Friday, September 29, 2006

A Great Sermon

Fausto and Philocrites both recommend that you listen to a wonderful sermon by Scott Tayler, senior co-minister of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY (750 members). I took the time to listen yesterday and found myself deeply moved as well.

Current Reading

The books I'm reading at the moment include:

The Mighty and the Almighty by Madeleine Albright. I got to hear her speak last night at an awards dinner for the International Relations Council of Kansas City.

Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by Michelle Goldberg. Goldbery, a senior writer for Salon, will be coming to Kansas City on a book tour in November.

What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? by Michael Berube. I had read an awesome speech by Berube last Spring.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Resources for October 8th

Last June I got to hear an address by Rev. Bill Schulz, former UUA President and former Executive Director of Amnesty International.

The sermon on Sunday, October 8 will consider a difficult and timely issue: Torture and our government's role in conducting and attempting to legalize it. As Senators McCain, Warner, Graham, and Collins oppose the President's attempt to rewrite the Geneva Conventions, we will turn to the question of what it means to be citizens of a nation that tortures. While this sermon will contain mature themes, it will not be sensational or manipulative.

Here are some of the sources I'm reading to prepare for October 8th:

Web Resources:
"What Torture has Taught Me" by Bill Schulz
"Torture's Dark Allure" and "Does Torture Work?" by Darius Rejali at Salon.com

Book Resources:
"Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The history and consequences of U.S. involvement in torture" by Jennifer Harbury
"In Our Own Best Interest: How defending human rights benefits us all" by William Schulz
"Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the ruin of human rights" by William Schulz
"Torture & Modernity: self, society, and state in modern Iran" by Darius Rejali

Get Involved:
Find our about the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's Stop Torture Permanently campaign.

Church & State Update: "Feed me Slimfast"

Did you ever wonder how political candidates target churches to raise money and garner votes? Wonder no further. Check out this authentic memo from Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline to his campaign staff.

The Mainstream Voices of Faith, an organization on whose steering committee I serve, has issued this statement in response.

Sermon: Growing Old Gracefully... or fighting it all the way (Delivered 9-17-06)

Reading
Terminus by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sermon
I begin with a pair of true stories:

When I was sixteen I spent the Summer as a grunt-work youth staff person at Ferry Beach, a Universalist conference center on the coast of Maine. All summer-long, UU guests would come to participate in the weeklong retreats and camps hosted by the conference center. I still remember the coolest guest we had that summer. He was seventy-five. In his late sixties, according to him, he took up mogul-skiing (a kind of downhill skiing over dangerous bumps.) In his early seventies, he took up body piercing. And I'm not just talking about facial piercing. I think this septuagenarian Unitarian was an inspiration and role model to many of the youth staff members of the conference center.

And then there was the time I got snookered in pool by a man in his late eighties. This is a story worth telling. When I was eighteen and home for the Summer after my first year in college, I was asked to join the caring committee of my home congregation. As a member of that committee, I was asked to visit regularly with an elderly man. He was living at home; his wife was in a nursing home wasting away from cancer. His day consisted of visiting her for an hour each morning, then meeting the meals on wheels driver. That was pretty much the entirety of his daily routine. I was asked to visit him. It was suggested to me that we play pool. Fortunately, he lived literally a stone’s throw from the town Senior Center, which boasted an ornate and perfectly maintained, donated pool table that was seldom used. Fortunately, I had spent my first year of college in a pool hall... (conducting extensive anthropological research, of course.) The man I visited was in his late eighties. He was overdue for cataract operation. His hands badly shook. He used to play semi-professionally and was still very much the pool shark. He'd aim for a bizarre shot which would cause me to wonder if maybe he wasn’t also having a bit of dementia, but then he’d strike the cue ball with serious english, banking it off three bumpers and always knocking one into the pocket.

This morning I am going to speak on the subject of growing old gracefully. When I was first learning how to preach, I was instructed by one of my older colleagues that when preaching to a group of Unitarian Universalists, that no-matter what my subject, no matter how obscure, that I should expect that there is at least one person listening who is far greater the expert on the subject than I. Accordingly, I should try not to embarrass the ministry too severely. Well, this morning there are many more experts than I.

