Friday, November 30, 2012

Sermon: "Simplicity: Finding Soul in a Season of Stuff" (Delivered 11-25-12)

Call to Worship
If you give people an opportunity to say what it is that they want most during the holidays, what they’re most thankful for and what’s most important to them, they would probably say that they want quality time to enjoy togetherness with family as well as dear and close friends.  They would say they want to feel a sense of connection to their community and to have the ability to give something back.  They would say that they want to enjoy traditions that are meaningful and fun and convey a sense of identity.  They would say that they do not want to feel rushed or stressed or harried, but that they want the chance to slow down and savor some peaceful moments and be able to give thanks for this precious day and for the time we share.  Does that sound about right to you?

A comparison with reality, however, might bring to mind that line by Saint Paul that goes, “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but instead I do the thing I do not want.”  We come together this morning to remind ourselves to pay attention to those things that are most important to us.  We come together to be reminded of our values and what we wish for most.  We come together to examine and explore how we want to live.  It is good to be together.

The reading this morning comes from the book Making the Good Life Last: Four Keys to Sustainable Living by UU minister Michael Schuler.

Buddhist teachings describe perpetually dissatisfied, grasping, overanxious people as “hungry ghosts.”  As much as they long for happiness and the experience of true contentment, these sad individuals are unenlightened about how an abiding sense of well-being might be secured…  The “hungry ghost” subsists, therefore, on the deceptively thin fare its culture provides – easily appropriated pleasures that dull the cravings but do not satisfy them.  The habit of happiness, beauty is more than skin-deep, and trustworthy relationships all lie beyond the ghost’s reach.

In the Chinese language, the two words pin and tan look very similar on the printed page.  The first means “greed” and the other stands for “poverty.”  This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of the hungry ghost:  greedy for experiences and possessions to fill its emptiness; yet for all the effort the ghost expends, it still feels impoverished.  The hungry ghost may compensate for its emptiness through the compulsive quest for pleasure and prestige, but it is unlikely to find in such pursuits any antidote for its chronic discontent.  This Buddhist metaphor is compelling; it graphically describes a condition that afflicts many Americans.

The promising road maps offered by our hard-won consumerist culture have too often led us down blind alleys and into cul-de-sacs.  Novelty, excitement, sensory stimulation, and satiation are supplied in abundance, but in terms of what human beings truly want and need, the systems we have devised have proved less than salutary…

Too many of us have lost our connection to a sustainable life path that leads to treasures of perennial value: a beautiful and healthy earth home, human communities where all are well served and feel secure, work that makes a genuine contribution to the common good, play that restores one’s body and lifts one’s spirits, to mention only a few estimable goals.  “To live lightly on the earth with simple, joyful elegance” is how one writer characterized the overarching purpose of sustainability.

When I hold my two month old baby it is impossible not to notice that she is much more fascinated by my face than by any brightly-colored stuffed animal or jingling, rattling, sparkling toy that I might try to wave in front of her face.  When my niece was toddler, when the family would gather for Christmas, she used to be much more interested in playing with empty boxes than in playing with whatever toys those boxes once held.  And, I don’t mean to offend anybody with the comparison, but it also occurs to me that my parents’ cat seems to think an empty paper bag and some loose pieces of wrapping paper and ribbon constitute a splendid Christmas, as far as cats go.  I’m not sure I’d classify the baby, the toddler, or the kitty as world-class religious thinkers.  As a congregation you should expect me to cite more recognized and esteemed theologians.  All I’m saying is that in terms of realizing that people come before stuff, that a playful imagination can go a long way, and that it is best to be thankful for what you have, these creatures seem to have at least a little wisdom to impart.

This morning I’m going to talk about finding soul in a season of stuff, and as I thought about what I wanted to say, I realized that a lot of what I had to say was things that many of us already know.

We know that the societal focus this weekend and this month on purchasing, shopping, and consuming is a symptom of unhealthy aspects of our society.

We know that bargains are not the same thing as values, and that there is often a high cost to low price. 

We know that many of the people working the checkout lines and stocking the shelves at the box stores earn poverty wages.

We know that many of the goods we purchase are manufactured in sweatshops or in factories with exploitative and inhumane working conditions.

We know that credit card debt is rampant in our society, that financial health is a challenge for so many people, and that many people struggle with compulsive and addictive behavior at this time of the year.

We know that our society lives and consumes in ways that are not sustainable.

We know that we are not alone in our criticisms of consumerism, and that good critiques come to us from secular organizations such as Adbusters and the organizers of Buy Nothing Day and from religious sources such as the Advent Conspiracy movement within evangelical Christianity whose core message asks people to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all. There are even secular sources pretending to be religious sources such as performance artist Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.  During Friday’s Celebrate What You Have Day festivities, I showed a video of Reverend Billy protesting at the Disney Store in Times Square.

