Worship as Respite

Worship is like a breathing spell in a long and arduous foot race, or the hour of roll call in a prolonged and hard-fought battle: — it is altogether indispensable to sane and wholesome living— it is important enough in life to warrant the erection of classical temples and Gothic cathedrals. It is indeed so important that one finds one’s self sometimes wondering how any of us can afford to do anything but educate ourselves in this art. — To be effectively a person and thereby help others to be persons is the sum of abiding satisfactions in life. Worship in the sense of this aim is natural and necessary, and in the Great Community all mature people worship. Its objectives are not absolutely fixed as to their content.—Von Ogden Vogt (born February 25, 1879)

I came across this post at the The Liberal Lectionary.  If  you are not familiar with this new site, I highly recommend it. This site posts quotes by people who have influenced Unitarian Universalist theology in myriad of ways.

Von Ogden Vogt was a Unitarian Minister who served the First Unitarian Society of Chicago in the early to mid 20th century.  He is best remembered for his legacy of how Unitarians and now Unitarian Universalists worship.  See The Contribution of Von Ogden Vogt.

The quote listed above has my mind thinking about worship as respite.  There are many excellent texts on how we worship today and these texts include best practices as it were or various components of a worship service.  These are important technical aspects of a worship service as if that is all that is really happening.  But I have had the experience,  I am sure many of my colleagues have as well, when a service from a technological stand point ( I do not just mean the sound systems or the use of power-point when I use the word technological) bombs and bombs big time and people will come up to me and state how profoundly moved they were in this particular service. Their hearts were moved, a barrier in their lives shifted, they found strength to go back to their lives with renewed hope and vigor.

I am amazed when grace  somehow manages to work its way through this feeble vessel that contains my being to touch another’s life.  So worship is not simply a rote set of movements or acts as Von Ogden Vogt delineated the service.  It is something far more than the sum of its parts.  It is this “breathing spell” as Von Ogden Vogt calls it that allows for the individual and the community present to feel renewed, recharged, reborn before re-engaging that arduous footrace or on-going and prolonged battle we call living the day to day.

So this  question arises:  What brings people to worship together in Unitarian Universalist congregations? What gives us that breathing spell?  What offers that sense of respite?

Perhaps part of this respite comes from the notion that for one hour at the minimum is focused not entirely on ourselves but on others.  We focus on the well being of those around us.  We listen  to the words the minister or speaker is saying (or am I in denial?).  We hear songs that reflect various  angles of the theme of the day.  We are affirmed by others.  We are seen as being worthy in the eyes of others and perhaps even in our own eyes.  There has been a meme floating around Facebook that states something like  “if you are feeling discouraged go encourage someone.”

Worship offers the possibility of even  when  we are feeling low and broken our presence, our very presence can be a source of  encouragement to another to carry on.  And that act of encouragement reverberates back to us and gives us respite from our pain, our brokenness.  We do not know how our presence and some off the cuff comment can be the very breath of life another needs.  Our participation in a communal worship helps in offering this to others, even happening without our awareness.

Some worship spaces are majestic in and of themselves.  Those who have been at First Unitarian Society in Chicago’s Hyde Park know the vaulted ceilings, the stone walls, the slate floors, the commanding pulpit set high above the people seated in the pews.  The building itself inspires awe and eternal reverence of a people who came before and hints at the people who may come in the distant future.   These are the halls where Von Ogden Vogt and James Luther Adams preached.  Where contemporary ministers like Mark Morrison Reed sang choir as a child and where Bill Schulz attended when he was in seminary at Meadville Lombard Theological School.  To enter such a space where these and others have had their formation as ministers, have been influenced by such thinkers and bastions of the faith can be in and of itself, a worshipful respite that feeds and nurtures the spirit.

Worship for Unitarian Universalists is not the lifting up a deity instead worship for Unitarian Universalists is as Von Ogden Vogt suggests a time for the gathered community to celebrate life .  In that celebration of life, whether it is the joyous or the grieving aspects, we find respite  by holding up the values and the actions they promote in our lives that will make our  journey all the more meaningful.  May we all find respite for our journeys and may we find companions to aid us along the way.

The Fallacy of Original Goodness

Rev. Marilyn Sewell recently wrote a wonderful summary entitled the Theology of Unitarian Universalism. I would agree with most of what she wrote.  There are two areas that I think need further discussion I begin with addressing the first area.  I will write about the second area in another post.

She mentions briefly the following: “We must begin with the assertion that Unitarian Universalism has always emphasized freedom as a core value. It follows that human beings have a choice. We are not predestined by God before our births, to be saved or unsaved. We are not mired in original sin by the very fact of our birth and therefore have to go through a ceremony called baptism, even as babies, to cleanse ourselves of that sin. We do not have to have someone sacrifice himself by dying on a cross to save us from hell. Yes, human beings have a propensity to do evil, but we also have the propensity to do great good. We have a choice. Unitarian Universalists prefer to think of ourselves as being born into “original blessing,” as theologian Matthew Fox likes to put it.”

And then in her summary of Unitarian Universalist Theology she states the following: “We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.”

I would argue that this is not a universal theology of Unitarian Universalists and further I would state that this belief in Original Goodness is in fact a falsehood.

Let’s look at the definitions of terms. Original Sin defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia is as follows: “Original sin may be taken to mean: (1) the sin that Adam committed; (2) a consequence of this first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam.” Rev. Sewell is using the term Original Sin in the second meaning. Original Sin is this stain that is passed down through the ages by virtue of our birth.

This concept of Original Sin is rejected by most Unitarian Universalists. We would concur with the New Testament writer who wrote that nothing can separate us from the love of God. There is no condition that we are born into that would separate us from Universal love from the moment of our first breath to the breathing of our last.

Original Blessing as theologian Matthew Fox uses the term means that we are born into love. He writes, “We can say blessing preceded creation, too, for blessing was its purpose. Thus there is no doubt that original blessing is the basis of all trust and of all faith. Original blessing underlies all being, all creation, all time, all space, all unfolding and evolving of what is. As Rabbi Heschel puts it, ‘Just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.’”

He defines blessing as relational. “[O]ne does not bless without investing something of oneself into the receiver of one’s blessing. And one does not receive blessing oblivious of its gracious giver. A blessing spirituality is a relating spirituality.” This concept of Original Blessing is very different from the concept that Rev. Sewell later calls Original Goodness.

Original Goodness implies that something is good in and of itself.  This is not possible.  There is no original goodness or virtue. Theologian James Luther Adams states, “There is no such thing as goodness as such; except in a limited sense, there is no such thing as a good person as such. There is the good husband, the good wife, the good worker, the good employer, the good layperson, the good citizen. The decisive forms of goodness in society are institutional forms.”

The quality of being good does not exist in a vacuum. It does not exist without form. Goodness does not exist in and of itself. What makes a person good is the social construct that it embodies. A good birth means that there were no complications.  The good baby sleeps through the night. The good child is obedient to her parents.  The good husband or good wife helps with the household chores. These are actions that our society has determined to be good.  So to declare that there is an original goodness that humanity is born into is a falsehood. An infant is not born good or evil. An infant simply is.

Whereas, an infant can be born into original blessing because the relationship of blessing is already present in the child’s birth. The relationship of blessing, the covenant of relationship of parent to child is created at the very moment of birth resulting in blessing. But original goodness does not exist.

Rev. Sewell states that “sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.” Goodness and Evil are actions that are chosen, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by default but chosen nonetheless. So if Rev. Sewell wrote that Unitarian Universalists tend to believe in Original Blessing, recognizing that sin is sometimes chosen often because of pain and ignorance, then I would agree with her statement. However, she uses the term Original Goodness which is not the same as Original Blessing, they are two very different concepts.

Blessings,

Quotations are from the following:

1) The Theology of Unitarian Universalists by Rev. Marilyn Sewell

2) Catholic Encyclopedia

3) Original Blessing by Matthew Fox

4)  Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion by James Luther Adams

Five Smooth Stones: An Attitude of Ultimate Optimism

Five Smooth Stones:  An Attitude of Ultimate Optimism
Rev. Fred L Hammond
13 June 2010 ©
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

Over the last several months we have examined Unitarian Universalist Theologian James Luther Adams Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.  We looked at the first four stones; Revelation is Continuous—the idea that new understandings of the mystery of life are always unfolding; Mutual Consent –the idea that relations between people ought to be free of coercion and rest instead on the mutual, free consent of each person; A Just and Loving Community—the notion that we have a moral obligation to create a world where all people are honored and respected and No immaculate conception of virtue and the necessity of social incarnation—the idea that nothing is good in and by itself but only in its actions in relation to the other. Today we look at Adams’ final smooth stone of liberal religion, An Attitude of Ultimate Optimism.

