Monday, March 31, 2008

Davidson vs. Goliath

After a wonderful Sunday at church yesterday (sermon will be on-line soon) I spent the afternoon relaxing and watching March Madness college basketball. Deb, our Director of Member Services, already had won our office pool, in which, I hasten to add, no money was at stake. My bracket was already busted. I had picked both Duke and Michigan State to make the Final Four. I admit that I picked these two schools because whenever I root against these teams, they play amazingly. Therefore, having no money at stake I decided to pick them in my bracket on the basis of avoiding them winning fickle victories against teams I would have otherwise selected. Duke got knocked out in the first weekend while Michigan State got trounced in their third-round loss to Memphis. (I actually thought Michigan State would use their experience and tenacity to knock off Memphis, which shows how little I know.)

Yesterday afternoon I managed to catch the second half of the Memphis-Texas game, in which the second best Big 12 team in the tournament got absolutely trounced by Memphis. This wasn't at all surprising. Texas relies on the marksmanship of a pair of undersized guards, D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams. Memphis contested every shot these two attempted and forced them to alter the trajectory of every single 3-pointer and fade-away jumper. Forced to attempt uncomfortable shots, the pair couldn't adjust. Game over.

Of course, all of this was just preparation for the afternoon's main event: Kansas vs. Davidson. Now in my fifth year in Kansas City, I am a KU rooter. However, there is always a soft-spot in my heart for the underdog. And, what an under-dog Davidson was! Located 20 miles North of Charlotte, Davidson is a small liberal-arts college with 1,700 students. Their team includes six international players from five countries including Canada, England, France, Turkey, and Nigeria. Their tallest players who log any time on the court are only 6'8". By contrast, KU features a pair of 6' 11" centers, 6'9" and 6'8" forwards, and a 6'6" guard.

Outsized, Davidson played a frenetic and physical game fearlessly taking the ball at KU. For 40 minutes they fought for every rebound, chased every loose ball, and threw their smaller bodies around with reckless abandon. And they nearly pulled it off. Down by two, Davidson elected not to foul on KU's final possession, confident that they could get a stop. They got the stop and got the ball back with 16 ticks left on the clock.

It was only in these final moments that the Davidson Wildcats looked like the team everyone expected them to be. They drew up their final play as if they felt like they didn't belong in the game: Burn time off the clock. Get KU to commit to double-team their best player above the arc. Feed the ball to their far inferior second-best shooter and let him launch a deep 3-pointer. Hope and pray for a miracle. The rock from Davidson's sling-shot missed the eye of the basket, clanking harmlessly off the right cheek of the backboard.

Unfortunately, Davidson hoped for luck rather than playing with the confident tenacity they had displayed all afternoon. They should have played to tie and designed a play where they drove the lane with plenty of time for a second shot, a tip-in, or even a kick-out to an open shot from beyond the arc.

Best of luck to KU in the Final Four! Bring the National Championship back to Kansas!

[One final thought: Only a minister would think this, but wouldn't it be more appropriate for a small, selective liberal arts school to name themselves after David's son rather than to name themselves Davidson? After all, Solomon is the Biblical figure most regarded for wisdom. I propose they change their name to Solomon College.]

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sermon: "Bodily Renewal" (Delivered 3-23-08)

Reading: John 20: 24-28
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’”

Sermon
Happy Easter! I know that our gathered congregation this morning contains many who are new to the Unitarian Universalist tradition as well as many who are long time experts. But I want to begin by inviting you to take out your hymnals and opening them to one of the cover pages that contains the UU Principles and Purposes. This page has two sections, a top section with the seven UU Principles and then a lower section containing the six sources. (If you have a really old version of the hymnal, yours will contain only five sources. The sixth source – “spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions” – was added in 1995.)

Over the years I have noticed that people consider these sources differently. For some they are a buffet, or a menu. It is a list of things we can choose from. “Give me a large order of Humanist teachings with a side of Prophetic deeds of women and men. Hold the direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, please.” For others, though, the list is more like a recipe. Our faith is supposed to contain all six ingredients. Although we may differ in how to balance all the textures and spices, we realize that to do away with any of the six is like trying to bake a chocolate cake without chocolate or flour or baking powder.

The first time I ever quoted the Bible from this pulpit, I introduced the text apologetically and with a bit of trepidation. After the service, a member of the church approached me and scolded me. “Don’t be afraid to say what you want to say. Don’t apologize for quoting the Bible.” This is not an apology. The cake this morning will be heavy on the Bible and I know you are wise enough to translate the message into your own terms.

As it so happens, the conclusion, the main point, and the climax of this Easter message happened not two-thousand years ago but a little over a week ago. We know the story of the Good Samaritan. The story of the Good Samaritan contains the central ethical commandment of the Jewish and Christian traditions. The parable of the Good Samaritan is the Golden Rule transformed into a story.