However, we also know that despite the criticisms of consumerism that we encounter, that mainstream coverage of holiday shopping will fail to challenge the larger cultural values and assumptions at work.  The media will certainly sensationalize the predictable annual stories about a shooting, a trampling, or a felony assault connected with Black Friday shopping, but the deeper questions that might be posed will likely remain unasked and unexplored.

These are the sorts of things most of us probably know.  But, I want to go beyond that to say a few words about simplicity and finding soul in a season of stuff.  What I mean by connecting these two ideas is a bit like what Thoreau meant when he declared, “Simplify! Simplify!” and wrote, “The nation itself, with all its so-called internal improvements, which, by the way are all external and superficial, is just such an unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it… [is] simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.”  “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” Thoreau asks.  “I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”

When I talk about finding soul, what I suppose I’m really speaking about is the ability to connect with those forces and practices and habits of happiness that increase and sustain our human sense of being alive, and rejecting those practices and habits that hollow or diminish life.  I think it is the same thing that Massachusetts Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren meant in the speech when she spoke about what it means to be human, “People have hearts. They have kids. They get jobs. They get sick. They thrive. They dance. They live. They love. And they die. And that matters.”

For me, moving towards life means moving towards those ways of living that recognize my own living complexity, and away from those forces that would try to diminish my own humanity.  The culture of consumerism tells me that my worth is tied up in what I am able purchase, or even that I am what I buy.  But, I know that I am not a PC and that I am not a MAC.  I’m not a Sony or a Yamaha, a Nike or an Adidas.  My identity is so many things before it is a brand.  I am not a commodity and I resent being commodified.  However, we live in a culture that ascribes worth to people, ascribes value to people, based on their habits of consumption.  We are given the identity of a consumer.

Culture surrounds us.  Culture consists of the attitudes, understandings, worldviews, habits, desires, practices, rules, and behaviors of the people we live with and among.  Culture is usually unspoken, taken for granted, assumed, and often invisible to those inside of the culture.  There are times, however, when we decide and when we may come to understand that our culture – the transmitted pattern of meanings and attitudes towards life – is not promoting our own welfare.  The system seems broken to us.  The attitudes towards life seem like the wrong attitudes to have.  Living with the tide of the culture, we feel, is not leading us in a direction that we want to go.  When we feel this way, it is time to make a decision.

One decision is to become culturally-separatist.  The cultural separatists included the people in the sixties who dropped out of society, went to go live on communes, or went to go live in the woods.  More commonly, cultural separatists are religious minorities such as the Amish and monastic communities of Catholics and Buddhists.  Cultural separatism may take the form of asceticism.

The hymn we sang before the sermon was originally written and sung by a group of cultural separatists known as the Shakers.  The Shakers practiced communal living in villages and rejected various practices within the larger culture that they considered sinful.  “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free.”  The gift of simplicity in the song is the gift of removing yourself from a complex culture.  The gift of freedom is the gift of being free from the oppressions of a culture that was thought to be corrupt.  By the way, the bowing, bending, and delightful turning mentioned in the song are references to Shaker worship practices that included forms of ecstatic movement, being involuntarily bended and twisted by spirit.

At the other end of the spectrum from cultural-separatism is cultural conformity.  Cultural conformity is the unquestioning acceptance of the way things are.  However, since cultures are never completely static, never completely unchanging, and never monolithic, the person who has conformed to culture will be required to adapt to changes and choose between competing practices.  Cultural conformists who are less adaptive will grow uncomfortable and try to blame changes on “others” or “outsiders” who are trying to change the way things are.

Between these two poles of cultural separatism on one end and cultural conformity on the other, there are a host of options for trying to live meaningfully.  Christians often speak of being “in the world, but not of the world.”  Paul said “Do not be conformed to this world.”  We might not all share the same analysis of what’s broken in the world, but there are plenty of things in our culture that we would not wish to be conformed to.  What I’m describing here are ways of living in tension with the culture in which we live.  We might adopt habits that are counter-cultural, that transgress against the culture in which we live.  We might practice cultural criticism, a thoughtful challenging of the culture that surrounds us.  Another path is cultural creativity, which involves creating new ways of being and relating, actively choosing to create those habits of happiness, that beauty with depth, and those trustworthy relationships to which our reading alluded.

Challenging and changing culture is hard.  And, I’m not just talking about American culture or Midwestern culture or Johnson County culture.  Schools, businesses, companies, organizations, institutions, and – yes – even churches have their own cultures even as they exist within the larger culture.  I am reminded of two Unitarian Universalist churches that had difficulty with attendance in their church school on Sunday mornings because of the encroachment of youth soccer programs.  One church practiced cultural-conformity; it changed its Sunday schedule and worship times to better accommodate the soccer schedule.  Another church operated at the other end of the spectrum and tried to start a movement to abolish youth soccer on Sunday mornings.  They urged parents to resist a culture that competed with family and church time.

So, how do we find soul within a season of stuff?  How do we choose a path that makes us feel human and alive rather than like a hollow, hungry ghost?  None of us are likely to recreate Thoreau’s cabin experiment of radically simplifying life and reducing it to its lowest terms, but there are other paths available to us.

