Thursday, October 25, 2007

Check Out My Auction Items!

Our Annual Auction will be Saturday night, November 3. The Silent Auction kicks off at 5:30 (come early for the best deals) and the fun lasts throughout the evening. Here are the items that I will be offering:

The Minister in the Kitchen
Number of Spaces: 6
Date: April 2008

Take your life into your own hands as you join Rev. Thom at his Brookside Condo for a 100% home-cooked (Vegetarian) dinner. Thom is no Julia Child and he is certainly no Kristin Leathers. But, he will near-fearlessly don an apron and slave away in the kitchen for you. Nice wine will guarantee you get your money's worth. "Behold, I am doing a new thing." (Isaiah 43:19)
**Warning: Eating raw or undercooked meat or fish may cause food-borne illness. (Just kidding!)

Wholphin Independent Film Night
Number of Spaces: 100+
Date: February 3, 2008

Wholphin is a quarterly DVD magazine of rare and unseen short films published by McSweeney's. The short films range from the silly to the sublime, from the bizarre to the weird. We will gather in Fellowship Hall, enjoy popcorn and soft drinks, and watch selections from the best of Wholphin. Door prizes may include Wholphin merchandise and subscriptions. You've never seen film like this. Perfect for teens too! Go to the Wholphin web-site to preview some of the films.

Juggling Performance
Number of times offered: 1
Date: TBD

Thom the Minister will transform into Thom the Juggler and appear at a child's Birthday Party or other event of your choosing. Included in the performance: Five-ball juggling, flaming torches, machete juggling, and amazing feats of balance.

Juggling Lessons
Number of times offered: 2
Date: TBD

Do you know how to juggle but want to learn some new tricks? Have you always wanted to learn to juggle? I will offer two hours of juggling instruction. Lessons may be 1-on-1 or you may invite friends and make it a group lesson.

KC Brigade Tickets
Date: Spring 2008

Winning bidder will receive a voucher good for two tickets to any Kansas City Brigade (Arena Football League) home game. This year, the Brigade is playing in the brand new downtown Sprint Center. I hounded the good folks at the Brigade corporate office for these tickets, so come and bid for them.

You can find out more about the Auction here, or click here for the rest of the catalogue. See you November 3rd!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Gossip Column: Why is Thom going to Boston?

From Monday, October 29 through Friday, October 2 I will be in the Boston area meeting with the Executive Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Minister's Association. I was elected to the 10-member UUMA Exec. in June of 2006. I was definitely the junior member of the Exec. Here are my colleagues on the Exec., their role on the committee, and their years of experience in UU ministry as of 6/06.
Ken Sawyer (President) 36 years
Rob Eller-Isaacs (President-Elect) 31 years
Mary Katherine Morn (Vice-President) 18 years
Gail Geisenhainer (Treasurer) 10 years
Don Southworth (Secretary) 6 years
Susan Manker-Seale (Good Offices) 20 years
Randy Becker (Arrangements) 34 years
Jane Rzepka (Chapter Visits) 30 years
Joan Van Becelaere (Continuing Education) 6 years
Clyde Grubbs (Anti-Racism) 11 years
Thom Belote (Communications) 3 years
That is an average of 18.5 years in the ministry, and a median of 18 years. The current 2007-2008 Exec. consists of:
Rob Eller-Isaacs (President) 32 years
Sarah Lammert (Vice-President) 14 years
Gail Geisenhainer (Treasurer) 11 years
Don Southworth (Secretary) 7 years
Fred Muir (Good Offices) 32 years
Randy Becker (Arrangements) 35 years
Jane Rzepka (Chapter Visits) 31 years
Carol Huston (Continuing Education) 15 years
Hope Johnson (Anti-Racism) 5 years
Thom Belote (Communications) 4 years
That is an average of 18.5 years in the ministry, and a median of 14.5 years.

My portfolio on the Exec. is Publications / On-line Communications. My tasks include serving as the Executive Editor of our quarterly newsletter, managing the website (which we've hired a contractor to overhaul), and other duties related to communications and publications. One of my projects last year was to create an interactive blog for remembering deceased colleagues. I also am the liaison to our liaison to students, the UUMA volunteer who keeps in touch with students preparing for ministry.

I like to say that the UUMA is two parts professional organization and one part union. As a professional organization we set guidelines for professional conduct (and on occasion have to discipline colleagues who violate professional standards.) We also provide a variety of professional development opportunities and services aimed at promoting excellence in ministry and enhancing collegiality. Our other function is to represent the interests and concerns of the over 1,600 members of the UUMA in our movement as a whole. During our meetings in Boston, we will hold meetings with the UUA President (Rev. Bill Sinkford), UUA Moderator (Gini Courter, as well as members of the UUA Board and Staff and other leaders. This is the more political side of serving on the UUMA Exec.

That's what I'll be doing in Boston next week!

You can find more Gossip Column entries here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Gossip Column: A Minister's Mind on Sunday Morning

Two stories I've been told are true about two different ministers:

The first minister served a large and vibrant church that had to offer 3 services on Sunday morning (8:30, 10:00, and 11:30) to accomodate all who wanted to worship. In order to preserve her sanity, here is what she did: following the benediction, she asked the congregation to be seated for the postlude. During the postlude, she exited the sanctuary through a side door, walked an unfrequently traveled hallway to a private office, and locked herself inside until the beginning of the next service when she would enter during the prelude. It was possible to go an entire Sunday morning without speaking to a single member of her congregation.

