Archive for October, 2008

Our Civil Religion

October 30, 2008

In his correspondence, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, most well known for being the first doctor to test the smallpox vaccine in the United States, that, “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.,” going on to profess it as the most natural and reasonable religious stance one could have.  Jefferson, despite our claims to him otherwise, was not a Unitarian.  He was, rather, a deist — that brand of faith held in such high common esteem by almost all of our founders and characteristic of the high enlightenment from which our nation was born.  Deists believed not in the personal God of the Bible, but in the impersonal deity of ‘natural law’.  A God who had set in motion the wheels of the universe but left it up to human endeavor to complete.  Far from the endorsement we might want to claim of Jefferson, his statement was more a reflection of what he and all the founding fathers believed to be the natural conclusion of the grand experiment of the American Republic: That of a people endowed with certain inalienable rights, as all people everywhere should be everywhere.  The Unitarian faith in a God for all people, subject to the dictate of reason, seemed a natural conclusion for Jefferson and many others.

Thomas Jefferson is a good place to begin my thoughts on “Civil Religion” because, like our religion, Jefferson is a study in paradox.  The author of our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, Thomas Jefferson spoke boldly of the need for free discourse in the service of liberty.  The freedom of speech, assembly and religion is at the heart of our nation.  But Jefferson had a shadow side as well.  He was a racist despite his hopes for “eventual” emancipation, a keeper of slaves, even those his own offspring born to his slave Sally Hemmings.  Apparently his claim that all men are created equal had a footnote.

So it is also with our freedoms.  We are both free and enslaved.  Free to speak out for what we believe, but limited in what we say.  This week is the anniversary of the so-called USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act of 2001, a knee-jerk reaction to limit the civil liberties of many in hopes of catching terrorists.  It exists as a shadow to our national identity.  Likewise, we are free to practice religion – a freedom earned through such brave men as Roger Williams, who, in the early days of our colonial expansion, broke away from the theocratic Puritanism of New England and founded the colony of Rhode Island, the first free religious community in America.  But our freedom to practice religion is limited in fact by the overwhelming Judeo-Christian character of our country.  We here, who celebrate the freedom of belief, have to be circumspect about our promotion of freedom.  The fact that we welcome theists as much as pagans is not well known, nor, perhaps, should it be – yet.

I don’t defend our faith, because it is defended by our principles as a nation.  I remind our detractors that we are all bound by our “civil religion”, by which I mean not only the principles (deist that they are) which we live by, but also by the fact that we are all religious.  America, observed the Frenchman, Alex de Tocqueville, is the most religious nation in the world.  The forgotten premise to that is that we are religious in different ways and that is the very foundation of our democracy.

As a religious nation we are bound together by what Forrest Church and others have called the American Creed.  While each of us has our own “religion” it is not the same religion.  “America is faithful just not of the same faith,” wrote Forrest Church.  Our creed, based as it is in the rights of all to basic necessities (what Jefferson called ‘the pursuit of happiness’) and the freedom to believe and act on that belief, are the true heart of this great country, not Christian values.  The mistake that the “religious right” makes here is assuming that our core American values are necessarily Christian.  Our values are informed by Judeo-Christianity, we are a majority Christian nation, but that does not make the American Creed or our Civil Religion Christian.  Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, all agreed on this point.  A natural law, even a higher law, but not a Christian law, binds America. The same higher law that informed Martin Luther King, Jr. to civilly disobey the laws of the land.

Just what is that law?  In short it is the belief that in order to be faithful to our belief in the goodness of all, the extension of compassion and the pursuit of happiness that is our Republic we must have the freedom to follow the faith we hold most dear.  Echoing Roger Williams a century before, Jefferson proclaimed the paradox that in order to live up to the principles of good that the creator has endowed us with we must have the freedom to choose the good.  In other words, any faith, whether it is in the principles of our nation or a faith in Jesus, must be freely chosen to be real.  A coerced faith is no faith at all.

This then is the heart of our civil religion.  We are bound together, each with our own beliefs under One God, E Pluribus Unum, not because there is one true faith but because there is a freedom to have a faith.

This is why such legislation as the “Patriot” Act flies in the face of our civil foundations.  By limiting our expression of belief in the fear of finding “terrorists” we are undermining the very faith in freedom that makes us great. In many ways, this is a sort of “official terrorism”.  We have become afraid ourselves to speak out against the government and in so doing we are being terrorized by our government.

Walt Whitman, the great American poet and Unitarian once wrote, “religion in America, knows not the bibles of the old way but in new ways, the soul freed.”  Why is our civil religion so vital to life?  Because, my dear people, without the very faith in freedom, there would be no freedom of faith.  Without the freedom of expression, there would be no freedom of service.  What makes our nation, just like this church, so spiritually possible is that we couple our freedom of expression with a call to serve.  Look at any totalitarian regime of history and what do you notice?  They don’t last.  Why?  Because without the rights of freedom, there is no responsibility to serve.  And you can only pay or coerce people to serve a dictator for only so long.  True service, the very civility that makes our country, indeed this Church, run from day to day, is the result of the freedom accorded those of us who do serve.  Without it America would fall.  No one to serve the food to the hungry, to drive the sick to doctors, to clean up the cities.  Our freedom of expression naturally entails a freedom to serve, and volunteers make this and any democracy possible.  This is what Whitman meant, by not the old ways of bibles, important as they are to some of us, but the power of the freed soul.  In the freed soul rests the possibility of change.

