t there.

Sermon:

I’d like to talk about the Divine this morning.  With all respect to my late father and all the fathers in the room, I won’t be affirming the old idea of God the Father.   With apologies to those guys among us with long white beards who like to rest in long robes on recliners that feel soft as clouds, I’ll talk about a different kind of God, a much more complex organism.

First I’d like to invite you into an exercise in imagination.  Imagine that the universe is held in one large cosmic web.  This cosmic web embraces everything—all planets and stars, the earth, human beings, including every one of us.  As each person lives and acts, this web embraces those actions, and is enlarged by them.  As we create new things, this web becomes enriched by them.  Now imagine that this universal web has a sense of awareness.  Imagine that this all-embracing web has an attitude toward this creation it embraces.  Its attitude is one of expectation, curiosity, anticipation.  Its attitude is one of welcome and acceptance.  Imagine that it has hopes for us.  Imagine that it tries to lure us toward ethical actions such as generosity, kindness, and compassion.  It calls us to promote goodness and freedom and beauty.  It calls us to make life-affirming decisions.  Imagine that this cosmic embrace of all, is a loving embrace.  This embrace is the divine.  As we are ever-changing, as all creation is ever-changing, so is this loving divine embrace.

This is one way that I try to explain process theology.  This modern school of thought was developed by a philosopher and theologian by the name of Charles Hartshorne.  He was born in June of 1887 and passed away in 2000, at age 103.  I first read about him when I took a divinity school course at the University of Chicago, where he had taught years earlier.   He taught also at Emory University in Atlanta until he faced mandatory retirement.  Then he and his wife moved to Austin, where he taught at the University of Texas until he was 91.  His wife, Dorothy, was a classically trained soprano, and served as his editor.  She died five years before he did.[1]

Charles Hartshorne was a feminist, an opponent of capital punishment and automobiles, and a fan of bicycles, living simply, and song birds.  He was a trained ornithologist.  His 1973 book was entitled Born to Sing:  An Interpretation of World Survey of Bird Song, and it included 5,000 species.  He said that some birds sing just for the enjoyment of it.  This was a radical idea for a scientist, he said, but a common thought among musicians.  He said it’s arrogant for humans to think we are the only ones with active minds.  Born in a small town in Pennsylvania, Hartshorne was descended from Quakers, and his father was an Episcopal clergyman.  He recalled:  “No one in my family disbelieved in religion, and no one disbelieved in evolution, either.”

Hartshorne was a student of Alfred North Whitehead, a British mathematician and philosopher whose writing brings me to tears …because I can’t understand it.  Fortunately, Hartshorne built on Whitehead’s philosophy, and from it he derived process theology.

Secular academic philosophers looked down on Hartshorne because he believed in God.  Yet orthodox religious thinkers considered him a radical—and he was.  Of course, he was a Unitarian Universalist, for the last seven decades of his 103 years.  Charles and Dorothy spent their last years as members at First Unitarian in Austin.

Before I talk about process thought, here’s my little summary of the old school, the classical Christian cosmology of  the past umpteen centuries.  This doctrine says God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent.  First, it says, God is omnipotent, or all-powerful.  In control of everything.  Second, God is omniscient, or all-knowing.  God knows everything that will ever happen.  He knows that because he’s in control of it.  Past, present and future have been determined, by him.  Of course, this God was always thought of as male.  Third, God is benevolent.   God is all good.  Not only does God have a plan, it’s a loving plan; it’s the perfect plan.  Father Knows Best.[2]

This theology seems okay if your life is going well.  It seems okay until you suffer.  Until something bad happens to someone you love.  Then, you ask:  how can this all-controlling, all-knowing God also be all-good?  If God is in control of everything, then he’s in control of the bad things that happen just as much as the good things.  How can God love people and let them be hurt?  How can God love the world and let it go up in flames, through wars and violence, and environmental abuse?

In the best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, the Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner asks a similar question.  Kushner wrote the book in order to come to terms with the death of his young son by an incurable disease.  A loving God surely couldn’t have done that, the rabbi says.  Either God is good, or God is in absolute control, but God cannot be both.

Another example:  the Rev. Dr. Bill Jones has written a book whose title is a question:  Is God a White Racist?  Jones is an African American Unitarian Universalist who says that if God is in control of everything that has ever happened, then he must have made slavery happen.  If he did, then he cannot be good.

