Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, South Carolina
Sermons by Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
Articles and Sermons
I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into hell;
On the third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father;
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit;
The holy catholic Church;
The communion of saints;
The forgiveness of sins;
The resurrection of the body;
And the life everlasting.
Many of you who were raised in the church will recognize the Apostles Creed, a statement that many of us recited each and every Sunday. Did you notice that it’s a list of doctrines? A creator God. A dead and resurrected Jesus. A Holy Spirit, or in the old version, a Holy Ghost, which is a little scary. A resurrected body (which is really scary). Life everlasting. This is the nature of a creed. It’s a list of things you are supposed to believe. That’s the nature of church. The membership requirement is that you believe certain things. Church is built around belief. If you don’t believe it, you don’t belong.
Unitarian Universalism takes a different approach to forming community. Listen for the difference as we recite together our seven UU principles printed on the back of the program:
We covenant to affirm and promote:
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
Before I was a minister, before I was a psychologist, I was an actor. When I was growing up, in every Christmas play at every Christmas, I was always either a shepherd or a wise man. Although these two characters may have been situated on opposite ends of the socioeconomic ladder, they dressed the same -- they wore bathrobes. My childhood image of the wise men is that they may have been parched and sweaty from traversing an ocean of sand to get to the baby Jesus, but they looked comfortable and suave in their bathrobes, kind of like Hugh Hefner on camel-back.
The problem with believing that the Bible is infallible and inerrant, as well as interpreting the Bible literally, is that upon close inspection of the Biblical texts, certain things don't add up, and the Christmas narratives highlight this problem. I say “narratives” in the plural because the Gospels contain two very different accounts of the birth of Jesus, one in Luke and one in Matthew. The Gospels of Mark and John don't mention the birth of Jesus at all. If Jesus did indeed manifest a miraculous birth, it is hard to believe that two of the Gospel writers would omit this detail. Luke says shepherds were present at the manger; Matthew says magi were. Where does the word “magi” come from? “Magi” is Latin for the Greek word “magos,” which was derived from the old Persian word referring to Zoroastrian priests, who in the ancient world had an international reputation for their knowledge of astrology. So the magi were astrologers who, according to the story, discovered an unusually bright star and followed its light, which led them all the way to Bethlehem and to the manger where Jesus lay.
Why do we think there were three magi? Because Matthew's account says they gave three gifts to the baby Jesus – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When I was a young child, before becoming a child actor, I thought the wise men brought the baby Jesus gold, Frankenstein, and a mirror. These gifts have symbolic meaning. Gold, then as now, was valuable; frankincense was a perfume; and myrrh was an oil used for anointing. These were gifts, in other words, fit for a king. In post-Biblical folklore, the supposedly three magi acquired names -- Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar -- an elderly European, a middle-aged African, and a young Asian, which also had symbolic meaning. These three kings, representing the entire known world, like a delegation from the U.N., come to pay their respects to the King of Kings. These wise men, representing the collective wisdom of the ages of humankind, follow the light of a star to the Light of the World.
I have a confession to make. I don't like the story of the magi -- it's too neat and tidy. They see their star, which they follow doggedly and single-mindedly, and it leads them to the truth. They see the light, give thanks, and go home – the journey is over. My spiritual journey has rarely been like that. The stars I have followed have usually been partial and incomplete, sometimes a dead-end and sometimes disappointing. The best laid plans of mice and men and of Neal Jones have often gone awry. There has been no final word on the truth, even when that word has come from a holy book or a holy person or a holy tradition. Even on the occasions when the stars to which I have aspired have been worthwhile and I have reached them, there have always been other stars just beyond the horizon.
Our spiritual journeys never end. The quest for truth and meaning is never finished. Recently, I was looking through a file of sermons written over twenty years ago. I was impressed with some but embarrassed by others. I shook my head when I looked at how I used to perceive life and conceive of truth, and I suspect that twenty years from now when I look over today's sermons, I may be shaking my head again. But that's encouraging because it means I'm still growing. It gives me hope to know that there will be other stars that will shed new light, or as liberal theologians used to say, revelation is not sealed; it's ongoing.
It has always been to my detriment when I ignored the unexpected. Yet our culture teaches us to set our goals, lay our plans, set out with determination to reach them, and not let anything distract or deter us. I almost made that mistake with my doctoral program in psychology. I was determined to be the best in my class, so I focused on my studies with single-minded determination. But soon I realized that I was missing out on my marriage, my friendships, seeing movies, going for walks. I was, in other words, missing out on my life. I realized that one star had become all-consuming, and I wasn’t willing to trade my life for a degree. So I backed off my obsessiveness and realized that being a good enough student would be good enough.
And because I backed off, I stumbled upon Unitarian Universalism. During the first half of my life, I don't think I had met a Unitarian Universalist, or if I had, I didn't know it. But for some reason, and I can't remember why now, I started visiting the UU Fellowship in Waco, Texas. Discovering Unitarian Universalism was like a homecoming for me. I felt like I had come home to some of the most interesting, creative, open-minded, accepting, irreverent, and fun people I had ever met. I felt like I had come home to myself. "Yes, these are the principles which I want to guide my life. This is the kind of community I want to belong to and contribute to. This is the kind of world I want to live in. This is who I am."
Then the unexpected happened again. They invited me to serve as their part-time minister while I was working on my doctorate. Now I have to confess that I was initially reluctant to accept their invitation. Like John Murray, I had left home and ministry behind and was embarking on a whole new life – to become a psychologist. Do you remember John Murray from UU history? He is the unlikely founder of Universalism in America. He started out as a traditional Christian, but the Methodist church in England labeled him a heretic and excommunicated him because he had the audacity to preach universal salvation. To make matters worse, his wife and daughter died, and he went into debt and was cast into debtors' prison. Upon his release, he decided to leave it all behind – his home, his homeland, his ministry – and start over with a clean slate in America.
On the coast of New Jersey, Murray's ship became sand-barred, and going ashore to seek provisions, he met a farmer named Thomas Potter. Potter had built a chapel on his land and was waiting for God to send a preacher. He must have believed in the theology of the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams: “Build it and they will come.” When this former preacher arrived out of the blue, Potter assumed he was the answer to his prayers. He invited Murray to preach, but he refused, so they made a deal: if Murray's ship was still lodged on the sandbar come Sunday, he would preach.
On Sunday, September 30, 1790, the wind had not changed direction, Murray's ship remained stuck, and Murray was stuck preaching a sermon he didn't want to preach. So he gave the congregation that Potter had gathered a Universalist stem-winder he was sure would put to rest any ideas they may have had about his becoming a minister again. To his surprise, however, they loved his sermon, and even more to his surprise, he loved delivering it. Soon after the service, a sailor came from the ship with the news that the wind had just changed direction and the ship was off the sandbar and ready to sail. As far as I can discern, this is the only miracle story we UUs have in our history. John Murray continued his journey and did become a minister again, establishing the first Universalist church in America.
I identify with Murray’s story because I, too, had left all behind and was taking my life in a whole new direction. But that small UU Fellowship in Waco, Texas, was my Thomas Potter, who persuaded me to be a guest speaker on occasion. To my surprise, they appreciated what this heretic had to say, and even more surprising, I enjoyed being a minister again. When their minister left and they invited me to be their minister, I gladly accepted. Little could I have predicted, of course, that based on that chance turn in the road, the road would lead to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, South Carolina, and to my becoming a fully fellowshipped UU minister. I would not be standing here now if I had single-mindedly followed my star and had not made room in my life for the unexpected.
The most life-changing events for me have been unplanned: stumbling upon the UU Fellowship of Waco and the UU Congregation of Columbia, my father's death when I was in college, the death of a significant minister mentor when I was in seminary, getting hired as a psychologist at Baptist Hospital, meeting the woman of my dreams. I have learned and I am still learning that the journey is far more important than the destination and the destination is always being redefined by what happens along the way. It was Churchill who said that life is one damn thing after another. Sometimes it's one blessed thing after another, too.
The magi could be the patron saints of fundamentalists because fundamentalists of all stripes -- religious, political, scientific, atheist -- get all their light from one star, and they refuse to admit light from any other source. That's because it's more important for them to maintain their closed ideology than to accept realities that may cause them to change their course, as well as their mind.
The magi are not my patron saints. Chuck Noland is. Do you remember him? He was the character portrayed by Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away. You may remember that Noland was a FedEx employee whose plane crashes in the South Pacific, leaving him stranded on an island for four years. Like Robinson Crusoe, he must learn to survive by learning to collect rain water, fish with spears, start fires by rubbing sticks together, and make a home in a cave. He repeatedly attempts to escape with makeshift rafts, but his forays are foiled by the rough surf.
Then one day, the unexpected happens. The waves wash up a piece of a port-a-john, which he uses as the sail for a raft that is able to get past the surf and eventually home. Throughout his four years of desperate survival and loneliness, Noland is tempted to escape through suicide. When he arrives back home and is asked by his friends why he didn't give in to this temptation, he says, "Because I knew that tomorrow the sun would rise, and who knows what the tide will bring?”
I want to live my life with openness to what the tide may bring, and this is one reason, maybe the main reason, I am a Unitarian Universalist. It's hard to say what the tide may bring. Sometimes it brings something to celebrate; sometimes it brings something to dread. Always it brings something unexpected. Or as John Lennon used to say, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
One of the benefits of practicing meditation is that it cultivates openness to the unexpected. This morning we engaged in a very brief and very common meditation exercise. We focused on our breathing because our breathing anchors us in the present moment. We became aware of the distractions of sounds, sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Through meditation, we discover that our minds are thought factories, churning out memories and reflections of the past, plans and worries of the future, and judgments and analyses of the present. These thoughts become barriers to our living fully in the here-and-now. We typically think about our lives instead of living our lives.