The idea for this sermon began last January, when we hold our annual question and answer Sunday. One of the most striking question cards from that morning asked, "What is the silver lining to being old and infirm?" I mentioned that this question deserved a full sermon and a member of this congregation held me to my word, encouraging me to preach on it, and even supplying me with an excellent book on the subject.

I have taken a straw poll of many of you in the past few weeks, asking you for your advice. Some of you gave me books and magazine articles. Others of you shrugged at the question, saying, "It is a fact of life, not a choice, you know?" Still others have bristled, saying, "I don't intend to grow old gracefully. I intend to fight it every step of the way."

So, let me talk about the easy part of the formula: Grace. In traditional theology, grace is the term for what God gives that comes to us undeserved and unearned. It is another term for managing better than we should rightfully be expected to manage. (“God give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed” begins the familiar prayer.) Like some theological terms, the word has been co-opted and domesticated. Now we use the word “grace” to describe the motions of ballet dancers and ice-skaters, an abstract noun we employ to talk about agile athletes and actresses and aristocrats.

From what I can tell, in this more modern sense, "grace" refers to those who make good use of the gifts with which they've been blessed. A celebrity is graceful when they refrain from boorish behavior. An athlete is graceful when they transcend mechanical perfection, when their performance has emotion, inspiration. Grace seems to have something to do with the preservation of a mystique.

True, for some the term grace does have connotations of being "proper", "well-behaved", or even compliant, passive, or demure. In that sense, it may be worth rejecting. But in the sense of making the best of what fate deals, in the sense of transcending the facts of circumstance, “grace” may be a word worth reclaiming.

But, I think I’ve gone wide a-field of the topic. In preparation for this morning I read through a book called, What are Old People for? by Dr. William Thomas. The book was kindly loaned to me from the library of the Lakeview Retirement Village by a member here at SMUUCh. Thomas, an expert on geriatrics, subtitled his book, “How Elders Will Save the World.” Indeed, Thomas predicts that changes in how we age and in how we face the second half of life will have a profound impact on the future of our planet. He really believes that those sixty-ish and up are to be the saviors of the world. Which lets me and my generation off the hook, about which I am a little ambivalent.

Dr. William Thomas imagines an change in how we think about aging, where the second half of life is not about relaxation but revolution – where retired people claim (or reclaim) power and purpose. He believes that it is those sixty-five and up who are most developmentally able to lead the revolution. His book is varied and expansive. He combines the fields of developmental biology, developmental psychology, mythology, sociology, cultural criticism, and more. It contains wonderful little observations: Did you know that the words “senile” and “senate” have a common etymology?

But what is most impressive about Thomas’ book is the way he dares to boldly challenge dominant modes of thought. He takes on two big ones: What he calls: “The Cult of Adulthood” and “The Doctrine of Youth’s Perfection.” I should explain what he means by these:

The “Doctrine of Youth’s Perfection” is the term that William Thomas gives to the misleading notion that life involves building up to some zenith, some climax of potential and strength which is followed by a slow, gradual decline. It is from this way of thinking that we get the term “over-the-hill.” Thomas calls “declinism” a myth. “Hardly a straightforward decline from the apex of youth, growing old is actually a complex, richly detailed phenomenon.” For example, he presents research that shows that older people tend to be less likely to experience persistent negative emotional states, are better at regulating emotional states, experience emotion with greater complexity, and have greater capacity to experience poignancy.

Another researcher finds that with aging, comes deeper ways of relating to the self, to others and society, and to the universe. These findings showed that:

· Older people tend to grow in their capacity for self-confrontation.
· Older people tend to decrease in self-centeredness, moving from egoism to altruism.
· Older people tend to think of childhood more positively.
· In relationships, older people tend to become more selective and less interested in superficial relationships.
· Older people tend to find solitude less threatening.
· Older people tend to have greater differentiation between self and role.
· Older people tend to find joy in transcending nonsensical social norms.
· Older people tend to develop a deeper appreciation for the gray areas that separate right and wrong.
· Many older people grow in their capacity for cosmic insights.
· Older people tend to have a greater interest in genealogy emerges.
· Older people frequently have a renewed interest in nature.