This has been a difficult few months on the national level with what appears as legislated racism in Arizona, the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial collapse of our banking institutions, and the unprecedented uncontrolled oil geyser in the Gulf of Mexico.   Then on the local level we have been dealing with the tragic deaths of friends.  And we haven’t even mentioned the personal trials and tribulations that many of us are going through.  With all of these events circling around us like vultures it is difficult to see the truth in James Luther Adams proclamation that we as people of a liberal faith should resolve to have ultimate optimism.

But this is not just ultimate optimism because optimism feels better than the alternative.  No, the reason for ultimate optimism is because “the resources… [both] divine and human, are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify” this attitude.

We cannot rest on the laurels of the work that generations did before us in areas of justice, whether that justice be racial, economic, or ecological. No, James Luther Adams argues that “each generation must anew win insight into the ambiguous nature of human existence and must give new relevance to moral and spiritual values.”

And so the gains that the civil rights movement won in the mid-20th century must be redefined and won again in the 21st century because the arc of history is always bending towards a greater more inclusive justice.  As our eyes were opened at the injustices of segregation, our eyes need to become open to the injustices of white privilege because white privilege would seek to segregate again.  The various legislations passed in Arizona are one way white privilege is rearing its ugly head.  Whose history do we tell when we teach history in our schools[1]?  What criteria do we use to determine that a person is qualified to teach English[2]?  What shade of paint do we use to depict our children in school murals[3]?

Under the guise of immigration enforcement, white privilege is attempting to re-assert its standard for living in America.  The nation requires an immigration policy that is not solely to benefit the whims of white corporate America. Such has been our history with Mexican immigrants through out the 20th century.  We welcomed them, documented and undocumented, when their labor kept our farms and factories producing during two world wars and deported them when those wars ended or when the economy took a downturn.  It is this issue that will define our nation again just as the civil rights movement defined our nation in the mid-20th century.   Will we define ourselves on the side of justice?

The civil rights movement of the 1960’s was an achievement of justice for that generation but we must not assume that the achievements of that era are a fait accompli for all times.  Rev. Peter Morales, President of our denomination, wrote this week, “We are in a struggle for the future direction of American society. How we treat immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Central America, is today’s equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement. This is a struggle for America’s soul. The real issue for us is how we are going to live in an America in which Anglo-Americans (“whites” or “Americans of European descent”) are in the minority. That day will soon be with us. “White” Americans are already the minority in a number of states. The prospects frighten many people. …  The question is whether we can embrace the changes that are coming, whether we can thrive in this new America.[4]

In terms of James Luther Adams’ fifth smooth stone, the question is ‘are we going to tap into the resources both divine and human to create an America that continues to hold its revolutionary ideal of achieving liberty and justice for all when Anglo America is no longer the majority?’ If Arizona is the canary of this new America and other states introduce replica bills against a targeted population, then the answer will sadly be no.

But the theology that our Unitarian and Universalist heritage derives from believed that history has a destination it is winging towards where justice and grace prevail.  History has a meaning that reveals something of the evolutionary direction of humanity.  For our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors it culminated in the creation of heaven on earth, a place where all people lived in harmony with the divine.  A place where there was no longer any sorrow or pain from injustice.  We sing of this place in our hymn:

“Come build a land where sisters and brothers, anointed by God may then create peace: where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.[5]

But history has also revealed the darker side of humanity.  Adams states, “A realistic appraisal of our behavior, personal and institutional, and a life of continuing humility and renewal are demanded, for there are ever-present forces in us working for perversion and destruction.”   We do not have to go too far back in our history to see what perverse and destructive forces they are.

Our recent financial crisis was the result of intoxicating greed.  Without the appropriate oversights, the banks allowed their intoxicated greed to demand for more wealth at the expense of the clients who sought them for loans to live the American dream. Knowing and hedging the bet that these clients could not afford the loans they sought; the result was an economy that loomed close to the edge of world wide depression and families fortunes and homes decimated.

Yet even with this propensity to reveal the darker nature of humanity through greed and through war, our prophetic faith writes Adams, calls forth to have a ‘dynamic hope’ that “at the depths of human nature and at the boundaries of what we are, there are potential resources that can prevent a retreat to nihilism.”

The resources both divine and human are available to achieve meaningful change.  Divine here for Adams might refer to some supernatural resource but it also points to something other than supernatural but wholly inspirational.  The divine could be that new idea that breaks through the toil and struggle of rehashing the same ol’ same ol’ and beckons for a new point of view.  It could be that connecting thought that brings about a new way of being or a new way of operating.

But ultimately what choices we make will open up the resources that are available to us, both divine and human. We have a choice in the events that are occurring in the nation today.  We can say it does not impact my daily life and therefore ignore it and then wonder how it came to bite us later.

The crisis in the gulf might illustrate this better.   We live several hours away from the gulf and therefore are not facing the toxic oil fumes that are causing health problems for asthmatics and others with breathing difficulties.  We are not faced with our 134 year old family business ending because there are no oysters to harvest.

So one choice is to ignore it as Scarlet O’Hara says in Gone with the Wind, “I will think about this tomorrow… after all, tomorrow is another day.”  Ignore it and continue our mantra of ‘drill baby drill.’   Or downplay its significance as BP has done by stating that there is plenty of shrimp found elsewhere[6] or the amount of oil dumping into the gulf is minimal[7] or blocking journalists from seeing firsthand the vast wildlife succumbed to oil washing up on the beaches[8] or denying government confirmed underwater oil plumes six miles long[9].   So ignoring or denial is a choice we could make.

Or we could despair the loss of an ecosystem that impacts the world in so many multiple ways.  The prospect of dead zones in the gulf where no life can grow is certainly a despairing prospect.  A recent video found on Youtube of divers in the gulf to look at what is happening under the water noted that the water is eerily void of fish until reaching a depth of 30 feet[10].  However, this sort of despair shuts down the natural creative forces of life that is inherent in all of creation including humanity.

Or we can choose to do something about this spill.  Organize to have legislation mandate stricter regulations on off shore drilling. Organize to encourage alternate forms of clean energy such as solar and wind to become standard over fossil fuels.  Educate others of our participation in this interconnected web of life. We can begin to educate ourselves and others on how our personal consumption and craving of oil based products has contributed to this event in the gulf. The resources for making this choice are already available for us to achieve this.  All we need to do is to organize and tap into the populous will to have this achieved.

Here are three different choices all based on the same data with different conclusions made on that data.  Liberal religion invites us to not deny or despair but rather to look beyond the present to what possibilities can arise and then to act accordingly.

Howard Zinn in his essay, The Optimism of Uncertainty[11], writes about the vast surprises that have occurred through out history.  He writes, “There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible.”

Justice when it occurs may appear to have happened over night but it usually is the result of a cumulative effect of many different events over time.  A state law ending housing discrimination against gays.  An executive order granting hospital visitation rights and respecting patient care directives for same sex partners.  A law addressing bullying in schools.  The right for a lesbian mom to have custody of her children in a divorce.  Another law passed barring employment discrimination against gays and lesbians.  The ability for a transgender person to receive gender re-assignment surgery in this country.  The allowing for transgenders to state their self-identified gender on a US passport.

These on their own do not seem like huge victories.  But taken together they begin to add up to represent equal treatment under the law.  They begin to sound like justice.

Howard Zinn ended his essay with this:  “if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.[12]

Rev. Barbara Wells ten Hove wrote, “Despite all that we do wrong, all the wrong that is done to us and the suffering we cause and endure, love is always, always there. Our job as Universalists is to preach that love wherever we go and not to scare people about the end. Just hold each other in love and work to bring more love to the world.[13]”   May it be so.


[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/12/arizona-ethnic-studies-la_n_572864.html

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/30/arizona-ethnic-studies-cl_n_558731.html

[3] http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-06-04-altered-mural-arizona-race-debate_N.htm

[4] http://www.uua.org/news/newssubmissions/166693.shtml

[5] “We’ll Build a Land” words Barbara Zanotti (Isaiah/ Amos Adapted) Music Carolyn McDade   as found in Singing the Living Tradition

[6] I heard this statement being made in response to a question about the shrimp industry in Louisiana but cannot find the source.