One of my college professors posted a message about gift-giving on Facebook on Friday.  He wrote, “We have had a rule o' thumb for over a decade that the gifts we give in celebration of Christmas should be things we have made or grown ourselves or things purchased from actual makers/growers whom we've looked in the face and talked to. The Advent season's become much less frenzied, and we've met some terrific people through the years.”

Now, what my former professor said was very specific, and I’m not telling you that is how you need to do it, but what he did was respond to a culture that didn’t feel healthy to him, that felt frenzied and disconnected from his values, and simplified it.  By simplifying it, he was able to better live out his values – making sure that he spent his money ethically and being able to be connected in his shopping by being able to humanize, in this radical and immediate way, those with whom he was connected.  He was able to be mindful and responsible and relational.  Simplicity, in the sense that Thoreau understood, allows us to refocus on our choices and behaviors and choose a path that affirms the life we say we want.

In this season may you find ways to challenge what makes you feel hollow or disconnected, distant or harried.  May you find ways to move against the grain of culture, to move against the tide of culture, to use our own creativity to move in the direction of the forces that sustain and uphold life.  May it be so.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sermon: "Salvation: Liberal Religion Saves Lives" (Delivered 11-18-12)

This morning is our fourth Sunday in our new church home, and it is the fourth and final service in a series on what I’ve called four foundations of liberal religion.  We began by taking a look at what it means to be radically welcoming.  Next we explored how we are a tradition that does not unite around a set of shared beliefs but instead around shared commitments about how we want to be together, an idea captured in the saying “We need not think alike to love alike.”  Then, last Sunday, we explored how liberal religion demands that we follow our own conscience rather than accept a set of external rules.  This morning I want to spend a few moments talking about salvation and what liberal religion has to say about it.

Salvation is a word that you don’t hear that often in liberal religious communities.  It is an idea that we’ve pulled away from, perhaps because we’ve come to associate it with more forward and assertive forms of conservative religion.  Has someone ever come right out and asked you if you are saved?  The question may have come from a co-worker or a classmate or perhaps even a relative.  The question, as it is phrased, does not invite discussion or the sharing of understandings of faith and life.  No, the question is asked in a way that draws an absolute distinction between black and white, yes and no, sheep and goats, heaven or hell.  Religion should not be rendered into binary code.  Or, maybe you were asked if you are saved by a stranger on the street corner trying to hand you a tract, and as you walked by you thought to yourself, “I do not want whatever this guy is selling.”

Historically, as the reading by Forrest Church told us, the Universalist side of our tradition boldly declared that hell does not exist.  The Universalists believed that God was too loving, too forgiving, too merciful, too decent, too humane, too generous and too profligate – in a word, too liberal – to condemn anyone to eternal torment and suffering.  The early Universalists supported this position through their interpretation of scripture and also through moral reasoning.  It was repulsive, they believed, to imagine God as a tyrant or a torturer or a terrorist.  Surely, any God worth worshipping would not manifest the same characteristics as the world’s worst genocidal maniacs.  It is problematic if your idea of God is a being who deserves to be brought up on charges for crimes against humanity.

As the world became modern, the old ideas about salvation being reserved for those with the right beliefs no longer fit with emerging ideas about a global community.  Colonialism, we should remember, was undergirded and rationalized by the arrogant notion that the colonial powers were actually helping the people they colonized.  We’re doing them a favor, they told themselves.  We’re saving them from themselves and from God’s eternal judgment.  Now, in a diverse world made smaller by globalization and in an ever increasingly multi-cultural America, the idea that salvation is limited to right-believing Christians is a scandal and an embarrassment.  It is an idea that is inadequate to life in the modern world.

It is a humorous irony that Unitarian Universalism is named after two doctrines that are no longer commonly held by the members of most Unitarian Universalist congregations.  Unitarianism is the doctrine of the oneness, the unity, of God, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity that holds that the godhead consists of three distinct expressions of God.  In reality, the early Unitarians did not have much of a stomach for metaphysical debates about the nature of the godhead.  Rather, they were inspired by Jesus’ life, and teachings, and ministry much more than by the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The Jesus that spoke to them was the human Jesus and over time the importance of believing Jesus to be God diminished.  Nowadays, we might joke that Unitarians believe in only one God or fewer.

On the Universalist side, Universalism is named for the doctrine of universal salvation that holds that God is too loving and merciful to condemn anyone to hell.  However, nowadays you would be hard-pressed to find a single Unitarian Universalist church that spends any significant amount of time talking about the afterlife or heaven.  A few days before his death, Henry David Thoreau’s friend asked him if he had any ideas about life after death.  Thoreau’s response was to say, “One world at a time.”

“One world at a time” is probably how most of us tend to see things.  Forrest Church puts it like this, “No experience of being, unknown to us and probably unknowable, that has taken place before this life or will take place after it, could possibly be more remarkable, more wonderful, or stranger than this life we share today.  Life is a miracle couched between mysteries.  It is a miracle incarnate, not a given, but a gift, an unaccountable gift.  When we take life for granted, or beg for something more, we do it violence.”