Well, a little over a week ago in Seattle, the Good Samaritan got trumped. This true story involves a barista, a person who makes coffee drinks at a Starbucks coffee shop. This barista had a regular customer who came in every day and ordered coffee. One day, the regular customer came in looking distressed and dejected. The barista asked what was wrong. The customer explained to her that she was suffering from kidney disease and would die if she did not get a kidney transplant, but did not have a match. The barista said, “I will give you my kidney. Let’s see if we are a match.” It turned out that she was a perfect match and she donated her kidney to her customer. The Good Samaritan only gave the guy his coat.

Last Fall I discussed possible themes for a springtime sermon series with the worship committee. They suggested that I preach a series on the theme of renewal. So I brainstormed. One sermon, I thought, could be about the renewal of relationships, how broken relationships can be healed. A second sermon could be about community renewal, about how communities rebuild after devastation – communities like Greensburg, Kansas or New Orleans. Communities like Virginia Tech or Northern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A third sermon, I decided, could be about emotional renewal. How do we rediscover love in the face of indifference, hope in the face of cynicism, joy in the presence of grief?

Renewal is a theme so apropos of the Spring time, this season of calving and hatching, of bud and bloom and spray. Samuel Longfellow wrote of the Spring with these immortal words that we will sing at the end of the service. He wrote, “Oh life that maketh all things new, the blooming earth, our thoughts within, our pilgrim feet wet with thy dew, in gladness hither come again.”

But, then a fourth topic for this series of sermons on renewal came to mind: bodily renewal. I looked at my Spring preaching calendar. I did the math. One of these four would have to be my Easter sermon. So, Easter could be about relationship renewal, community renewal, emotional renewal, or bodily renewal. The choice made itself.

In a Christian church, this choice would be absolutely obvious. But, the story of the resurrection it is far from the obvious choice for those of us who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists. Many Unitarian Univeralists tend to avoid the idea of resurrection entirely, and if we do consider it, it is in a severely metaphorical sense. And, had I decided to make the Easter story a story of relationships, emotions, or community, the metaphor would have been absolutely fine as well as valid Biblical interpretation.

The Easter story as it is told in the Gospels is a story of renewal in all these metaphorical senses. To understand this, all you need to do is simply put yourself in the shoes of the disciples and try to experience the story as they might have experienced it. The Easter story is a story about the disciples losing their relationship with their guide, their teacher, their beloved “Rebbe” Jesus. And it is about the renewal of that relationship when Jesus returns. The Easter story is also about the emotions of the disciples. The story tells of their fear, their numbness, and their grief. It is also a story of guilt, about Peter’s cowardice and his feeling of shame for betraying Jesus three times. The Easter story is about their emotional healing, how they grow beyond fear, grief, and shame. And, most certainly, the death of Jesus on the cross is about the destruction of community. Following the crucifixion the disciples scatter, just as the twelve tribes of Israel scattered into Diaspora following the destruction of the first Jewish temple. And, with Jesus’ reappearance, the community of the disciples that had been torn asunder, could come together once more. Each of these metaphors is true, as true as art is true, as true as poetry is true, as true as love is true.

But, I want to go deeper. I want to get down into the nitty-gritty of the Biblical scriptures, because there has always been something more to this story for me, making it more than a story of emotional, relational, or community renewal. And this something more is found in that text I read earlier. John 20:27. “Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here; look at my hands. Reach your hand here and put it into my side.’”

Being named Thomas, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with this passage. I identify with Thomas. Like him, I will not believe until I see it for myself. Therefore, I am not too keen on the way Thomas is rebuked at the end of this passage.

For those of with some experience when it comes to Biblical interpretation, it is not hard to interpret this passage safely. We can easily interpret this passage as an instruction about how to have faith. After Thomas touches Jesus, Jesus remarks, “Happy are those who have faith without seeing.” Within such an interpretive framework, the passage makes sense. It is an instruction about how to have faith without actually meeting Jesus in the flesh, without actually witnessing a miracle. This type of faith was important to instruct, no doubt, considering John’s Gospel was written at least seventy years after Jesus’ death by people who had never met Jesus and also, I would expect, found it important to believe without seeing.

I want to do something very, very Unitarian and offer you an unconventional interpretation of this text. But, I also want to do something very, very un-Unitarian and take this text more literally. You see, what has always been challenging to me about this passage is its insistence on the body, its sheer physicality. The text is extremely insistent on the resurrection being not just an emotional resurrection or a relational resurrection or a community resurrection or a spiritual resurrection. It is a bodily resurrection. And, I think we do not want to be too quick to dismiss this. I want to maintain a good relationship with the scripture and not discount the degree to which the body is primary in the story.