The second minister served a congregation that had only a single service on Sunday morning. But this minister dreaded coffee hour. He exited after announcing the final hymn. According to legend, if the pianist left a pregnant pause between the end of the second verse and the beginning of the third verse (as it became the custom to do), worshippers could hear the minister starting his car and driving away.

I empathize with these ministers even if I don't duplicate their actions. Leading worship is physically and mentally exhausting and there is a lot on my mind.

Before the first service, here are some of the things that are on my mind: Is my water glass full? Are my papers in the right order? Are all my right props in their rightful places? Who asked me to make announcements and for whom am I supposed to light a candle? Has the lay reader or guest musician arrived? Are the microphones working and are they set to the correct volume? Is my tie on straight? Oh, and is my sermon any good... especially that seventh paragraph where I have some lingering sense that I could be communicating that idea better and maybe I should just skip that part and say something else instead.

After the first service, even more is racing through my mind. I have 25 minutes before I need to be ready for the next service. I need to eat a cookie and drink a little juice or coffee so I don't pass out. I need to refill my water glass and make a quick stop in the men's room. Papers need to be re-sorted, props re-set, and equipment re-checked. And, yes, that seventh paragraph was pretty bad, and what did I say at the first service again? Not to mention that the prayer could have been better, I need to remember not to announce the wrong hymn or skip the offering, and I need to nix that joke that didn't go ever well... even though it was a good joke, really it was.

Following the second service, I am just ready for a nap. Many Sunday afternoons are spent passed out on my couch.

Leading worship is not "performing" but it does require physical and mental stamina similar to someone playing a part in a play, delivering a speech, or giving a recital.

With that in mind, I try my best to have conversations with members and visitors on Sunday morning. But to be completely honest, it is tough and I know I fail to be my most attentive self at times.

(There is a tradition in African-American churches where several deacons surround the minister after the service and allow no more than ten seconds of interaction with any one person. I'll admit to being a bit envious of that tradition!)

If the service caused you to have an epiphany or reminded you of a story from your personal life, I would love to hear about it. If you write me an email, I promise to respond. Similarly, if you want to argue or discuss a point that came up in the service, I would love to engage with you. Write me an email and I promise to respond. This way I can promise to give you my fullest attention, which you deserve.

This is the paradox: the time of the week where I am most accessible to the congregation is also the time when, like the performer about to go on stage, I am most in need of "space" to prepare making me less accessible. I love to visit in the barn chapel and greet people in the foyer, but be forewarned: if you approach me with an idea that is complex or an issue that is complicated my brain is as likely to shut off as it is to engage to the fullest extent that your idea or issue deserves.

This holds true for pastoral issues that you hope to call to my attention. It is very helpful for me if you would write me a note and stick it in my pocket. Otherwise I might visit the wrong person at the wrong hospital on the wrong day.

Rest assured, I am not going to hide out backstage until the curtain rises. I'm not going to peel out of the parking lot while the worship service is still taking place. This mini-essay is just to say a few of the things that I might have on my mind on Sunday morning. And remember, I want to hear from you not just on Sunday morning but throughout the week!

You can find other Gossip Column entries here.

The Gossip Column: The Skinnier Minister?

This, the first installation of the Gossip Column, actually deals with old news.

Back in August when I returned from my vacation a lot of folks at SMUUCh noticed that I looked different. Had I lost weight? Was I dieting? Was my health OK? Why did my suits look so baggy?

These observations were valid. I had lost a lot of weight - around 25 pounds, to be a bit more exact. Here is the skinny on how I became the skinnier minister.

It wasn't intentional. In the middle of June I got sick with acute abdominal discomfort, distress, and pain. This lasted almost a month during which I lost 25lbs. From the time I got sick until after I began feeling better I was under the care of excellent doctors, including my great primary care physician and a couple of consulting gastro-specialists. All in all, it was a pretty miserable month and my short vacation in San Francisco and trip to General Assembly in Portland, Oregon were not much fun at all. I guess on the positive side I can say that I learned a lot more about gastro-intestinal medicine than I knew previously.

So, what was the final diagnosis? Uncertain. Although I did go through a battery of tests that ruled out all the big, bad conditions (which all begin with the letter "C"): Cancer, Colitis, Crohns, and Celiac.

Towards the end of July, all my symptoms went away entirely. I am in fine health and I'm doing some things to make sure I stay that way. I've altered my diet and am eating healthier. I've also been making it to the gym at least four times each week. I've even been attending the twice-weekly "ripped abs" class at the gym.

I feel great for which I am deeply thankful. I'm not so thankful that I am having to assemble an all new wardrobe because I'm swimming in my old clothes. But, then again, I could have a lot worse to complain about.

You can find out more about the Gossip Column here.

Introducing the GOSSIP Column

Do you want the juiciest Church gossip? Looking for confirmation of rumors or tantalizing information that's not your business? Well, you're not going to find it here!

A couple of months ago I had the idea of publishing a column on my blog that would contain information that just didn't fit well with the other communication avenues available to me. I had ideas I wanted to share and information I wanted to disseminate, but these ideas and this information wouldn't work well in a sermon or newsletter column.

Rest assured, you won't find any gossip here: just my writing about facets of ministry and church life that I haven't had a means of sharing widely... until now.