Jefferson believed that democracy could instill greatness, not because it was rooted in religion, but because its freedom allowed us to choose the possibility of religion as one among many guiding forces in our lives.  Freedom gives us the potential to choose greatness.  And even when we fail – and we have failed often, witness our destruction of Native Americans, slavery and the subjugation of minorities – we are at least called to higher principles by the very fact that we can choose.

This is the heart of how we do religion here as well.  People ask me what we believe, and, when I tell them that we believe in the freedom to believe, they shake their heads and say, “why, that is no belief at all”.  But I say, “look again”.

The very process of democracy keeps us true to a moral pathway.  In choosing to do good over evil, we help to define what is possible.  Is this not Holy?  Is not the power to choose at the heart of every religion?  Choose we must, for without that we already slaves to another truth.  As long as there is a spark of life within us, implied Jefferson, there will be a God calling us to choose and in the choosing we grow.  Amen.

Sources used and recommended:

“The American Creed” by Dr. Forrest Church, 2003

“The American Soul” by Jacob Needleman, 2001

The United States Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights.


Reclaiming Worth

October 12, 2008

Today I begin an occasional yearlong series on our Seven UU Principles. The principles, voted on by successive General Assemblies of our denomination in the 1980s, will be reviewed over the next several years. These were never meant to be a creed or a testament of faith, but were, in fact, agreements about what our congregations agree on. Still, over time, they have become touchstones to our faith. Dozens of books and courses have been produced, and our own Julie Hernandez and our Addiction and Recovery Ministry have designed and taught a course linking these seven principles and the twelve steps of the recovery movement. These seven principles, broad and barely religious though they are, are at the heart of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. The first of these, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” is foundational to our own vision of building an inclusive community. It is also the principle most at odds with the existence of evil in the world. After all, how can you believe in the inherent worth of a mass murderer or a child abuser? It’s a legitimate challenge. Let me start with a story.

“You stupid good for nothing idiot. Why, a flea has more brains than you. What do you think you are, smart? You won’t be nothing.” I winced, as this 300-pound man yelled his teenaged son. “I can’t see why you were even born. What a waste of time.”

The old man waddled off. The boy stood there blank faced. I was witnessing a terrible family fight. But the saddest part was that it wasn’t out of the ordinary. In fact, the old man yelled at his son daily this way, taking a little bit of his humanity away each time he did it. The boy who had learned to shut out most of the abuse wasn’t able to shut it all out.

When someone tells you that you are good for nothing for 20 years you begin to believe it, and lo’ and behold, most abused children become much less than they could be, or even worse, they pass on that abuse.

And lest you think that this is just some underclass phenomenon, let me assure you, this sort of deprivation occurs in many guises. Children of high achievers who think they are less than worthy if they don’t come home with straight A’s. The man that amassed three fortunes to gain the love of his father who had been dead 20 years, but to whom he was sacrificing his marriage. Athletes who die from strokes, not because their bodies weren’t in shape, but because their sense of self-worthlessness put such a strain on them they snapped. Beauty queens who suddenly end up in the hospital with an eating disorder because their own mothers never felt beautiful enough for their father, who ran off with a younger woman anyway.

I could go on and on. I am talking about some of you, aren’t I? And it hurts doesn’t it. It hurts a lot. Today I want to talk about guilt and forgiveness. I want to talk about the journey from worthlessness and worthiness. I want to talk about reclaiming worthiness.

The belief in inherent worth is actually deeply ingrained in the bible. Jesus proclaims that the “kingdom of God is within” in the Gospel of Thomas, and Isaiah proclaims, “my whole being shall exalt in God.” In fact, up until the Middle Ages, the early Church defined its saving message not in Jesus dying for our sins, but fulfilling the promise of an earthly heaven, “…the creating wisdom and power of life dwelling in human beings” (Parker and Brock, Saving Paradise, 2008). In fact, it could be argued that the inherent worthiness of all people is deeply imbedded in the coming of age story in Genesis.

It’s an old story. In the Hebrew myth of Adam and Eve, Adam (which literally means earthling in Hebrew) is given a mate, his other side, literally taken from his other side. And the two of them are given a life of luxury in the Garden of Eden. God has placed two trees in this garden that are important. The first one is the tree of life, from which they may eat and retain everlasting life. The other tree is the tree of good and evil. “From this you may not eat” says God “for when you do you shall surely die”. Now, of course, this is a set-up, like putting a plate of cookies in front of three year old and saying “Don’t touch those.” Eve (which literally means “New Life”) is tempted or drawn to the tree by the snake. A word about the snake: We associate snakes with evil, but in the ancient Near Eastern myth, a snake is actually a sacred sign of divine power. It often represents infinity. The snake offers the apple to Eve; she takes a bite and offers the apple to Adam.

Now the traditional interpretation of this scene is that of original sin. We are just too weak to obey God. But hold that thought for just a minute. Because what happens next is very important. They eat the apple and see that they are apart from their creator, that they are indeed separate beings. As separate, they “hide themselves,” both from each other and God. When God comes strolling through the garden he calls out for them. When they finally come out God asks, “Why are you hiding?” They tell him about the apple. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake and the snake doesn’t have a leg to stand on. No, seriously. But blaming now becomes the second act of independence, deciding to eat the apple was the first. For this, God sends them out of the garden and condemns them to toil, work and bear children.