It should be pointed out that all the Gospel accounts are very focused on the body. Healings abound: of lepers, of the crippled, of the blind. This somatic, bodily focus is not surprising. For one thing, the Platonic dualisms that would separate mind from body and spirit from matter had not yet fully worked there way into Christianity at the time the Gospels were written. For another thing, the resurrection of the body was a perfectly acceptable part of the Jewish faith, the Jewish faith that Jesus was born into and lived out to his fullest understanding of it. And Jesus’ resurrection isn’t singular in any sense of the imagination. Lazarus is resurrected in the eleventh chapter of John. The other three gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) each depict the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter.

It would require a Biblical scholar more advanced than I to give a full account of how the body was regarded in Hellenic Jewish culture, two millennia ago and half a world away. I can only say that the body was something very, very important. (And I can only bore you for so long with this textual analysis.)

So, instead of two millennia ago and half a world away, let me end by offering a few reflections on bodily renewal right here and right now. I believe bodily renewal exists all around us. Where? For one thing, it exists in the most amazing, astounding, and ingenious workings of surgeons and doctors. In modern medicine we see the dying rise to live again. The hair of the chemotherapy patient returns. The soldier who returns from Iraq an amputee is fitted for a prosthetic arm or leg. Defibrilators bring people back from the dead. This morning we took up a collection to bring medical care – to bring life – to women and babies in Haiti. This morning we have blessed and abetted bodily renewal. We have participated in resurrection.

Medicine may be the most obvious place to look, but it is far from the only place. In Florida and Arizona this month the precision of the batting eye and the pinpoint control of the pitcher return to form again, as they do each year. The person training for a 5K or a marathon runs further and faster each day.

I could go on and on with examples like these. I could talk about the stroke victim regaining the ability to speak. I could talk about the athlete who returns from a brutal injury. And these examples may seem to us, well, they may seem to us to be ordinary and secular and, well, far less miraculous than Jesus healing the diseased and the lame and certainly less miraculous than the resurrection on the third day. Maybe so, maybe so. Or, maybe appearances can be deceiving. Maybe renewals, hundreds of little resurrections, happen all around us every day and we have just decided to call them medicine, rehabilitation, and exercise rather than miracle.

But, then again, every so often a story comes along like the story of that barista in Seattle. Jesus said, “Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood.” In Seattle she said, “I will give you my kidney.” And yes, the story is a bit chicken soup-ish. And yes, in our modern, rational, scientific culture this type of thing does not have the mystery that we find in the Biblical accounts. But why shouldn’t they? Just as today’s sun and rain will green the world once more, bodily renewals and resurrections do happen, if only we would have the eyes to see them.

I know many of your resurrections: renewed relationships, renewed community, emotional renewal, spiritual renewal, and, yes, bodily renewal. I have seen some of you face chronic disease with grace, wisdom, and courage. I have seen you recover from surgeries. I have held your babies in hospital rooms. I have also seen selfless acts of compassion and generosity. I cannot regard these as anything less than the miracles that they are, than the miracles that you are. Thank you and amen.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Empty Taxi

On December 5, 2002 an Afghani taxi driver named Dilawar was brought to the Bagram prison in Afghanistan. Five days later, he was dead. He died from complications from beatings to his lower extremities. The medical examiner concluded that even if he had lived, both legs would have required amputation. His death was ruled a homicide.

How did Dilawar end up at Bagram? He was accused of transporting militants who had launched a rocket attack at an American base in Afghanistan. However, he was turned over to US custody by an Afghani militia group that was faking its support for the United States and actually kidnapping Afghani civilians and turning them over to the US armed forces on bogus charges in exchange for pay. The Afghani militia then used this money to purchase weapons with which it attacked US soldiers. (It is claimed that fewer than 10% of those in the War on Terror detained by the United States were actually captured by US soldiers or law enforcement agencies.)

More than two years later the low-ranking servicemen on duty at the time of Dilawar’s death were court-martialed. The officers who ran the Bagram prison had been transferred earlier to oversee the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Taxi to the Dark Side won the Academy Award this year for Best Documentary. I went to see it at the Tivoli Theater on Friday, March 14. Taxi was directed by Alex Gibney, who previously was nominated for Best Documentary for his film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Taxi begins with the story of Dilawar and then broadens to consider the practices of detention and interrogation at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo Bay. The movie includes photos and videos of torture at Abu Ghraib that were not previously available to the public.

When the prisoner abuse scandals surfaced, the US Government and the Pentagon blamed these incidents on “a few bad apples.” Yet, Taxi to the Dark Side presents evidence that all of the abuses of prisoners were linked and were carried out following official policy. The movie argues that as you move up the chain of command, each more senior official carries greater responsibility and accountability. I found it absolutely convincing.