Meditation is an exercise in acceptance. We can hear sounds without having to analyze them. We can notice that itch without having to scratch it. We can feel sad or anxious and realize that this is just a passing emotion, not my self-definition. We can think various thoughts without getting caught up in those thoughts. It’s letting whatever happens, happen without my trying to impose my plans, my judgments, or my expectations on it. This is also a great way to approach life – to stand on the shore with openness to what the tide may bring. You can’t be preoccupied with your plans because you never know what will wash ashore. You can’t be judgmental because that’s just your limited perspective. You may be elated that the waves wash up a flashlight, only to have the batteries go dead. You may be disappointed that the tide brings in a port-a-john of all things, but then discover that one of its sides can be a sail which can set you free. It’s learning to take life on its terms, not ours.
We like to make our plans and follow our stars because they give us the illusion of control. I remember when I worked at Baptist Hospital, we would sign up for our various health insurance, life insurance, and retirement annuity plans at the end of each year. They made me feel safe and secure in the face of the possible storms ahead, but it was a false sense of security. Health insurance can’t prevent an auto accident or brain tumor. A retirement annuity can’t promise what kind of shape I’ll be in when I’m in my 70’s and 80’s. Life insurance can’t guarantee that I’ll make it to my 70’s and 80’s.
Probably more than most, we Americans believe we are the masters of our fate. Our houses never grow too cold or too warm. We have seasonal foods available all year long. Our TV’s have more channels than days in the year. We can remold our bodies and faces. We can lower our cholesterol and raise our consciousness. A British commentator has observed, “The difference between the resigned pragmatism of the British and the arrogant optimism of the Americans is the difference between getting bombed during the blitz and buying war bonds.” It is possible that 9/11 may have dampened our arrogance, but given our forays into Iraq and Afghanistan following 9/11, I rather doubt it.
Our political and economic power gives us the illusion of control. Many use religion to foster that illusion – a belief in a personal, parental God who looks after us and protects us, ensuring that things will come out in the wash, that people will get what they deserve and deserve what they get, that good people are rewarded for being good and bad people are punished for being bad. If things don’t work out in this life, God will make sure it works out in the afterlife. Now I’m not going to stand here and say with any degree of certainty that there is or is not a God. Much of that question depends on how you define God. But I do feel confident in saying that if there is a God, the evidence seems overwhelmingly clear that he, she, or it is not in control. Another reason I am a Unitarian Universalist is that our faith puts the responsibility for my life squarely on my shoulders and the responsibility for our world squarely on our shoulders.
Whether you believe that life is arbitrary or only appears arbitrary from our limited perspective, the fact remains that our experience of life is that is it unpredictable and unexpected. So sign up for your company’s health insurance plan, finish your dissertation, and follow the brightest star on your horizon. But don’t cling too tightly to your best laid plans because you never know what the tide will bring. I admire the single-mindedness and tenacity of the magi, but I prefer to ride through life on my camel, wearing my bathrobe, with Chuck Noland and the Unitarian Universalists by my side.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
The challenge of preaching is that you want to be relevant. You want to speak to the occasion when the occasion arises. So what's a preacher to do when Halloween and Election Day come up for the same Sunday? It would be efficient to speak to both at the same time, and I've figured out a way to do that -- by talking about hypocrisy. Halloween is about hypocrisy because "hypocrisy" comes from the Greek word for play-acting. In ancient Greece, "hypocrisy" applied to any sort of public performance, but "hypocrite" was a technical term for a stage actor and was not considered an appropriate role for a public figure. The Athenian orator Demosthenes ridiculed his rival Aeschines, who had been a successful actor before taking up politics. "Aeschines," by the way, is Greek for "Ronald Reagan." Demosthenes warned that a skillful stage actor makes an untrustworthy politician. Where was Demosthenes when we needed him?
And of course election time is the season for hypocrisy. The word "politician" has become synonymous with the word "hypocrite." There's Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who publicly stated before the BP oil spill, "The environmentalists are wrong. We can drill safely off the shores of America" (11/27/06). Then there's Sen. Mary Landrieu who publicly stated after the oil spill, "No one has ever claimed, including myself…, that drilling is risk-free" (4/29/10). There's former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who moralized against prostitution yet who was caught in an escort service sting. There's former congressman Mark Foley, who crusaded against child exploitation yet was caught sending sexually explicit messages to congressional pages. There's former senator Larry Craig, who regularly touted "family values" yet who was caught playing footsie with a guy in the adjacent restroom stall. During election time, the field is white with harvest for hypocrisy.
There is one group of people, however, that rivals politicians for being hypocritical and that's ministers, present company excepted, of course. Remember Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker, and Ted Haggard? (Pastor Ted, in case you don't remember, was the evangelical preacher who preached that homosexuality was a sin and opposed equal rights for LGBT persons yet who paid a gay prostitute for his services for three years.) All this clerical hypocrisy reminds me of the story of Mr. Johnson, who rushes into the church office and asks the church secretary if he can see the pastor. "No, I'm sorry," says the secretary. "The pastor is busy in his study."
"Damn it," replies Mr. Johnson. "I was really hoping to see him."
"Mr. Johnson!", exclaims the secretary, "You can't use that kind of language in here."
"Damn it, I just really had my heart set on seeing the pastor."
"Mr. Johnson, I find your language highly offensive." So the secretary calls the pastor and tells him about the man's language.
The pastor comes out and says, "Mr. Johnson, you can't talk that way here. This is the Lord's house."
"I'm sorry, preacher. I was just so excited because I won the lottery and I wanted to give the church a check for $100,000."
The preacher says, "Damn it, why didn't you say so?"
I suppose it's easy for politicians to be hypocritical because all that patriotic rhetoric provides a convenient mask to hide behind, and I suppose it's easy for religious people to be hypocritical because all that moralistic rhetoric provides a ready-made mask to hide behind, as well. "The last temptation is the greatest treason," said T.S. Eliot, "to do the right thing for the wrong reason." Religion provides fertile ground for hypocrisy because there are so many right things to do, and it's so easy to do them for the wrong reason.
No one seems to grasp this better than Jesus. From what we know about Jesus, he was an incredibly compassionate, forgiving man, yet he went Harry Truman on the hypocrites of his religion, the scribes and Pharisees. He gave’em hell.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. (Matthew 23: 23- 27).
The scribes and Pharisees were religious show-offs. When they gave alms to charities, they announced their generosity with trumpet blasts. When they fasted, they exaggerated their dismal appearance to display their suffering. When they prayed, they stood up in the public square and raised their hands heavenward and prayed loudly for all to see and hear. Jesus told his followers not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees. I often wonder how many of our Christian friends who insist on having public prayers at city council meetings, high school graduations, football games, and every other public event have read Jesus' instructions to his followers not to make a public display of prayer. In fact, he explicitly tells them that when they pray, "Go into your room and shut the door and pray in secret" (Matthew 6:6).
Why was Jesus so hard on religious hypocrites? I don't know for sure, obviously, but I suspect he had at least two reasons. First of all, I suspect that he didn't like what the scribes and Pharisees were doing to their and his religion. They were creating a religion of show, and as we all know, it's a lot easier to act religious than to be religious, to seem ethical than to be ethical, to pretend to be concerned than to be concerned. Misguided religious people today forget that the separation of church and state was put into the First Amendment, not primarily by skeptics, atheists, humanists, free thinkers, and other irreligious people but primarily by religious people who didn't want the government turning their faith into a religion of show. When the government displays religious symbols on license plates, religious documents on public buildings, and ceremonial prayers at public meetings, it makes it easy for people to appear faithful instead of being faithful. If Jesus stood for anything, he stood for an authentic faith, doing the right thing for the right reason.
I may be wrong, but I suspect that traditional religions which emphasize believing in certain creeds and performing certain rituals are rife with hypocrisy because it's so easy to play pretend. You can say that you believe this or that without having to put those beliefs into practice. You can go to church every Sunday and say your prayers and read your Bible and light your candles and kneel before the altar and perform every other conspicuous ritual without ever having to live your faith in your day-to-day life. You can, in other words, talk the talk without having to walk the walk.
By avoiding many of these trappings of traditional religion, liberal religion avoids much of its hypocrisy. We don't have a creed to hide behind. We hardly have any rituals for you to perform in front of others. In fact, what attracted me to Unitarian Universalism were Unitarian Universalists. I was impressed by their self-chosen convictions and their willingness to live by their convictions. As Unitarian Universalists, our convictions are not given to us by a Pope or a Bible or a tradition or any other authority. Our convictions are earned through the tests of life experience, reason, and conscience. We are not coerced to live our convictions through the fear of hell or the hope of heaven. We freely live according to our convictions because doing the right thing is, in and of itself, its own reward.
But, of course, we Unitarians are not immune from hypocrisy, despite what Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King said about us: "Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, and Unitarians believe that they are too good to be damned." What masks do we Unitarians over-wear? We relish wearing the mask of intellectualism, of having all the answers or at least thinking we have all the answers. If the Tea Party crowd are know-nothings, we tend to be know-it-alls. We take great comfort in wearing the mask of political correctness. We UUs are involved in all the right causes, hold all the right opinions, use all the right terms, drink all the right coffees, and eat all the right foods, organically grown, of course. We take great pride in wearing the mask of tolerance … except when others disagree with us.
I suspect that Jesus was hard on religious hypocrisy because he didn't like what it did to his religion and he didn't like what hypocrisy did to people. Hypocrisy creates a split personality. There is the person and there is the mask that the person wears. Now there is nothing wrong with wearing a mask. We do it all the time. When you are doing your job, you wear the mask of a professional. When you are relate to your children, you wear the mask of parent, and when you relate to your spouse, you wear the mask of husband or wife. When you visit the doctor, you wear the mask of patient, and when you shop at the mall, you wear the mask of customer. If you are like me, when you try to navigate the computer, you wear the mask of nincompoop. The key to wearing masks is that you know when you are wearing them.