[7] May 14, 2010 In one of his most famous gaffes, Hayward told The Guardian “the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.” With thousands of gallons pumping into the ocean every day, this small ratio of oil to water is taking a large toll. May 18, 2010 “I think the environmental impact of this disaster is likely to be very, very modest,” Hayward told reporters. That same day, when asked about whether he was able to sleep at night in light of the oil spill’s disastrous effects, he replied, “Of course I can.”   As found at http://money.cnn.com/2010/06/10/news/companies/tony_hayward_quotes.fortune/index.htm

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/us/10access.html

[9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/05/30/underwater-oil-plumes-dis_n_595015.html

[10] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGX7krQYI_4

[11] http://www.thenation.com/article/optimism-uncertainty

[12] Ibid.

[13] From an email by Rev. Barbara Wells ten Hove, used with permission.

The Parable of the Two Sons–a Modern Midrash

A story for all ages that I wrote to complement the sermon I gave on James Luther Adams’ fourth stone of liberal religion: no immaculate conception of virtue and the necessity of social incarnation.  It was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 14 March 2010 (c).  This is based on the parable from Matthew 21: 28-32.

Once upon a time, there was a family that was known through out the town for their goodness. This family was held in high esteem by everyone. If there was ever a dispute between neighbors, this family was able to find a solution that worked for both parties. If there was ever a need in the community, this family was able to support the filling of that need. This was a good family. They believed that actions that resulted in the expansion of good were important in order to have a wonderful and loving community.

Now there were two sons in this family of roughly the same age. Wherever they went, they met people who told them what a good family they came from. Hearing these things made them feel good.

In school, the teachers would tell them, “Jason and Bryan, you come from such a good family. We know your grandfather, what a good man he is. He has been so very helpful to the community. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have clean water here because he found a way to purify the wells that were contaminated.” Their grandfather was head of the city health department and made sure that the city had clean water.

The school’s foot ball coach would say, “Bryan and Jason, I know your father. He is such a good man. Why if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have a decent volunteer firehouse with a Hook and Ladder truck.” Their father was a volunteer firefighter and helped organize the community to raise the money for the truck to ensure they were ready in case the taller buildings had a major fire. One such fire happened and because they had a Hook and Ladder truck they were able to prevent a tall building from burning to the ground. More importantly the fire fighters were able to save a family that was trapped on the upper floors.

There was another time when a complete stranger came up to them and said, “Aren’t you Elizabeth’s sons?” They shook their heads, yes. “Well, your mom is one of the finest women in town. She helped my children have access to the town library because it wasn’t wheelchair accessible. You see, my two children were born with physical disabilities and they are unable to walk. But your mom worked with the library and the city to find the money to put in ramps to enable my children and other children like mine to use the library. I am so glad to have met you fine young men.”

Everywhere Bryan and Jason went there were accolades given to their family about all the good things their family did for others. The stories of how their family made the community better for others continued to be told. And in time Bryan and Jason came to believe that they were good simply because they came from a good family.

Then one day something happened at school. Bryan and Jason told their parents about it. There were two girls who wanted to go to the school dance as a couple and were told that they could not go; only boy/girl couples could go. Their parents asked them if it was fair that a girl couple be denied to attend the dance. After some discussion, their parents asked Jason and Bryan if they would be willing to start a petition to give to the school board requesting these girls to be allowed to go to their dance. Jason said he would not because he didn’t want to be made fun of by his football team. Bryan said he would do it. But Bryan did not start the petition. He decided he didn’t care if two girls could go to the prom or not after all it didn’t affect him any.

Jason begin to think of his grandfather’s work with getting clean water, his father’s work on having a fire truck, his mother’s work on having wheelchair ramps at the library. He remembered all these good things that his family did to help others and so he changed his mind and began the petition after all. Jason reasoned that if the school could tell two girls they couldn’t go to the school prom, what else would they do to keep people from being themselves? On Saint Patrick’s Day would they keep him from wearing the green plaid kilt his aunt bought him in Ireland to honor his Irish heritage?

So Jason circulated the petition. Teachers, students, and community members signed it. He received so many signatures that the school board decided to allow the girls to go to the dance as a couple.

Now sometimes, Bryan gets asked if Jason is his brother. When he tells them yes, he is told, “Jason is a fine young man. He stood up to fight an injustice in the school. If he hadn’t done that, then girl couples and boy couples who wanted to go to the dance would not be allowed. He is a good man just like his parents and grandparents.”

Bryan tells them that he initially wanted to help with the petition and that Jason did not. They reply, “But did you act on your good intention?” No, Bryan would shake his head. They would sigh and say, “Good intentions mean nothing; it is good actions that make a difference.”

Five Smooth Stones: A Just and Loving Community

“Five Smooth Stones: A Just and Loving Community” By Rev. Fred L Hammond  14 February 2010 © Delivered at Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

Over the last several months we have examined Unitarian Universalist Theologian James Luther Adams Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion.  We looked at the first two stones;  Revelation is Continuous—the idea that new understandings of the mystery of life are always unfolding; and Mutual Consent –the idea that relations between people ought to be free of coercion and rest instead on the mutual, free consent of each person.   Today we will explore the third smooth stone: A Just and Loving Community.  

James Luther Adams suggests that there is a “moral obligation to direct ones efforts towards the establishment of a just and loving community.”  He suggests that the meaning of life is found when one participates in the “processes that give body and form to universal justice.”   And Adams suggests that this universal justice is none other than what Jesus proclaimed as the reign of god, which can also be called the reign of love.  As Adams describes it, it is a “sustaining, commanding, transforming reality… a love that that fulfills and goes beyond justice, a love that cares for the fullest personal good of all.” 

He also states that it cannot be achieved through “exclusive devotion to rituals, or by devotion to blood and soil, or by self-serving piety.”  We see all these forms today.  

Devotion to blood and soil perhaps was most widely known as the ideology put into practice within Nazi Germany where there was an emphasis on one’s ethnicity / blood and homeland / soil.  The ideology celebrated a people’s relationship to the territory they occupied and the virtues of rural living.   We see this ideology surfacing in conservative political and religious circles when ever there is a statement along the lines of America for Americans first, or that cities are today’s Sodom and Gomorrah, or that disasters are god’s way of cleansing the evil from a region—think of the statements made about New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or Haiti after the earthquakes.  

So we have in our society today the rise of devotion to blood and soil in how certain groups want to handle immigration reform.  These groups believe that our nation would preserve its freedom, would save the economy and their jobs, would preserve the English language, if all immigrants were rounded up like vermin and deported, if they were denied basic medical care and housing.  The phrase “I am not my brother’s keeper” is sometimes heard from members of these groups who believe that immigrants should not only be stopped but shot at the border.  

Ironically, this phrase is from the Genesis story where God has heard the spirit of Abel groaning from the earth where his body has been killed by Cain.  God asks Cain, “where is your brother Abel?”  And Cain responds by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”   The answer to that question was an implied yes and Cain was banished from the land.  

The Jews who wrote this text had a law in Leviticus that went further than just being their brother’s keeper. The law declared that foreigners living in their land would be treated with decency and respect as if the person were them.  “The alien who resides with you shall be as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 19:34)   Not every idea in Leviticus is irrelevant for today’s society.     

This particular passage points to the just and loving community and is referred to by Jesus in his teaching of loving your neighbor as yourself.  It points to a greater understanding of what is our moral obligation. Devotion to blood and soil states moral obligation is only that which serves a nation’s ethnic purity and in America’s case I would highlight its white heritage purity.  The rage against immigrants, particularly those immigrants from Central and South American countries, is racial rage.    

Exclusive devotion to rituals is referring to the shell of religious life.  I use the term religious in its broadest most generic sense.  The practices in and of themselves in a routinized fashion is not what gives life meaning.  It is not the measuring out of our lives with coffee spoons.  Rituals may give life structure and form but they do not give life meaning.  There are many people however that have given over their lives to the routines or the outward appearance of a particular lifestyle and believe that this alone will save them or preserve them as good people. Rituals may point to something greater than ourselves but ritual is not the something greater in and of itself.       

Self-serving piety would be holding a form of devotion in order to be perceived in better lights than others while not living out the basic values that piety belies.  We see it in TV evangelicals who have swindled millions of dollars from common folk by being placed on a pedestal of moral living and then crash with a scandalous affair.   We see it in politicians that proclaim and portray themselves as tough on crime and then are caught in embezzlement or some other illegal activity.  

This is the piety of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the time of Jesus.  Perhaps the best example is in the story of the Good Samaritan where the Pharisee and Sadducee crossed to the other side of the road so as not to be defiled by the wounded man left for dead.  Samaritans, as you may recall, were people who were born on the wrong side of the tracks. They were considered to be less than human in Jesus’ day.  To place this story in context it was told as an answer to the question, who is my neighbor?