Below you'll find the Gossip Column archives:

Rev. Thom's Endorsement for President

Will Thom Sing? (11/30/07)

Why is Rev. Thom Going to the South? (11/6/07)

Why is Rev. Thom going to Boston? (10/24/07)

A Minister's Mind on Sunday Morning (10/23/07)

The Skinnier Minister? (10/23/07)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sermon: "Six Degrees of Covenant (and Kevin Bacon)" (Delivered 10-21-07)

The reading this morning comes from a text that dates back almost 360 years, called “The Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline.” What the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are to the United States, the Cambridge Platform is to American Congregationalist churches, many of which later became Unitarian churches. Yes, the reading is boring and tedious. So, let me give you just a flavor of the 15th chapter, which deals with the “Communion of Churches One With Another.”
“Although churches be distinct, and therefore may not be confounded one with another, and equal, and therefore have not dominion one over another; yet all the churches ought to preserve church communion one with another, because they are all united unto Christ, not only as a mystical, but as a political head; whence is derived a communion suitable thereunto.

“The communion of churches is exercised sundry ways.

“[First] By way of mutual care in taking thought for one another’s welfare.

“[Second] By way of consultation one with another, when we have occasion to require the judgment and counsel of other churches, touching any person or cause, wherewith they may be better acquainted than ourselves. […] In which case, when any church wants light or peace among themselves it is a way of communion of the churches, according to the Word, to meet together by their elders and other messengers in a Synod to consider and argue the points in doubt or difference; and, having found out the way of truth and peace, to commend the same by their letters and messengers to the churches whom the same may concern. But if a church be rent with divisions among themselves, or lie under any open scandal, and yet refuse to consult with other churches for healing or removing of the same, it is matter of just offense, both to the Lord Jesus and to other churches, as betraying too much want of mercy and faithfulness, not to seek to bind up the breaches and wounds of the church and brethren; and therefore the state of such a church calls aloud upon other churches to exercise a fuller act of brotherly communion, to wit, by way of admonition.

“A third way, then, of communion of churches, is by way of admonition; to wit, in case any public offense be found in a church, which they either discern not, or are slow in proceeding to use the means for the removing and healing of. […] In which case, if the church that lies under offense, does not hearken to the church which does admonish her, the church is to acquaint other neighbor churches with that offense, which the offending church still lies under, together with their neglect of the brotherly admonition given unto them. Whereupon those other churches are to join in seconding the admonition formerly given; and if still the offending church continue in obstinacy and impenitency, they may forbear communion with them, and are to proceed to make use of the help of a Synod or counsel of neighbor churches, walking orderly (if a greater cannot conveniently be had) for their conviction.

“A fourth way of communion with churches, is by way of participation; the members of one church occasionally coming unto another, we willingly admit them […].

“A fifth way of church communion is by way of recommendation, when a member of one church has occasion to reside in another church; if but for a season, we commend him to their watchful fellowship by letters of recommendation. […]

“A sixth way of church communion, is in case of need to minister relief and succor one unto another, either of able members to furnish them with officers, or of outward support to the necessities of poorer churches, as did the churches of the Gentiles contribute liberally to the poor saints at Jerusalem.”
[You can find the full text of the 15th chapter and the rest of the Platform here.]

Movie Clip
For each sermon in the series on “Covenant in Liberal Religion” I begin by showing a clip from a popular film. For this sermon, I chose to show a clip from Footloose. In this film, a young rebel played by Kevin Bacon arrives in a ultra-strict Midwestern town that has outlawed dancing and popular music. The scene I showed begins in a locker room. Bacon tells one of his classmates that if he is going to be brave and go before the town council, his friend is going to have to learn to dance. What follows is a scene set to the song “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” by Deniece Williams in which Bacon instructs his rhythm-challenged friend in the finest of 80’s-style dance moves.

Give me a break! It isn’t easy to find a movie clip that exemplifies the principles of the Cambridge Platform of 1648.

As hard to believe as it may be, this is the fourth sermon in my series on Covenant in Liberal Religion. The series began in July with a definition of covenant. A covenant was defined as a series of important and enduring promises made amongst a group of people. Within a covenant these promises are taken seriously and they are hard promises to keep. Covenant expects that inevitably we will all fail from time to time to live up to the high and commanding promises we make, but that we will re-enter into those promises when they are broken.

In the second and third sermons in this series I spoke about the covenants we make as individual members of a church and also about the covenant within community to encourage each other to spiritual growth.

Now, as we begin the second half of this sermon series, the focus changes from the covenants we participate in as individuals to the covenants that exist between groups of people. Next month, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I am going to preach on the idea of social compact or social covenant, an idea first articulated by the Pilgrims when they wrote the Mayflower Compact. But today, I’m going to speak about the relationships that exist between churches, and the covenant between churches as described by the Cambridge Platform.

So, what are we to do with this old document that tells our church community that we are supposed to be in covenant in six ways with other Unitarian Universalist churches? Those six ways are: care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation, and ministerial relief.

My colleague in Massachusetts, Hank Peirce, points out that often the help the churches gave to each other was less than exemplary. Old history books of colonial New England include accounts of “church raisings” where towns would band together to help construct a meetinghouse. One account reads: “When the Medford people built their second meeting-house, they provided for the workmen and bystanders, five barrels of rum, one barrel of good brown sugar, a box of fine lemons, and two loaves of [bread.] As a natural consequence, two thirds of the frame fell, and many were injured. In Northampton, in 1738, ten gallons of rum were bought for £8 ‘to raise the meeting-house’ – and the village doctor got ‘£3 for setting the bone of Jonathan Strong, and £3 10s. for setting Ebenezer Burt's thy’ which had somehow, through the rum or the raising, both gotten broken.”

So, what exactly are we to do with this? We are all busy people doing the best we can, on our own spiritual journeys, coming to religious community – this religious community – seeking some co-travelers and some inspiration for the journey. But, at the same time, it is good to find out a little bit more about where we’ve come from, why we are, and some of the old forgotten ways that we don’t really think about much any more.