I think there are two kinds of hypocrites -- conscious hypocrites and unconscious hypocrites. Conscious hypocrites know that they are being deceitful, like the mechanic who tells you that your car needs a part when it doesn't or the evangelist who asks for contributions to help kids in Africa when he is actually lining his own pockets. Conscious hypocrites are con men. They know they are presenting you with a false impression of their true intentions. Jesus rightly observed that conscious hypocrites are often successful in life. "Truly, I say to you," he told his followers, "they have received their reward." Con men usually do quite well in life. Eliot Spitzer, Mark Foley, and Larry Craig were winning politicians, and Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker, and Ted Haggard were popular preachers … before they got caught in their hypocrisy.
Unconscious hypocrites, however, don't know that they are being deceptive, don't realize that there is a discrepancy between what they say and do and who they really are. They forget that they are wearing a mask. It's like an actress who gets so caught up in her role that she continues to play her character off stage in her personal life. It's like Kay Kent. Do you remember who she was? Kay Kent was a Marilyn Monroe look-alike who posed for TV commercials and magazine layouts as the late Marilyn Monroe. At age 18, she had her brown hair bleached platinum blond and later had plastic surgeons transform her face and figure as much as possible to resemble the Hollywood sex-symbol. Kent seemed obsessed with becoming Marilyn Monroe. Even when not performing, she would talk with Monroe's breathy voice and walk with her walk and wear clothes in the style Monroe wore. After a disappointing breakup with a boyfriend, she even imitated Marilyn Monroe's death: she swallowed a handful of pills with a glass of vodka. Thus she carried out her imitation to its tragic conclusion, yet the real tragedy is that Kay Kent died long before the night she committed suicide. She lost herself behind her mask.
Spiritual death -- that is the risk we run when we wear the mask so long that we forget we are wearing it. We can become so preoccupied with appearances, with how others think and feel about us that our own thoughts and feelings die from neglect. You become a role and lose your true self. You are not whom you seem to be. The mask creates a gulf between appearance and reality, and the real tragedy is that we may not even realize the difference. I do believe that there is a point of no return in playing pretend. We start out making small compromises with our principles and small accommodations to the "real world." We tell little white lies. We smile and nod and let others think we agree with them. We laugh at things that we don't think aren't funny. We keep silent when we know we should speak up. We go along to get along. We don't make waves. We cut a few corners. We tell ourselves that we are just doing what we need to do to get ahead. We tell ourselves that everybody else is doing it. We tell ourselves that it's ok as long as nobody else knows. We tell ourselves that we're not hurting anyone. But we hurt ourselves. We lose our integrity.
This is a risk not just for individuals but for nations, as well. Every nation has its principles which it holds high for the rest of the world to see. It encases these principles in its founding documents. It displays these principles on its public buildings. It recites these principles in its pledge of allegiance to its flag. It states these principles on its currency. It rehearses these principles during its elections. That's the outside of the cup.
If the election on Tuesday is like past elections, we as a nation will elect politicians who are adept at cleaning the outside of the cup because we the people like to believe in our self-congratulatory self-images instead of facing harsh realities. We like to believe that America is the land of the free, where every person has an equal voice. So we pretend that money doesn't make any difference in the democratic process and that government can't be bought by the highest bidder. We like to believe that America is the land of opportunity, where every person can pull himself up by his own bootstraps, even those without boots. So we ignore the fact that 40 million Americans do not have health insurance, despite the Affordable Care Act. We ignore the fact that almost every European country now has greater social mobility than the United States, which means that if you want your children to have a better life than you, you should move to Germany.
We like to believe that we are a peaceful nation, so we pay no attention to the fact that the United States spends almost as much on military expenditures as all the other nations of the world combined and that the United States maintains over 700 military bases around the world, including 63 other countries. Yet we Americans do not see ourselves as an imperialistic power. The average American truly believes we are fighting for other people's freedom. How conveniently naïve. We like to believe in the America represented by Norman Rockwell paintings, but that's the outside of the cup. The inside of the cup is full of conflicting reality, and the reality is that America is neither the savior nor the demon of the world. America is full of light and darkness, selfless and selfish intentions, life-giving dreams and death-dealing nightmares. We are, in other words, a nation of human beings. Like a person, a nation can wear a mask so long that it forgets it is wearing a mask, and like a person, a nation can lose its integrity.
The other Sunday as 18 people joined our congregation, we talked about the reasons we come to this place. I believe the reason underneath all our reasons is that we want to grow a soul, and growing a soul means, among other things, growing in integrity. We want to be whole persons. We want our words to be consistent with our principles and our actions to be congruent with our values. We want the outside of the cup to match the inside. Growing a soul is about making connections -- connecting with the deeper experiences of life, with beauty, with nature, and with each other. Growing a soul is also about connecting with your true self. We come to this place because we want to be authentic and real, and this place has the potential for helping us to become more authentic and real. Just about every other place in our society encourages us to wear a mask because just about every other place tells us that we are nothing more than the roles we play, the titles we hold, the stuff we buy, the things we accomplish. No, we are much, much more than that. Here, when we are at our best, we take off our masks and encounter each other just as we are, warts, freckles, and all.
In the quietness of this place, surrounded by the all-pervading presence of the Holy, my heart whispers: Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in good times or in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed. Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve. -- Howard Thurman
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
If you’ve ever been in my office, you’ve seen an item on my desk that’s a dead giveaway that I’m a fan of FDR – it’s a bust of the President I purchased his Presidential library at Hyde Park. Like several of you, I have been mesmerized by the recent Ken Burns documentary of the Roosevelts, beginning with President Teddy and the Oyster Bay Roosevelts and concluding with Franklin and the Hyde Park Roosevelts. Eleanor, who was Teddy’s niece, bridged both branches of the family tree when she married her distant cousin Franklin.
I have been particularly interested in their relationship because they appear to demonstrate the adage that opposites attract. Whereas Franklin was bold and buoyant, confident and sociable, with a wide, irrepressible grin; Eleanor was shy, self-conscious, serious-minded, bored by small talk, and slow to laugh. Because of her demeanor, her mother nicknamed her “Granny.” When Franklin and Eleanor met when he was 20 and she 19, she couldn’t believe that someone like him would be interested in her. Nevertheless, many told Eleanor that Franklin wasn’t good enough for her. Some saw him as a lightweight, a mediocre student, and a frivolous man-about-town. The opinions of others matter little to people in love, however, and the couple were married in 1905 and went on to have six children.
Opposites may attract, but they usually find it difficult to be together over the long haul. Eleanor craved intimacy and weighty conversations; Franklin loved parties, flirting, and gossip. When he entered public service, the pace of their social life grew even more frenzied. He caroused later and later into the night, and she went home earlier and earlier. When Eleanor discovered Franklin’s affair with her former social secretary, Lucy Mercer, they stayed married, but all semblance of intimacy was lost between them. They ended up having a lifelong political partnership which united his confidence with her conscience.
In 1921, Franklin contracted polio. It was a devastating blow, and he considered retiring to the country to live out his life as an invalid gentleman. But Eleanor kept his contacts with the Democratic Party alive while he recovered, even agreeing to speak at party fund-raisers, despite her fear and dread of public speaking. Though she was unsure of herself, she was committed to addressing the social problems she saw all around her. She became a champion of women’s issues and forged alliances with like-minded people. By the time Franklin was elected governor of New York, she was the director of the Bureau of Women’s Activities for the Democratic Party and one of the most influential women in American politics. When Franklin was elected President at the height of the Great Depression, she became his eyes and ears. She traveled the country listening to ordinary people tell their stories of deprivation and hardship. In a single three-month period, she covered 40,000 miles. When she returned home, she told him what she had seen and heard and pressed him to act. She helped orchestrate public programs for half-starved miners in Appalachia. She urged FDR to include women and African-Americans in his programs to put people back to work. She even arranged for Marian Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial.
This awkwardly self-conscious woman pushed herself past her shyness and grew to love public life. Eleanor Roosevelt became the first First Lady to hold a press conference, address a national convention, write a newspaper column, and appear on talk radio. After Franklin’s death, she served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations, where she used her hard-won toughness and political skills to help win passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She never did entirely outgrow her sensitivity, but it was perhaps her sensitivity that enabled her to relate to the disenfranchised and be conscientious enough to act on their behalf. Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for his compassion and his ability to use government as an instrument of compassion, but it was Eleanor who made sure he knew how suffering Americans felt.
Franklin and Eleanor were opposite personality types who complemented each other. He was the classic extravert, and she was the quintessential introvert. I am calling our attention this morning to these personality traits because they explain so much, not only of our individual personalities, but of our religious personalities as UUs and our national personalities as Americans. Carl Jung was the first to use the terms “extravert” and “introvert.” Some people who take the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator, which is based on Jung’s categories, mistakenly think that you are either this or that – that you are either extraverted or introverted. What Jung was saying, however, is that these are opposite poles on the same continuum and that people have a preference for one pole or the other. All of us are somewhere on that continuum. Some of us are strongly or mildly extraverted, and some are strongly or mildly introverted. It’s a matter of degree. We feel more comfortable, more at home, with one pole than the other.
Extraverts are people of action, who shoot first and ask questions later. They tend to be more ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold, and comfortable in the spotlight. Introverts, on the other hand, are people of contemplation, who think before they speak or act. They tend to be reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, subtle, introspective, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-aversive, and thin-skinned. These are broad categories, of course, so few of us identify fully with only one or the other, but most of us can usually recognize ourselves and others we know in one of these categories.
There are two criteria I use to discern which category fits. The first one is, where do you put your focus? Extraverts put their attention out into the world of people and things. They put themselves out there for the world to see and hear. They are talkers, and they are movers and shakers. You know where extraverts stand because they let you know. They are accessible and easy to read. They are the first ones to speak up at discussions and committee meetings and the last ones to leave social gatherings. Introverts may accuse them of enjoying hearing themselves talk, but that’s not a fair assessment. It would be more accurate to say that they are thinking out loud. Talking is part of their thinking process. As extraverts talk and interact with others, they are formulating their thoughts. Introverts feel more at home focusing on their inner world of thoughts and feelings. They need time to go inside and think things through and check their feelings before sharing themselves with the world. That’s why they typically wait before speaking up at meetings.