The poet Wendell Berry puts it this way,

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

The early Universalists believed that every single person would be saved, but today Unitarian Universalists tend to spend extremely little time worrying about any world other than the one on which we live.  So, what does salvation mean to us today?  Can we in any sense speak about salvation today?

I believe that we can and that we should.  Salvation doesn’t mean any less if we talk about being saved for this life in the here and now, rather than being saved for some future paradise.  Salvation doesn’t mean any less if we talk about being saved for this world, this miracle couched between mysteries.  In fact, we should remember that Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven were more this-worldly than other-worldly, more immediate than distant.

It makes sense to talk about salvation because liberal religion saves lives.  It saves lives quantitatively and qualitatively.  This is to say that liberal religion can make a difference in helping people not to die unnecessarily and that it can make a difference in helping people to live better lives.  One pair of heroes from our tradition was Waitstill and Martha Sharp.  Waitstill served as the minister of a Unitarian church in Massachusetts during the 1930s but with the rise of Nazi Germany he and his wife left two small children in the United States and traveled to Europe to help with humanitarian relief efforts.  First in Czechoslovakia and later in Portugal, the Sharps helped hundreds of Jews receive safe passage away from the German occupation.  They saved hundreds of lives.

Another heroic moment for many of our congregations occurred in the 1980s when Unitarian Universalist churches joined forces with Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and others to form the Sanctuary Movement.  The Sanctuary Movement was formed as a response to hundreds of thousands of refugees from Central American nations like Guatemala and El Salvador who sought asylum in the United States because of civil war in their home countries.  These civil wars resulted in massacres of entire villages, people being disappeared by the tens of thousands, and the widespread use of torture on the population.  The US government played an enormous role in training and arming those who carried out these human rights abuses.  As part of the sanctuary movement, congregations – in direct violation of US law – housed refugees from Central America.  As many of these asylum seekers were killed upon being returned to their home countries, the sanctuary movement literally saved lives.

It is impossible however to say exactly how many lives liberal religion has saved.  One of my mentors in ministry, former Unitarian Universalist Association president John Buehrens, was known to say, “On any given Sunday you never know who has slipped through the doors determined to give church or life one more chance.”  How many youth find in our youth groups a place of safety and acceptance rather than the bullying of their schools?  How many lives has liberal religion saved?  How many people have found in our communities a place of warmth and connection that has made all the difference by lessening the despair of aloneness and isolation?

When we speak about salvation, though, it is important to note that we are not only speaking about lives that are literally saved – the literal difference between life and death – but that we are also speaking in a qualitative sense – the difference between living life in all its fullness or squandering the gift of life.  The salvation that we often need, writes Forrest Church, is “not from others, but from ourselves.  Saved from self-absorption, self-pity, self-hatred.  Saved from self-righteousness.  Saved from unwarranted displays of conspicuous piety.  Saved by love.”

I remember the first sermon I ever preached.  It was thirteen years ago and during the sermon I quoted Jesus’ instruction to love your neighbor as yourself.  In the receiving line after the service I was approached by a woman in the congregation who snarled at me, “How dare you tell me to love my neighbor?  You don’t know my neighbor.  I hate my neighbor and you can’t tell me not to.”

You don’t have to believe in eternal damnation to know that there are some souls that are just lost.  You’ve probably met a lost soul, a person lost to anger, lost to fear, lost to hate, lost to cynicism or despair or negativity.  And if salvation is understood as this-worldly, not as saving us for the afterlife but as saving us for this life, then we know what a shame it is to waste the gift of this life.

The hell that we need to be saved from is not any hell that exists in the afterlife, but the hell that we make for ourselves on this earth.  It is the hell of warfare, oppression, poverty, and hunger.  It is also the hell of anger, fear, hatred, and indifference.  It is a hell of human making, but it is also one that we can overcome.  We can be saved for this life.  What we need is here.  One world at a time.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sermon: "Conscience: You Can't Believe Whatever You Want" (Delivered 11-11-12)

I grew up in a town outside of Boston where Unitarian Universalism was very prevalent.  The town was perhaps five percent UU but we were dwarfed numerically by the Catholics, the largest religious population in my hometown.  I remember a time when I was in junior high and was listening to a couple of Catholic students complain about how awful and boring and tedious their CCD classes were.  CCD stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, better known as Catechism.  Nothing I’m saying here is a put down of Catholicism.  I’m only saying that these students spoke about their classes as if they were the sheerest form of boredom, the type of boredom only a pre-teenager is capable of articulating.  By contrast, I liked my UU religious education quite a bit.  I expressed my enjoyment to my classmates in this way.  “I am sure glad,” I said, “That I belong to a religion where I can believe whatever I want.”