This documentary was made as the dying request of Gibney’s father, a WWII veteran and Navy interrogator who lost faith in his country after learning of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram. The movie is a punch in the soul. In its most graphic and chilling moments you cannot help but to avert your eyes.

And, when I did avert my eyes my soul was crushed even more deeply. I was sitting in a theater with only a dozen other people. I wonder how many people will bother to see this film. I have to believe it will be far less than one percent of the population of our country. That is a damn shame! In my heart of hearts I do not believe that this is a film about right or left, but about right and wrong. I believe it is a basic civic duty, a responsibility of citizenship, to attempt to be informed about the policies of our government and whether these policies uphold the basic principles of our Constitution. Alex Gibney is a great American for making this film. I am a better American for having seen it.

[On one final note, there is a theological question about human nature that this film raises. Gibney's film about Enron raises very similar questions. The question is: are we all, at our core, bad apples? I plan to ask this question in a future sermon.]

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sermon: "Brave UU Women of the Midwest" (Delivered 3-16-2008)

Reading
The reading this morning comes from a sermon preached in 1999 by The Reverend Ken Sawyer. Rev. Sawyer will be our visiting distinguished guest minister the last weekend in April. He is the minister of the church in which I grew up where he has served for the past 34 years. He delivered this sermon at the ordination of Rebecca Cohen, who had been the intern in Wayland. This sermon was covered by the New York Times because at the moment of her ordination a tipping point was reached. At the moment she was ordained, the Unitarian Universalist ministry was exactly half men and half women. I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing his words slightly, but you can read the original sermon here.
“[In the early 1800’s, t]he church was a female bailiwick. And many of those church women had what these days people are calling ministries, bringing soup and solace to shut-ins, providing financial and other aid to the needy, raising money and raising Cain for good causes within the larger society.

“But they still had men for ministers, in every case. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson could decide to be a Unitarian minister, then he could decide he'd rather not be. But for Margaret Fuller, his intellectual cohort, there was no such choice available. Imagine if there had been, imagine if she'd gone into the ministry, imagine if she'd liked it and stayed – and I admit, you have to stretch your imagination a bit – but imagine the religious power she might have brought but couldn't.

“Let me offer another case in point. The most distinguished resident of our little town was the nineteenth-century author, editor, and activist, Lydia Maria Child. She was a very popular novelist in her early twenties, back in the 1820s, at which time she founded the country's first magazine for children; in 1834 she authored one of the earliest and strongest attacks on slavery in a very controversial book; she was a lifelong activist, first in the cause of abolition and then in the cause of the fair treatment of former slaves; during the Civil War, she organized the women of Wayland to sew bandages for wounded Union soldiers; she wrote a history of the treatment of women, a multi-volume introduction to world religions, and many other books; she was aid and comfort to her neighbors in times of their distress...

“Think of it: this brilliant woman, with a passion for justice, a talent for words, an eagerness for organizing, a devotion to learning, a deep interest in matters religious, and an open-minded questing for a life of the spirit -- among the positions for which she could not hope to compete, having been born in 1802 and having been born a woman, was that of minister. No, that was what her brother, Convers Francis, was [and he did a good job at it.]

“And maybe she would not have wanted the job. But she could have had the freedom to decide. By the time she died in 1880, women were starting to make inroads into our ministry, Universalist and Unitarian alike, long before most other denominations. And here we are today, with equality at hand. Praise be.”

Sermon
In 1999, Unitarian Universalism achieved numerical gender equality in the ministry. Since then the numbers have continued to tilt towards the side of women. Today about seventy-percent of ministers graduating from our seminaries are women.

Our denomination is not the only one to see an influx of women. This has been the trend for all the Mainline Christian churches: the UCC and Disciples, the Presbyterians and Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians. This has also been the case for the Reform Jews. Unlike the Unitarian Universalists, women do not come even close to fifty percent in any of those other faith traditions. As Unitarian Universalists, we are ahead of the curve.

The Universalists were the first American denomination to recognize an ordained woman when they recognized the Reverend Olympia Brown in 1863. Antoinette Brown Blackwell was ordained by her congregational church a decade earlier, but the ordination wasn’t recognized by her denomination due to a technicality. She had finished her course of study in Divinity at Oberlin but was refused a diploma on the grounds that the school did not give diplomas to women. Even though Universalists and Unitarians have been ordaining women since 1863, it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that women began to fill pulpits in any significant number. In the late 1970’s our General Assembly passed a series of resolutions encouraging women to become ministers. Within 20 years, half of all ministers were women, and now way more than half.