So, I want to tell you about some of the ways we do (and some of the ways we don’t) embody these principles set forward in the Cambridge Platform. Our Music Director, Dave Simmons, has been a key-organizer of the I-70 choir, where the respective choirs of Lawrence, Manhattan, and SMUUCh will merge to perform concerts this Fall. They are playing here at SMUUCh this coming Saturday evening and in Lawrence in mid-November. This counts as participation, and not only that – it is participation done the best way, in a way that is mutual, and mutually supportive.

The following weekend, we will be visited by a brand new minister from Maine who serves a congregation of a little less than 200 members. She looked around the country and identified us as a model congregation for the growth and change she hopes to facilitate in her church in the coming years. This is consultation.

The weekend after that, I will be visiting the 700-member Eno River Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina as their guest minister for an entire weekend.. They’ve asked me to consult with to help them think about ways to attract and involve young adults to their congregation.

And, from college students moving away to those members who’ve moved, I have sent emails, made phone calls, and helped our departing members to find welcome in other UU congregations across the United States. Most recently, I’ve helped a family to get connected with the UU community in Pennsylvania where they are in the process of moving. This is an example of recommendation.

But, we do less well at others of the six ways. Fortunately, we have not recently had much need to offer or receive minister relief, but I have a great example of this. When the Virginia Tech shootings happened in Blacksburg, Virginia, the minister of the Blacksburg UU congregation was on sabbatical and out of the country. Upon hearing about the shootings, UU ministers from distances up to four hours away headed there to offer care and crisis counseling to UUs in Blacksburg, many of whom work for the University.

But one of the six on the list is puzzling: Admonition. I’ve never attended a board meeting where there was discussion on the agenda about whether or not to admonish another UU church for something it was doing or not doing. I think we should do this just to practice being covenantal. Our Board President will be taking suggestions for churches we can admonish. (Just kidding.)

So, those are the six degrees of communion between churches as enumerated within the Cambridge Platform. This ties in to my movie clip in kind of a forced and unnatural way. (We’ve all heard of six degrees of separation. Well, a couple of years ago someone pointed out that if we are all separated by no more than six links, we are all six degrees from the actor Kevin Bacon.)

In the movie Footloose, young and rebellious Kevin Bacon arrives in an isolated, fundamentalist Midwestern town, which he turns upside down by introducing them to pop music and teaching them to dance. It’s hardly what the writers of the Cambridge Platform had in mind, but throughout the movie we find multiple examples of care, participation, admonition, and – especially in the cheesy scene we watched – consultation. Let’s hear it for the boy!

This is very much a stretch but perhaps on some greater level Footloose warns us against the dangers of isolation, parochialism, and sectarianism. In covenant, in community, in connection with those outside ourselves we learn to dance (and maybe better than they danced in the 80’s.)

If I’ve accomplished what I set out to accomplish in the first part of this sermon, you will have your minds tuned in to a few ideas: That in our tradition we have this document called the Cambridge Platform. That one part of it calls us to be in covenant with other churches. That the covenant includes fairly gentle ways of relating like caring, supporting, and participating as well as more intense and difficult ways like consulting and even admonishing.

But, let’s get away from the history lesson (and away from Kevin Bacon, thankfully.)

What I want to do is abruptly switch tracks and take the message in a bit of a different direction. I want to reference a man named Clifford Geertz, one of the most influential anthropologists of the twentieth century. Geertz wrote about complex, academic topics in exciting, gripping ways.

One story Geertz told was of a tribal village in Java where inside one of the villager’s huts there appeared one day a large, oddly shaped toadstool that grew immensely in the span of just a few days. Not much happens in Javanese villages and soon the giant toadstool was the talk of the village and all of the neighboring villages, with people coming to gawk at it and to try to explain this unusual occurrence.

When a lot of people discover a church like ours – a church that dares to put on heart-wrenching exhibits about the cost of war, like we are showing this morning in the barn chapel; a church that shows cutting edge documentary films on current issues; a church that publicly and gladly affirms it is welcoming to Gay and Lesbian and Bisexual and Transgender people; a church where its members conceive of God in many different and creative ways and includes members who do not possess a belief in God – when a lot of people a church like ours they are amazed, thinking we must be like some kind of unusual toadstool that just rose up one day out of the ground on 87th Street.

We did not just rise up out of the ground like an unusually large and peculiar toadstool. We are a product (directly) of Unitarians in Kansas City, Missouri who had a vision of extending liberal religion into Johnson County. But we are here historically because of a tradition stretching back to the earliest days of our country. And I suppose, if there is a lesson to be taken from this morning, it should be this:

We are a part of a religious movement that came long, long before us – and more than that – has told us that we become our best when we are in covenantal relationship with other churches, when we practice care, consultation, admonishment, participation, recommendation, and relief. Our religious homes are not supposed to be like unusual, isolated toadstools, but are connected in covenant. May it be so.

Quarterlife Quorum's Zombie Outing

On 10/20, Don, Elizabeth, Randy, and Rev. Thom from the Quarterlife Quorum went to go see a live theatrical version of Night of the Living Dead at the Coterie Theater.

As you can see, I'm the only one who dressed as a zombie! (Rev. Thom = Zombie. Don = Not a Zombie.)

Here is a picture of me with a couple of Zombies from the cast!

The Quarterlife Quorum is a group for folks in their 20's and early 30's. As a group we go to social activities and participate in social action projects. To find out more, send me an email: minister [at] smuuchurch [dot] org

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sermon: "Gandhi's Experiments with Truth" (Delivered 10-7-07)

[In preparation for this sermon I read The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas edited by Louis Fischer and with a preface by Eknath Easwaran. This book is a redacted version with commentary of Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of my Experiments with Truth. Bracketed numbers below refers to pages in The Essential Gandhi.]