At the moment that I had uttered those words, I noticed that my teacher had overheard me.  My teacher happened to be a Unitarian and also happened to serve as a member of the Parish Committee.  She frowned a disapproving frown at me.  Speaking to me privately, she explained to me that I didn’t really understand the religion to which I belonged, a religion that didn’t say that I was free to believe whatever I want, but rather that I was responsible – responsible! – for figuring out what was most true to me and most worthy of my devotion.

In our first month of services in our new church home we are revisiting some of the foundations of liberal religion.  Two weeks ago we explored what it means for us to say that we are radically welcoming.  Last week we talked about being a tradition that isn’t overly focused on beliefs, that is in many ways beyond belief.  This morning I am going to talk about conscience and about how our tradition demands that we follow our conscience.  The fifth of our UU seven principles states that we affirm and promote the rights of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.  The democratic process is what our country did last Tuesday.  This morning we’re going to focus on the conscience piece.  I’m going to talk about following your conscience in matters of belief, and, more importantly, following your conscience in living your life.  Belief first.

Let me be clear.  You cannot believe whatever you want.  For one thing, that’s not what Unitarian Universalism is about.  For another thing, that’s not how belief works.  It would be impossible for me to believe that the world is flat.  It would be impossible for me to believe in a jealous, judging God who condemns people for failure to worship him correctly. 

There are a lot of beliefs that might make my life easier if I believed them.  If I believed that forgiveness was for wimps, I could avoid the hard work of forgiving.  I could take solace in the righteousness of my grudges and use finger pointing as a way to distract myself from owning my own stuff.  But that’s not what I believe.  I believe that the path of forgiveness is the path towards wholeness.

If I believed that greed was a virtue my life would be different, somehow I suppose.  I’d buy myself more toys that I don’t want or something.  Actually, I have no idea what I’d do.  But I don’t believe that greed is a virtue.  I believe it is an illness of the human spirit and that generosity is a pathway to a fuller life.

You can’t believe whatever you want.  You can’t believe that the sky is green or that the earth is flat or that Batman will bring the villains to justice.  Though holding certain beliefs may be convenient, or even personally advantageous, you can’t believe whatever you want.  You have to believe what your conscience tells you is right and true, even if it is unpopular or challenging. 

Through my years as a minister, I’ve met many different Unitarian Universalists and heard the stories of their spiritual journeys.  I know just how much conscience plays a role in bringing you to this place.  Often it was conscience, telling you that you couldn’t honestly recite that creed or believe that doctrine.  It was conscience, telling you that you couldn’t in good conscience belong to an organization that practiced discrimination.  So, I think of you, of us, as a people with active consciences.  There is an old joke that Unitarian Universalists are bad singers because we’re always reading ahead in the hymns to see if we agree with the words.  That could be a well-developed conscience or it could be trust issues.  And, I think we’re better singers than the joke makes us out to be, by the way.

A few years ago, a couple in our congregation offered a party at the auction.  The party was called “Dinner With Two Psychologists.”  The bidding was especially fierce.  How the evening worked was that each person took a personality test in advance of the gathering.  Then, at the dinner, we played a series of conversational games in which we attempted to guess each other’s personality type.  It occurs to me that it probably takes a certain kind of personality type to find this enjoyable.  I was not at all surprised to discover that the most prevalent personality type among those at the party was the “conscientious” style, a personality style described this way,

“To be Conscientious is to be a person of conscience.  These are men and women of strong moral principles and values.  Opinions and beliefs on any subject are rarely held lightly.  Conscientious individuals want to do the right thing…  They stick to their convictions and opinions… No detail is too small for Conscientious consideration.”  Yep, that’s my congregation.  How many of you see a little of yourself in that description?

It shouldn’t surprise us that conscientiousness in belief and in personality style also translates into acting with conscience.  A few weeks ago I met with our church’s youth group, which is off to a great start this year.  I brought with me this book called The Book of Questions which has lots of questions for stimulating discussion and sharing.  At the end of the youth group meeting, we each picked a question and answered it.  One of the questions went something like this, “Have you ever stood up for something that you believed was right, even if it was costly to you?”  After a thoughtful, quiet moment, one of the youth shared about participating in the National Day of Silence with friends, a day at school when students go the entire day without speaking in recognition of the silenced voices of gay and lesbian students.  Conscience.

In 1848 Henry David Thoreau spent a night in a jail cell in Concord, Massachusetts, for refusing to pays taxes as a form of protest against the Mexican-American War and the expansion of southern slave territory.  Thoreau reflected on this experience in his famous essay “Civil Disobedience.”  Of Thoreau’s essay, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote in his autobiography,
During my student days [at Morehouse College] I read Henry David Thoreau's essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.
I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.
As if by clockwork, the most recent edition of the UU World magazine arrived in my mailbox less than twenty four hours ago.  This issue contains a feature story written by our own Don Skinner, about the conscientious activism of Tim DeChristopher, a member of the UU church in Salt Lake City.  DeChristopher was just released after spending two years in federal prison for disrupting a government oil and gas lease auction.  DeChristopher, who also contributed a manifesto about activism, has been quoted as saying, “Those who write the rules are those who profit from the status quo.  If we want to change the status quo, we might have to work outside of those rules because the legal pathways available to us have been structured precisely to make sure we don’t make any substantial change.”  This conscience stuff is not for the faint of heart.