It is important to recognize that numerical equality doesn’t mean actual equality. Just as in the business world, women bump up against the glass ceiling, in the church world they run into a stained glass ceiling. Concerning women ministers in mainline Christian congregations, Brian McClaren writes,
“Women [ministers] have often been sent in as hospice workers to care for moribund and dying congregations, a tendency that only reinforces stereotypes about women as caretakers, not leaders, and makes work satisfaction, much less professional success, a pretty dim hope.”
Bringing what McClaren writes home, a few weeks ago I attended a luncheon sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women in which panelists representing the Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths spoke about their respective views of the afterlife. It was telling to me that the Muslim and Hindu women had no title, and that the Catholic woman was a teacher at a local school. Only the Jewish representative was ordained. She is an “Associate Rabbi” at a large synagogue where a man is the head Rabbi. (If my memory serves me correctly, women have been eligible to hold the position of Rabbi in Judaism for about forty years.)

I cannot speak authoritatively for the Hindu and Muslim traditions, but the Catholic speaker, by virtue of her gender, would be ineligible to hold a number of positions, namely Priest, Bishop, Arch-Bishop, Cardinal, and Pope. Maybe she wouldn’t want any of those positions. But, for her it is not a choice.

It should not be surprising that we Unitarian Univeralists are ahead of the curve in breaking down the stained glass ceiling. Women serve in the senior leadership role in two of the five largest pulpits in our movement. Rev. Laurel Hallman is the early favorite to become the next President of our movement. (This does not mean that there still isn’t work to be done.)

But, this morning, I want to take us back in time to the late 1800’s, and to the Midwest, where there arose an amazing movement of women’s religious leadership that endured for about a generation. This movement is chronicled in a book by Cynthia Grant Tucker entitled, Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier. [This book is available in our church library.] It deals with what Unitarianism was like in our area of the country a little over a century ago.

A little over a century ago, our movement basically ignored this area of the country. For Unitarians, Boston was the hub of the universe. Those with ideas that were too radical for the Boston establishment came here – well, not here exactly. (Unitarianism in Kansas City was quite conservative and the minister in Lawrence decried Unitarian churches for doing away with creeds and moving away from church-y architecture. My, how times have changed!)

So, those with radical and new ideas came sort of near here. They came to Iowa. The Western Unitarian Conference, presided over by Jenkin Lloyd Jones, advanced ideas like religious cooperation and that the church should function as a “sociological” institution. This differed from the Eastern Unitarians who tended toward theological precision and emphasized academic thought. The Western Unitarian Conference also was open to women’s leadership and ordination. Pulpits in the Midwest were difficult to fill and even harder to fill adequately. I groaned as Dr. Tucker described the revolving door of new Harvard graduates – all men – who came West with a stack of course papers they tried to pass off as sermons and who failed the test of ministry in short order.

When a homegrown, charismatic preacher named Mary Safford stepped into a pulpit in Iowa and succeeded fantastically, women’s religious leadership bloomed. The movement would produce a sisterhood of about 20 female ministers who, for the most part, served Unitarian churches in Iowa before spreading out across the United States. They were nicknamed the “Iowa Sisterhood.” They not only served established churches but also founded dozens of churches in small towns across Iowa. To be sure they filled pulpits nobody else much wanted, were pitifully paid, and were not given recognition by the Boston boys club. But, for a time they presided over spectacularly successful churches in cities and towns across the Midwest.

This movement sprang up like a weed and seemed to flame out just as quickly. With the turn of the 20th Century, a number of factors combined to push these women out of the parishes. Following the Civil War, American Protestants imagined a very feminine Jesus, perhaps seeking solace and healing from that deeply painful chapter of American life. Around this time, Jesus was often depicted with soft, round, feminine features and often the hint of a bosom. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a cult of manhood emerged. We elected Theodore Roosevelt to office. During this period, Jesus was often pictured as a scrappy prize-fighter. But the culture at large cannot was far from the only factor to blame. There were many factors within Unitarianism that pushed these women out of the ministry. For one thing, they hit a stained glass ceiling. Despite growing thriving and vital congregations and attracting throngs to their churches, their opportunities for career advancement were severely limited.

Unable to move up, they moved on. They defected from churches to found and lead a variety of social ministries. And, the leadership skills these women honed in Parish leadership – public speaking, organizing, fundraising, leadership – translated seamlessly into these social ministries where they quickly climbed the ranks. These social movements included following in the footsteps of Jane Addams and founding settlement houses in urban slums. One member of the Iowa sisterhood pioneered what she called “municipal ministry” and became one of America’s first health inspectors where she battled for sanitation legislation. Others became involved in issues of war and peace, organizing against war with the Philippines and in support of the soldiers who fought in World War I.