Unfortunately, many people still depict God as all-controlling and all-good.  I can understand the urge to explain the unexplainable.  If there’s not a cosmic plan, life can seem too scary, too confusing.  We don’t want life’s events to feel random.  Everything must have a reason.  God must have willed it.  This is the meaning of omnipotence and omniscience.

This idea goes hand in hand with predestination—the idea that nothing is up to chance, there is no free will in creation, even in human life.  You may have heard the joke about the devout woman who tripped at the top of the stairs in her house and tumbled all the way down.  She pulled herself up, smoothed her skirt, and exclaimed, “Well, thank goodness we got that over with.”

The early Christian thinker St. Anselm said that God is perfect, complete, and unchanging.   Hartshorne argues that an unchanging God would be abstract and remote, unconcerned about us, unrelated to us, and unaffected by what happens to us.  In contrast, process thought says that the Divine does relate to the world.

Here is the nature of that relationship, as Hartshorne taught it:  God “creates the conditions that provide the optimum balance of order and freedom.”  God set the stage, got things going, set some basic limits, and granted free will to the cosmos.  This includes all the elements and living creatures, especially us.  By chance interactions and by conscious choices, this diverse parade of creation will “determine the details of what happens.”  The writer Norman Mailer wrote of “a God who lives… without any pre-arranged guarantees,” one “who is no more certain of the [outcome] than we are.”

As nature evolves, as the universe continues to unfold, the Divine Life unfolds.  As our lives unfold, the Divine Life grows.   It is tied up in our own lives.  In the Christian Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says:  something as small as a sparrow does not fall to the ground without the notice of the Divine Life.  God knows us so well, Jesus says that “the very hairs of your head are numbered.”  As we age, the Divine numbers those hairs as they fall, and kindly watches new hairs grow in places where we didn’t use to have any.

Rabbi Kusher, in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, says that God does not will or cause misery or loss, does not cause cruelty to happen.  And in fact, when bad things happen, God grieves with us.

The Divine Life is the source, the observer, and the companion of all that unfolds in the universe.  God is a creator and a spectator.  God is the initial artist but is even more an appreciator of art.  God is an instigator of creativity and a stakeholder in how creation unfolds.

Process thought helps me see why many spiritual writers have depicted God as a loving parent, rather than as an absolute ruler.  I interpret process thought in this way:  As a parent brings forth a child, the divine has brought forth all of us, and all forms of existence.  The parent nurtures and nourishes the child.  As a parent watches the child grow and change, the parent is changed.  As the child learns and creates, the parent is enlarged and enriched.  As the child finds happiness and enjoys goodness, the parent feels joy.  As the child encounters misfortune or suffering, the parent’s heart aches.

The parent can imagine and know all the choices the child might make and all that could befall the child.  As the child makes wrong choices, the parent winces.  If death or another tragedy should happen, the parent suffers.  Yet even if the child’s life ends, the relationship between child and parent is not cancelled out, for the parent has been forever changed by the relationship.

The parent can imagine what the child’s future might be like, but as the child develops, the parent has less and less control.  The parent is not an absolute ruler over the child; if it were, then it would not be a parent, it would be a tyrant.  In process thought, this is how the Divine relates to the life of the world.  God is not in control, God is in relationship.

Process theology has redefined the old concepts about God’s omniscience.  To say that God is omniscient means that the divine sees all that happens, and is enlarged by it.  It means also that God knows everything that could happen in the future, but that future is not predetermined. God knows how nature might evolve, but waits to see what nature does.

As quoted by the Rev. Herbert Vetter, Hartshorne’s wife, Dorothy, said:  “[W]e can consider a human life as being like a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When we close the book, the story does not disappear.  It continues, and likewise our contribution to others becomes a part of God’s life that goes on and on.”

Now if you are a confirmed atheist, you may ask:  Why do I need to believe this?  If God isn’t doing anything to me but watching my life unfold, why do I need to accept that God exists?  You don’t!  I doubt it will hurt God’s feelings as much as cruelty does, or starvation or toxic waste disasters.  But I want us to appreciate that many theists in this world are people of progressive forms faith.  They have moved away from hateful and hurtful ideas about God.  They affirm that human beings have both free will AND responsibility.   We are called to show God’s love and care for the natural world, for all people in the world, and for future generations of people.  This kind of theology has influenced many seminary professors and the ministers they have educated.  It sings in the hymnals of many denominations and religions.  A modern hymn text addresses a growing God:  you are “willing to be changed by what you started.”  The divine is enlarged by the unfolding of the world that it set in motion.