All of these positions; the blood and soil, exclusive use of ritual, or self-serving piety, neither deliver a meaningful life nor assist in the establishment of a just and loving community.  So what would a just and loving community look like in the 21st century of the Common Era?  

We live in a nation where the white hegemony that has ruled this nation since its founding is coming to an end.  It is not ending willingly.  The force of institutional racism through partnership with its closely related cousin known as classism has in recent history done much to ensure its survival but it is and surely will be coming to an end.  In less than 25 years, European-Americans will be a minority population in this country. 

We live in a nation that has an increasing pluralism of ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures.  It was a misnomer to call this nation a melting pot, if anything we have become a buffet table of a wide assortment of experiences.  And we tend to choose from that buffet table what we are most comfortable with rather than tasting the full range of delights.  Yet, if we are to survive as a nation of the people, for the people and by the people, we need to become comfortable with our neighbors.   We need to begin to see our neighbors as our selves.  

Ensuring that the freedoms, the privileges that white heterosexual males have in this country are extended to everyone becomes an imperative.  It means that the work that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., that feminist activist Gloria Steinem, that gay activist Harvey Milk, that worker rights activist César Chávez began in the last century; this work must continue to expand the recognition of rights and equality for all people in this century.  

James Fowler in the late 1970’s proposed a series of stages of faith much akin to Piaget’s theory of cognitve development or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.  It is important to look briefly at Fowler’s stages of faith as it pertains to the establishment of a just and loving community.  

Fowler posits that there are seven stages of faith that begin at birth and develop through out our lifetimes.  These stages begin with Stage zero or primal stage, and move through the Intuitive-projective stage, Mythic-literal stage, Conventional stage, Individual Reflective, Conjunctive, and finally stage 6 or Universalizing stage.    

The majority of adults appear to be somewhere between the Mythic-Literal and Conventional stages of faith.  These are the stages where literal interpretations and conformity are valued.  The person or group in these stages believe that their story is the true story. There is a desire to have others conform to their story. A transition to the conventional stage is where the conflict of the creation story and theory of evolution begins.  Throughout this country we have seen a legislative battle over whether or not to teach creationism in schools as a legitimate scientific theory.  I use this example as one indication of where many people are in their faith development.    

Stage Four: Individual Reflective is the stage where many but not all Unitarian Universalists may find themselves.   It is the stage where individuals begin to take responsibility for their own “commitments, lifestyle, beliefs and attitudes.”[1]  The notion of individuality is strong. The recognition of one part of our congregational polity is understood in this stage and that is ‘you are not the boss of me.’ The other part of congregational polity may not yet be understood and that is the covenantal relationship with other congregations and with each other.   This stage contains a strength in critical reflection on individual identity and the world outlook but this can also be its weakness with an overconfidence in the mind and critical thought.  

Because many of our members are what we have called come-outers, meaning that they have come out of another faith tradition and found Unitarian Universalism, those Unitarian Universalists in this stage may also experience a disillusionment of symbolism that once held meaning and purpose.  

Stage five: Conjunctive Faith is the beginning of a re-integration and reworking of one’s past.  “Ready for closeness to that which is different and threatening to self and outlook (including new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation), this stage’s commitment to justice is freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation.”[2]

And finally, Stage 6:  Universalizing is rarely realized.  “The persons best described by it have generated faith compositions in which their felt sense of an ultimate environment is inclusive of all being. They have become incarnators and actualizers of the spirit of an inclusive and fulfilled human community.”[3]  Many of these people are killed for their universalizing faith, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, or are honored and revered more after their deaths, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Mother Theresa.  These individuals may be described as simple and lucid in their presentation but also seemingly more alive, more human than the rest of us; Thich Nhat Hahn and His Holiness Dalai Lama. 

So what do Fowler’s stages of faith development have to inform us about the just and loving community?  First let me state that these stages can and have been experienced in any faith tradition.  But it seems to me that if Unitarian Universalists as liberal religious folk are going to seek to fulfill their unifying principles, including “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all,” then we need to willingly allow our development of faith to be stretched to our growing edges to enable more of us to enter Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith.

How can this happen?  I stated earlier that “we live in a nation that has an increasing pluralism of ethnicities, languages, religions, and cultures.”  I also stated that in less than 25 years the white hegemony that has ruled this nation will no longer be the dominant culture in this nation.  As a nation, we have been in transition for the last 50 years with the emergence of many leaders advancing many causes for equality and justice.  It has not been easy work. Our denomination has been on the side of love with each of these causes for freedom and equality and we can be proud of our denominations stance on these pluralistic issues.   But it is important and vital work that each one of us must undertake if we are going to not only survive but thrive in this major transition in culture.   

There is going to be, and I am making a prediction here, many, many people who have been in the second and third stages of faith development who are going to find their stage of faith no longer working in the coming paradigm shift.  Where will they go?  Will they simply drop out?  Will they come through our doors and find a place where they are accepted with their questions, their differing cultures, and their differing ways of speaking their truth? 

My hunch is that many will come through our doors.  Will we be ready to receive them?  Jacqueline Lewis in her ground breaking work, “The Power of Stories: A guide for leading multiracial multicultural congregations” suggests that congregations need “to have in common some aspects of indentity, social and psychological factors, which make them resistant to the dominant culture’s views on openess and diversity.  They are able to be empathic, to fully welcome the other, to hold together cultural diversity to manage the conflict and change issues that often accompany difference, and to help others do the same.”[4] 

This means that we need to be able to speak to their cultural backgrounds;  have a “holding environment,” an embracing space for them to explore their faith and transition to another stage of faith development.  Jacqueline Lewis suggests that our faith communities / congregations can become places where our stories are told and re-told in light of the relations we develop with one another.  We shape each other with our stories. 

As of now, we are not predominantly a multi-cultural multi-racial congregation.  We need to begin to listen to others’  journeys of faith.   So one way for us to be ready for this increasing pluralistic society is to listen to each other’s stories.   We need to take seriously our denomination’s call to become a faith that is firmly committed to being a racially equitable, societally liberating, and  and multi-cultural faith.  We still have some barriers in our congregation’ s and denomination’s makeup that hinder this potential reality.   We have some Adult exploration of these issues to be done. 

One of the reasons why I am excited about our friendship with University Presbyterian Church is because it gives us a chance to practice in listening to their stories of faith and for us to tell ours in a relatively non-threatening environment.  We are both liberal religious congregations so there is already some common ground inherent in our make-up.  We are both designated as congregations that are welcoming and affirming of sexual minorities.  Yet, we have a diversity in how we make sense of our world.  It is vital for us to be able to listen to others that we may disagree with doctrinally but can whole-heartedly respect their integrity and expression of their faith. It is important for us to create a space for them here in this place.  This is a universalizing message. 

Can we welcome and embrace the family that arrives from a different faith tradition and perhaps even a minority culture and listen to their story and affirm where they are at in their faith journey?  I want to say yes. 

I want to be able to say that we have embraced the idea that the creating of a just and loving community begins with us here in this place, with one another.  It is our moral obligation as members of a liberal religious faith.  It is what makes us Unitarian Universalists.  Creating the just and loving community is part of our saving message to the world.   Blessed Be. 


Quotes from James Luther Adams are from his essay  The Five Smooth Stones Of Liberalism.  Leviticus 19:34 is from the New Revised Standard Version.

[1] From Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232

[2] From Joann Wolski Conn (ed.), Women’s Spirituality: Resources for Christian Development. (Paulist, 1986), pp. 226-232. 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jacqueline Lewis, “The Power of Stories: A guide for leading multiracial multicultural congregations” locations 36-42 on Kindle

Sermon: Five Smooth Stones: Mutual Consent

(This is the second of a series of sermons at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa reflecting on James Luther Adams’ Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Relgion.  8 November 2009 (c) )

Reading: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors by James Luther Adams (From a sermon he presented at Appleton Chapel in Harvard University’s Memorial Church, Cambridge, MA in 1984.) 

In the old days at Harvard, earlier in this [20th] century, the former Appleton Chapel was located on this spot where we are at this moment.  At the worship services that much larger chapel was filled with hundreds of students.  The reason for this is simple. Attendance was required.

In those days the doors were locked when the bells stopped ringing.  No late students could enter the chapel.  The monitors then stood in their several places to record the absentees. 