Religiously, Unitarian Universalism is not a tradition that says, “Here are the approved beliefs.  Here are the established rules.  Here is a list of acceptable behaviors.”  It should be no surprise that in a religion that expects us to listen to our conscience in matters of faith, that we would also find figures like Thoreau and DeChristopher who listen to their conscience and who challenge the established rules and laws.  Some will witness this challenging of the approved beliefs and will wrongly conclude, “I can believe whatever I want.”  Conscience is not about evading responsibility.  It is about taking greater responsibility.  Some will hear these stories about civil disobedience and will wrongly conclude, “So, what you’re saying is that I’m allowed to do whatever I want.”  Conscience is not about evading responsibility.  It is about responsibility to something greater and more worthy of your loyalty.

Theologically, there is another way to put this.  UU minister Victoria Safford writes, “The ancient question ‘Who am I?’ inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” – because there is no identity outside of relationship.  You can’t be a person by yourself.  To ask ‘Whose am I?’ is to extend the question far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder, Who need you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable?  To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices?  With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious and invisible ways?"

For Thoreau or Tim DeChristopher, for Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, those acts of conscience are made meaningful because they answer in a profound way that larger question, “To whom am I accountable?”  “To whom do I answer?”  “Whose life is altered by my choices?”

May we always seek profound answers and the courage to follow our conscience.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Sermon: "Beyond Belief" (Delivered 11-4-12)

“It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs

Some beliefs are like walled gardens.  They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged.
Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.

Some beliefs are like shadows, clouding children’s days with fears of unknown calamities.
Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.

Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies.
Other beliefs are bonds in a world community, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.

Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one’s own direction.
Other beliefs are like gateways opening wide vistas for exploration.

Some beliefs weaken a person’s selfhood.  They blight the growth of resourcefulness.
Other beliefs nurture self-confidence and enrich the feeling of personal worth.

Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world.
Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.

This past week, while the last of the contractors were finishing up their work around the building, one of the workers dropped by my office and asked me if I had a minute to talk.  He asked me to help him understand our church.  Could I tell him a bit about our beliefs and doctrines?  It was funny that he should ask, I told him.  This Sunday I plan to talk about not letting doctrine and belief get in the way of religious community.  The point of our church, I told him, was not for us all to believe the same thing and not for us all to agree upon doctrine.  We need not think alike to love alike, and love, we say, is the doctrine of this church.

How does that work, he wondered, being a church where everyone doesn’t believe the same thing?  Well, I can tell you that it does work, I said.  We tend to appreciate our differences and we do not let our beliefs get in the way of us treating each other with love.  We worry that insisting on uniformity in belief would get in the way of people treating each other like they are supposed to be treated.  We’re careful not to let that happen here.

I spoke with him a little more.  It turns out that he was an open-minded guy who had been wounded and badly let down by the faith he used to belong to.  It turns out that what pushed him away was not an issue of doctrine, but of being treated in a hurtful way.  It can be a lot harder to get love right than to get belief right.

When he asked me to explain Unitarian Universalism by talking about what we believe, what the contractor was doing, probably unconsciously and instinctively, was engaging in a particularly modern, western, enlightenment way of thinking and understanding the world around us.  Descartes famously said, “Cogito ergo sum.”  “I think therefore I am.”  When it comes to religion, we have a tendency to attempt to understand who someone is religiously by focusing most intensely on what it is that they think.

Diana Butler Bass writes, “During the last few centuries, to ask ‘What do you believe?’ in the religious realm was to demand intellectual answers about things that cannot be comprehended entirely by the mind.  Thus masked as objective truth, religion increasingly became a matter of opinion, personal taste, individual interpretation, and wishful thinking.  People became quite militant about the answers they liked the best.  The what questions often divided families and neighbors into rival churches, started theological quarrels, initiated inquisitions, fueled political and social conflict, and led, on occasion, to one losing one’s head.”

“It’s time to face up to the truth,” Bass continues.  “An increasingly large number of people are experiencing the what questions [of religion] in profoundly negative ways.  In the minds of many, dogma deserves to die.”  [Christianity After Religion, p. 112]

It is difficult to go beyond this familiar western form of thought.  So, if it isn’t all about belief, what it is about?  It is common for people to lead with the question, “What do you believe?” instead of asking about other characteristics of religious life such as community, spiritual practices, rituals, experience, emotion, or trust.  It turns out that most of religious identity is actually beyond belief.

In our tradition, there is a trend that is very much opposed to reducing religion to a matter of belief.  Deeds not creeds, we say.  Devotion not dogma.  We need not think alike to love alike.  I’m not saying that we Unitarian Universalists always get this right.  From time to time, too often in fact, I hear from one or another of my UU minister friends who speaks with exasperation about some belief battle happening in her or his congregation.  Too much God.  Not enough God.  Too much Jesus.  Too much Bible.  Too much or not enough spirituality.  Too much attempting to silence religious expression.  Each Unitarian Universalist congregation is different, and, fortunately, belief battles are not a part of the culture of this congregation.  When I hear about belief battles, my reaction is to say, “How tragic it is that differences in belief should get in the way of your ability to treat each other with love.”