Of course, Thomas cautions, this does not necessarily describe every older person. But what a list!

Far from “declinism,” this view of aging undermines the doctrine of youth’s perfection. My last year at Harvard, I studied “adult development” with Robert Kegan at the Harvard School of Education. Early in the semester, we broke the class down into caucuses by age. All those in their twenties met together, as did those in their thirties, forties, and fifties. Following an activity, each group had to come up with a question to ask the group immediately older. The twenties asked the thirties, “Does it get any better?” The thirties asked the forties, “Does it get any better?” The forties asked the fifties, “Does it get any better?” The fifties answered, “Yes, it does.”

William Thomas not only addresses the “doctrine of youth’s perfection.” He also talks about what he calls the “cult of adulthood.” The cult of adulthood sees adulthood as normative and superior. Children are considered to be future adults. Elders are considered to be adults past their prime. Thomas explains how our culture has “adultified” children, treating childhood as a period of preparation and training for being a successful adult. “The cult of adulthood does not and cannot value childhood except as a staging ground for the real purpose of human life. Under attack is the idea of childhood as a time of exploration and play, enriched with vast quantities of time from which no outcome is expected.” Members of this congregation who are teachers report that they know of high school students who select extra-curricular activities not out of any interest but in order to pad a resume and look good for colleges. One student in our high school youth group confessed her hesitancy to take a class that interested her because it would be weighted in a way that would adversely effect her grade point average.

Predictably, the cult of adulthood also changes our ideas of what it means to be an elder. Thomas notes that obituaries often give a disproportionate account of careers, accomplishments, and awards and say nothing about stages of life that are not “doing-oriented.” The cult of adulthood is achievement-oriented and goal-directed rather than meaning-oriented and concerned with intrinsic satisfaction. Adults, Thomas says, value information in proportion to what they can do with it, rather than knowing for the sake of knowing. They also structure their personal relationships and hobbies around hoped-for economic benefits. Just this last week a study was released that showed that social drinkers earned more than non-drinkers, all other factors being equal. The study suggested that joining co-workers at cocktail parties and social functions is an important aspect of networking and has career track ramifications. Now you even socialize to get ahead. That is the cult of adulthood.

Thomas describes in his book his vision of an “eldertopia” in which old age is not considered an appendage to human life or society. In his vision, the presence of elders is essential to and completes a vision of society. Elders offer warmth, wisdom, and stewardship to communities and society. They keep in check an out-of-control world.

Thomas also describes some ingenuous innovations, like the Green House concept. The Green House is a third way, beyond the dualistic thinking that holds two options available to older people, either independent living in your own home or institutionalization in a retirement center or nursing home. Green Houses represent a third way: intentional communities of older people living together interdependently, where they take active control of their care. I’m informed by some of our residents at Lakeview that they are experimenting with the Green House concept.

On Saturday, September 30th we will be holding a new type of event at SMUUCh. The Committee on Ministry is sponsoring a “shared ministry luncheon.” It will be brown-bag. This pro-active luncheon will focus on an aspect of the shared ministry of this congregation. “Shared Ministry” is the concept that the ministries that this church offers are too grand to be accomplished by one person. Our first shared ministry luncheon will focus on “caring for one another.” We will come together to see how we are or are not succeeding. We will come together to identify what needs and opportunities there are, and to think creatively about how we might better care for one another. I hope you will come and join me on Saturday, September 30th.

I want to end by re-invoking the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson. At first reading, his poem “Terminus” seems to be an example of “declinist” thinking. “Take in sail.” “Accept the terms.” “Economize the failing river.” But, I think that our old Unitarian bard is saying something different. His message is one of separating the essential from the inessential. “There isn’t time for this and that.” His trimming himself to the winds of time, his reefing of the sail is not to quit sailing, but it is to focus energies and attention – to obey the same voice at eve as at prime. I like this image. Any of you who have had to pare down your possessions; any of you who have had to choose priorities; any of you who have had to focus and decide what is important now and what is not as important, probably understand these poetic words of Emerson’s. And there is a grace, I think, in this. A wisdom.