On the occasion when required attendance was formally abolished at the instigation of the university preacher, Professor Francis Greenwood Peabody, he said in his address that he had been studying compulsory attendance at chapel in various parts of the commonwealth, including the state penitentiary in Concord.  The only difference he could find, he said, between chapel services at Harvard and those at the Concord penitentiary was that in Concord the monitors carried guns, an appropriate symbol for coercion.  For some years the Yale Chapel retained the practice of required attendance.  I recall that Dean Willard Sperry of Harvard Divinity School reported that when he was guest preacher at Yale he could not from the pulpit see the faces of the students.  In protest against compulsory attendance they hid themselves behind their newspapers, and the preacher could see only an expansive patchwork quilt of unfolded newspapers.  Subsequently, Yale Chapel also abolished the practice.  We may say that the abolition of required attendance means that religion and compulsion are by nature incompatible.

Five Smooth Stones: Mutual Consent

We last left our hero, James Luther Adams, a prominent 20th century liberal theologian with the first stone of liberal religion. To recap, Adams speaks of five components that are essential to liberal religion. 

“These five components were titled the Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion based on the biblical story of young David who single-handedly slew the opposing giant and enemy of the country with five smooth stones and a slingshot.    These stones are the following:  1) Continuous revelation, 2) Mutual consent and not coercion need to be the basis of all human relations 3) Moral obligation towards the establishment of a just and loving community 4) Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation and 5) the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.”[1] 

The second stone of liberal religion is “Mutual consent and not coercion need to be the basis of all human relations.”  Now it may seem like common sense to us that this indeed needs to be the case.  It is part of our heritage as religious liberals.  But recent events reveal to us that mutual consent is not the experience of all human relations. 

It has even been argued that there are times when mutual consent is not even the best way to behave in some human relations.  We saw this argument being played out in the defense of using torture to interrogate known and alleged terrorists. 

Former President Bush in defending the use of torture (as defined by the 1984 Convention Against Torture which was signed by President Reagan and ratified by the US Senate in 1994) said in a radio address explaining his veto against a congressional bill against water-boarding and other abusive interrogation techniques: “This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe. …We created alternative procedures to question the most dangerous al-Qaeda operatives, particularly those who might have knowledge of attacks planned on our homeland.” Bush said. “If we were to shut down this program and restrict the CIA to methods in the [Army] field manual, we could lose vital information from senior al-Qaeda terrorists, and that could cost American lives.” [2]

 My point here is not to debate whether a former president did or did not violate an international agreement on torture; nor whether he was correct in his statements that torture yielded accurate and vital information regarding terrorist activities to attack the US.  My point is that the use of torture in any format is an extreme use of coercion in human relations and therefore violates one of the principal cornerstones of liberal religion.

So where did this notion of mutual consent in human relations originate and become part of the liberal branch of religion?   Adams argues that just like chickens that establish a pecking order, “Liberalism, in its social articulation, might be defined as a protest against ‘pecking orders’” in favor of mutual consent.  Mutual consent has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the gospel records of Jesus’ teachings.  It resurfaced in the Reformation with the teachings of Martin Luther declaring the priesthood of all believers.   It found its way into the foundations of the early congregations in New England with the Cambridge Platform, a covenant honoring the mutual consent of autonomy between congregations.  This protest continues today and is most noted in the vote against the prescribed pecking order of this society with the overwhelming election of America’s first African American as president.   

Adams states, “This protest often found its sanction in the basic theological assertion that all are children of one God, by which is meant that all persons by nature potentially share in the deepest meanings of existence, all have the capacity for discovering or responding to ‘saving truth,’ and all are responsible for selecting and putting into action the right means and ends of cooperation for the fulfillment of human destiny.”[3]

It is from this theological basis that free inquiry is essential to liberal religions as well as liberal societies and governments.  If a person is seeking infallible guidance, Adams states, “they are not going to find it in liberal religion.”  The refusal to submit to divine authority –be it a pope, scriptures, or doctrine has been stated as our mortal sin from the true path of orthodoxy.  Adams answers this charge by stating it is pretentious pride for anyone thinking “capable of recognizing infallibility, for they must themselves claim to be infallible in order to identify the infallible.”[4]

Yet, the process against the pecking order towards mutual consent is found in the free inquiry and study of “the words of the prophets, in the deeds of saintly men and women, and in the growing knowledge” of human nature and the universe through the sciences “that evoke the free loyalty and conviction of people exposed to them in open discourse.”

To evoke the free loyalty and conviction of people through open discourse is perhaps the biggest challenge that we face today in this country.  There are those from conservative religious circles that want to coerce society to resemble their ideals, their theology, their hardened rules and protocols denying the words of the prophets, denying the saintly deeds of men and women, denying growing body of knowledge on human nature and sciences that contradict the doctrines that they claim as divine truth.

These conservative religious bodies seek to pre-empt open discourse by using platitudes and rhetoric that no longer have any authoritative weight except within their circles of faith.  To engage openly and honestly without resorting to doctrines and rhetoric would perhaps cause their own faith to begin to question their prized doctrines and see the bondage in which they have trapped themselves.  Yet if they were to enter into open dialogical debate without resorting to two thousand year old texts; they would find their faith come alive in amazing transforming ways converting them to honor the ever more inclusive spirit of love. 

I speak from my own spiritual journey of conservative Christianity to liberal Unitarian Universalism.  It was with openness to mutual consent, a covenant of being, that I entered into this dialogue and found the waters there liberating me to love justice in new and profound ways.

I mentioned torture as being an extreme form of coercion.  Tactics used to coerce information do only one thing; they rape the individual of their dignity of being human.  Tactics that deny the bodies of knowledge from the psychological and sociological sciences that detail the harm done to the person.   These tactics of coercion reduce the person to an object, a thing and in doing so reduce the abuser to an object as well. 

But there are other forms of coercion occurring today that requires noting.  One is the long standing battle to have prayer in the public schools. This resurfaces every couple of years since it was removed from schools in 1962 as being unconstitutional.   It is a form of coercion of the conservative religious to insist that a public prayer be said.  The question remains as to whose prayer would be said?  A Christian Prayer complete with “In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray?”  Or a Muslim prayer?  A Hindi prayer?  A Buddhist Metta?  A Wiccan chant?  And who decides? 

Several years ago now, the UU congregation in Danbury, CT sought to place an advertisement in the local paper.  It was an ad developed by the denomination.  It showed a photograph of two women with the headline: God does not have to be male, straight and white.  The newspaper refused to publish it as they felt it did not match the moral standards of the community.   It is argued by prayer in school proponents that the moral standards of the community would be the measure in which to choose the public prayers in school.   And when they state moral standards they mean their particular brand of moral standard. 

Our reading this morning by James Luther Adams highlights the incompatibility of compulsion and religion.  But the incompatibility is far more sinister than that.  Adams discusses Reagan’s argument for a constitutional amendment for public prayer in schools.  Reagan harkened back to the ancient civilizations of Rome and Greece falling because they had abandoned their gods.  He believed the alleged decline of morality in this country is the result of our doing the same.  Adams states Reagan’s defense calls “for the revival of a compulsory feature of the authoritarian government of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.” It was the practice of the magistrate to enforce the faith of the church and to “wield the secular arm on behalf of God and country.” [5]  It is this practice that the conservative religious wish to impose on the rest of the country with the public prayer in school debate. 

President James Madison in summarizing the First Amendment said, “Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience, or that one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.”[6]  It is this compelling others to conform that liberal religion opposes.  

We find this coercion to conform in the continuing battle to overturn Roe v Wade.  There is a doctrinal belief of those seeking to define the rights of a woman over her own body as being equivalent to murder and seeking equal rights protection for the unborn.  The problem is not that a religious doctrine exists for members of a specific religious group regarding prohibiting abortion.  The problem is compelling others who do not belong to their religious group to abide by their doctrines.     

There is also the coercion of conservative religious regarding the equal marriage amendment that failed by a mere five percent difference in Maine this past week.  Those wanting equal marriage rights argued for the right to define what is a loving marriage and family and for those definitions to be honored by the state.  Those not wanting same gender marriages to be recognized used coercive tactics of fear to compel the voters in Maine to vote down the amendment which would have ratified the legislative vote of the previous session.  Their doctrine that marriage is defined by one man one woman is based solely on a selective reading and interpretation of texts from a culture we can never fully understand.  They have declared their doctrine to be the only correct one and are attempting to compel other religious and non-religious groups to adhere to that doctrine.  It is a coercive act to place inalienable rights of whom one can enter into a covenanted relationship with, such as marriage, to the vote of the majority.   There is a powerful commercial where a young man goes door to door, from village to village, asking if he may have the hand of his love in marriage.  The covenant of marriage is a local covenant; to have to seek federal or state approval is a sign of the coercive powers of oppression. 