Now, if you’ve been listening closely, you may say, “I hear what you’re saying, Thom.  You’re saying that too much emphasis is placed on matters of belief at the expense of community, service, and spiritual practice.  You’re saying that we shouldn’t let belief get in the way of how we treat each other.  That sounds reasonable.”

And, I’ll say back, “Thank you, I always think that what I say is reasonable.”

But, you’ll say back, “But Thom, we’ve been listening closely, and we’re a bit confused.  Do you remember that responsive reading you had us read right before the sermon?  It was called, ‘It Matters What We Believe.’  Well, we didn’t just speak those words thoughtlessly.  As we spoke them, they spoke to us.  They seem true.  Some beliefs do encourage exclusiveness.  Some beliefs do perpetuate fear.  Some beliefs are divisive.  Some beliefs are destructive and dangerous.  If it matters what we believe, how can you talk about moving beyond belief?”

This was the part of the sermon where I stepped away from the computer and went to take a walk.  It is true that fighting over beliefs can be destructive.  But it is also true that some beliefs are dangerous and deserve to be opposed.  We’re in trouble.  How do we navigate this tension?  Is it fair to say that sometimes beliefs matter a great deal and sometimes beliefs don’t matter very much at all?

I think about the election that is just two days away.  Now remember, about six weeks ago I preached about this election season, and during the sermon I asked who in the congregation was planning to vote.  Just about 100% of you raised your hands, so if you haven’t voted yet, make sure you go vote on Tuesday.  As educated and informed voters, we know that some beliefs matter, beliefs about economic policy and foreign policy, beliefs about the proper role of the government, beliefs about civil rights, beliefs about climate change, beliefs about so many issues.  I have very strong feelings on these issues.  I try my best to live in that space where I can say that although it matters what we believe, I do not need to agree with you to love you.  But it also is impossible for me to conclude that beliefs don’t matter.

And then there are differences in belief that really do not matter.  A lot of media attention was given this past week to the fact that the website of the evangelist Billy Graham was updated and all mentions of Mormonism being a cult was removed, although a diverse listing of religious movements including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, and Unitarians were still listed as cults on his website.  Stephen Colbert had a funny segment on The Colbert Report in which he talked about the Billy Graham website and joked that for Unitarian Universalists, the three holy scriptures are the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Free to be You and Me.  (I had to go look that up; it was a before my time.)  The Billy Graham website, before and after its inclusion of Mormonism, is essentially contributing to the belief battles in our world, taking a position that is divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved and friends from enemies.

In discussing beliefs, I am reminded of a figure from our Unitarian history, a guy named Michael Servetus.  Servetus was a Spaniard, a physician, and a theologian.  His writings include one book called On the Errors of the Trinity and he traveled Europe trying to promote his ideas about the Godhead.  Servetus was condemned by orthodox religious leaders and was burned at the stake.  Servetus’ murder continues to be a shining example of why we might want to move beyond belief, of why creating lists of which beliefs are acceptable and which are unacceptable, correct or incorrect, is dangerous.

The Billy Graham website is evidence that there are all sorts of beliefs that some people treat as divisive that really are not.  The responsive reading talked about beliefs that are exclusive and beliefs that are expansive, beliefs that create fear and beliefs that engender hope, beliefs that are blinders and beliefs that are gateways, but there are other beliefs that don’t really fit on that map.  The responsive reading says nothing about beliefs about God’s existence or non-existence, singularity or plurality, maleness or femaleness.  The responsive reading says nothing about the divinity or humanity of Jesus or whether God is a trinity or a unity.  The responsive reading says nothing about praying the rosary or praying in the direction of Mecca.

Interestingly, some who have written about belief have talked about how belief itself is actually misunderstood.  Two different words in Latin with two different meanings are both translated into the verb “to believe” in English.  One of those words is “opinor,” which means to opine, to have an opinion.  It is a thinking word.  There is another word in Latin that also means to believe.  That word is “credo,” the word from which we get the English word “creed.”  Credo actually means, “I set my heart upon” or “I give my loyalty to.”  It is more of a feeling word.  In fact, the word “believe” may not have originally meant what we understand it to mean.  The word comes from the German root “liebe” meaning “love.”  To believe literally is to “belove.”  It is to prize, to treasure, and to hold dear. [Christianity After Religion, p. 117]

Diana Butler Bass points out that Buddhism offers a different formulation for how we understand belief.  “The Three Jewels of Buddhism, the vows that shape a Buddhist way of life, are as follows:  I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma (Teaching); and I take refuge in the Sangha (Community).”  Belief, as it turns out, can have more to do with what you give your heart to and where you take refuge than it has to do with what you assent to intellectually.  Believing may be less about thinking the correct thoughts than it is about feeling love for those things that are worthy of our love. [Christianity After Religion, p. 134-135]

It is true that we need not think alike to love alike.  It is also true that we need not think alike to believe alike.  We need not opine alike to be-liebe alike.  “What do you think?” is a different question than “What is worthy of your love and loyalty?” and “Where do you take refuge?”