There are two ways to read this story. The first and the more traditional is the crime and punishment model. One little mistake and wham! You unworthy, disobedient and depraved human beings. God throws him out. What does this sound like? Who here has made one mistake in their life for which they are forever regretful? Who here after making that mistake felt like they could never make it up? Who here remembers the hurt and the shame? This, my dear friends, is the basis for much of what we perpetuate in our families and our society. We are flawed beings, that is true, but it seems we cannot forgive our flaws. Like Adam and Eve, we are forever cursed because we couldn’t live up to the expectations of the One God.

But that is only one way to read the story. There is another. What if Adam and Eve were exercising their free will, which God gave them in the first place? How could they have known, ask some, what bad was until they had eaten the apple? In fact, isn’t this the point? Aren’t Adam and Eve compelled to eat the apple because of that very power which God gives all of us in her image: the freedom to choose? Adam and Eve were framed. If they hadn’t eaten the apple they would have never been imago dei, in God’s image. When they ate the apple they became truly human. In exercising their freedom, they were reclaiming their worthiness.

While they disobeyed this direct order from God, they obeyed their humanity by showing some independence. This then is the mythical beginning not so much of right and wrong, but of guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling wrong about something we did. We don’t do a lot of guilt around here, but some is not all bad. I’ve done some pretty terrible things in my life and I still feel guilty about doing them. I’ve had to work at changing myself so that I wouldn’t do them again. I’ve had to earn the love and respect of those I have hurt. But shame is something else entirely. Shame is the feeling that we ARE bad human beings. Adam and Eve aren’t shameful, they’re human. Perhaps what they did was wrong, but it doesn’t make them any less as people. This is why we as Unitarian Universalists do not believe in original sin; original sin says we are evil by our very nature. We say no. We say we are flawed by our very nature, capable of doing incredible evil, but we are also born with a natural light which while flawed and flickering still burns brightly. Doing something wrong is not the same as being wrong by our very nature. This is another way of proclaiming this first principle of ours, we may do terrible things, but we are, by nature of being, free thinking actors worthy of consideration.

It is not always easy to defend this inherent worth. To be fair, there are some real challenges to this belief. William Schultz, past president of the UUA and past Executive Director of Amnesty International, calls inherent worth into question. In his 2006 Berry Street Lecture “What Torture Has Taught Me,” Schultz can no longer accept that every one has inherent worth; having seen the pleasure torturers, even seemingly normal good people such as those at Abu Gahrib prison, took in hurting others. Evil incarnated in human actions makes it very difficult to accept inherent worth. Schultz asks, “So is the worth and dignity of every person inherent? No, inherency is a political construct—perhaps a very useful myth but a myth nonetheless–designed to cover up the fact that we all are sinners and that we are not always certain which sins (and hence, which sinners) are worse than others. Each of us has to be assigned worth — it does not come automatically — and taught to behave with dignity because, as Sartre once said, “If it were not for the petty rules of bourgeois society, we humans would destroy each other in an instant.”

I accept his challenge that inherent worth is hard to accept as innate, but I still consider it innate because the alternative is much worse. If human beings are not inherently worthy and worth is “assigned” by virtuous deeds in a society, who then is to decide what virtue is? The clergy, politicians? We saw this relative assignment of worth in the torture by Americans in Guantanamo, were the designation “enemy combatant” (a designation of relative worth based on actions) led to a stripping of basic human rights, not the least of which is the right to legal defense. No, I cannot accept that inherency is relative. I have to separate the action from the worth of the doer, or we have nothing to rely on in assigning basic human rights.

Which is not to say it isn’t hard to do. Torture is one instance, but so is abuse, especially of children. How do we uphold inherent worth for abusers?

One of the most difficult topics in this debate are the very painful cases of sexual child abuse committed by several Catholic priests many years ago. Father Rob Jascot is a Roman Catholic priest I knew many years ago. We served together on a local cable talk show I hosted on Faith issues in our community. We talked openly about this problem on the show. I have to say here, I admire Father Jascot a great deal. It takes courage to face this question squarely and talk about it. In our discussion, we brought out the very basic fact that pedophilia, in fact any form of abuse, is an evil and heinous act. It feels all the more evil when it is done by a clergy person because of the sacred trust that is violated, and even more so by a Catholic priest because of the hypocrisy associated with vows of celibacy. Father Jascot responded bravely: Yes, sexual abuse, like alcoholism before it, was the church’s secret for years. But as we break any cycle of abuse we had to bring it into the light. Priests are now required to undergo psychological testing, sexuality awareness training and criminal background checks (all of which Unitarians were doing 20 years ago). The Catholic Church, like our own Congregation, has a zero tolerance policy for abuse.

“It is a tragedy,” said Father Jascot, “for the children, for their parents, for the priest, for the Church and for America, which sees this as one more reason why they shouldn’t trust religion.”

We did, of course, talk about how far we have come and how the vast majority of churches are safe and healthy places to learn and grow and how the vast majority of clergy are kind, safe and helpful people. But the hurt is real. I commented on the fact that most abusers are themselves abused, and abuse others as a way of validating their own lack of worth. Pedophilia is the worst form of shame. Preying on innocent children is the end point of what can happen when we feel we are truly worthless.