By the year 1757, India lived under colonial rule. However, the colonial ruler was not in actuality a political nation or an occupying army. Rather, India dwelled under the rule of a corporate entity – The British East India Company. This company exercised tremendous power. It had the power to raise armies, create laws, and establish government in the form of “puppet regimes.” And while wielding this power, the British East India Company methodically transferred vast amounts of India’s material wealth into its own hands. India’s economy was raped. Natural resources were depleted. Villages were forced to grow crops for export rather than local use. These agricultural changes would eventually cause the death by starvation of 20 million Indians in the 19th century. By any historical comparison, “the fortunes made by the British were simply staggering.” [x-xi]

Under the rule of the British East India Company, there were various rebellions that attempted to drive the colonial forces out. Such insurrections were quashed mercilessly, and were punished with severe reprisals. Usually these rebellions were uncoordinated. India was a fractured nation, divided by religion and caste. British rule was accomplished easily because Indian Muslims could be turned against Indian Hindu’s. They could be manipulated into killing one another. Eventually, the rebellions grew in strength and the official military might of Great Britain was summoned in 1857 to establish official domination over their crown jewel. [xi]

And so it is with all occupations! We see this today in Iraq, with opportunists like Bechtel, Halliburton, and Blackwater seizing the fortunes of Iraq while double-dipping and getting our tax dollars to pay them to do so. In Iraq, we see a nation weakened by its inner divisions. So long as Shiites hate Sunnis and Sunnis hate Shiites and both hate the Kurds, and so long as terrorist groups see this as an opportunity to foment instability by targeting those who would try to bring unity, the occupation can continue, largely unchallenged. And, as in India 150 years earlier, the widespread consequences of occupation are disease and malnutrition for the populace at large. The human cost of occupation is staggering.

It was into such a climate that Mohandas Gandhi was born in 1869. Gandhi was born into an upper-middle caste family, was sent to be educated in law in England, and accepted a position practicing law in another part of the expansive British Empire: South Africa. Gandhi’s first day in South Africa would forever change the course of his life to follow. Arrangements had been made for Gandhi to travel in a first-class sleeper car on a train from Durban to Pretoria. However, mid-journey, he was told that he would have to go to the third class car on account of his skin color. Gandhi wrapped his arms around the armrest and it required several police officers and train agents to pry him loose. Following this event that Rosa Parks would reprise sixty years later, Gandhi spent the cold night on the station platform.

That night on the station platform would prove to be similar to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, or Martin Luther King’s kitchen table conversion, or Buddha’s enlightenment, or Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. Gandhi dedicated his life to the end of oppression for his people. Gandhi was 24, the same age that Dr. King would be when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and for the next twenty years Gandhi worked to reform South Africa.

This morning I am not going to re-tell the story of Gandhi’s life. You are probably familiar with at least some of the episodes of his amazing life. Instead, I am going to present several of Gandhi’s principles that I believe to be worthy of our consideration. My choice of Gandhi this morning coincides perfectly with a number of current events. Last Tuesday, October 2nd, was Gandhi’s Birthday, observed as a national holiday in India as “Gandhi Jayanti”, much the same way we set aside Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday. The United Nations also proclaims each October 2nd to be International Non-Violence Day. Gandhi’s teachings continue to live on this week, as on the other side of the world we witness the human rights violations and atrocities in Myanmar where killings, torture, and mass detention are employed by the military dictatorship of that country to suppress pro-Democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.

Gandhi’s teachings also continue to live on right here in our community as tonight our church hosts the first public meeting of Julia’s Voice, mothers and others against the war, as they mobilize to confront violence that they see as unjustifiable.

It is worthwhile to hold up the chain of the great thinkers in non-violence that influenced the world for the better part of the last two centuries. The chain begins with Unitarian Henry David Thoreau who wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience” about his night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to a government that promoted slavery and wars of territorial expansion. Thoreau’s essay would reach Leo Tolstoy in Russia, who infused Thoreau’s teachings with spirituality. Tolstoy’s book, The Kingdom of God is Within You, was read by Gandhi in South Africa when it was among the books given to him by Christian missionaries who were trying to convert him. These teachings informed Gandhi’s own philosophy of non-violent, civil resistance which he called Satyagraha, literally, “The force which is born of truth and love.” [xxiv] Gandhi’s life would then serve as an example to Martin Luther King, and the civil rights movement in our country.

Gandhi’s principle of Satyagraha can be thought synonymous to many other terms, both secular and religious: non-violence, civil disobedience, civil resistance, as well as soul-force. But it is not so important to define it, because it was a principle that was unfixed, and constantly being modified, tested, and revised. It was under-development.

Gandhi chose to title his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I love that term, “Experiments with truth.” I think this phrase would be particularly welcome to Unitarian Universalists, who see faith as something evolving. For Gandhi, the practice of Satyagraha, the force born of truth and love, was constantly evolving. For him, the task of liberating India was a form of spiritual warfare in which it was taken for granted that he would have to continuously develop, refine, and experiment with truth.