The other criterion I use is, where do you get your batteries charged? Interacting with others gets extraverts revved up. Remember the Renaissance Weekends that used to be held each year in Charleston? These gatherings drew innovators in business and finance, education, religion, law, medicine, government, science and technology, and the arts to exchange ideas through lectures, seminars, and discussions. Bill Clinton, the archetypal extravert, used to go and talk everyone under table, staying up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. The more he interacted with all these creative, intelligent people, the more revved up he got. Introverts are usually the first ones to head back to their rooms at such gatherings, not because they are anti-social, but because interacting with others runs their batteries down. They recharge by being alone. Once they have had some time by themselves, they then feel ready to go out into the world and spend themselves. It’s like inhaling deeply before diving into the water.
Since Jung’s time, research has focused more on physiology to understand the difference between extraverts and introverts. For example, Jerome Kagan has conducted a series of ground-breaking longitudinal studies, following children from infancy through adolescence and adulthood. His studies began with infants who were only four months old and who were introduced to a carefully chosen set of new experiences. The infants heard tape-recorded voices and balloons popping, saw colorful mobiles dance before their eyes, and inhaled the scent of alcohol on cotton swabs, and they had wildly varying reactions to the new stimuli. About 20 percent cried lustily and pumped their arms and legs. Kagan called this group “high-reactive.” About 40 percent stayed quiet and placid, moving their arms and legs occasionally, but without all the dramatic pumping. This group Kagan called “low-reactive.” The remaining 40 percent fell between these two extremes.
What Kagan discovered about the two extreme groups may seem counterintuitive at first, but his discovery makes sense when you think about it. He found that the high-reactive infants, the 20 percent who hollered at the mobiles bobbing above their heads, were more likely to develop into introverts. The low-reactive infants, the quiet ones, were more likely to become extraverts later in life. Why is this? It turns out that the high-reactive infants have a highly reactive amygdala, what is sometimes referred to as the “emotional brain.” The more reactive a child’s amygdala, the higher his heart rate is likely to be, the more dilated his eyes, the tighter his vocal cords, the more cortisol in his bloodstream – in other words, the more jangled he’s likely to feel when he confronts something new and stimulating.
High-reactive infants appear to have more sensitive nervous systems that react more strongly to new sights, sounds, and smells. They become introverts because by keeping their distance from others and by spending more time alone, they are trying to keep from feeling overwhelmed with too much stimulation. Many high-reactives become writers or choose other intellectual vocations that put them in charge of their lives. They can close the door, pull down the shades, and do their work without interruption. They protect themselves from encountering the unexpected. Low-reactive infants, on the other hand, become extraverts because they actually seek out more stimulation. Their nervous systems are not overwhelmed by unfamiliar objects and people. In fact, they seem to thrive with novel experiences.
Elaine Aron is a research psychologist who has reframed Kagan’s high reactivity as sensitivity. She has found that highly sensitive people, whom we have called introverts in the past, process information, both physical and emotional, unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss – another person’s shift in mood, for instance, or a light bulb burning a tad too brightly. They appear to have a more finely tuned nervous system that causes them to feel more intensely, sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, fear, and anger.
Aron has discovered that highly sensitive people tend to be keen observers who look before they leap. They arrange their lives in ways that limit surprises. They are often sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, pain, even coffee and those tags in the back of shirts. They have difficulty being observed (at work, say, or performing at a music recital) or in situations where they may be judged unworthy (as in dating or job interviews).
Aron has discovered some new insights. Highly sensitive people tend to be philosophical or spiritual rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They tend to be creative and intuitive. They have vivid dreams. They love music, nature, art, and physical beauty. They are also highly empathic. It’s as if they have thinner boundaries separating them from other people’s emotions and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. They tend to have unusually strong consciences. (Think Eleanor Roosevelt). They avoid violent movies and TV shows; they are acutely aware of lapses in their own behavior. In social settings, they often focus on subjects like personal problems, which others consider too heavy. (Again, think Eleanor Roosevelt).
I find this more recent research to be absolutely fascinating because it suggests that the difference between extraversion and introversion is biologically based, but this does not mean that our personalities are predetermined at birth. We may never shed our biological predisposition, but we can stretch our personalities up to a point. Extraverts can and do stretch themselves to feel more comfortable with quietness and solitude, and introverts can and do stretch themselves to take more risks and be more sociable. Eleanor Roosevelt certainly did. She was clearly referring to herself as much as anyone when she said, “I think people who are shy remain shy throughout their lives, but they can learn how to overcome it.”
By the way, I want to clarify that introversion is not the same thing as shyness. I think the two concepts are often conflated because they sometimes overlap. Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation; introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not. You can be a shy extrovert, like Barbara Streisand, who has paralyzing stage fright; and you can be a non-shy introvert, like Bill Gates, who by all accounts keeps to himself but is unfazed by the opinions of others.
Also, I hope it is clear by now that introverts are not misanthropes. Introverts can like people just fine and have fine people skills. In fact, I think our ability to listen and observe others helps us to understand and get close to others on a deep level. Introverts are not anti-social; they are anti-overstimulation. When we leave the party early, it is because we feel overstimulated and need some distance to prevent ourselves from feeling overwhelmed. When we seek time alone, we are recharging our batteries so that we can be with the people we enjoy.
I feel the need to explain the nature of introverts because, by definition, we can be difficult to understand. We process our thoughts and feelings on the inside before we share them on the outside. Still waters run deep. You may think you know an introvert, but he or she shows you only what they want you to see. We have to feel safe and secure before we reveal our true thoughts and feelings. It’s easy to mistake our silence for aloofness or anger, when, in fact, we may simply be taking things in and mulling them over before reacting.
I also feel the need to explain the nature of introverts because we live in an extremely extraverted culture. Indeed, the United States is probably the most extraverted country on earth. Personality tests indicate that as many as 70 percent of Americans are extraverted, though that number may be exaggerated because we introverts learn from day one that extraversion is the ideal in our society. Many of us pretend to be more extraverted than we are because life goes along much easier if you are extraverted. In the United States, we value action, decisiveness, gregariousness, and life in the spotlight, and we devalue solitude, seriousness, sensitivity, quietness, and contemplation. Research shows that we rate talkative people as smarter, friendlier, better-looking, more interesting, and as being better leaders. We even rank people who talk faster and louder as more competent and likable, though there is zero correlation between the gift of gab and intelligence or people skills. Even the word introvert itself is stigmatized. Whenever I ask a suspected introvert if they are introverted, they almost always say, “Yes, but I like people.”
Last week, I talked about how Unitarian Universalism is a “convert” religion; that is, 9 out of 10 of us in this room and throughout the Unitarian Universalist Association come from other faith traditions or no faith tradition. A great number of us came from evangelical religion, especially here in the South, where evangelicalism is the dominant religion and dominant culture. Evangelicalism has been so popular, I believe, because it is the all-American religion; it is extremely extraverted. Their theology may be other-worldly, but their focus is this-worldly – on other people, on action, on programs, on results. The emphasis is on proselytizing every person you meet in order to make them fellow believers. Membership is about joining extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable subject, not simply Bible study, but cooking, weight-loss, real-estate investing, and skateboarding. Evangelical preachers are energized, enthusiastic, confident salesmen of the Gospel, and worship services are loud, dazzling displays of hand-waving music and animated preaching.
Evangelicalism is the religious expression of our culture’s extraversion, which leaves little room for solitude, contemplation, and – ironically – prayer. I am not sure how comfortable Jesus would feel with this American brand of religion that bears his name. After all, he continually had to withdraw from the crowds in order to hear God’s voice in the quiet, and he advised his disciples not to be like the Pharisees, who made a noisy, public display of their piety, but to go into their rooms and shut the door when they prayed. In fact, it seems that many religious leaders, from Moses who retreated to Mt. Sinai and the Buddha who meditated under the Bodhi Tree, to lesser-known saints, monks, nuns, shamans, and prophets, have always found quiet solitude to be a requirement for the nurture of their spiritual life.
It strikes me that Unitarian Universalism is, by comparison, a much more introverted religion. Listen to the traits typically associated with introversion, and note how they are also characteristic of Unitarian Universalism: introspective, reflective, thoughtful, reasonable, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, serious, calm, and gentle. I know that we like to make fun of our tendency to discuss things to death, but the fact is that many of us chose this religion precisely because we prefer to look before we leap and think before we act. I know that some say we are too much in our heads, but that’s just another way of saying that we are thinkers. I don’t know about you, but I like being a part of a religion that values thinking. I know that many of us are not very good at small talk – and don’t even like small talk – but that’s because we prefer to talk about things that really matter, and that’s why many of us joined this movement and this congregation.
For many of us converts from other faith traditions and from no faith tradition, discovering Unitarian Universalism felt like coming home. Perhaps what made this a particularly profound homecoming was not merely finding a community of people who share and honor our values but who share and honor our very personalities. Again, I want to emphasize how rare it is in our society to belong to a community where introversion is accepted and prized. In most settings, we are a misunderstood minority, but my unscientific observation of this and every other UU congregation I have known is that introverts constitute the majorities of UU congregations and of UU ministers.
This is not to say, of course, that we don’t have or need extraverts. We need extraverts because they prod us to get off our discussion duffs and actually do something. We need them because they nudge us to come together to form community. We need extraverts because, let’s face it, they are the ones who force us serious-minded introverts to lighten up and have fun … whether we like it or not.