This kind of theology does not make it on TV very much or fill Cal Expo and sports stadiums.  Have you seen the colorful yard signs and posters for this weekend’s festival with a big evangelical preacher?  An estimated 40,000 people will attend.  I won’t attend, but I can assume his message is that we depend on God, and we must accept Christ in order to gain the full benefits of this dependence.  Unfortunately, you won’t see the same PR for the opposite idea:  that God is depending on us.

In the Bible, for example, God says to Moses:  “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.”  You and your people have choices, God said.  He even gave them a hint:  “Choose life!”  This is the Hebrew Bible’s way of saying:  You’ve got freedom–don’t blow it!   Other passages in the Bible depict human beings in arguments with God, even getting God to change his mind.  The people who wrote the scriptures experienced God as open and accessible.  They knew that human actions make a difference.  The future is open ended.

The Jewish and Christian traditions teach that every person is created in the likeness of God.  This means that we possess freedom and creative power.  We have hopes, and we can show love.  The late writer Norman Mailer compared the Divine to an artist.  He writes that “there is something in common between God and all of us.  We, like God, are imperfect artists doing the best we can.”

A tragic aspect of the old, classical belief about an all-controlling God is that it has not made us humble, it has made us harsh and proud.  We humans established a hierarchy of control.  God was at the top, the ultimate controller.  Who was next?  We were! After all, if we are made in God’s image, we must be in charge.  At the top of the human hierarchy were adult males, especially those with privilege.  God’s will became the will of the powerful.  Such a hierarchy has justified the domination of some groups by others. This ideology has justified our control of the natural environment, even to the point of disaster.  We have tried not to be a creative partner with nature, but its ruler.  Process theology says, in contrast, that we are part of the family of nature.   This calls for humility more than control.

As the Rev. Margaret Keip has said, we are partners—all of us are partners—in a divine adventure.

Yet the holders of the old theology and the guys at the top of the hierarchy will protest:  God must be in charge.  We must honor God’s will.  Process thought has an answer:  The divine will is not absolute control or perfect knowledge.  Rather, let’s think of the divine will as the divine expectation.  The Divine calls us to be loving, responsible and creative, but the freedom to do so is ours.

How do we know what God wants for us?  Where do we see God’s hope for us?  Hartshorne said life presents us with Divine lures. In our conscience is the lure to choose what is good and just.  In the small voice within the silence of our hearts is the lure to affirm beauty and generosity.  In the good people around us are clues to what is good in life.  Here we can see God’s hopes for our future.

The Divine Life is always unfolding, always holding new possibilities.  We hold some of those possibilities in our hands.  This idea is as old as God’s granting a free choice to Moses.  This idea of choice is the heart of liberal theology, the reason for ethics, the inspiration for democratic government among people.

The divine has a stake in how things unfold, cheering us on, dropping us clues, grieving when we squander our gifts and misuse our powers.

In other words, it makes a difference that you are alive!  You matter!  What you do matters!  It makes a difference what we do, and what we leave undone.

Our actions matter to the children around us, to the community, to the country.  Our actions matter to the whole wide world.    Our lives make a difference to the unfolding of creation.  For all our gifts and the freedom to use them, let us give thanks.  For our companions on the journey, let us be grateful, and let us be joyful companions in return.  So may it be.


[2] For a thousand years, classical Christian theology has been influenced by St. Anselm’s proof for the existence of God.  St. Anselm said that God is the most perfect being one could imagine.  God is that being which could not be surpassed by any being—God is that which is unsurpassable.  Such a being is perfect, complete, and unchanging.  Something that’s perfect cannot change.  It’s not subject to change, because if it were, then that would mean that something else might surpass it, might be better than it is. Process thought says that God is unsurpassable by any other being, just as St. Anselm proposed.  But the process God is unsurpassable only by other beings.  The Divine can, however, surpass itself.  It becomes larger and richer.