In my last church we had a pedophile amongst us. While we are certain that no harm came to any of our children, in large part because of the safety policies we had in place, our course of action was clear and unequivocal. We asked him to leave. For some, that was not enough. For others it reminded them of their own exclusion and fears of being not worthy enough even for a church. We did this not because he was evil as a person, but because his actions (which he has since repeated) were evil and we are not a therapy center here. Any church is a community. And even as respectful as we are, we are forced to protect our community from hurt first and foremost.

Of course, very few of us have done something as wrong as that, and yet we feel that sense of shame. Whether it is abuse of others or ourselves, through substance or behavior, that sense of not being ever quite good enough. We long for acceptance, but feel trapped in our own being. “The prison of the soul is far more darker than any dungeon,” wrote John Donne. This is one reason why I feel so strongly that our first principle is so foundational to who we are as free church. If we can’t separate harmful actions from human worth then who will.

This week we began a course on the 19th century Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickenson. What they all shared was this sense of an inner light, a divine worthiness in spite of what we do. We may spend the rest of our life in prison, but we are still of worth, connected, as Emerson would write, in an Over soul.

We do matter. We can and should reclaim our worth. But how? How can we move beyond a sense of shame to self-acceptance; how do we even move beyond guilt towards forgiveness.

The greatest irony of the story of Adam and Eve is that they were condemned by a Creator who supposedly made them in love. Or were they condemned? Let us look again: And God said “…in work shall you till the ground, thorns and thistles it shall bring forth and you shall eat the plants of the field and woman shall in pain bring forth children…” Our free will made us human and mortal and then left us with a challenge: to bring forth life. Isn’t this the very nature of human creation? If it was all given to you, well then so what? But if we can overcome adversity and create something from “thorns and thistles” and “in pain bring forth” new life, isn’t that what living is all about? Perhaps, as Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, we didn’t so much get thrown out of paradise but outgrew paradise. Didn’t we move beyond having it given to us and feeling ourselves dependent on God, to finding what we valued ourselves and depending on each other? We can claim our worthiness, my friends, precisely because we suffer. We matter because we must find a way to make more out of less; we matter because we have the power to create. Our ability to create is our salvation. Free will, sexual passion, hard work, love and mortality. These are the gifts we take from the Garden of Eden and these are the gifts that make us human. These are the gifts to moving beyond feeling bad about being human, to feeling bad about what we did, and then onto forgiveness. (Harold Kushner How Good Do We Have to Be? Little, Brown and Co., 1996)

Think back to that one act that still lurks in the dark corner of your soul. Or if you are clueless about that, think of some obsession you have, because chances are your obsessions are clues to some old shame. I used to be obsessed about having my day all in order. Five kids and ministry cured me of that, but anyway, that was my obsession. I thought I could never have it together enough. Who knows where this came from? That really isn’t as important as what I was going to do about it. Over time, I realized that this was my prison. I would blow up if plans changed, people didn’t follow through, or even if it rained!

The way out of this shameful cycle was to be creative. Creative is doing something new. A couple struggling with age-old pains takes piano lessons together. A parent and child read to one another every night (with all the voices). Another couple listens to each other’s dreams each morning over coffee. Creativity, wherever you can find it, cracks the door on helping any of us towards feeling worthy. But creativity alone is not enough, because shame and guilt require forgiveness. And forgiveness is often hard to find. Not forgiving another, as Rabbi Kushner observes, “gives us a kind of power over another”. (ibid, Kushner) But it also eats away at your soul. It keeps you from being human. It makes any of us feel like we don’t matter. There is no magic pill for forgiveness. Adam and Eve probably didn’t forgive God. I know those who have been abused who haven’t forgiven their abusers. But consider this: How much power do you still ascribe to your abusers by not forgiving the? When I ask someone to forgive another I am not saying we should forget what they did, or even accept what they did, but I am saying that forgiveness frees us to get on with our lives.

Twenty-five years ago, Sally was abused by her father. She managed to survive all of that, even get married, but when her own daughter was born she started to criticize her constantly. By the age of ten, her daughter was buying beauty magazines, by the 13 she was in the hospital for an eating disorder. The sins of the mother had been visited upon the daughter, generation to generation. It was at the hospital bed where I had the privilege to watch a miracle. Sally looked down at her daughter and whispered “Why?” And that little girl, thin as a rail, managed to say, bless her soul, “Because I was never good enough, Mom.” Never good enough. Sally got it. She started to cry, her daughter cried, I cried. Sally went home that night and wrote a letter of anger and forgiveness to her father. But she never sent it. Her father had died two years before. Her daughter came home and so did Sally.

Churches like this should never be places that tell you that you are not good enough. We should strive to be places of acceptance for who you are. Sanctuaries where God’s light heals and doesn’t condemn. Places which, while we cannot accept behavior that is harmful, can accept those of us who have harmed and been harmed. We are not perfect; we weren’t made to be. I don’t believe in the God that condemned Adam and Eve. My God knows our suffering and wants us to help one another become whole again.

Churches like this one are full of losers. People who have lost loved ones, lost love, lost acceptance, lost their way. But they are also full of people who have also lost their fear to join together with others, many of whom are not at all alike, in the common hope that we shall break out of our soulful prisons. People like you and I know why we matter. We matter because we are not alone. Amen.