Spirituality is a popular buzzword right now, but it is also a slippery word. Every person seems to have his or her own definition of what it means to be spiritual. For me, to be spiritual means to be balanced, to be a whole person, to be a complete human being. I think spiritual people are capable of listening to their head and heart and who have a healthy concern for themselves as well as for others. I think a healthy congregation is one which addresses the intellect and emotions, which balances the well-being of the individual with the well-being of the community, and which recognizes that it needs the gifts of extraverts and introverts in order to be whole.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
I miss George Carlin. Remember his observation about people wearing crosses as necklaces? He reminded us that the cross was an instrument of capital punishment for the Romans, and he asked, “What if Jesus were put to death in the electric chair, would they wear tiny, silver electric chairs around their necks?” The cross may have been the electric chair of ancient times, but it has endured as a religious symbol, I believe, not only because it symbolizes Christ’s resurrection, but because its very shape captures the essence of religion. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times from me that the literal meaning of the word “religion” is “to bind back together,” “to reconnect.” The cross symbolizes both the vertical and the horizontal connections that stand at the heart of religion. The vertical connection is our yearning for a meaning and purpose beyond ourselves. Some people use the word “God” to describe this ultimate reality, while some of us prefer words like “humanity,” “the world,” “the universe,” “life,” or “truth.” And the horizontal connection is our yearning for community, for relationship, for belonging.
I believe a healthy congregation not only provides this sense of community in itself but also connects people to the larger community. It was Ben Franklin who said that “people wrapped up in themselves make small packages.” I believe the same is true for congregations: congregations that are inward-looking only and do not reach out to the surrounding community make small packages, as well. This is why I am excited about the work of our Social Action Committee, which has been expanding opportunities for our congregation to get out in the community with more hands-on, direct involvement in helping others. You know, we Unitarian Universalists talk a good game. We think that when we discuss something, we’ve really done something. We contemplate, investigate, pontificate, analyze, scrutinize study, explore, examine, dissect, and discuss social issues to death, but we don’t like to get our hands dirty in doing the work of social action. Mike Sullivan and our Social Action Committee has been changing that by getting us involved at Harvest Hope Food Bank, Transitions Homeless Shelter, Seeds of Hope, Gay Pride, and other projects. I think outward-looking congregations are healthy congregations, and they nurture a healthy spirituality that expresses itself in self-sacrifice instead of self-absorption.
Today, as we formally accept 18 new members into our fold, we notice in our congregation two trends that we notice throughout the Unitarian Universalist Association. One is that the overwhelming majority of our members -- 9 in 10 – either come from other faith backgrounds or no faith background. How many of you fall into one of these two categories? Please stand. More than most faith traditions, Unitarian Universalism is a “convert faith.” Now that’s a word we don’t use often around here – convert. Almost all of us here are converts – converted Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, or Mormons. At some point we could no longer believe the beliefs those traditions taught us to believe, so we left them behind, both the beliefs and the faith communities. But most of us weren’t converted into Unitarian Universalism immediately. We spent a period of time, like the children of Israel, wandering in the wilderness, not belonging to any faith community or sure of what we believed. We just knew that something was missing. And then we discovered either this or some other UU congregation, and it felt like a homecoming. It felt like we had found our tribe. We discovered that we had been UUs all along and just didn’t know it. That reality of being a convert faith is both exhilarating and challenging. The challenge to us as a congregation, as an association of congregations, and as individuals is to be as clear about what we do believe as we are about what we no longer believe. The spiritual challenge for us converts is to know what we stand for, not just what we oppose; to know who we are, not just who we are not.
The second trend that we notice in our congregation and throughout the Unitarian Universalist Association is that our membership is extremely fluid. Most UU congregations gain about as many members as they lose each year. In some, more are leaving out the back door than are coming in the front door. We are one of the lucky ones. During most of our recent years, we have experienced a net gain in membership, and from today’s service, it looks like that trend is continuing. Whether you are an official member or not, how many of you started coming to our congregation within the last five years? Please stand.
Another way of saying that we are a fluid congregation is to say that we have a low retention rate. All denominations, by the way, have this problem because we live in an extremely mobile, transient society. But retention is a particular problem for us UU congregations because most Unitarian Universalists don’t identify themselves first as Unitarian Universalists but as members of a particular UU congregation. If you are a Baptist or a Catholic, you are more likely to think of yourself primarily as a Baptist or Catholic. You would belong to a large franchise, so that no matter where in the country you move to, whatever Baptist or Catholic congregation you visit would be pretty much like the one you left because Baptist and Catholic congregations are more uniform than UU congregations. We have a lot of diversity within and between our congregations. Some are traditional in their worship style, while others are innovative. Some are more formal with lots of ritual, while others are more casual, resembling a discussion group at Starbucks. Some of our congregations are more distinctly Christian or Theist, while others are more Humanist or Pagan. So the UU congregation in the town you move to – if there is a UU congregation – may be very different from the one you left behind. Our loyalty is more to the congregation than the denomination. The challenge of low retention rates is to help newcomers make connections and find a sense of community before they get lost in the shuffle and drop out.
I see church membership as a process, a continuing process of greater commitment to the community that doesn’t end with the joining ceremony. In fact, this joining ceremony is just the beginning. I see these stages of growing commitment as a church member as being very similar to the stages of growing commitment as a married couple, which thankfully, by the way, looks as if it will soon encompass all couples. In the beginning is the honeymoon stage, which is basically a state of intoxication. This is literally true because when we fall in love, we are intoxicated by a rush of endorphins that are released at the mere sight of our beloved, at the sound of his or her voice, at the touch of his or her skin. He is her prince charming. She will never feel lonely again. She is his sex goddess and mother in one. He will never feel inadequate again. They will run toward each other in slow motion across a field of pansies, and they will embrace and live happily ever after.
When many of us converts from other faith traditions find a UU congregation, it feels like falling in love. Our new lover is nothing like the old one, who was dogmatic and narrow-minded. Our new UU lover is open, inclusive, authentic, and hip. With this new lover, we feel understood and accepted for the first time, and we are free to be ourselves. This honeymoon stage of membership really is intoxicating.
But the honeymoon eventually ends. It always ends. After about six months to a year, the endorphins settle down, and we start seeing things less idealistically and more realistically. He’s not prince charming; he’s Joe the plumber or Andy the accountant or Ichabod the IT geek. She’s not a sex goddess, especially before she has her first cup of coffee in the morning. They become disillusioned with each other, and I find that word “disillusion” most intriguing. Dis-illusion -- to become separated from your illusions. Some couples will interpret the end of the honeymoon as meaning that they have fallen out of love or maybe that they were never in love. They may believe that they have made a terrible mistake, and they will break up or divorce.
The honeymoon ends for new church members, too. At first, this new community is a warm, fuzzy ideal, but then reality sets in. The sink backs up, and the furnace breaks down. There are bills to pay, a budget to balance, and tables to set up. Committee meetings drag on forever, and everyone has at least three opinions that they must share. Some people are downright irritating with their egos, their tempers, and their blind spots. The minister is too political or too spiritual, too intellectual or too touchy-feely. To our new members today, let me give you a heads-up: we will disappoint and disillusion you. You can count on it. Every congregation of any denomination I have ever belonged to has disappointed and disillusioned me. I got so fed up with church that I left and went to graduate school, where I was eventually disappointed and disillusioned. And when I worked for a mental health center, a drug and alcohol rehab center, a university counseling center, and a hospital, guess what, I was disappointed and disillusioned at those places, too, because they are human institutions, and human beings are full of imperfections, contradictions, and shortcomings. They will disappoint and disillusion you every time. Some church members, when they are separated from their illusions, will interpret these realities of community as meaning that they have made a terrible mistake, and they will resign from a committee, withhold their pledge money, or drop out. These are the signs of a church divorce.
Dis-illusionment is actually a good thing for couples and for congregations. For couples, disillusionment spells the end to expecting your partner to be perfect, and it means the beginning of trying to understand and accept each other as a real human being. Someone has observed that women hope men will change after marriage, but they don’t; and men hope that women won’t change after marriage, but they do. He is who he is, and he’s not going to change no matter how much you nag him. She may be a little crazy, but that’s why you were attracted to her in the first place. When the honeymoon ends, the work of commitment begins, and commitment is basically a decision – you decide to stick by your spouse and by your marriage whether you feel like it or not, whether it’s convenient or not, or as our marriage vows state, “for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.”
For new church members, disillusionment spells the end to expecting your congregation to be perfect, and it means the beginning of realizing that you don’t passively find community; you actively build community. It means you realize that the more you invest yourself in the community, the more community you experience. It means you realize that a congregation is a human institution, and like any human institution, it is made up of wounded and wounding human beings. When the honeymoon ends, the work of commitment to the congregation begins, so that while some will step back and drop out when conflicts and trials come, others will remain steadfast through these tough times, whether they feel like it or not, whether it’s convenient or not. They are in it for the long haul. They are committed not so much to the institution as to the ideals and values that the institution seeks to uphold. They realize that without the institution, their ideals and values remain in the abstract and are never embodied in the world.
Commitment means living up to our congregational covenant, to which we rededicated ourselves earlier in our service. This covenant does not represent warm, fuzzy ideals, but the hard work of being committed to one another and to our congregation. It takes hard work to make a positive, welcoming environment. It takes hard work to practice direct communication and to enter into conversations with compassion, deep listening, and respect. It takes hard work to value and appreciate each person’s contributions. It takes hard work to address conflicts openly and honestly and to resolve them as close to their source as possible. It takes hard work practicing the forgiveness of others and yourself. The spiritual payoff is that when we do the hard work of living in covenantal community, we develop patience and tolerance and the capacity for respect. You can read about these qualities in books and think about how wonderful they are, but you cannot develop them until you practice them. Living in community with commitment forces you to practice them.
I’m afraid, however, that institutional commitment doesn’t come easy for Unitarian Universalists. Many of us UU converts have been wounded by the faith communities from which we came, so we don’t readily trust religious institutions. Plus, liberals by definition don’t trust authority. We prefer to trust our own perspectives and judgments over those of others. So when religious liberals come together to try to form community, it’s like trying to herd cats. We can be a finicky bunch. We prefer to have our own individual litter boxes and use them when want to, where we want to, and how we want to, and you can’t make us do otherwise.