In these few minutes this morning, I hope what I have done is started a conversation. My words are not intended to silence discussion, but to begin it, to invite sharing. I hope it will lead those with greater wisdom than I to speak out and the rest of us to see in a new way and listen with a wider mind. I hope we will talk, after the service, in two weeks, in all time to come.

The late William Sloane Coffin wrote about aging, “There is a Zen paradox whereby we may lack everything yet want for nothing. The reason is that peace, that is deep inner peace, comes not with meeting our desires but in releasing ourselves from their power. I find, in aging, such peace is increasingly mine. It’s not that I feel I’m withdrawing from the world, only that I am present in a different way. I’m less intentional than “attentional”. I’m more and more attentive to family, friends, and nature’s beauty. Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more often serene, grateful for God’s gift of life. Albert Camus said that ‘to grow old is to replace passion with compassion.’ And, so, for the compassions that fail me not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, ‘I can no other answer make than thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.’”

And my thanks to all of you for your support, compassion, wisdom, and mostly for your trust. Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sermon: "The Importance of Being Welcoming" (Delivered 9-10-06)

Epigraph
"If indeed we love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, and strength, we are going to have to stretch our hearts, open our minds, and strengthen our souls, whether our years are three score and ten or not yet twenty. God cannot lodge in a narrow mind. God cannot lodge in a small heart. To accomodate God, they must be palatial." William Sloane Coffin

Reading and Commentary
This past week I had been looking for a reading to go with this morning’s sermon. I decided to select a passage from the Bible, but which one? My topic was welcome, invitation, and hospitality, and I considered the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son. Then I remembered the passage in Matthew about a king throwing a wedding banquet. I looked it up and it was awful. So I chose it. I consulted with a friend of mine who attends a quite moderate Christian Church, asking her if her church has ever taken up this passage. She told me her church doesn’t take on difficult passages from scripture. Next, I wrote to a liberal Christian minister across town and asked him, “If you were preaching on Matthew 22, what would you say?” He replied, “I avoid that passage like the plague. Seriously.”

The reading this morning is not intended to give you inspiration. In fact, the material is troubling and loathsome, rather than heartening and sublime. To understand it, you may wish to consider that many people make the mistake of thinking a passage of the Bible is prescriptive, when it is really just being descriptive. I think this passage should be read this way, not as saying how things ought to be, but rather how things tend to be.

So, without further ado, Matthew 22:1-13:

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen, and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But the invited guests made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while others seized his slaves, mistreating them, and killed them. The King was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”


Sermon
The kingdom of heaven is like this?!? The reading may be a little odd and certainly disturbing, but the message of the sermon is straightforward, simple, basic, fundamental, elemental, foundational. The message is this: that being welcoming, being inviting is not just a good thing. Without it, all the other good you do is not as good. Being welcoming and inviting is the indication – it is the proof – of the condition of your heart. It is the test of your soul.

Being hospitable, inviting, and welcoming is not just some abstract, perennial, universal religious virtue – it is also something that our church has explicitly taken as our central mission. “To invite everyone into caring community.” The invitation is primary. The other parts of our core mission – inspiration and involvement – would be less if we bypassed the original invitation, if we skipped over the welcome. That’s because being welcoming is not just a good thing. Without it, all the other good you do is not as good. Being welcoming and inviting are the proof of the condition of your heart and the test of your soul.

And now for the bad news. To some degree we all fall short in this business of invitation. Now of course, most of us don’t fail as badly as the king throwing a wedding banquet. Let me count the ways: First he invites many guests to his wedding banquet. But, let’s face it. He doesn’t seem to be friends with a good crowd. Not only do his friends make excuses, they kill his servants! As retaliation, the king proceeds to destroy their city. Having killed off all his friends, the king decides to turn over a new leaf. He casts a broad, generous invitation, and then, when they arrive, the King finds some of his guests undesirable and wanting, so he has them removed and cast out.

The traditional interpretation of this passage is that God is highly selective. It reads the passage allegorically, where the King is God, the groom is Jesus, the good guests are those who accept Jesus, and the bad guests are those who reject Jesus. Many are called; few are chosen. The proverbial narrow gate. But I’m not sure this interpretation stands the test.

To Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven did not mean a foreign place that you needed a special VIP ticket to enter. Jesus might as well have invented the phrase, “You can’t get there from here.” Because for Jesus there was no there, there’s only here and you are here. The Kingdom of Heaven is all around you. You hold the ticket. We just fail to accept the invitation that is ever before us.

Now our everyday inhospitalities are not as severe as the King’s, but the welcoming business is hard work. The narrow gate of which Jesus spoke is really only as narrow as we make our own hearts.

And if I might follow this line of thought for just a few more moments, I might say that the interpretation of God as this highly selective person doesn’t make a lot of sense. If there is a God, clearly that God has got to be more welcoming than I have the capacity to be. If this were the not the case, then that would make me more welcoming than God is. And that would in turn make God no God at all. If there is a God, clearly that God has got to be more welcoming than I have the capacity to be, not less.

A classmate of mine from seminary became an Associate Minister at an Episcopalian Church in Boston. The title of her position: “Minister of Radical Welcome.” That is the best job title ever! (But the title of her position is not “God of Radical Welcome” because God’s welcome ever exceeds the capacity of our own imperfect, less-than-fully radical, welcome. But we’re working on getting better.)

I want to talk about a few examples of welcoming. The first that comes to mind is the Welcoming Congregation program within our own Unitarian Universalist Association. This program focuses on helping congregations to become more informed and more welcoming to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. For the past twenty months, we have had a Welcoming Congregation team that has put together a survey, workshops, classes and a forum. The board voted to endorse the process. There will be a congregational vote for our congregation to be recognized as a Welcoming Congregation on October 15.

The Welcoming Congregation program has existed in our faith since the early nineties. There are only a measly 1,000 UU congregations in the United States, but over 500 of them are Welcoming Congregations. When I say that, you may wonder why only 500? You need to take into consideration that in our movement, the median church is only one hundred and twenty members. (We’re two and a half times the size of the median UU church.) That means that there are hundreds of tiny UU congregations with only a few dozen members. As you may guess, it is difficult for a congregation of a few dozen members to put together a Welcoming Congregation committee. Of UU Churches 500 members and more, over 80% are Welcoming Congregations. The same can be said for congregations closer to our size of which about the same percentage are Welcoming Congregations. [Here is a story from the UU World magazine.]

If you grouped all five-hundred plus of the welcoming congregations together and all four-hundred something of the ones that have not been through the Welcoming Congregation process together and you compared the two groups in the most general way possible you would find that the Welcoming Congregations tend to thrive, tend to be future-oriented, tend to have visibility and impact in their communities, tend to look beyond themselves, tend to be leaders in our UU movement, and tend towards health and creative vitality.

On the other hand, these words would describe (in the most general of ways and there are exceptions) congregations that aren’t Welcoming Congregations: declining, struggling, impotent, conflicted, unhealthy, inwardly-focused, difficulty retaining clergy, invisible in their community, failing, and dying.

Now, I am not saying that there is a cause and effect relationship here. If anything, I would say that it is the opposite: that healthy, thriving, visible, future-oriented, successful, clergy-retaining, and vital congregations are more likely to successfully go through the welcoming congregation process. But that just confirms what I said: Being welcoming is an indication of the condition of your heart. It is a test of your soul.

This has been the case not only for our Unitarian Universalist movement. It has been the case for our nation. From the Puritans – who sent Quakers to the gallows, accused witches to the stake, Anne Hutchinson to the wilderness and Roger Williams to Rhode Island – to slavery and the civil war, to the civil rights movement, to the internment of Japanese in concentration camps, to the women’s rights movement, to the marriage equality movement, to the current issues of immigration and citizenship, welcoming and the idea of how broad an invitation to full participation and humanity is extended to each person in society have been questions that have gone to the very fabric of our national identity. It has been a test of our very heart and soul. Invitation lifts all boats. The wider the invitation, the better our nation. As I have said before, it is no coincidence that health and welcome go together. They’re interconnected.