Different Beliefs, One Faith: Our Open Spirit

October 12, 2008

“So you’re a preacher,” he said. It was late, about 9:30, in Chicago and it was cold, the January wind tearing at my jacket. I was standing on a train platform waiting for my two-hour commute back to northern Indiana where I lived. I told him that I was a seminary student and yes, I was a “preacher”. “How about that,” he said, “a man of God.” I didn’t have the heart to clarify just what kind of God he thought I might be a man of. But then again, it didn’t matter. “Just great, just great,” he said, “I’ve always admired a man of the cloth.” He continued, “Just found Jesus myself,” he said. I shifted, not sure if my discomfort was with the wind or where this conversation was going. My new found friend went on in great detail: he was a bricklayer, was on this third wife, had six children and was finally in AA. As he explained his conversion I couldn’t help but notice the sound of contentment in his voice, it was almost contagious. That was a difficult year for me: I was struggling over my new identity, with the death of a close friend and with this expansive faith of ours which required such a broad knowledge. I yearned, I admit, for a simple faith, perhaps the comfort of Jesus.

As we boarded the train together, he naturally sat down right next to me He pulled out a well worn copy of the bible and recited his favorite passage from the Gospel of John, “No one shall come onto the father but through me.” I knew that for him this meant that he was already in the arms of a loving God. That in the end, with all his troubles, he would be all right. I have come in the many years since this encounter to feel and know what it is about a simple faith in Jesus that is so refreshing and comforting: If you believe you are saved than there is nothing this world can do to you to hurt you more than for a moment. This kind of faith is not about reason, it’s about feelings. Many of us don’t understand this allure.

But this man understood. He was quite sure of his own salvation. And equally worried about his sister’s soul. She was a Muslim. “What about you, Reverend? What church do you belong to?” he asked. “I’m a Unitarian Universalist,” I replied, trying to let the 10 syllables fall out of my mouth slowly. He was quiet for a moment trying to recall where he had heard that before. Then the gleam of recognition, “Oh yeah, I got a friend who is into the Unity stuff – real spiritual.” Alas, we fall again to the arrows of misrecognition. I started to explain the difference, but his stop had arrived and he thanked me and got off.

Perhaps just as well. I would rather have him leave with that warmth. Many days have passed since that cold night. Many more sermons, deaths, births and doubts and I am still before you, a humble servant of the spirit, searching as you are for that faith which will sustain us; the faith of a community like ours with so many different beliefs. I thought often of his description of us as “real spiritual”. For most of our 500-year history, we wouldn’t be accused of that. Although all of that is changing, and changing fast.

Unitarian Universalism is actually the merging of two streams of faith. The Unitarians and the Universalists. The Unitarians have historically believed that God is one; in all people and that the concept of the trinity, that is the father, son and the Holy Ghost, has no basis in reason. This Unity of Experience based on a reason was proposed as early as 325 C.E. by a Bishop named Arius who was condemned for heresy. Our reasonable approach to religion laid dormant for almost 1,000 years until the idea of only One God resurfaced in Eastern Europe, Transylvania to be exact. Francis David, under the emerging protestant reformation and a lenient monarchy, established the first Unitarian churches in the world which stand, despite centuries of persecution, to this day. Their altars proclaim “God is One” and in all people, their teachings proclaim that Jesus came to love us all. Many of our American churches have partner relationships with these poorer and ancient churches in Eastern Europe. Unitarianism traveled across Europe to Britain and then to the United States and found a welcome home in the Congregationalist churches of New England because the congregation could decide on its own beliefs. This is the basis for our fierce congregational polity: the people, that is, all of you, decide the future of our course. As the most recent issue of our denominational magazine The World (Fall 2008) explains, ours is a “covenantal theology”, we are united not so much by common belief as by caring of one another. Protecting our freedom of belief. And with our relational approach to religion came another very unique institution: The free pulpit. We have a free pulpit meaning that I am free to speak the truth in love as I see it. Our flame in this chalice burns for that truth which we seek openly and together.

We are by our nature a faith of heretics. Heresy only means those who disagree with the orthodox. Unitarian’s bedrock lies in three beliefs: One, that religion needs to make some sense; this is why for instance our beliefs cannot deny the truths of science. Two, our beliefs have to fit our experience of the world. And three, we are open to hearing and exploring other religions and ways to the spirit.

What this means is that we have amongst us people who have a strong faith in God, some who would consider themselves Christians, others who would consider themselves Buddhists, some who don’t believe in God, many of us have doubts about God, pagans, earth worshipers and the just plain curious. We are unique on the religious landscape in that as Unitarian Universalists we do not require you to subscribe to any doctrine or creed – just to come, and in reason and experience, explore the possible Unity of the Divine.