All his life, Gandhi was an experimenter. As a child, he attended a British school and was told that one of the reasons the Indian race was inferior to the Anglo race was their vegetarianism. In secret Gandhi began to eat meat during his teen years to see whether what he was told was true. [11-12]

In India Gandhi founded an Ashram, a spiritual community, committed to developing the spiritual practice of Satyagraha. People visited seeking advice. There is a story of a woman in a far-off village whose child was too fond of sweets. She decided to travel to Gandhi to have him instruct the child to stop eating sweets. Gandhi met with the woman and her son and told them to come back in several weeks. After several weeks had passed, the woman and her son returned and Gandhi told the child “stop eating so many sweets.” At this point the mother became irritated. “Why couldn’t you have just told him this week’s ago. Why did you make us travel all the way here a second time?” Gandhi replied that before he instructed the boy to give up sweets he needed to see for himself whether it was possible.

According to Eknath Easwaran, a student of Gandhi’s, two basic principles informed Gandhi’s non-violence resistance. [xxiv] The first of these principles was that oppression hurts the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Race prejudice degrades both whites and non-whites alike. Thus, knowing that the oppressor is suffering requires us to have compassion for the oppressor. And the victory we seek in ending oppression does not result in winners and losers, but rather in both sides feeling nobler at the end.

In South Africa, one of Gandhi’s major victories was in over-turning a government law that would require all Indians in South Africa to carry special identification permits. (There was, at this time, more Indians than whites living in South Africa.) Gandhi organized a series of strikes and got Indians to either refuse to register or to burn their ID cards. The jails were flooded. Indians lined up to take their turn serving jail sentences for disobeying the law. Many served jail terms sequentially, leaving jail and immediately going to the police to turn themselves in for failure to comply. Meanwhile, Gandhi organized farms and other forms of collective sharing to assist those families who struggled without income. And, perhaps most impressively, Gandhi encouraged his followers to show no ill will to those Indians who elected not to participate in the strike, who obediently registered themselves and crossed picket lines. The law only works if the people choose to abide by it.

Decades after this victory was achieved in South Africa, many of the British officials who were charged with carrying out the registration policies stayed in contact with Gandhi and treated him with respect and admiration. [98]

The second important principle underlying Gandhi’s teachings was to embrace voluntary suffering. According to Eknath Easwaran, “Gandhi discovered that reason is ultimately impotent to change the heart. Race prejudice was already causing suffering; the task of [Gandhi’s method] was to make that suffering visible. Then, sooner or later, opposition had to turn to sympathy, because deep in everyone, however hidden, is embedded an awareness of our common humanity.” [xxiv]

For Gandhi, such voluntary suffering meant accepting beatings and other acts of violence. It meant accepting imprisonment. It meant hunger fasts. And it meant giving up all manner of worldly goods.

His own willingness to take on voluntary suffering was crucial, because his non-violence resistance depended on all of his fellow citizens doing likewise. He cast off his own clothes, electing a simple homespun loincloth over dependence upon British clothing. He symbolically harvested his own salt, refusing to buy allow the British to profit from the sale of India’s resources. As he pointed out, there was no way one hundred thousand British could keep domination and rule over three-hundred million Indians unless the three-hundred million consented.

These were lessons the Civil Rights movement would emulate in order to successfully abolish Jim Crow. Non-violence, voluntary suffering, and unity in the cause. Sadly, these are also the lessons that I believe could have been used effectively to achieve victory over oppressive forces in the world today. Had the Palestinians taken the road of disciplined non-violent civil-disobedience, would the world not recognize their humanity and identify with their cause? In Myanmar we may be seeing the end of a brutal and repressive regime. In Iran, it is my hope that the progressive underground youth movement does not resort to violence in order to oppose a ruler who seems to court the apocalyptic destruction of his own country. I believe Gandhi’s teachings on non-violence are still viable today on whatever scale: local, national, or international.

Let me conclude with one last comment on the life and teachings of Gandhi. The success he had in liberating an entire nation depended upon his ability to bring together people of different faiths and classes. He frequently would say, “I am not only a Hindu; I am a Moslem, a Christian, and a Jew.” His Ashram accepted persons of all castes, including untouchables. Gandhi referred to the untouchable class as the Harijan, the favored children of God.

There is an amazing story that exemplifies Gandhi’s commitment to human unity. The story goes that he is at his simple dwelling one day, when, among the throngs who come to him for advice, there comes a Hindu man. The man explains to Gandhi that he is wracked by guilt. His son, he tells Gandhi, had been killed by a Muslim. In anger, the Hindu man went and killed a Muslim man, thus leaving the child of that man fatherless. Gandhi listened compassionately as this man confess his anger and shame. Finally he spoke and addressed the Hindu man and said, “Here is what you must do. You must find the Muslim child whose father you killed. You must raise him as your own son. But, that is not all. You must raise him to be a Muslim.”

Spending the past weeks reading Gandhi’s autobiography has been a joy, a true spiritual experience. I thank you for the gift you give me to explore and discover such inspiration. I pray that as you conduct your own experiments with truth, you discover a soul force within yourself that is born both of truth and of love.

Shared Sermon: "Artifacts from Religious Education" (Delivered 9-30-07)

[This service was co-led by Sara Sautter, SMUUCh's Director of Religious Education, and I.]

Opening Words by Sara Sautter, Lead Archeologist
Today, as your lead archeologist, I would like to welcome you to our SMUUCh Archeological Dig: Exploring the Church Basement. My archeological colleague Thom Belote and I have assembled here for you this morning several artifacts exhumed from the depths of the church basement. These artifacts hold the stories of the thousands (yes I said thousands) of children and youth who have passed through our subterranean classroom hallways. These artifacts, some old, some new, some silly, some sacred, are windows into religious education and its vast importance to our faith.

Some of our SMUUCh children, now grown, like Kristin Leathers have come back to our religious education program with their own children. Others, like Brandon Jacobs are now teaching in our religious education program. Still other lifelong Unitarians are part of our adult religious education program. That’s because the story of our spiritual search does not end when childhood does. Our own personal Unitarian Universalist search is a lifelong one.