When belief gets in the way, it is worth asking yourself, “Are my beliefs truly worthy of my love and loyalty?  Are my beliefs truly a worthwhile refuge?”  Sometimes your answer will be yes, in which case you should stay loyal until the ends of the earth.  Sometimes your answer will be no, which will call for you to step out beyond belief.  The hard part is being able to tell the difference.

You may be interested to know that UUA President Peter Morales has a sermon on this exact topic.  I held off on reading his sermon until after I had delivered mine.  There are some similarities and some differences between our two approaches to belief.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

A Photo Tour of the New Church

The Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church is located in old downtown Lenexa at the intersection of Pflumm and Santa Fe.  We are in the former Don Bonjour elementary school.  Here are some pictures of our new church home:

Aerial View (excludes large field to the south)

Floor Plan

Floor Plan for Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall

Sanctuary (pulpit focus)

Sanctuary (full view)

Main Entrance (exterior)

     coming soon

Main Entrance (interior)

     coming soon

Fellowship Hall (set up for after church lunch)

Gift Shop (The BonjoUUr Shop)

     coming soon

Multipurpose Room (Choir / Music / Children's Activities)

     coming soon

Children's Religious Education hallway - leads to 8 classrooms, RE offices, RE workroom, and bathrooms

Children's RE classroom

Adult Programs Hallway - leads to 3 adult classrooms, minister's office, and 8 classrooms for future use

Board Room

     coming soon

Minister's Office

     coming soon

South Hallway - leads to 7 rooms for future growth

Grounds Master Plan

Playground #1

Playground #2

     coming soon

Memorial / Meditation Garden

     coming soon

View of South Field

Friday, November 02, 2012

A Bold Adventure

The church I serve is on a bold adventure.  Last week we held our first worship service in our brand new church home.  It was a building we purchased a year earlier and the culmination of a process our church had begun all the way back in early 2006.  As you can imagine, all of this happened through the extraordinary commitment, service, sacrifice, generosity, and innumerable hours of volunteer work on the part of the members of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church.

Throughout this process, I’ve wanted to share this story with those beyond our congregation, especially with Unitarian Universalists across North America.  (If you are an active part of the Shawnee Mission UU Church community, you won’t find anything here that you don’t already know.)  This blog post and subsequent posts will share the story of our new church home and the opportunities it gives us for making an impact in our community and becoming a greater liberal religious presence in our community.

Last fall we purchased the Don Bonjour Elementary School, one of several schools closed by the local school district.  We hired el dorado inc. to redesign parts of the building for congregational use.

Before and After

Before the move our buildings and grounds consisted of:
  •  Approximately 12,000 square feet of usable space
  •   3.3 acres of land
  •  6 paved, 12 gravel, and 80 grass parking spaces in a field
  • Sanctuary seating for 150

The building and land we purchased gave us:
  • Approximately 48,000 square feet of usable space
  • 14.5 acres of land
  •  Approximately 200 paved parking spaces
  •  Sanctuary seating for 250+

Before the move our church struggled with inadequate space for worship, fellowship, food preparation, gathering space, adult classes and meetings, children’s programs, and staff offices.  Offices and some bathrooms and classrooms were not handicapped accessible.  Our entry way and hallway were congested.  Our fellowship area was not air-conditioned.  Our staff offices and adult meeting spaces were cooled by window AC units.

The building and land we purchased gave us ample space for worship and fellowship, a large and inviting gathering area, spacious offices, and all the space we need for programs for adults and children.  The building is almost entirely handicapped accessible.  In the future there is space for a large commercial kitchen.  And, there are an additional fifteen unoccupied rooms to accommodate future programming growth.

What’s to Come?

Our new building and grounds give us not only ample space for all our programs now, but they also allow us to add additional programs, services, and ministries in the future.  Some of our plans may take years to be realized.  Or, we may find ourselves inspired to move in a direction that we can’t even imagine right now.

Outside, our grounds master plan includes space for a community garden, a small orchard, a labyrinth, a meditation garden, and several acres of tall grass prairie restoration area with walking paths.

Inside, what will become of our available space?  Some of the dreams that have been shared include opening a food pantry, partnering with local non-profits, opening a preschool, offering ESL classes, opening a resource center and program for LGBTQ youth, and more than I can possibly name.

This Blog

In the future, I plan to create additional blog posts about this bold adventure in our new building.  Links to those posts will appear below.  If there is an aspect of this project that interests you or that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, leave a comment below or send me an email at minister [at] smuuchurch [dot] org.

Also, check out this link to the Building Design Presentation on the Shawnee Mission UU Church homepage for more information.