If our Unitarian heritage appeals more to our minds, then our Universalist heritage appeals more to our hearts. Historically, Universalists have believed that we are all saved by a loving God. While the Unitarians cry “God is One” Universalists altars, some even to this day, in the firelands of Ohio declare, “God is Love”. Since the time of Origien in the 4th century, we have had a strong belief in the gnosis – or knowledge of God’s love. Early Universalists said that if Jesus died for our sins, he did so for all of us, for all time. Hell was just not the burning issue that it is for many other orthodox religions. All go to heaven; why would a loving Abba, Aramaic for Daddy, as Jesus claimed in his saying, condemn any of us to everlasting hell. This idea also had its roots in Eastern Europe and traveled through an underground church founded by Jon Hus using a simple chalice, the communion of God, which he gave to each person, before it was reserved only for the priests. The common chalice, God’s love available to all, is the bottom part of this symbol we light each Sunday. The chalice for God’s loving embrace is our Universalist heritage; the flame for the search for God’s spirit is the flame of truth within it. Universalists have been historically much more emotionally charged than their Unitarian cousins. With that emotion, came a love for music, dancing and heartfelt preaching. Your minister, stands before you as a fourth generation Unitarian but a strong Universalist. I believe with all my heart that we have some good and openly freeing news for the world…The Spirit is ours to find, hold and celebrate, even if we can’t all agree on what it means.

The Unitarians and the Universalists came together in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations of which this one is a part. It’s a proud and wonderful heritage. Like hubs to a wheel we gather to search for that way to inner meaning using both heart and mind. Our way of religion is open and free and it is not for everybody. Some misunderstand our open spirit as meaning we can belief whatever we want. This is not true. Our WAY of discovery is open, our END of discovery is personal, but the COMMUNITY of searchers that we are is united by principles and practices that provide for open exchange and safety. Not everything goes in a UU church like ours: there are limits. We do not permit hurtful behavior; we put a limit on the espousal of abuse, hatred and exclusion. We are not, as I am fond of saying, the ACLU. We are a religion and while we are an open religion we stand for something.

What do we believe as Unitarian Universalists? What is this one faith that unites our different beliefs? Throughout this church year, starting in two weeks, I will speak on each of these seven Principles. In our new Family service, which begins in three weeks, Renée and I will be engaging our young people in these Principles. What are they?

We believe in the free and responsible search for meaning. We tend to the free part openly but we sometimes have a little trouble with the responsible part. Being responsible means that we say what we believe but in love. The truth can sometimes hurt when we are not sensitive to others. I can remember a congregational meeting that we had many years ago in which someone said that if this congregation has anything to do with Christians they were leaving. Ouch! What about those of us who still find meaning in the Christian story? I thought Barack Obama modeled this brilliantly on Thursday evening in his acceptance speech. “… of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other’s character and each other’s patriotism.” In other words we can disagree with each other without challenging our character or our faith.

We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We do matter as being on this Earth in our potential and our worth. However, while we are all worthy – even those who commit terrible atrocities – our actions may not be worthy of being here. As I have said hurtful behavior cannot be permitted. But we also belief in redemption and grace. Throughout the month of September we will be exploring this theme of redemption and recovery. Many of us have been victimized, our religion needs to help us overcome that hurt and grow.

We believe in justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Our Social Action Committee works hard on our behalf to join with others in our community to stand up for the poor and the disenfranchised. I have spent many years in community action. Unitarian Universalists work around the world through our own UU Service Committee and our office at the United Nations to secure justice.

We believe in the right of conscience and the use of democratic process. We can and should speak our minds in love and we have a right to our opinion. We also have the right to choose our direction as a Congregation. Our newest members join the heart of this Congregation and have both the right and the responsibility to serve on our committees and vote in our meetings. We do not take orders from high. Being a part of this democracy – and you are all a part in some way – also means we support our mission financially. We are completely self-supporting. We want and need your help in however much you can afford to continue to spread this good news. That is just a fact of life.

We believe in the goal of world peace and justice. Unlike many other religions that focus on the hereafter, we focus on the here and now. Part of our mission is to change the world for the better. WE can do this. It will take generations to do, but every little act of kindness does change the world in some way. Our services throughout the month of August have been devoted to peace, starting with ourselves.

We believe in a respect for the interdependent web of all existence. We do believe in the unity of the divine in all existence. We do believe that we are all connected in a great circle of life. And we do believe that what affects one affects all. Each breath we take has the same molecule of a Cleopatra, Caesar, Socrates, Jesus, Buddha or a Mother Theresa. This same breath extends to our own rich prophets: Emerson, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Darwin, Mary Wright Edelman. WE are connected in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

Finally, and I saved this for last on purpose, we believe in the acceptance and encouragement of spiritual growth. “Real Spiritual” describes us more and more. Some may not like that description, but first and foremost what we are about here is a spiritual journey. Your spiritual journey. By spirit I do not mean so mushy gushy idea of something out there, but rather a call to “in here.” I believe that most of us are called to discover that abiding truth in us. I believe we are put on this planet for a reason, even if we don’t know what that reason is. I believe that our search is mystical in that we may have moments of revelation but we will be hard pressed to find “the answer;” and when we do, we will realize along with Lao Tzu, that “that which can be named is not the true name”. But the point is that my wayfaring friend on the train was not so different than any of us. WE too seek answers and while perhaps this tradition says it will be hard to find THE answer, we will be able to journey together and find more meaning to life than we would without each other. More meaning. More understanding. More strength to carry on.

This is why we join together as a community of seekers: to learn from each other, to sense and perhaps live out a destiny. To comfort one another when there are no answers to life’s tragedies and to know that in the final analysis we are not alone. Either with a God or just each other we are not alone. Einstein once said, “that no problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it”. It’s a perplexing statement until you realize that it is both mystical and profoundly scientific. This is how Einstein figured out his theory of relativity. To use a sixties parlance, “he got out of his own head”. You can’t always see the forest for the trees. You can’t always see what is Holy when you are a part of that holiness. But when you break it out and share with others and listen and consider with reason and experience another consciousness whether through words, prayer, music or meditation THEN you can see what you didn’t see before. That, my friends, are why we are here. That is the one faith that is ours.