Finally, many of them became deeply involved in the cause of women’s suffrage, first propagating tracts and giving speeches and then taking to the streets in direct action. When women first won the right to vote in Iowa, it was common for the election offices to hide the ballot boxes in out-of-the-way places in order to disenfranchise women voters. One story recalls a precinct in Des Moines that hid their polling place in a woodshed behind a coal pile. The suffragettes showed up with shovels, dug a trench through the coal pile, and discovered a whiskey bottle in the woodshed. According to the account, the women then had a good time smashing the bottle with their shovels in an alley.

I did not mean to make this sermon a book report. Nor did I mean to make it into a term paper on the history of the Unitarian clergy. So today, in the exact center and the very mid-point of women’s history month, what lessons ought we to take away from the examples of Mary Safford, Eleanor Gordon, Caroline Bartlett Crane, and the rest of the Iowa Sisterhood?

One thing we ought to take away is a sense of pride for our heritage. The liberal churches are famous for being ahead of the times and leading the way in addressing important social issues decades and sometimes centuries before other faith groups. And Unitarians and Universalists have been on the leading edge of the liberal churches. This is not to say that it has always been smooth sailing, or that we have engaged in these struggles with any kind of perfection or purity, or that there weren’t plenty of villains who are also our ancestral brothers and sisters.

Concerning their legacy, Cynthia Grant Tucker writes, “The record of these prophetic sisters serves to remind us that, even where there is much to mourn in our past, there may be much to celebrate also, for where women have cast their lives in the terms that they and not others have set for them, their stories of struggle will speak to us of inspiring human achievement and bravery.”

And it is that last word of Tucker’s that really grabs me: “bravery!” I can’t help but think that of all our virtues that we might claim for ourselves as UUs, virtues like reason, acceptance, freedom, open-mindedness, commitment to justice… I can’t help but think that “bravery” is a word we would not normally select to describe ourselves. It is a shame that we don’t think of our own tradition as brave more often.

It took bravery for the Iowa Sisterhood to choose ministry because that choice did not exist until they chose it for themselves. It took bravery for them to fight with Boston for recognition and collegiality. It took bravery for them to testify before legislative bodies, to march, and later to go to jail for the right to vote.

Cynthia Grant Tuckers states that the essence of the bravery of these women had to do with the way they, “cast their lives in terms that they and not others have set for them.” If that line perfectly describes these women it also describes the life of a man nineteen centuries earlier, a man that just about every Christian church in the world is worshipping this morning in the middle of March as we celebrate Women’s History Month.

Just as Jesus pushed the boundaries of Judaism while at the same time staying true to the principles that were at the core of his Jewish faith, so too did the Iowa Sisterhood push the boundaries of Unitarianism even as they remained true to the principles at the core of Unitarianism.

Just as Jesus’ message and ministry was expansive, encompassing many, so too did the message and ministry of the Iowa Sisterhood speak to many.

And, just as Jesus rode into Jerusalem determined to live on his own terms, and not the terms proscribed by Caesar, and just as he would not accept the tyranny of custom when that custom was oppressive and mean, so too did our brave Unitarian ancestors defy the customs that oppressed, that shackled the spirit, that enslaved women and men alike.

What bravery it took for them to proclaim, “No, my life will not be coerced. I will determine my own life.”

What bravery was necessary for them to say, “No, my faith will not be coerced. My faith will be free.”

It was the very essence of courage for them to say, “My life will be my own and my faith will be my own and I will go to whatever lengths it takes – to jailhouse or poorhouse, to the gallows and to the gates of Hell, defying every power and principality, everything high or low, everything human or angelic, to make this freedom of the human spirit available to everyone.” Praise be, indeed!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Uncle Thom

My brand new niece: Sofia Renée. Born 2/25/08 to my sister Mayra and her husband Kevin who live in New Jersey. I will visit later in the Spring.


[I am assured by my parents that this actually is my niece, despite the date given by the digital camera...]

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Sermon: "I Have a Spiritual Life... Now What?" (Delivered 3-2-08)

It was the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus who playfully observed, “The fox has many tricks, the hedgehog only one – one very good one.”

It is always a bit contrived and artificial to divide the world into two types of people. But, I’ve always thought about those who engage in spiritual practices in such starkly dualistic terms. First, there are the foxes. They are the ones who know many tricks. They journey from practice to practice. They try yoga. They experiment with prayer. They join groups then leave groups, hither and thither. They are always open to different traditions, always keeping an eye out for new tricks. Then, there are the hedgehogs. They’re committed to a singular, steady, regular practice in which they continue to deepen and grow more skillful.

Such is life, with this constant tension between breadth and depth. Generalization and specialization. Broad waters can carry you to distant shores. Deep wells can bring you to the mysteries of the fathoms. How does that song we sing go? “Roots hold me close; wings set me free.” Good morning foxes. Good morning hedgehogs.