You may have wondered, as I wondered when talking with my friend across town who is a minister of a liberal Christian congregation, why I didn’t pick a safe parable about welcome, invitation, and hospitality. The Good Samaritan… now there is hospitality. The Prodigal Son… welcome home, the invitation is yours. But these stories are awfully convenient, perhaps even cliché. After all, these stories portray the outsider as down-trodden, needy, even immoral. Either a victim or a lost soul who has given in to vice and bad choices. These parables make the other person, the one receiving the invitation, a charity case, a recipient of our own gracious benevolence. But welcome doesn’t really work that way. For one thing, often it is the one holding the power to invite (the Church, the club, the government, the institution) that has been guilty of sin.

Marge Piercy writes in her poem, “The Low Road”, that,

Alone, you can fight…
but they roll over you…
Two people can keep each other
sane, can give support…
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge. With four
you can play bridge and start
an organization. With six
you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds, and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say “We”
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.

Without welcome, what are we left with? “Alone, they roll over you.” Marge Piercy’s poem inverts our normal conception of welcome and invitation, from being something we do for someone else’s benefit and something we, the insiders, can choose to do or not to. This she turns upside down telling us that being inviting is what moves us from aloneness, powerlessness, and self-pity to leverage and possibility. Piercy’s poem says that being welcoming and inviting is our great need. Being welcoming is the indication of the health of the condition of your heart. It is the proof of your soul.

It goes without saying that it would be wrong to take an overly idyllic view of welcome and invitation. Invitation does mean utopia or anarchy. Welcome is not the same as anything goes. Welcome does not guarantee that we will agree. It does not mean the absence of limits or boundaries. I think sometimes we become confused on this subject.

Perhaps we could rewrite the Marge Piercy poem, “With two you can have disagreement, with three you can triangulate and take sides, with four you can each have an advocate. With twelve you can have a hung jury. With one-hundred, a whole number disapproval percentage.”

I jest… probably the single best piece I’ve ever heard on the subject of welcoming was a sermon delivered at the last General Assembly by Gail Geisenhainer. (I also got the great Marge Piercy poem from this sermon.) In this sermon she details the risks she underwent to enter community, the breaking of community with a moment of ugliness, and the discovery, in the aftermath, of an even deeper community through covenant, engagement, refusal to dehumanize one another, and a spiritual discipline of remaining open in a way that doesn’t mean giving in or being inauthentic. Real welcome doesn’t remove our own agency. It places our own agency in a creative tension with others beyond ourselves, and in so doing, creates possibility.

Some people, even some of us who are Unitarian Universalists, tend to perpetuate the understanding that because we are such a broad faith, because we are so theologically diverse, because we are such a welcoming and inviting faith, we must be pretty vague and a bit shallow. A half-way home for the orphans of organized religion. A theological Triple-A for spiritual seekers. And this misunderstanding always bothers me a great deal. This always gets under my skin because my experience tells me the opposite: I have always felt that welcome and invitation are at the very core of what is necessary for spiritual depth and growth. I’ve always felt that broad theological engagement is at the very core of what is necessary for true wisdom. And, I’ve always felt that it is possible to be as theologically serious, as Biblically-literate, as spiritually developed, and as practiced in your faith here as anywhere.

If this is not the case, then that is a big problem. Plenty of religions have their own self-righteousness. A lot fewer have their own inferiority-complex. What is needed is a good medium that eschews both the self-righteousness and the inferiority complex.

I will end by reading a passage from Victoria Safford’s excellent meditation manual, Walking Towards Morning. [I only give you the out-line version here.]

The story involves John, a parishioner of Rev. Safford’s. John is an elderly man, fairly typical of a Unitarian in that he is extraordinarily involved in his community. John also attends church every single Sunday, always sitting in the first row because he is hard of hearing. Asked why he comes every single Sunday, John replies, “Someone might miss me if I wasn’t here.”

Safford describes that John is the epitome of welcoming, always helpful. He isn’t this way because he wants more friends (he has more than he can manage.) He isn’t some driven evangelist (in fact, he misses the small church his church once was.) He is welcoming because, well, because how else can one possibly be when guests are in your home?

On the Sunday after John’s memorial service a new family who never knew John and will never have the chance comes into the sanctuary and sits down in John’s seat as if they own the place. If he could have been there, John would have been delighted.

Indeed, welcome is foundational. It is the test of the condition of your heart. It is the proof of your soul.