Our open spirit allows us to consider new ways, new ideas, a new path to meaning in our lives. And we can do that together better than we can do it apart. WE are the process religion. More process than product.

Next Sunday during our “Homecoming Service” we will recognize some of our newest members. If you have been coming over the summer and consider this your spiritual home, this would be a good Sunday to sign the membership book and enter the center of our circle. Let me be the first to say welcome to the next stage of our open spiritual journey. In my study I have a quote from a little known feminist – and a great Unitarian – that has sustained many a long night when I have grappled to what to say to you who are searching or to someone who is hurting. Edith Hunter, a pioneer in religious education recognized that as open spirits we had no firm, easy or pat answers. We needed something more realistic to deal with a complex and hurting

“Perhaps we should realize that our need is not to find “something to believe in” but rather to discover what we believe in right now. This is the place to start.”

This is the place to start. Let’s get started. Blessings Be!

Motherhood and the Divine Feminine

October 12, 2008

“Arise then, women of this day!  Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be of water or of tears.  Say firmly ‘We will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies’.  Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage for caresses and applause.  Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.  We women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.  From the bosom of a devastated faith a voice goes up with our own, it says ‘Disarm! Disarm!’  The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.  Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor does violence indicate possession.”

These powerful words were penned and spoken by Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian and a Quaker who wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” ten years earlier at the start of the Civil War.  This proclamation, written after that most bloody civil war as a response to the growing bloodshed she had seen in her own lifetime, was translated around the world into many languages.  It was the beginning of Mother’s Day.

Originally promoted as a festival to promote a Mother’s Day of Peace, the holiday envisioned by Howe and other women always began with this proclamation.  Until her death, Howe continued to insist that Mother’s Day should be a call to peace, but it was never made as such by our government.  Finally, in 1914, by popular demand but without reference to its pacifist origins, President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day; a day when we rightly honor mothers — but a far cry from its strident origins. (Source:

In honor of its truly noble and glorious beginnings, we celebrate Mother’s Day today.  Honoring our mothers, yes, but honoring them with the power of the divine feminine power envisioned by Julia Ward Howe.

There are many books written on the power of the feminine in our lives, but today I want to share with you the lessons I have learned from the women in my life, mothers all: my own mother Cynthia, my wife Frances, and my daughters Fiona and Portia — all mothers who have embodied the power of the divine in their role as women and as mothers. Some might find it odd for a man to talk about this today but, in fact, it makes most sense for me, a white middle-aged male, to share with you my lessons.

There is a saying in my house: “Watch out for the goddess.” By which I understand to mean the power of strong women saying what they will, feeling their way to the right answer. The greatest lesson I have learned is that I need to trust my intuition. I have become a very intuitive thinker – not at the loss of my reasoning abilities, which I depend on others for – which means I am prepared to feel my way to the right answer. Now, of course, that has its drawbacks to be sure. But it is the way I operate and it is a divinely feminine trait. Meaning deeply felt and fulfilling.

But the second great lesson I learned from the divine feminine in these mothers is the power of love and dedication. Those who know me know that I am fiercely dedicated to my family, my congregation, and my staff; in fact those who know me closest know that it can even be a fault. But I don’t apologize for it. It makes for a certain order to the world, concentric circles of concern. A love and dedication to the families who raise these children in difficult times.  A love and dedication to this Church, which is the home for our spirits.  And a love and dedication to our community and the world which we serve. With these two divinely feminine powers, intuition and dedication, I call on us to inspire others.

One of the other great heroines in my life is a little known Unitarian woman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who lived and worshipped here at First UU Church Los Angeles in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1891 she was one of the first to break the stigma of domestic violence by writing about in a powerful little book The Yellow Paper. In 1923 she wrote another book entitled His Religion and Hers. Let me quote from this because this mother herself, who finally divorced her abusive husband and began writing, encapsulates the divinely feminine nature to our call as UUs.

“Birth-based religion would steadily hold before our eyes the vision of a splendid race…the duty of up building it. To the mother comes the apprehension of God as something coming; she see his work, the newborn child, as visibly unfinished and calling for continuous service…As the thought of God slowly unfolded in the mind of woman, the great power would have been apprehended as the Life giver, the teacher, the provider, the protector, not the proud, angry and jealous deity men have imagined.”

It is in this spirit, this Divine power which calls us to finish children and the world in dedication, that I call on us to rededicate our lives to those lofty values we hold so dear.  To reject the rhetoric and values which in Julia Ward Howe’s own words “reek of carnage and revenge”.  And to embrace those principles which we hold so dear: the inherent worth and dignity of all people, the goal of world justice and peace, the respect for the interdependent web of life and the use of democratic process.

Many who come here feel both relief and bewilderment.  Relief at finally having found a place to call home; a place that accepts us as we are and encourages us to find that spiritual center which must be a personal choice.  But we are bewildered as well; searching for that definition which so many other religions are all too happy to provide.  What does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist?  Just what is it that I am asking you to dedicate your life and the life of our children to?