Unitarian Universalist Heresies (sermon for Tee Shirt Theology Sunday)

Sunday, July 1, 2012, Sacramento, California

Hymns

298, Wake Now, My Senses; 361, Enter, Rejoice and Come In; Isaac Watts’s doxology (English-Spanish, tune 371); 163, For the Earth, Forever Turning. Solo vocal/ukulele:  “Heal the World” (M. Jackson).

Blessing of Elected Lay Leaders

(responsive reading, see http://wp.me/pe51o-zf)

Tee Shirt Procession (after sermon)

Sermon

Our liberal religious heritage is a heritage of heresy.  Spiritual innovators and religious rebels charted new paths of understanding and insight, gave new answers to the big questions about God, human nature, human destiny, and the meaning of life.

Here are some of the big heresies of our movement:  Jesus was not God, but a human being; he was a special human being, even a prophet of God, but not the only Son of God.

Another:  All people are made in the image of God and are beloved of God, and because of this nobody is going to hell.  If there is a heaven, then all of us are going there.  Hence, we might as well learn how to get along now[1], here while we are alive, and before we have to go meet our dead ancestors and their in-laws.

Another heresy:  Religious belief cannot be coerced or forced; it can only be persuaded or inspired, and the ultimate authority is everyone’s heart and mind.

More heresy:  In human community, deeds are more important than creeds.  Uniform agreement on all questions and issues is unlikely, but we can still co-exist in community.  David Lust, one of our beloved late members, was fond of saying:  “The highest form of intelligence… is kindness.”  Most people might agree with that sentiment. But in practice, if we look around our world, around our country, around our own circles, we see that it’s an idea whose time… is becoming.

In these times, the needs that lead most people to seek a spiritual home are not needs for matching beliefs but about belonging.  The ailments a congregation helps to heal are those of isolation, disconnection, and separation.  People are seeking to receive–and give–inspiration, hope, and care.  We seek fellowship, circles of community.  In the spirit of widening our own circle, I’d like to offer a few modern heresies for your consideration.  If you agree with all of them, then they aren’t heresies–and my sermon will be a failure.  For today, I’m saying that a “UU heresy” is an idea that goes against the surface impression that we may give to others or an assumption we might hold about ourselves as Unitarian Universalists.

The first heresy:  Smokers Are Welcome!   We could put such a slogan on a UU tee shirt or our website.   It’s been many years since most church spaces, especially inside spaces, became smoke free, including ours.  Public health campaigns and community support have helped many folks break this hard habit.   Yet smokers still exist in our midst. Note I am not proposing that we make this a smoking zone again, or that we celebrate cigarettes.  (I’m allergic, for starters.)

But I’m asking that we not assume that nobody smokes here, that we not speak in a condescending tone about the habit or the people who live with it.  Though it has been hidden from view, President Obama is a smoker.  The former president of our Unitarian Universalist Association was a smoker during his two terms as well.  I’d see him during General Assembly, often sneaking a smoke while walking down an empty street between hotel and convention center.

I lost my parents early to diseases caused by smoking, watched my mother’s labored breathing for a decade. As a nonsmoker, it pains me to walk through the garden entrance of my apartment building and greet a gathered group of young neighbors—people in their 20s and 30s—for whom smoking is part of their social bond.  Knowing now that nicotine is more addictive than many other drugs, it cheers me to hear someone tell me they’ve quit, even if it’s for the third or fourth time.   But our religious values of human dignity and freedom lead me to affirm what Doug Kraft calls “Loving What Is”—not liking all that we see in others or in ourselves, but recognizing what is real and true, and seeing it.  Smokers Are Welcome here, just not a lot of smoking on site.

Another heresy:  You will disagree with religious views of other people here.  As heresies go, maybe that’s a minor challenge for you.  Yet it can be easy to think that we have the same theological views, easy to expect that others will know what we are talking about.  Last month I led a class on the Five Big Questions, with 20 adults from the congregation.  Each person prepared an answer to each question and read it aloud in the group.  In my 17 years of having led this course in several churches, this recent group had the most variety of ideas, the most varied ways at looking at questions about the sources of our knowing, the nature of the divine, the purpose of life and the meaning of death.  How did I decide who had the best beliefs for each class meeting?  Whoever brought snacks.