Many in Maine and in California believe that the denial of recognizing same gender marriage under the law means they are in the right.  However, time will prove that where people are free to govern their own bodies, to form with love and respect their own relationships and have these decisions be honored by the governments in which they live is a more dignified way to live. 

Liberal religions, Unitarian Universalists as one example, are often criticized for allowing diverse opinions to being shared within the realm of the congregation.  It is the erroneous thought that we stand for nothing or that we can believe whatever because we allow and even encourage the expression of diverse opinions. On the contrary it is with deeply held convictions that we seek to allow our individual voices to be heard. 

We have come to understand that revelation is continuous and therefore may arise out of any sector of our congregation and from any sector of our society.  Therefore we seek to ensure that all are free to live their lives to their fullest potential.  We seek to remove the impediments of oppression where ever they may be found.  

James Luther Adams wrote:  “I call that church free which in charity promotes freedom in fellowship, seeking unity in diversity. This unity is a potential gift, sought through devotion to the transforming power of creative interchange in generous dialogue.  But it will remain unity in diversity.”

The path towards mutual consent is a path fraught with rocks of incomplete understandings.  It is therefore a continuous evolution of new insights and understandings that can only be discovered in an open dialogue.   It means that not everyone will be on the same page at the same time.  It means that some will have the same information and interpret it with slightly different nuances but if those people are able to remain open to those who have come to slightly different interpretations; then a more complete understanding may prevail.  Liberal religion seeks to be the place where these discussions can take place. 

We liberal religious folks tend to shy away from being evangelical regarding our faith, yet it is important that our message is heard in the market place of ideas.  Not in a coercive manner compelling others to believe as we do but in a consensual manner where all voices are respected and heard. In doing so, liberal religion seeks to be the yeast that leavens the whole of society towards justice and equality for all. 


[1] Fred L Hammond,  Sermon Five Smooth Stones: Continuous Revelation,  October 25, 2009  UUCT

[2] as found at  http://pubrecord.org/torture/160/bushs-torture-quote-undercuts-denial/

[3] Adams, Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism as found in The Guiding Principles for a Free Faith.

[4] IBID

[5] Adams, Good Fences Make Good Neighbors  The Prophethood of All Believers, ed. by George K. Beach

[6] Annals of Congress, Sat Aug 15th, 1789 pages 730 – 731  as found at http://candst.tripod.com/tnppage/qmadison.htm

Sermon: Five Smooth Stones: Continuous Revelation

(This is the first of a series of sermons at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa reflecting on James Luther Adams’ Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Relgion. 25 October 2009 (c) )

Reading: The Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism by James Luther Adams 

Whatever the destiny of the planet or the individual life, a sustaining meaning is discernable and commanding in the here and now.  Anyone who denies this denies that there is anything worth taking seriously or even worth talking about. Every blade of grass, every work of art, every scientific endeavor, every striving for righteousness bears witness to this meaning.  Indeed, every frustration or perversion of truth, beauty, or goodness also bears this witness, as the shadow points round to the sun.

One way of characterizing this meaning is to say that through it God is active or is in the process of self-fulfillment in nature and history.  To be sure, the word “God” is so heavily laden with unacceptable connotations that it is for many people scarcely usable without confusion.  It is therefore well for us to indicate briefly what the word signifies here.  In considering this definition, however, the reader should remember that among liberals, no formulation is definitive and mandatory.  Indeed, the word “God” may in the present context be replaced by the phrase “that which ultimately concerns humanity” or “that in which we should place our confidence.” 

God (or that in which we may have faith) is the inescapable, commanding reality that sustains and transforms all meaningful existence.  It is inescapable, for no one can live without somehow coming to terms with it.  It is commanding, for it provides the structure or the process through which existence is maintained and by which any meaningful achievement is realized.  Indeed, every meaning in life is related to this commanding meaning, which no one can manipulate and which stands beyond every merely personal preference or whim. It is transforming, for it breaks through any given achievement, it invades any mind or heart open to it, luring it on to richer or more relevant achievement; it is a surpassing reality.  God is the reality that works upon us and through us and in accord with which we can discern truth, beauty or goodness.  It is that reality which works in nature, history, and thought and under certain conditions creates human good in human community.  Where these conditions are not met, human good, as sure as night follows the day, will be frustrated or perverted. True freedom and individual or social health will be impaired.

 Five Smooth Stones: Continuous Revelation

I had two dreams recently that I found to be quite interesting to me because they had to do with previous eras of my life.  Both are periods of my life that in contrast to where I am today are foreign to me.  

In the first dream, I am in a charismatic prayer meeting.  I didn’t recognize the place but I had a friend of mine from seminary at this meeting.  And I am much younger in this dream; I am the age I was when I would attend such meetings.  And if this dream were truly accurate in its time span, that would have meant my seminarian friend would have been a young teen since he is about fifteen years my junior but he is not, he is the age I first met him making us roughly the same age.   In the dream, John is seized in the spirit and begins to sing a song, two verses.  He finishes and then I am seized in the spirit and sing the final verse of the song.  The people in the meeting tell us that we must write the song down in order to preserve this song and we begin a search for pen and paper.  Which cannot be found.  So I am singing my verse over and over again so that I would not forget the words that had moved the congregation so very much…

(sings) “Praise god in the morning, praise god in the evening, praise god every day, that’s what I do.” 

Catchy tune right?  Time passes and I am still searching for pen and paper. I travel to distant lands and cultures looking for pen and paper and still I cannot find them.  Finally I stop at a fish market and there is yesterday’s NY Daily News.  The newspaper used to wrap the fish in.  And I tear off the front page and grab the wax crayon and write down the song.  End of dream. 

The second dream I am at some point in the not too distant future and sent back in time to the late 1980’s.  It is the height of the AIDS pandemic in terms of fear.  Remember the time period of the 1980’s in relation to AIDS. There is no true understanding of how this virus is working.  There are no effective medications.  AZT the first anti-retroviral drug to be used on people with AIDS is still in clinical trials.  People who are diagnosed with AIDS are told to get their affairs in order because they have less than a year to live.  The gaunt eyes, the skin draped skeletal figures of those with AIDS is a haunting image that appear in this dream and are in my memory of this period.   People with AIDS are still quarantined in hospitals and nurses and doctors alike will refuse to treat them for fear of contracting the disease.  

Here I am, from the future, knowing that this present condition regarding AIDS will not last.  In fact, it is at a close because in a few years there will be not just one medication to attack the virus that causes AIDS but several kinds of medications that combined will cause what the medical world called the Lazarus effect.  People will rise up from their death beds and regain health and live with the virus for perhaps their normal life span. 

 In my dream I am trying to tell these people with AIDS what I know to be true.  But I not only knew what was in their immediate future in terms of medical breakthroughs with medications, I knew that a vaccine was created that acted similar to the anti-retroviral cocktails that attacked the virus from different angles.  The vaccine released a variety of anti-bodies doing the same kind of multiple front attacks, thereby keeping the virus from being able to get a foothold in the body in the first place.  I knew this because I was coming to them from a future that was even further in the distance than the present day.   

Stating these future events to these people was like telling them some piece of fiction.  It could not be comprehended.  They did not know, could not know, if they would be among those who would live long enough to receive the multiple drug cocktail that would shrink the specter of AIDS to an aggressively managed chronic disease let alone live long enough to see a vaccine that would effectively place HIV on the shelf like smallpox.  The dream ends with these people looking at me with blank faces of total dismay at my words of what will be true. 

I have an interesting dreamscape.  Place these dream stories on hold for a moment. 

 James Luther Adams, the most prominent of Unitarian Universalist theologians in the 20th century talked about five components that made liberal religion vital for this day and age.   These five components were crucial not only to liberal religion but crucial to the history of humanity because it is liberal religion that has influenced the course of history towards the reign of heaven.   If these five components are to fade away from liberal religion then what we are left with is a return to theocracy, a hierarchal authoritarian rule both in religion and in the state.  

These five components were titled the Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion based on the biblical story of young David who single-handedly slew the opposing giant and enemy of the country with five smooth stones and a slingshot.    These stones are the following:  1) Continuous revelation, 2) Mutual consent and not coercion need to be the basis of all human relations 3) Moral obligation towards the establishment of a just and loving community 4) Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirm the necessity of social incarnation and 5) the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. 