This morning is the third and last sermon in a three part series on Spiritual Practice. The first sermon, delivered in mid-January considered the impediments and barriers that keep us from engaging in spiritual practice. Two weeks later, I preached on gratitude as a spiritual practice particularly well-suited to Unitarian Universalists and challenged the entire congregation to participate in a daily practice of gratitude during the 29 days of February.

I am a little disappointed that more people didn’t leave comments about their gratitude practices on my web-site, so I have no idea how many people accepted my challenge. At the same time I was extremely heartened by the number of emails and passing comments I received by people who were engaging in gratitude practices, either every day or sporadically, during the month. My parents even played along at home! If you missed it for some reason, the good news is that there is no rule that gratitude can only be practiced in February. You can use the resources on my blog and try out the month of gratitude whenever you want.

This morning I want to do three things. I want to offer some closure to these experiments in gratitude. I want to say a little bit more about spiritual practice generally, realizing that it is such an extensive and expansive subject that there will always be more that is left unsaid than said. And finally, I want to talk about the future, but not the future of this church or the future of Unitarian Universalism or even the future of our country or the planet. I want to talk about the future of those who have developed a regular spiritual practice. So now what? Now that you have a spiritual life, what do you do with it?

During the month of gratitude I learned several things. My greatest learning happened not on the days when I dutifully performed the prescribed practice of the day, but on the days I got too busy or distracted and forgot. I learned that battling a head cold causes you to put aside your gratitude practice. So does being called for jury duty. This is not surprising. All spiritual practices have to do with mindfulness. They have to do with how we walk through this world, whether we pass our days attentively and with awareness, or oblivious, pre-occupied, troubled, or indifferent.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister before he became an essayist. Emerson’s first sermon was also one of his most famous. All of his sermons, as was the custom in the days he lived, were based on Biblical texts and the sermon to which I refer was an exploration of Saint Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonains 5:17) Emerson invited his listeners, literally, to pray without ceasing, that is to live every moment of every day as an act of prayer.

It may be startling to think of those early Unitarians as the prayer freaks that they were, but for Emerson, as it would later be for Thoreau, there was an emphasis on developing a constant mindfulness that would imbue every waking moment, making our daily lives a constant communion with divinity. “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?”

The month of gratitude had a similar though less totalizing intention: the idea of cultivating thankfulness for a variety of different things throughout the course of our days.

It seems that this month of gratitude and focus on spiritual practice was well-timed. On the minister’s on-line chat, there was a great discussion on one facet of spiritual practice in particular. And, the cover article of the newsletter of the Church of the Larger Fellowship was written by Janne and Rob Eller-Issacs, the co-ministers of our Unitarian Universalist congregation in St. Paul, Minnesota, and colleagues of mine whom I deeply respect and quote so frequently that you might get sick of it. Their cover article was about their respective daily spiritual practices, which they perform with hedgehog-like consistency but are, in fact, foxy admixtures of yoga, martial arts, walking, journaling, the recitation of poetry from memory, and holding other people in care in their thoughts. Whew! For its honesty and power I found Rob’s admission of what having a spiritual practice did for him each day. He writes, “Whenever I [did my spiritual practice], I was able to move through anxiety and rage, to let go of that immature sense of betrayal and live in the moment. Whenever I didn’t, I wasn’t. You wouldn’t want to be with me on days I didn’t…”

At the same time, a discussion about spiritual discipline was taking place on-line and one person referenced some words by the Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, the President of our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, California. In this passage, Parker quotes a member of the first church she served who gave a testimonial on his spiritual practice and the importance it played in his life. I am delighted to share this man’s words with you, because they are powerful, and deeply felt, and because they are about the spiritual practice of tithing. That morning in that church, Steve said the following about his spiritual practice:
“I first began to tithe because I was taught to obey the teachings of my church… I did it because I saw obedience as the heart of faithfulness. When I began to understand that obedience was not all that important and could even be evil, I continued to tithe because a different reason had come to me. The people I loved most and admired most – my parents, the leaders in my church, my minister – all tithed. I wanted to be like them so I modeled my life on theirs.