So finding community may be easy, but building community is laborious, and there are no short-cuts. Yet you 18 brave souls have taken the leap of faith into disillusionment because you realize that an imperfect community made up of imperfect human beings is better than no community at all. You realize that even imperfect community is something that each of us needs in this mobile, transient, impersonal society of ours, where no one stays put long enough for roots to grow and connections to be made. You sense that a congregation, even this congregation, is a grand experiment in which we bring our life experiences, our hopes and dreams, our foibles and frustrations, and pull them all together in a form that creates meaning, gives each person an identity, and allows us to expand our perspectives and occasionally experience transformation. When the experiment works, we successfully construct a cross in which the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our lives come together. When it doesn’t work, we stick with the experiment and try again and again and again in the hope that some day it will.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
Today is a nostalgic day for me. Today is my 10th anniversary as your minister. On the first Sunday of October 2004, I began serving as your part-time minister by mutual agreement. I wanted to continue serving as the psychologist for the Pastoral Counseling Center at Baptist Hospital, and you couldn’t afford a fulltime minister. I think it’s safe to say that we were both a little wary of each other at the time. Despite my having served as the minister of the UU Fellowship of Waco, Texas, a few people still weren’t sure about hiring a former Southern Baptist. I hope by now you have overcome whatever concerns you may have had about my roots, brothers and sisters.
And, quite frankly, I had my own concerns about you at the time. Ten years ago, this congregation had a reputation for being – how shall we say? – a little contentious. Suffice it to say that over the next three years, whatever concerns we may have had quickly melted away, as we realized that we had happened upon a mutually fulfilling partnership in ministry. I gladly quit my job at the hospital when you extended to me the opportunity to serve as your fulltime pastor. Of the 28 years I have been an ordained minister, these have been the most gratifying. A person is fortunate when he gets paid to do what he loves, and he is even more fortunate when he gets to work with people he loves. I am a most fortunate man.
I am a little nostalgic whenever I enter the pulpit. My mind runs back across the years to all the preachers who spoke to me and sometimes shouted at me from the pulpit. In the Baptist church, he – and it was always “he” – was not the minister, the pastor, or the parson. He was the preacher, emphasizing that particular role as preeminent above all other ministerial duties. He was called primarily to preach, and in the Baptist tradition, the call process was centered almost exclusively on the preacher’s trial sermon. The pastoral search committee would visit prospective ministers at their respective churches to hear them preach. When they heard someone they liked, they would invite him to give a trial sermon at their church. As soon as the service was over, he would leave, and the congregation would vote to call him as their minister. From my present perspective, it seems incredible that a minister’s call to a particular congregation would be based almost entirely on his performance in delivering a single sermon. There are so many other things that a minister does besides preaching, but in the Baptist tradition, preaching is paramount.
I have to admit that even after 28 years of preaching, I am still a little nervous whenever I step into the pulpit, and it’s not simply the nervousness of public speaking. It is the nervousness of wondering what right do I have to preach, if not the Word of God, a word of hope or love or life? The people in the pews – or cushioned, upholstered, stackable chairs – are sitting there, waiting to hear some word about God or the meaning of life or the meaning of their lives. They are wondering who they are, where they came from, where they are going, and how to live in the meantime, and they are looking expectantly to the preacher to give them some answer, some direction, some assurance. Who am I to have the audacity to think I have anything to offer? I still enter the pulpit with fear and trembling.
I realize that some preachers don’t suffer from this kind of angst. Many of the Baptist preachers I endured as a child did not appear to experience doubt or uncertainty. They were cocksure that they were delivering nothing less than the unadulterated Word of God, as if it came straight from the mouth of the Almighty Himself. Many of the TV preachers are smooth, polished performers, but their polish often strikes me as cosmetics hiding an oily used car salesman. Maybe in the marrow of my bones I’m still a Baptist preacher who thinks that preaching is a high calling that deserves more humility than self-assurance.
Fear and trembling are the more appropriate way to approach the pulpit because the pulpit is heavy with symbolism. It's not about the preacher. The pulpit points beyond the minister who stands behind it. For one thing, the pulpit is a symbol of freedom. Four hundred years ago, the liberal pulpits of Poland and Transylvania raised the banner of religious freedom, and for that, their ministers were imprisoned, their churches burned, and thousands were made refugees from their homelands. Three hundred years ago, the liberal pulpits of the American colonies asserted their independence from government control and insisted on the separation of church and state. They would insist on being autonomous congregations. They would govern themselves, make their own rules, support themselves with their own finances, choose their own leaders, define their own membership, and call their own ministers who would preach the truth as they understood it without censorship of any kind. These liberal pulpits served as the model for our other American freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly – freedoms that would make their way into the Constitution.
Even today, the pulpit is probably the freest space in the world, guaranteed by law and tradition to brook no censorship, harassment, or interruption. My contract as your minister, based on the model used throughout the Unitarian Universalist Association, contains this statement: “It is a basic premise of the UUCC that the pulpit is free and untrammeled. The Rev. Jones is expected to express his values, views, and commitments without fear or favor.” The pulpit is a symbol of freedom.
Secondly, the pulpit is a symbol of prophecy. I'm reaching for the Bible when I use that word, and I'm referring to those twin roles of the minister. The minister is both prophet and priest. The Biblical prophet does not engage in foretelling but in truth-telling, in speaking truth to power. Like the prophet Amos:
I hate, I despise your religious festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
Like the prophet Micah:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Like the prophet Isaiah, whom Jesus quoted in the first sermon he preached in the synagogue:
The spirit of God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to comfort all who mourn.
All preachers who are true to their calling and true to their Biblical heritage must speak truth to power.
We Unitarian Universalist ministers have a particular obligation to speak prophetically, for we stand on the shoulders of prophets like William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, and William Lloyd Garrison, who spoke out against slavery; like Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, and Susan B. Anthony, who spoke out for women’s rights; like Horace Mann, who spoke out for public education; like Henry David Thoreau, who spoke out against an unjust war; like Charles Spear, who spoke out against the death penalty; and like James Reeb, who literally gave his life for the civil rights of all Americans.
One of the reasons I left the Baptist church is that as a boy, while African Americans were being forced to drink at separate water fountains, eat at separate restaurants, and attend separate schools and while young black and white boys were being sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia to kill and die in an unjust, unnecessary war, the preachers of my Baptist church were preaching against the sins of wearing mini skirts and listening to rock and roll. They may have read the Bible and quoted the Bible, but they did not raise the prophetic voice of the Bible against the real sins of our time – racism, militarism, and nationalism. In the words of Jesus, they were straining out gnats and swallowing camels. A prophet speaks truth to power when it's convenient and when it's not, when it's popular and when it's not, or as the Bible says, “in season and out of season.”
The pulpit should be approached with fear and trembling because it is a symbol of prophecy. It is also a symbol of the priestly role of the minster. The minister is both prophet and priest. It is as a priest that the minister gets to know his or her congregation, their joys and heartaches, their aspirations and frustrations. It would be a mistake to assume that the sermon is written when the minister closes the door to his or her study and sits down at the computer. The sermon is written when the minister visits Joe in the hospital after his cardiac surgery, has lunch with Susan to listen to the challenges of caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s, and has a conversation after the committee meeting with Jill about her fears of losing her job. The prophet speaks; the priest listens.
When I first became your minister 10 years ago, one of you said, “Speaking on Sundays should be easy for you. You’ve probably got a whole backlog of sermons that you can rework and repeat.” The problem with that shortcut is that I’ve changed so much over the last 28 years that I would be embarrassed to repeat some of the sermons I once delivered. But it also wouldn’t work because my congregations have changed. What you need to hear is different from what other congregations may need to hear. To my former traditionally Christian congregations, my message in a nutshell was, “Don’t leave your brain parked at the church door. Don’t have blind faith. Ask questions. Listen to your doubts. Think, think, think.” But to you, my message is different: “Get out of your head and into your life. Analyze less and feel more. Talk less and do more. Have faith, have faith, have faith.” The most effective preachers are effective priests. They know what to say because they know their congregation.
The pulpit should be approached with fear and trembling because it represents so much more than the personality of the preacher. It is a symbol of freedom, of prophecy, and of priesthood. But this still begs the question, “What right do I have, what right does any minister have, to engage in the freedom of the pulpit, to preach prophetically, and to speak as a priest?” Another way of asking this question is, “What is my authority to preach?” The question of authority has always been problematic for Unitarians. Protestants derive their authority from the Bible, and Fundamentalists have an infallible, inerrant Bible to boot. Catholics have the Pope, Pentecostals the Holy Spirit, Jews the Torah, Muslims the Koran, Buddhists the teachings of the Buddha, and Rastafarians have marijuana. From where do we Unitarians derive our authority? Some might say that it’s the coffee pot or the discussion group. David Rankin, in his classic “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” on those famous red cards, says that “We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, or a document, or an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.” I would boil it down to say that our authority is our personal experience. What is it that you and I have learned on this twisting, unpredictable journey we call life?
So the pulpit is also a symbol of the personhood of the minister. Every minister brings his or her unique experience to the pulpit. Some are more intellectual, others are more touchy-feely. Some are more somber, others more humorous. Some are more prophetic, others more priestly. Yet the pulpit demands, not the Truth (with a capital T), but the essential truth (with a small T) of the person standing behind it. I left the small, white-framed, rural Baptist church of my family to hear the Rev. John Ryberg at the First Baptist Church of Smithfield; I got up on Sunday mornings and walked across campus to the Wake Forest Baptist Church to hear the Rev. Warren Carr; I drove from Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest to downtown Raleigh on Sunday mornings to hear the Rev. Mahan Siler; not to listen to an objective essay or abstract lecture or scholarly dissertation. I wanted to hear their truth as they understood it and as they lived it.
What made the disciples willing to lay down all that they had and follow Jesus was his authenticity, his ability to be utterly himself without needing to be propped up by the authority of tradition or the approval of others. “It has been said of old,” he told them, “but I say unto you.” Martin Luther demonstrated that authority of authenticity when he was forced to be questioned at the Diet of Worms: “I do not accept the authority of popes and councils. I cannot and will not retract anything. Here I stand! I can do no other!” Martin Luther King demonstrated the authority of authenticity when he declared, “I have a dream today.” These preachers stood out because they stood up on their own two feet.