These smooth stones Adams suggests arose out of the reformation in the 1500’s and 1600’s.  James Luther Adams writes: 

“We of the Free Church tradition should never forget, or permit our contemporaries to forget, that the decisive resistance to authoritarianism in both church and state, and the beginning of the modern democracy, appeared first in the church and not in the political order.  The churches of the left wing of the Reformation held that the churches of the right wing had effected only half a reformation.  They gave to Pentecost a new and extended meaning.  They demanded a church in which every member, under the power of the Spirit, would have the privilege and the responsibility of interpreting the Gospel and also of assisting to determine the policy of the church. The new church was to make way for a radical laicism—that is, for the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers.  ‘The Spirit blows where it wills.’

 “Out of this rediscovery of the doctrine of the Spirit came the principles of Independency: local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, the separation of church and state.”[1] 

It was out of this movement of liberal religion that our democracy was born and has its being. It was liberal religion that influenced the core concepts of the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to our constitution and the Bill of Rights.  The revelation that began to occur in the reformation and dare I say had its roots in the primitive church of Christianity but was thwarted by the conservative branch of the church; continued to grow and blossomed into the life we now enjoy and take for granted.  

James Luther Adams first smooth stone is that revelation is continuous. There is always something new to be revealed. There is always something new to be uncovered. 

And therefore, as our morning quote for reflection  of Adams states, because revelation is continuous then “Nothing is complete and thus nothing is exempt from criticism.” 

Let’s take apart this notion of revelation.  What is it?  In a strictly mystical sense, revelation is something that is transcendental.  It transcends the current state of affairs with information that was previously unknown.  Our myth stories are filled with oracles and prophets who have an uncanny supernatural ability to see and hear what no one else can and therefore are able to grant wisdom to the listener or seeker of such wisdom.  That is one kind of revelation. 

But revelation has another meaning as well.  It is the by-product of reason.  It is the reviewing of current evidence in a manner that sheds new insights into problems or situations that benefit others.  We see this in the sciences where scientists looking at the evidence begin to conjecture theories and then seek to prove or disprove those theories.   Copernicus looking at the stars, the moon, and the sun had a revelation that perhaps it is the earth that revolves around the sun and not the sun around the earth.  That was a revelation.  It altered the way humanity looked at itself.  But that revelation hasn’t ended, we now know that we are part of a galaxy and that our solar system revolves around the center of our galaxy.  There are clusters of stars that also revolve around our galaxy.  And the galaxy is also moving in space and is revolving around something.  As our technology increases to reveal new things in the universe, our revelation about this universe will also unfold.  Revelation is continuous. 

It has been about 18 years since I last attended a charismatic prayer meeting.  I was excommunicated from the group because of my own personal revelation. It was a revelation they were not able to comprehend.  And since that time my understanding of who or what god is has changed.  

What made my dream regarding attending the charismatic prayer meeting and having this moment of ecstasy where I sang my song interesting is that it is yesterday’s moment.  In my dream I sought to hang on to the moment as I searched for means to write it down.  Writing it down became all important as if that would somehow preserve the moment of transcendence. I forgot what the words were that my friend John had sung.  And the words I wrote down were nothing profound.  Not profound as they were in the moment they were first uttered anyway.  

In the almost two decades since I could have sung such a song of praise to god, my definition and experience of god has changed.  Then it was a loving entity that cared for her children, today it is all that is and all that is not, the amorphous je ne sais quois that has no sentient quality unto itself but yet continually is creating expressions of life and expressions of beauty.  Today my praise and thanksgiving is to life itself, to love eternal, to the creative interchange as the theologian Wieman would describe it.  And that is today, tomorrow my understanding may expand again.  

Conservative faiths regardless of their doctrines attempt to capture the revelation in its initial revealing and hold it in its place.  How does one catch the wind that blows where it will?  Conservative faiths attempt to freeze the event and the meaning of that event.  But in the process of attempting to preserve it, they lose the spirit of what inspired the moment.  The spirit has already blown to somewhere else.   Conservative faiths insist that the entire world has to abide by that meaning and that understanding of the event.  I suppose it is comforting to know that something is the same today as it was yesterday but that something is nothing more than an aging portrait of Dorian Grey.  It will distort in time and become an evil that seeks to control and manipulate its followers instead of offering liberty and release as it once did. 

What is ironic is that the arc of history as Martin Luther King, Jr., stated is always bending towards justice.  Even conservative faiths will release their revelations that no longer serve them well.  Evidence of this is found here in American history, where it was once believed that slavery was ordained, that women have no role in the society, and that to use the belt in disciplining children was god’s way.  Many conservative faiths are abandoning these revelations as no longer being reflective of the love of god.  Those that have not are finding themselves at sometimes perverse and angry odds with society around them.  

The revelation once uttered is already being transformed into new revelation in its interactions with people.  To deny that process of continuing revelation is to deny the transforming power of ever inclusive love, yea, even life itself.   

There is another edge to this sword of revelation being continuous.  And that brings me to the second dream that I had recently. Revelation, be it transcendent or through thoughtful reason, can only be heard by people who are ready to hear them. Unless the people are ready to hear, then it will not be heard. 

In my second dream, the people living with AIDS could not receive any comfort in the promise of a vaccine that was 30 years plus in the future. In their present condition of multiple potentially deadly infections, the idea that they would live 30 years was not a viable reality.  It was also a bit of a stretch that they would survive a few more years when the new medications would be released into the public sphere.  They had this blank look like I was speaking incomprehensible gibber.   

The dream would have had a different outcome if I had as a person from the future with knowledge of the outcome of the HIV/AIDS pandemic began to apply the knowledge based on where those people were at that moment in time.  Perhaps there would have been some basic steps that could have been done so that they would have had a better chance of surviving til the new medications came out.  We now know so much that this pandemic has taught us about nutrition and disease progression that could have been applied in my dream.  

My grandfather’s farm had a hand water pump.  In order for water to come up out of that pump you had to prime the pump by pouring some water down into the pipes.  It is the same with receiving revelation.   The pump has to be primed.  People have to be brought up to speed in order to grasp what the new revelation is—otherwise it is too fantastic to comprehend.  

A few years ago, I was working with a congregation and I presented them with a vision of where they could be as a congregation.  It was a vision of a congregation serving the community by working closely with the minority community in their revitalization programs.  A vision that included affordable housing through increased involvement with Habitat for Humanity, advocacy on the city council to support locally run minority businesses, and increased food access for the poor.  The congregation looked at me like deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.   These vacant translucent eyes shining back at me as if my words were describing a complex mathematical equation on string theory.  It was too huge of a leap for the congregation to see themselves doing this kind of outreach.  They could not see where to begin such a grand vision.  

And so it is with revelation.  A few people may grasp the fuller picture but for many it is the smaller more immediate components that are necessary to begin developing.  The reformation that resulted in a new experiment of democracy in the Americas did not happen over night.  Religious tolerance was not a widespread event in Europe when the idea was first suggested.  It happened first in discussions.  Then tentatively in pockets like Transylvania in the kingdom of John Sigismund. Sometimes these were short lived pockets of tolerance.   People were burned at the stake for these ideas. Wars were fought over these ideas.  Such was the hold of the old revelation, the old way of seeing and being.  But gradually and over time the vision of a land where these ideals could be experienced first hand came to be.   America and other countries in the world are still unfolding that revelation of tolerance of the other.  It still is resisted even in the land of the free and the home of the brave. 

Revelation is continuous.  Revelation is an evolution of thought that spirals outward embracing more and more in its wake.  What are the revelations that are expanding here in this congregation about who we are as a people?  What new insights will we have that can influence the community to be more open; more accepting of others are to be revealed in the days and weeks ahead?  Revelation is continuous.  May we be open to receive it and act upon it in our journey as a people.  Blessed Be.

 


[1] “James Luther Adams, “Our Responsibility in Society”  in The Prophethood of All Believers  page 157

From Cage to Cage

“This struggle [for congregational polity in the 16 /1700's] was a revolutionary institutional struggle, a struggle against the cage of centralized power in church and state and economic order. … But during the past century our society has been moving in the opposite direction, in the direction of a new centralization of power in mammoth bureaucratic government and industry, the fragmentation of responsibility, retreat into privatized religion–all of this in a world of massive poverty and hunger. …A major question today in a world of multinational corporations is how to achieve a separation of powers and consent of the governed, a self-governing society in the midst of corporate structures that are rapidly becoming a new cage. So we have moved from cage to cage.” —  James Luther Adams in “From Cage to Covenant” as found in the text The Prophethood of All Believers.