So in a moment, we will don our virtual pith helmets and armed with our virtual shovels and delicate brushes we will tenderly sweep aside the dust and dirt that may have settled on our treasures and look together at these artifacts from our basement. We will explore religious education and the stories they tell us…

And after we explore some artifacts here in Fellowship Hall we invite you down to the actual archeological dig where you can see first hand the many treasures of Religious education. Among them, our actual children and some real and actual teachers! Indeed, if you wish to drink from the sacred Urn of Caffeine, you will need to come to the basement – cuz that’s where the coffee hour is this Sunday!

Artifact #1: “Banner” – Rev. Thom
As you descend down the stairs into the children’s religious education level, you pass a banner that declares a bold slogan. This slogan is as powerful for what it proclaims as for what it does not proclaim. It does not say, in the words of The Gospel of John 8:32 “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” It doesn’t say, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” And, no it does not utter Dante’s famous warning “Abandon Hope all Ye Who Enter Here.”

The banner simply says, “Never stop asking why.”

For someone who grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, and perhaps for our children, it is easy to take a slogan like this for granted. But I am reminded of those adults in this congregation who I have met in the class for those exploring membership, or in my office, or in another UU class who tell stories that are often eerily similar. These adults tell the story of their first falling out with organized religion, and the story goes, “I asked my Sunday school teacher ‘why?’ and she told me not to ask ‘why.’” Or, “I asked my Catholic school teacher ‘why?’ and was told not to ask ‘why?’” Or, “I asked my minister ‘why?’ and he said, ‘You just need to have faith.’”

But, here in our church, we pass a banner that declares “Never stop asking why!”

This can, of course, be difficult advice. Many small children go through a “why?” phase. “Why is the sky blue?” “Why is Grandpa’s nose so big?” “Why do I have to eat my broccoli?” Why can’t I have candy bars for breakfast?”

Asking why can pay dividends as we grow. “Why do children in Ethiopia not have enough to eat?” “Why does this ethnic group hate that ethnic group?” “Why am I treated differently because I am a girl?”

We also hope that children will internalize these whys, asking them not only of other peoples’ faiths, but more importantly of their own. In this way, questioning becomes reflexive. “Why do I believe what I believe?” “What has shaped my own faith?” “Why do I think the way that I do, and not some other why?”

Hooray for our banner! A great archeological discovery!

Artifact #2: “Weaving” – Sara Sautter
The artifact I will soon show you has hung in the hallway of the Clara Barton Wing for the past two years and was created in our Art Center by a class of nine year olds. The lesson was entitled “Weaving Our Lives Together”. The message of the lesson was to help the kids understand our third principle – acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations, or the children’s version which says, “We believe that our churches are places where all people are accepted, and where we keep on learning together.” The children were told the how these Navajo weavings always told a story. You can imagine how the weaver, one day thinking of her first child with eyes so soft and deep and brown that she wove with the deepest softest brown yarns she could find. And on another day, feeling the weight of the coming winter’s sky on her soul and wove with the coldest grey and stiffest thread she could find. And so the stories of the weaver’s thoughts, feelings and personality became the story of the weaving itself.

The children were then asked to share important things that had recently happened in their lives – a book recently read, a two wheel bicycle finally conquered, a new sister born. Then our children were given a pile of “stuff” – ribbons and beads and feathers and sticks, pipe cleaners, yarn and rolled up fabric. They were invited to find the threads or objects that most represented how them – strips of newspaper to symbolize the new skill of reading, a fuzzy brown yarn for the loss of a dog, a blue ribbon for the color of a baby sister’s eyes. Each child – one at a time – spoke their story and then wove a chosen item into the weaving. They spent some time weaving their lives together.

There are four more weavings just like this hanging on the wall in the Clara Barton Wing. This weaving represents the stories of a group of children one day in the winter of 2006. A group of children, who shared with each other, accepted, celebrated and mourned with each other. A group of children who formed a small – and very beautiful – little community.

Artifact #3: “Thoreau Plaque” – Rev. Thom
Before I arrived as the minister of SMUUCh, before many of you arrived as members of SMUUCh, the congregation was invited to name the classrooms downstairs. A list of dozens of Unitarians and Universalists was proposed and the members got to cast votes for their favorites. And the top finishers got their own rooms named after them. The rooms run from A to almost Z, from Louisa May Alcott, the feminist and author of little women, to Whitney Young, the African American civil rights leader.

There is an interesting method to the naming. For example, the newer and much more sterile wing that was added with the 1997 building expansion is named for Universalist Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross and one who dedicated much of her work to improving the sanitation of soldier’s conditions during the civil war. Meanwhile, the older wing which consists of refurbished animal stalls is named for Charles Darwin. If he hadn’t composed the Origin of Species aboard his boat The Beagle, he might have done so under the barn chapel.

The nursery is named, fittingly, for Beatrix Potter. The teen room is named, also fittingly, for the Universalist circus promoter P.T. Barnum. The congregation even saw it fit to name two of the rooms for men with no Unitarian connections whatsoever – Ben Franklin and Isaac Newton.

But, the artifact I want to show you is the plaque of Henry David Thoreau, a Unitarian naturalist, writer, and philosopher. (I originally planned to show the Susan B. Anthony plaque, but she was screwed in too tight.) Next week I will be preaching about Gandhi. Gandhi originally learned about the doctrines of non-violence from Leo Tolstoy. Leo Tolstoy learned about the idea of non-violent civil disobedience from Thoreau. And Gandhi would later inform Martin Luther King.