The sermon is more of a confession than a speech. When I speak from the pulpit, I am putting myself on the line, the sum total of my experience as a human being, life as I have lived it, my truth and meaning, my reason (which is informed by education), my emotions and imagination, my conscience and convictions, my hopes and aspirations, my fears and frustrations, my fulfillments and disappointments. That kind of vulnerable, subjective truth runs great risks. What I regard as profound, you may think trivial or irrelevant. I may see my foibles and mistakes as acceptable proof of my humanity; you may think them unacceptable. There is the danger of narcissism, of treating the pulpit as a spotlight for public display rather than as a symbol pointing beyond the personality of the preacher, and God knows we have an ample supply of narcissistic preachers in the world.
With these and other risks, no wonder it is tempting for preachers to hide behind their academic degrees and polished verbal skills. But in the end, what makes preaching powerful is the authentic, lived truth of the preacher. The least and the most we have to offer is ourselves. What makes preaching transformative is when the authentic, lived truth of the preacher evokes you to believe in your own truth. For better or worse, your life and mine are our sermons.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
I had a disturbing encounter this week. A stranger asked me what I do for a living. I usually get a clinch in my stomach whenever someone asks me this because when I say that I’m a minister, I’m afraid they will peg me as the stereotypical minister. And then my stomach clinches a little more when they ask what church I am minister of. When I try to tell them what a UU congregation is, their eyes usually glaze over and they say something like, “It sure is nice weather we’ve been having lately, isn’t it?” So I was bracing myself when I told him that I am the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation. I was relieved and delighted when he said, “I know about your church.”
“Oh, really. Not many people do,” I replied.
“Yes,” he said, “Isn’t that the church where you can believe whatever you want to believe?”
Technically, he was right. We UUs are free to believe whatever we want. Every Sunday morning, we announce, “Unitarian Universalism is a diverse and non-creedal religion. Our community is based on deeds, not creeds." Yet there was something unsettling about meeting a person who was not a UU and the only thing he knew about Unitarian Universalism was that it’s about whatever you want it to be about. It’s all about you. Sometimes I wonder if our religion is nothing more than institutionalized narcissism.
Our fourth UU principle states, “We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We UUs have always relished freedom. Our Unitarian ancestors rejected the doctrine of the trinity and exercised the freedom to believe in the unity of God. Our Universalist ancestors refused to believe in hell and exercised the freedom to believe in universal salvation. Both branches of our family tree were accused by traditional Christians of being heretics, and they were right. Heresy comes from the Greek word meaning “to choose.” Instead of towing the orthodox line, our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors chose to believe what their experience, reason, and conscience led them to believe.
We became a creedless religion because we realized that creeds are not universal and timeless statements of truth. They represent the best explanations of God or reality that the writers could muster at their time and place, reflecting the language, culture, and assumptions of their time and place. For example, many of the creeds of orthodox Christianity reflect the language, culture, and assumptions of the fourth century Greek world. That world had a dualistic view of reality. By this I mean that they saw a strict division between heaven and earth, between the human and the divine, between body and soul and flesh and spirit.
That’s why the Nicene Creed describes Jesus as “very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” The writers were trying to make the point that the dualism of flesh and spirit are united in Jesus, that he is both human and divine. But this language is archaic today because the assumptions behind it are archaic. We no longer think or speak that way. Creeds are always in need of updating because the way we conceive of reality changes over time. The problem with creeds is that we get attached to them and assume that they have summed up the truth once and for all. Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors knew better.
And you and I know better, as well. You and I have continued their heretical tradition. Most of us came from religious traditions which told us what to think and believe, what was right and wrong, who was saved and who was damned, who to love and who to hate. We consciously chose to leave those traditions because their way of thinking was too small to fit our experience, reason, and conscience. That was a costly decision for some of us because it meant we would become outcasts in our own families and aliens in Southern culture. When I was a little boy, my mother used to buy clothes that were too big for me because, she said, I “needed room to grow.” Most of us became UUs because our beliefs and values needed room to grow.
“We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” We UUs wallow in the word free, but we’re squeamish about the word responsible. Freedom without responsibility is nothing more than narcissism. In our spiritual development, freedom from is not the destination; it’s a stepping stone to freedom for. Many of us UUs can clearly articulate what we don’t believe, but we are dumbstruck about what we do believe. Many of us know adamantly what we stand against, but we have yet to find what we stand for.
I suspect that this is not simply a problem for Unitarians but for Americans in general. Responsibility is not a popular topic in America. When we do talk about responsibility, it’s usually to blame others for not exercising enough of it, but we typically exempt ourselves from self-examination. Let’s face it, we have a get-rich-quick, something-for-nothing mentality in this country. That’s the real reason for the Great Recession, from which we are still recovering. Not only did Wall Street try to get rich quick by offering flimsy subprime loans, but homeowners tried to get something for nothing by gobbling them up.
What a contrast to the Greatest Generation! What made the Greatest Generation great? The problems they faced were enormous and inescapable: the Depression, Nazism, Soviet Communism. But the leaders of that generation were not afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice, and the people of that generation were ready to sacrifice and pull together for the good of the country. John F. Kennedy issued the clarion call of responsibility when he said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Today we face enormous and inescapable challenges of our own: global climate change, depletion of oil, a declining infrastructure and educational system, political polarization and gridlock, and religious extremism. Yet our leaders never dare utter the word sacrifice. The last President to do so was Jimmy Carter, and we punished him by limiting him to a single term. We want solutions that are painless. The last time we went to war, our President gave us tax cuts and told us to go shopping. So this morning we are tackling a subject that is unpopular personally, politically, and religiously.
To talk about religious responsibility, let me return to our fourth principle, highlighting those last two words: “We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” These two words capture what Carl Jung was talking about when he said that there are two kinds of truth – objective truth and subjective truth, what the facts demonstrate to be true and what you have found to be true in your life experience, science and religion, truth and meaning.
Let’s take objective truth first. What does it mean to search for truth responsibly? At the very least, it means to pay attention to and take seriously what science has to teach us. Now it may seem incredible that we would even have to say that in twenty-first century America, but incredibly, we do because of the anti-science, anti-education, and anti-intellectualism of traditional religion. If you want to know the key difference between traditional and liberal religion, it may be found in our differing answers to the question, “How do you know what is true?” Traditional religion says that truth was determined once upon a time and has been delivered to us by a holy book, a holy creed, or a holy person. All that remains for you to do is to have faith, to accept what is given, to believe what you are told to believe. Liberal religion, in contrast, says that the search for truth is never-ending and that the truth is discovered and tested by examining the facts, which are accessible to everyone, not an elite few. Whereas liberal religion challenges you to remain open to the possibility of changing your mind to fit the facts, traditional religion changes the facts to fit the dogma.
If your faith contradicts science, if it ignores what we know about our world, it is not only ignorant; it is ridiculous. We know that the earth is round; it is not flat. We know that the earth revolves around the sun; we are not the center of the universe. We know that diseases are caused by germs, viruses, and genetic defects; they are not caused by demon possession. We know that the earth is 4.5 billion years old; it is not 6,000 years old. We know that human beings, like all forms of life, evolved over millions of years from simpler forms of life; we did not come from a garden with two naked people and a snake. We know that global warming is occurring because of carbon emissions into the atmosphere; it is not a natural cycle of climate change. We know that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a hard-wired part of our biology; it is not a lifestyle choice. We know that sex education based on the teaching of birth control reduces unwanted pregnancy; teaching abstinence does not. We know that people do not walk on water, are born from virgins, or come back to life once they are dead.
These are facts. You may not like the facts. You may wish they were otherwise. You may have opinions about them. But facts are not subject to feelings, beliefs, or opinion polls. Why are we debating the facts in this country? Facts are beyond debate. If you choose not to believe them, you are willfully closing your eyes to reality. You are not demonstrating your faithfulness; you are proving your close-mindedness. A responsible search for truth accepts what the evidence shows to be objectively true.
What about subjective truth? Science can help us discover the truth about our world, but we have to determine the truth about ourselves. The question of meaning is not a scientific question; it is a personal, moral question. The question of what makes your life and mine meaningful does not lend itself to controlled measurements. The answers we seek are not “out there” but “in here.”
What does it mean to search for meaning responsibly? At the very least, it means to trust your experience. What have the hard-won lessons of life taught you? What makes sense to you? In your heart, what do you know to be true? What do your feelings say? What does your conscience demand? What gives your life purpose? What brings you fulfillment? When do you feel most at peace? When do you feel most alive? These are questions that only you can answer, and any person or any religion is being presumptuous to answer them for you.
Liberal religion invites you to trust your experience, in contrast to traditional religion, which teaches you to trust an authority outside yourself -- a holy book, a holy creed, or a holy person. Liberal religion commits the blasphemy of asserting that you are holy. In particular, traditional religion teaches you to trust a father God. He is the ideal parent because he is all-knowing, all-loving, all-giving, all-powerful, always right, and always available. He overcomes every shortcoming we may have experienced with our real-life parents. This is why traditional religion is so enticing to so many people. Who doesn’t want to be completely loved, accepted, and cared for? Who wouldn’t like to believe that someone is ultimately in charge and that ultimately you will be safe, secure, and happy? This is why traditional religion is so attractive, and this why traditional religion is so debilitating. It keeps you in the emotional and psychological dependency of childhood. Being faithful means being obedient to the heavenly father and, by proxy, being obedient to his earthly representatives. Don’t ask questions. Don’t have doubts. Don’t follow your curiosity. Trust and obey. (I would like to point out, by the way, that this anthropomorphic model of God is not the only way to conceive of God, though it is certainly the traditional and still prevalent conception of God.)