These words spoken by James Luther Adams in 1975, 34 years ago this month,  ring even truer today than they did then.  A lot has transpired in the past 34 years that make these words of Adams eerily prophetic in the tradition of the great prophets of the Hebrew writings. 

Adams argues that in order to survive this new cage that we need  to develop new covenants that consider “communal responsibility in the economic sphere.”  He details five components of a covenant that he believes is essential for this age.   He posits that (1) humans “become human by making commitment, by making promises. ”   Realizing that this process includes the breaking of these promises with a renewal of making new promises.  He posits  (2) that “the covenant is a covenant of being.”   We covenant with that which is transforming in whatever way we might interpret the transforming.    (3) “The covenant is for the individual as well as for the collective.”  He states that “we are responsible not only for individual behavior but also for the character of the society…”   How we are known in the world is each of our responsibilities.   Perhaps the best way to describe this is to quote Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s famous quote, “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”  This displays the moral character of a nation. 

What is our character  if we are the country where a three month old child can be denied health insurance for being in the 95 percentile of weight for that age of a child?    Or where a person can lose health insurance coverage because the required treatment  is considered by the health company as too costly.  Or where the number one cause of bankruptcies  is due to medical costs.  This is an example of the  “centralization of power in mammoth bureaucratic government and industry.”

Adams posits that (4) the “covenant responsiblity is especially directed toward the deprived.”  Who falls into the gap between the covenant and the system?  This is where our work lies to close the gap so that no one falls “from neglect or injustice.” And (5) the covenant follows a rule of law that is founded in faithfulness and love.  “What holds the world together, according to this dual covenant then, is trustworthiness, eros, love.  Ultimately the ground of faithfulness is the divine or human love that will not let us go.”   

We have our work cut out for ourselves since we did not act to stop the cage from being developed in 1975 to today.  We allowed government to deregulate the protections that have been linked to the financial collapse and resultant recession. The gaps between the working classes and the wealthy are wider than ever before in my lifetime.  The corporate giants of finance,  healthcare, oil, and industry have more of ahold on our lives than ever before stripping us of our endowed rights to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

This is where our congregations can be relevant to an age of individualism and capitalism gone awry.   We can be offering a different message than one that is found in the prosperity gospel driven congregations of our day.   Jesus may indeed want you rich but the richness is in how we relate to one another not in how much money we each have.   If there is a judgment day, it is the day when we are asked whether we have loved our neighbor as ourselves.  It is the day when we are asked if we truly were our brothers and sisters keeper.  How do you fare in this regard?  What are you willing to do differently to honor a new covenant of being?  Blessings,

What are the fruits of our beliefs?

appletree” ‘A man bears beliefs, ‘ said Emerson, ‘as a tree bears apples.’ He bears beliefs about himself, about his fellows, about his work and his play, about his past, about his future, about human destiny. What he loves, what he serves, what he sacrifices for, what he tolerates, what he fights against–these signify his faith. They show what he places his confidence in.” James Luther Adams  wrote these words in 1946 in his essay A Faith for the Free. 

I found these words to resonate a chord with in me as I read and watch the news about events in our country.  I only have questions at this point.  And there are many.  What is our faith if we deny health care to 47 million uninsured americans and millions more with pre-existing conditions?  What is our faith if we feel justified in yelling, “You Lie!” to the President of the United States?   What is our faith if we continue to support business practices that are clearly not in our best self-interest?   What is our faith if we feel comfortable in fighting against others receiving something (government sponsored– taxpayer paid  health care)  that we ourselves benefit from (Our elected officials in Congress) ?  What is our faith if we insist that schools only teach concepts we are in agreement (creationism, euro-centric american history) ?  What is our faith if we teach that some humans (sexual minorities) are abominations?  What is our faith if we insist on citizens being able to own weapons of automated destruction?   What do these things tell us about us as a people? 

If we were to honestly attempt to answer these questions, I think we would find that we are not the religious people who we claim to be.  Our faith seems to be made up of beliefs that are not found in any religious heritage.   We have missed the mark and need to repent of our short comings. 

Perhaps the day will come where we can measure up to the ideals stated by Vice President Hubert Humphrey:  “It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”    We seem to be having trouble with how that government even treats those in the fullness of life.  We can be better.   Blessings,

liberal v conservative religious

I have been thinking about what the terms liberal and conservative mean in religious terms.   It is oft conflated with political leanings and the two do not always readily match up.  

WIkipedia’s definition of Liberal Religion is not entirely correct because it excludes religious perspectives that may indeed have a doctrine.  It is also not entirely correct because it is only using sources from the Unitarian Universalist tradition to define it.  Liberal Religion is a category of which Unitarian Universalism is a sub-category. The two are not synonymous words.   Yet, when I do a google search,  one would think the two are synonymous terms, excluding all others. 

Yet, when I think of Liberal Religion; I think of United Church of Christ, Unity, Religious Science of Mind, and the Union of Reformed Judaism.  I am sure there are others that would fit under a Liberal Religion category.  

The beliefs of these and of Unitarian Universalists are varied and across the spectrum.  United Church of Christ (UCC) is a mainline protestant denomination firmly rooted in the Christian Reformed tradition.  The Union of Reformed Judaism is a movement within the Jewish faith and is the largest Jewish movement in the United States. Unity and Religious Science of Mind have their roots in the 19th century following, among others,  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy ( A Unitarian Minister, making these groups distant cousins of Unitarian Universalism) but expanding it into what is known as the New Thought Movement.

But what makes them liberal in contrast to conservative?  Because our society is defined by its majority religion, Christianity, one of the definitions has to be how one would read the Hebrew and Christian texts aka the Old and New Testament.  What lense does one use in reading these texts? 

I believe it is safe to say that all of these liberal religions read the Hebrew and Christian texts as the story of a people of faith who are journeying together learning who they are in relation to their world and to their God.  These are humans who are applying what they know and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail.  When taking the story as a whole; for Jews it is the whole of the Torah; for Christians it is the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures; they discover that there is an evolution in how God operates in the world which is with increasing generosity of mercy, with justice, and with loving kindness for all of creation.  So this becomes the lense through which these texts are read by liberal religious people. 

The texts are read with this looking for generosity of mercy, justice, and loving kindness.  James Luther Adams, Unitarian Theologian,  defined what he called the five stones of liberalism:
  1. Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly revealed.
  2. All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion.
  3. Affirmation of the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a democratic (a just and loving) community.
  4. Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirmation of the necessity of social incarnation. Good must be consciously given form and power within history.
  5. The resources (divine and human) that are available for achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate (but not necessarily immediate) optimism. There is hope in the ultimate abundance of the Universe. 

A conservative lense reads these texts as not just as a story of a people but as the word of God.  There fore there is power in the text itself.  Revelation is closed.  There is no new revelation of the divine that could be revealed that is not already revealed in the sacred texts.  The Book of Revelation closes with a statement that anyone adds or substracts to this will receive the afflictions included in the book.  Many conservative religious read this as referring to the whole of the Bible and not just the text known as the Book of Revelation.  It is a fairly strict command.  But it exemplifies how conservative religious view their faith in a theological context.

This explains the animosity between conservative religions and science.  Science being the new revealed revelation that cannot be true because revelation is closed.  So it is difficult for conservative religions then to reconcile science’s evolution to the Genesis story of Creation.  Even tho from a liberal point of view, the Genesis creation story as an ancient metaphor fits nicely with the Big Bang theory of all that is around us. 

It explains the animosity Conservative religions have regarding societal changes towards justice for all people.  Because there are texts in the Bible that dictate other things.  A liberal reading would argue that these edicts were attempting to address specific problems in a specific societal context and therefore do not mesh with today’s societal mores.  A conservative reading states no, the word of God is unchanging and therefore if it was wrong three thousand years ago it is still wrong today.   

I believe there may be a difference in how a liberal and a conservative religious would define the phrase “a living faith.”   For a Liberal undestanding, a living faith is a faith that lives and breathes in todays context.  There are always new understandings to be found and integrated into ones view of their world.  One’s biases and prejudices are confronted with this understanding of a living faith.  For a conservative understanding, I think it refers more to becoming more like the image of people living in the bible.  To put on the mind of Christ is to embrace the characteristics of what are considered righteous living in the Bible rather than what is considered righteous living for today. 

I realize as I am writing this that I have a strong bias towards liberal religious thought.  So perhaps some of our more conservative religious readers could help us out with their understanding of how to live a conservative religion’s perspective.   Blessings,

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