What a great thing it is that we should lift up so many of these strong, principled, brave women and (mostly) principled and brave men! What a way to reinforce for our children our hopes and dreams for them: That they could stand up injustice like Susan B. or Whitney Young, that they could work for the betterment of human kind like Clara Barton, that they could advance human knowledge like Darwin, or human liberty like Jefferson.

Artifact #4: “Buddha Statue” – Sara Sautter
Here sits Buddha! OK, he IS the happy jolly, fat Buddha that is probably less historically accurate but the version most beloved by children and by many adults. This jolly Buddha was used to help our children understand that Buddhism, along with many other great religions of the world, has many lessons to teach us as Unitarian Universalists. Indeed, as UUs we hold up “wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life” as one of our great sources.

Several years ago I wrote a curriculum called “A World of New Friends” which introduced our children to world religions by helping them meet virtual friends from most of the world’s larger religions. For the lesson on Buddhism, the children met an imaginary student named Sumalee whose family was from Thailand. Sumalee was actually a large doll and made by the children – a sort of scare crow girl with a paper sack for a head and wearing clothing stuffed with newspaper but, none the less, Sumlalee became the classroom star for the day.

As the classroom star, the children learned all about her as she showed her All About Me Poster for show and tell. Remember this? A time when YOU got to tell everyone in the class all about your self – your favorite foods, your pets, what sports you liked. When YOU were the classroom star you had an actual REASON to dominate the classroom for a very short time.

Anyway, Sumalee was our Classroom Star but instead of talking about her favorite foods and games, her Star Poster explained her religious traditions and favorite holidays. She explained that her name Sumalee meant beautiful flower and that her family was Buddhist. Her family’s religious tradition was to meditate every day. Sumalee explained that her favorite holiday was Vesak, a time when she would clean the family’s shrine, decorate the old fat Buddha and then bring flowers to her temple.

The lesson was in Sumalee’s name; it was in the flowers. These temporary flower offerings reminded Sumalee and her family that just as beautiful flowers wither away after a short while, so TOO is life both beautiful and temporary. On Vesak, Sumalee was reminded of the first of the three universal truths on Buddhism – that life is impermanent and always changing. Through the traditions of the holiday she was encouraged to understand the second universal truth – because nothing is permanent, a life based on possessing things or other people doesn’t make you happy. And next, the customs of the holiday helped her understand the final truth: that our “self” is simply a collection of constantly changing personal characteristics. Sumalee explained to the class how birds, insects and animals are released by the thousands as a symbolic act of giving freedom and of transience.

Is there a lesson for Unitarian Universalist youth here in the wisdom of our fat Buddha and in the stories of a scarecrow girl named Sumalee? As growing, changing children fitting into clothes one day and not the next, loving Teddies one day and discarding them the next perhaps they already understood the qualities of our changing selves better than we do.

Artifact #5: “Sauerbrei Chalice” – Rev. Thom
We have many chalices at SMUUCh. We have the one that sits in front of us, dedicated in honor of our 40th anniversary last May. We have the Anderson Memorial Chalice that we use on special occasions – like the memorial services for beloved members and other rites of passage. Our classrooms have chalices: from felt ones that the youngest get to Velcro a felt flame to, to children’s chalices made out of clay pots. We have chalices on our orders of service, some of us wear chalice jewelry, and I have a chalice tattoo.

But the chalice I want to show you here was created by Donna Sauerbrei, a member of our church with immense talents at pottery. I purchased this chalice at last year’s Auction – in a month you may be lucky enough to get your own! – and it has been used in our Adult Religious Classes, from our Exploring Membership class to my current class on Questions for the Religious Journey. Many families have their own chalices in their homes which they light before a family meal.

The chalice’s history and origins are a great story. The concept was developed for a purely utilitarian purpose – to look official on stationery when the Unitarian Service Committee (for whom we will be taking up a collection next month) was busy helping to rescue Jews and other enemies of Hitler from Nazi occupied Europe. Two years ago, service committee leaders Waitsill and Martha Sharp, both Unitarians, became only the second and third Americans honored by the State of Israel as “Righteous among the nations” for their human rights work during the Holocaust. The design combined Christian and Greek imagery – cross and flame – into a chalice. I like to say that the chalice symbolizes that the flame of truth, of passion, of justice, of compassion always needs to be held within the cup of community. Our own lights are delicate – and it is the church with its classes and teachers and groups and friendships that help us each to sustain those tender, precious flames.

Artifact #6: “The Machine” – Sara Sautter
This artifact is from our classroom for our youngest Unitarian Universalists – The Flower Garden. While these very tiny Unitarian Universalists are often too young to understand concepts like truth and wisdom, they are not too young to understand faith, belonging and the joy of wonder. And this artifact is a tool for producing awe and wonder.

Our 18-month olds learn trust and faith simply by having faith that when their parents drop them off that they will, indeed return for them! Now this lesson is easier on some days than on others. But after time when they are placed in our cheerful classroom attended by the same happy staff face each week – Susan Culey’s – they develop faith that their parents will return for them. Perhaps some Sundays a little less faith than others, but as time goes by the faith grows.

And these Flower Garden two year olds do learn to feel a part of something special as together they learn to make the letter U with their fingers, and together they sing the same song as a group and see special friends together each week.

This AA battery operated, 100% plastic, made in China machine is used to help our children experience awe. Yep – this little machine creates an awe inspiring wonder. The wonder of something that a three year old can dance under – an effluent cascade of delightful bubbles. Something that is here one moment and gone the next. Something that makes us smile. Behold our wonder machine!