Across this country, I ask our young people “what is it that we stand for?”  I often get the blank look followed by a response something like “here is where you can believe in whatever you want.”  I cringe a bit every time.  No wonder other religions claim we have no spiritual center when the center seems to reach no farther than our individual preferences.  I am often asked, “What’s next, ‘We can do whatever we want’?”

In one sense our young people are quite right.  This is the place where you can believe what you hold to be true about why we are here and where we are going.  But that is only the door to the deeper life we ask you dedicate yourselves to.

This Mother’s Day, permit me to provide you with what I think we are about here and why we need to dedicate our lives to this church, our children, and the world.  “Arise then, women of this day!…say firmly we will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies’”.  What were these ‘irrelevant agencies to which Julia Ward Howe referred?  Irrelevant agencies are those bodies of governments, religions and pundits who tell us that our faith in the future must be based on the prevailing norm of our time.  In our day, this would be the same thing as an acceptance that war is right, obedience is moral and that questioning is wrong and unpatriotic.  All of which run counter to what our faith teaches us.  Arise then, and speak a new truth.  This is the dedication we are truly about today my friends, a new truth.  We do not believe that revelation is sealed but open (our principle of the responsible search for truth and meaning).  We do believe that all people have the right to self determination (our principle of inherent worth) and that we will speak out against those irrelevant agencies that tell us otherwise (our principle of the democratic process).

Specifically, we are dedicated to the proposition that, on this Mother’s Day: war is not the answer and that we will lobby our elected officials and partner with other faith groups – even in this community – to do something about it.  We will do this because we believe in the essential goodness of people even if they do terrible things; the American people, the Afghan people, the Arab people, the African people, the Asian people, the people who, when we get up close and personal, are still just people.  That essential affirmation is our spiritual truth:  that people are still just people.  It is the original foundation of our Western society and is a deep a humanistic faith as one can have.  And the spirit of those people is greater than any one God, person or agency.  We dedicate our lives, this church and our children to this proposition.  And we take it as a statement of faith:  that we are, as my colleague John Corrado puts it, “more interested in getting heaven into people than people into heaven.” (From John Corrado, Quest, 2005). Amen.

We are, as Unitarian Universalists, dedicated to the proposition that there is a human spirit which is worthy of our regard and our effort and that all people have the right to live in freedom.  That is a faith stance as great as any other.  It is worldly, to be sure, but who said religion should only be about what happens after we die?  Religion is about connecting with each other and with meaning while we are alive; heaven into people, not people into heaven.

As Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian on one hand, but a social progressive on the other, puts it in his wonderful new book God Politics: Why the Right has it Wrong and Why the Left Doesn’t Get It: “Who says faith is something that belongs to one party or another?  What are we progressives so afraid of?  Politics is about power, and faith is about meaning, why wouldn’t we try to use our faith politically.”  Or as Joe Lieberman put it so well in the 2000 campaign:  ‘A freedom of religion is not a freedom from religion’

We Unitarian Universalist have been so afraid to take a stand in our efforts not to ‘offend’ anyone that we have nothing left to stand on!  I say we do have something to stand on!  Five hundred years of speaking about the worth of the human spirit as the first and most important aspect of life; far greater than some unseen God someone else tells us about.  We stand on the tradition of great people, many of them powerful foremothers who dedicated their lives to the proposition that people should be our first concern; women like Julia Ward Howe, or Elizabeth Pinckney the first women in America to own her own business, or Abigail Adams, the conscience and the reason behind our second President, or the suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, or Olympia Brown, the first woman to be ordained in America, or Marianne Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and many, many more ALL Unitarians and Universalists.  Women and men who, like you, had a faith in the essential goodness of humanity.  That is our faith.  Cut away all that complicated verbiage about diversity and searching for truth.  We believe in people, even if they do bad things.  We believe and our dedicated to promoting that belief.

And lest you doubt such a simplistic faith has having meaning let me suggest to you an example: eBay.  How many eBay customers out here?  Do you know the story of this online auction company?  Started by a couple of people who believe in a simple premise “people are good”.  That is their advertising slogan: “People Are Good.”  And it works.  People put things up for bids.  The winning bidder sends payment, cash, check, whatever and the seller sends out the item.  If the item doesn’t arrive or is faulty the seller is ‘reported’ and no other bidders will buy from him.  Likewise if the buyer doesn’t pay or tries to scam the seller, they get reported and no one sells to them.  It is based entirely on trust.  And it works.  We have bought most of what we use from other people this way.  We even bought a car on eBay.

Political winds come and go. As Jim Wallis says, “Protest is good, options are better.”  We will need to dedicate ourselves to this faith to join together with our time and our money and other people of faith in this community: the UCC, the Methodists, the Jews and the Muslims.  We will need to join together to bring our faith into the public square to change our world for our children and ourselves.

I want us to dedicate our lives to the Divine Feminine, that has inspired mothers everywhere, that divinity of life giving, intuitive, completion of our world. I want you to dedicate your lives to this Church and our mission to make the world a better place.  I want you to dedicate yourselves to our children, like mothers and fathers all to a new world.  I want you to dedicate yourselves to the action that proclaims that people are basically good.  Be clear about our faith: we believe in each other and the world.  We stand against acts of evil and oppression, but we stand for people.  I believe in each of you.  I am asking each of you to believe in one another.  With love and dedication we will change our world.  Blessed be!