Here’s a big heresy:  You will disagree with political views of other people here.   Maybe it’s too obvious to be heretical, but it can be easy to think we all see things the same way.  Of course, the UU movement promotes common values, and our UU people are engaged in the world beyond these walls.   As our stewardship slogan put it, in this church we give safe harbor to weary souls, and we shine a beacon of love and justice in a world that needs more of both.  But the way we as individuals think about our justice-making commitments and our voting decisions will vary based on our life experiences, family backgrounds, what we read and hear, and our basic moral orientations.

We are going to have differences.  The best way to approach them is with honesty and curiosity.

This takes discipline, and a lot of singing together.  Last Saturday night in downtown Phoenix, thousands of Unitarian Universalists boarded school buses to drive across the city for a candle light vigil.   Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has operated a Tent City jail for 19 years, keeping people in dreadful conditions, defying human rights organizations and legal appeals to Constitutional protections for the accused.  In recent years, the Sheriff has used those dirty and very hot holding camps to keep undocumented immigrants, and Latinos he suspects to be undocumented.

When held without criminal charge, suspected undocumented immigrants are part of a parallel jailing system in this nation.  This detention lacks the guarantees of the criminal justice process, because not having documents is not a felony charge.  Several of us from this congregation were in Phoenix for General Assembly, and each of us was on one of those yellow school buses on a hundred-degree night.  On the ride, the chaplain on my bus led us in UU songs and centering chants.  She reminded us that counter-protestors would be at our destination.  If we walked by them, we were not to engage them, but to move on to the large rally area—singing and not shouting—with our battery-powered candles held high.  Then she spoke a prayer, we sang again, and we stepped off the bus, thanking the driver, many of us of us clad in yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” tee shirts.  As I walked in the yellow-shirted crowd, I saw the Minute Men watching us, wearing camouflage battle fatigues, holding semi-automatic rifles.  I had no temptation to engage them.

Mounted on horseback, the county sheriff’s deputies guarded the Tent City jail, while City of Phoenix police officers guarded us and guided us to the rally.   Volunteers kept us on track, handed out bottles of water and spritzed us on the neck, face, and head.  This witness event itsel included songs and speeches.   We heard from Latino activists from Phoenix and a Latino labor activist from Los Angeles.  A local black Baptist minister said that the animal shelter down the road keeps the dogs in air conditioned, clean rooms.  The Tent City keeps people like dogs out in the Arizona heat.

Our UUA president looked out at the sea of yellow shirts and battery-powered candles in our hands, and he said, “You look beautiful.”  A national human rights leader gave a prayer, and in silence we heard the names of 129 people who have perished in immigrant detention centers in this country.  As we walked, streaming back to the bus at the conclusion of this witness event, I saw more city police officers.  One of them–a policeman and not a county deputy–looked friendly.  He said:  “Welcome to Phoenix.  Thanks for being here.”

A less dramatic part of General Assembly was a workshop entitled Crossing Political Borders.  The workshop was developed by three ministers who identify as political liberals but who serve church members who are not.  They had composed a readers’ theater play in two acts, using interviews they had conducted wth some of their parishioners:  men and women from the Washington, DC, area and suburban Chicago.  I had been recruited to be one of the actors by a co-author, who is a young woman who was my ministerial intern years ago.  (She had also arranged the rented house that nine of us ministers shared during GA, saving us a bundle over hotel costs.)  After the play, a man from her conregation read his testimonial as a devoted UU and as a conservative who votes Republican on some issues, but not all issues.

[If there is a group who’d like to order this play and hold a conversation here some time, send me a note.]  At the start of the workshop my friend invited us to read a covenant and say if we could hold to it–such things as: be quick to listen and slow to speak, refrain from using the terms fascist, Stalinist, and so on. 

During the play and the discussion period that followed, nobody expressed a strict allegiance down the board with any political party or platform.  There was more diversity than I had expected.  Some people said they are liberals in general but on one issue or another they have a dissenting view, or questions nagging at them.  Some were open- minded folks who had only just begun thinking about a social issue that for many other UUs was presumed to be clear and settled.  But they feel their questions are not always welcome, and this makes them feel less than welcome as people.

The purpose of this workshop was to explore the challenging topic of diversity in community, with politics as the lens.  The aim of the young ministers leading it was to confront the bad habit of demonization.  Demonization is rife in the world of competitive politics and commercial media that exists beyond our church walls.  We do not want to let the worst of what takes place beyond our walls to tear at our bonds of fellowship inside the walls.