“But then I matured in my faith even more. I discovered I didn’t need to obey and I didn’t need to imitate. I could make my own decisions and my own choices. I choose to tithe because it tells the truth about who I am. If I did not, it would say that I was a person who had nothing to give, or that I had received nothing from life, or I didn’t matter to the larger society, or that my entire life’s meaning was solely in providing for my own needs. But, I believe I am a person who is the opposite of all those things. I am a person with something to give. I am a person who has received abundantly from life. I am a person whose presence matters in the world. I am a person whose life has meaning because I am connected to and care about many things larger than myself alone. If I did not tithe, I would lose track of these truths about who I am. This spiritual practice reminds me every day of who I am.” [I have slightly altered this passage, which can be found in Everyday Spiritual Practice, edited by Scott Alexander (p. 194-195) and Blessing the World by Rebecca Parker (p. 130-131)]
“My spiritual practice reminds me every day of who I am. It causes me to remember who I am.” That language really catches me. It stirs up something inside of me. It stirs up something for Rebecca Parker as well. For her the language is equally as powerful as it is for me. As a theologian and a cultural critic, Rebecca Parker calls this “endangered knowledge.” By this term, she means that there are all sorts of forces, especially in our culture, that cause us to forget who we really are. Television and media tell us things about ourselves that are not true. Culture encourages us to engage in habits that are not who we really are or who we are called to be. We are deceived and deceive ourselves. We are lied to and lie about who we really are. We need practices that remind us of who we are. She mentions keeping a Sabbath, a day set apart, and tithing as practices that remind us of who we are.

So, in her writings here, Rebecca Parker is talking about practices that reverse the cultural conditioning that obscures and obfuscates our true identities. Janne Eller-Isaacs strikes a similar chord when she writes that her spiritual practice helps her to understand that,

“Whatever we call it, we can agree that we human beings are destined to live surrounded by mystery: we possess just enough awareness to know that life is a great and frightening gift. It is our nature to be aware, to feel every day the failings and foolishness, the wonders and joys of being alive and being connected to one another.”

Her husband, Rob, testifies to what has happened in his life since he found his spiritual practice: “Every day [it] restores my sense of balance, opens my heart and aligns my life with those I love. It matters…” Again, Parker calls this “endangered knowledge” because of how easy it is to forget who we truly are.

I will admit that I had a slightly different reaction to reading all of this. I was struck by those words about remembering who I am. Honestly, those words took me a place that is quite a bit different. Upon reading Steve’s words about tithing, my mind immediately turned to a story about the famous sportscaster Howard Cosell. [I recall hearing this story told several years ago on a sports radio talk show.] There is a legendary story that once Howard Cosell had traveled to a city to announce a sporting event and afterwards went gallivanting out on the town with his colleagues in the broadcast media. Late at night, their limo crossed the tracks into a bad part of the city and they happened to pass a street fight taking place on the sidewalk. Cosell ordered the driver to stop the limo and got out. He walked towards the fight and began – in his one-of-a-kind voice – to announce the fight as it took place before him.
“We have before us on this humid evening a battle of two fierce competitors, engaging in a valiant battle of primal ferocity. In one corner we have a brawny, thick-bodied southpaw, an impressive specimen of strength and power. His adversary in this battle is a scrappy brawler giving fifty pounds in this contest. To the untrained eye, the brawny southpaw would have every advantage, but what he does not know is that he has a weak jaw and lacks the fortitude to absorb the blows he will receive.”
Reportedly, the fight came to a stop and the whole crowd of roughnecks turned and stared. Howard Cosell was calling their street fight. Later in the limo, one of Cosell’s colleagues was said to ask him, “You could have gotten yourself killed. Why did you do that?” To which Cosell was alleged to reply, “I know who I am.”

“I know who I am.” What a macho and egotistical thing to say! Yet, isn’t it sort of like what Steve said when he talked about tithing, what Rob and Janne said when the spoke of their spiritual disciplines, what Rebecca Parker meant by “endangered knowledge”, and maybe what Emerson meant by praying without ceasing, that is, to live with a constant knowledge of who you are, not forgetting it. Not that Howard Cosell is any great exemplar of virtue, but none of us are Howard Cosell either, thank goodness.

Assuming that you have found or will find a spiritual practice that brings you into the fullness of who you are and who are meant to me, what then? What next? Part of what comes next is nothing. You just keep at it. You continue your practice that helps you to function as who you are: your whole self, your best self, your true self. You practice to remind yourself of who you are, knowing that it may make you a better person than you really want to be.

Foxes: keep learning even more tricks from your adventures on this planet. Hedgehogs: as you curl into yourself and practice your one good trick, continue to love the depths. And those in-between, you dappled souls, you fox-hogs and hedge-foxes: do those broad-deep, disciplined-free things that you do so well.

And, as my colleague Rev. Kendra Ford would put it, “LIVE your life. Live YOUR life. Live your LIFE.” Live it in all the fullness of the knowledge of who and whose you are. Shalom. Blessed Be. Amen.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Bread Mystery

A heartfelt and fond "Thank You" to the person who left a loaf of home-baked bread outside my office door this morning. I discovered it after church. Thank you for thinking of me! The bread is absolutely, mouth-wateringly delicious! Yum!