Lest you think this is only a Republican-Democrat issue, let me tell you about Helen and Rose.  The church I served in Silicon Valley included these two friends, now deceased.  Helen was 90, Rose was 80.  Helen was a staunch Democrat, Rose a radical one. When Rose opined that she felt President Clinton had some character problems, Helen called her a fascist and chased her out of the house and into her car.  When the Bush, Gore and Nader election was approaching in the year 2000, Rose said she was fed up and would vote for the Nader and the Green Party.  Furious, Helen went on a tirade, and then stopped speaking to Rose.  Only for a few months, thank goodness.  A few years later, on the occasion of Helen’s memorial service, these memories were part of Rose’s written reflections of their friendship, which I read aloud to many laughs in the congregation.

Humor is often the start of a way toward forgiveness and healing, and I hope they had forgiven one another.   Yet most of us don’t want that much drama in our church relationships to start with.  Yes, we can express our commitments and our disagreements with clarity, but also with kindness.  We can practice curiosity, be quick to listen and slow to speak.  We can own our passions without drawing lines in the sand.

As people concerned about our world and about this country, I understand and share deep feelings of grief for what has happened in recent years, and fears for the future. Yet we must guard against taking out our fear, grief and frustration on those who seek fellowship with us.

In these times of isolation and separation, our religious community is a rare and precious thing.  It is a safe harbor for weary souls, and a beacon of love and justice.  We tend it with kindness, curiosity, listening and speaking from the heart, and lots of singing. It is a blessing to be together.  So may it be:  a blessing to be together.  Amen.


[1] Attributed by many to the Rev. Gordon McKeeman, former president of Starr King School for the Ministry.



Pastoral Prayer UU church service on July 1, 2012

 

Please make yourselves comfortable, and join me in a few moments of quiet, after which I will offer a pastoral prayer.  Then, after another moment of silence, we will hear some music.

Spirit of Life and Love, You who are beyond all naming and as close as our breathing and our beating hearts, bless us and all those we hold in our thoughts.

We draw together today at the midpoint of the calendar year.  Six months have passed in a flash for many of us; how fast will the coming days arrive and leave us?  On this day and every day, let us pause to notice the moments, giving thanks when ordinary blessings touch our lives:  a call or a message received or sent, a meal enjoyed with others or in solitude, arising from a good rest, achieving a day’s goal, arriving at a destination in one piece.

As a community, we give thanks for the time and care given by those volunteers working on planned improvements to our church campus, increasing its beauty, size, energy efficiency, and usefulness for generations to come.

Among us are many reasons for gratitude and celebration:  Roger and Ruth mark 68 years of marriage today.  Maxine has achieved the 80-year mark.  Some children among us rejoice at their day of special attention.   If you wish to call out your own reason for joy aloud, or whisper it quietly with gratitude, you may do it at this time.

We know that no human life is without sorrow for long, and many among us remember loved ones who are gone.  As we hold their images in our hearts, let us make the words of their names with our mouths, aloud or whispered, at this time.

In our church and among our wider circles of connection are those dealing with health problems, medical challenges, physical pain, and emotional or spiritual afflictions.  We call on the gifts of healing and ease for others whom we love and for our own souls and bodies.

Speaking of health, the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act came last week nearly as a surprise.  Many of us feel relief and reassurance at the news. We may have differing views on the best ways to protect vulnerable children and adults from medical tragedies and financial ones.  Yet we can recognize a decision that has been made through every branch of our form of government.  Let us move ahead. as people of goodwill, with confidence to find ways to build a healthy nation.  Let us honor and thank those who devote their lives to the professions and labors of health care and the work of healing in all its forms.

This Wednesday a day of celebration of America the Beautiful, of remembrance of this nation’s founding and its promise.  May we strive to extend that promise… from sea to shining sea, to widen the circle of those who love mercy, to mend our nation’s every flaw, to crown our good with brotherhood, with sisterhood and the kinship of all generations.

Let us embrace a vision for the common good, ever-widening.  With so many corners of our country in pain, let us work and pray for mercy.  With so many parts of this world suffering under war and oppression, let us pray for the fresh air of justice, freedom and peace for all people.

Spirit of Life and Love, bless us and all those we hold in our thoughts—this day and in all the days to come.  So may it be.