Liberal religion says grow up! You are not a dependent child; you are an interdependent adult. Don’t wait for the here-after; live in the here-and-now. Don’t look to heaven; look within for the answers of life’s meaning. Don’t close your eyes and bow your head; look to each other for comfort and guidance. Liberal religion says you are responsible to each other. You are responsible for your life. You are responsible for your community. You are responsible for this planet. Trust your experience and obey your conscience.
Let’s be honest. It’s difficult to trust your experience and hear your conscience when the world is full of competing advice and authority figures and when we are full of doubts and insecurities and regrets. Again, this is what makes authoritarian religions so appealing, with their unquestionable answers to life’s unanswerable questions. We should listen to the counsel of Paul Tillich, my favorite Christian theologian whom I quoted a few Sundays ago about grace. On this matter he advises: “The passion for truth is silenced by answers which have the weight of undisputed authority…. Don’t give in too quickly to those who want to alleviate your anxiety about truth. Don’t be seduced into a truth which is not really your truth, even if the seducer is your church or your party or your parental tradition.”
I would say that real faith is not being certain about the weightier questions of life but the courage to live with uncertainty about these questions. You can be sure of your convictions without being cocksure. You don’t want to cling to your convictions too tightly because you need room to grow. You need room to admit your mistakes. You need room to admit that you may be wrong and another person may be right. You need room to change your mind. You need room to turn and pursue a new course. Doubt and tentativeness are prerequisites for growth. Absolute certainty may feel comfortable and reassuring, but it does not allow you to grow.
A good example to follow would be Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote in his essay Self-Reliance: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.” Emerson lived his credo. Once in the middle of delivering a sermon he had given before, he suddenly stopped and announced to the congregation, “The sentence which I have just read I do not now believe.” My advice to Mr. Emerson would be that if you’re going to use an old sermon, read it ahead of time before you deliver it.
What does it mean to search for meaning responsibly? It means to trust yourself, but it doesn’t mean you have to search by yourself. In fact, we shouldn’t go it alone because our perspectives are incomplete and our answers are partial. We are like the proverbial blind men and the elephant. The one who felt the elephant’s leg thought elephants were like tree trunks. The one who touched his ear thought they were like fans. The one who grabbed his tail thought they were like ropes. The one who felt his trunk thought they were like tree branches. And the one who swept his hands over the elephant’s belly thought they were like walls. Each of us has a partial picture of reality, but together we can develop a more accurate picture.
This is what makes Unitarian Universalism so appealing. Most churches serve a one-course meal. Here we offer a buffet of selections. We consider reason and science. We listen to the words of prophetic men and women, past and present. We still learn from the teachings of our own Judeo-Christian, Unitarian, and Universalist heritage, and we study the wisdom of other religions, especially Buddhism. We look to nature and to earth-centered spiritual traditions. We follow humanistic principles. And we share with each other our own personal experiences of life. I learn from you, and you learn from me. I hope you appreciate just how remarkable this kind of diversity is. It is also challenging, but in my book it is well worth the challenge to learn from our differences and to learn how to respect each other with our differences.
I read somewhere that the Chinese ideogram for truth is two people talking. A friend of mine who speaks Chinese says this is not true, but if it isn’t, it still makes a wonderful sermon illustration. Truth and meaning are not handed down from on high, and the search for truth and meaning is not believing whatever you want to believe. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning occurs in community with thoughtful people who are willing to have an honest, open conversation about things that matter and who are committed to growing, even at the risk of changing their minds.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
The facts surrounding the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri, policeman are remarkable, to say the least. Michael, who was a recent high school graduate and was to begin classes at Vatterott College the next week, was spending the summer with his grandmother. He and a friend, Dorian Johnson, were walking to Michael’s grandmother’s house when a Ferguson police officer confronted them. According to Dorian, they were walking down the middle of the street when the white male officer pulled up and told them to “get the f*** on the sidewalk.” The boys told the officer that they were almost home and would be off the street in a minute. The officer drove forward but then stopped and backed up, almost hitting the two boys. “We were so close, almost inches away, that when he tried to open his door aggressively, the door ricocheted off me and Mike’s body and closed back on the officer,” Dorian said. Still in his car, the officer grabbed Michael by the neck, and Michael tried to pull away. The officer drew his gun and said, “I’ll shoot you,” and then he fired, hitting Michael.
Dorian and a bloodied Michael took off running, and Dorian ducked behind the first car he saw. The officer got out of his car and went after Michael with his gun drawn. He fired a second shot that hit him, and Michael turned around with his hands up, telling the officer that he was unarmed and to stop shooting. But the officer kept shooting. According to the autopsy, the officer shot Michael six times, twice in the head. We know this because of several interviews Dorian Johnson had with the media and with federal prosecutors after the incident. The Ferguson police, however, never detained Dorian as a suspect in a crime or even interviewed him. In fact, they did not release the name of the officer, Darren Wilson, or an incident report until six days later.
The Ferguson police have a different account of the incident. They say that when the officer tried to get out of his car, Michael pushed him back in the car, assaulted him, and the two struggled for his gun. They say a shot was fired inside the car and then Michael was shot away from the car. Dorian’s account has been corroborated by several eyewitnesses, yet incredibly, police did not take statements from anyone at the scene. But they did take camera phones from several eyewitnesses. I cannot help but wonder how differently things would have been handled if Michael Brown had been white.
By the next night, angry Ferguson residents took to the streets in protest. Some looting and burning occurred, and then things took a really bizarre turn. The police began treating the black citizens of Ferguson as if they were terrorists. They donned their military uniforms, masks, and helmets, cordoned off a main thoroughfare, and brought out a mine resistant armored personnel carrier. They tear-gassed largely peaceful protestors the first night. The second day they fired smoke bombs, flash grenades, and sound cannons at the protestors, and placed snipers on rooftops. On the third day they chased people through residential neighborhoods and threw teargas canisters into people’s front yards. It looked like a scene from Gaza, only these were American police officers attacking American citizens.
Most notably, the police targeted journalists in an apparent attempt to suppress their coverage of police brutality. They fired teargas directly at an Al-Jazeera America film crew, and as crew members dispersed, the officers turned their recording cameras to the ground. Police ordered reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post to stop filming before detaining them for several hours without charging them with a crime. They refused to release an incident report, finally promising to release one in 4-6 weeks. The police even arrested St. Louis Alderman Antonio French as he recorded events from his car.
I cannot help but wonder how differently things would have been handled if the protestors had been white. It was just a few months ago that millionaire rancher Clive Bundy and dozens of militiamen and states-rights activists pointed their rifles at federal officers who were removing Bundy’s cattle from federal grazing land because Bundy had not paid his grazing fees for the last twenty years. There were no bullets or teargas fired that day. In fact, the federal officers backed down and even released the seized cattle. I think about the dozens of white gun owners who have brandished their assault weapons at stores and airports around the country in their so-called “open carry” campaign to advertise their Second Amendment rights. I cannot help but wonder how much of this posturing would have been tolerated if the gun-toters had been black.
This is not the first time the Ferguson police have been in the news, by the way. In 2009, police officers charged a black man with property damage because he bled on their uniforms after they beat him.
Within a month of the shooting of Michael Brown, at least four other unarmed black men have been killed by the police. There’s Eric Garner, the 43-year-old asthmatic father of six, who was confronted by New York City police officers for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. When he resisted being handcuffed, an officer put him in a chokehold, a tactic banned ten years ago by the police department. A video of the arrest clearly shows Garner gasping, “I can’t breathe!” while officers continue to smother him.
There’s 22-year-old John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio, who was shot and killed by police for carrying a rifle inside a Walmart. His rifle was a BB gun that he picked up from a store shelf. Police refuse to release the Walmart surveillance camera footage to the public or Crawford’s family.
There’s 25-year-old Ezell Ford of Los Angeles, who was stopped by police making an “investigative stop.” The police say that Ford tackled the officer and went for the officer’s gun, but eyewitnesses say that Ford was lying on the ground, complying with the officer’s orders, when he was shot in the back.
There’s 36-year-old Dante Parker of Victorville, California. A robbery suspect had fled on a bicycle, and police detained Parker, a pressman at the Daily Press newspaper, apparently because they found him nearby on a bike. Though Parker had no criminal record, he was tasered repeatedly when he resisted arrest. He began breathing heavily and was taken to the hospital, where he died.
What’s going on here? Are we to conclude that all white police officers are racists, that all white people are racists? That word “racist” is a loaded term. It conjures up images of Bull Connor in Alabama, aiming fire hoses and unleashing German shepherds against black protestors. Pardon the pun, but racism is not nearly so black-and-white. We need to be more sophisticated in our thinking about the complexities and subtleties of racism today. As a local African American minister says, “Jim Crow has grown up to become James Crow, Esquire.”
Our understanding of racism needs to take into account our understanding of how our minds work. We have two levels of thinking. We have a conscious level of thinking which employs our cerebral cortex. This level of thinking includes our intentionally chosen attitudes and beliefs. But we also have an unconscious level of thinking which employs the amygdala. These are those immediate, automatic associations we don’t think about or deliberately choose. In fact, we are largely unaware of them. The cerebral cortex is fast; it can make a decision within a second. But the amygdala is much faster; it jumps to conclusions within milliseconds, in the time it takes to blink … or pull a trigger.
Joshua Correll of the University of Colorado has measured the difference in an online shooter video game. The player takes on the role of a police officer who is confronted with a series of images of white or black men variously holding guns or innocent objects such as wallets or cell phones. The aim is to shoot anyone with a gun before he shoots you. In order words, the game is designed to encourage you to make split-second decisions before your conscious mind has a chance to kick in. Players routinely shoot more quickly at black men than at white men, and are more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black man than an unarmed white man. Correll has found no statistically significant difference between black and white players of the shooting game.
Why is that? African Americans live in the same culture as white Americans, absorbing the same cultural values and stereotypes as everyone else in our culture. And what is our cultural stereotype of young black men? It is that they are aggressive, violent, criminal, even animalistic. Consciously, we know better. Only ten percent of white Americans consciously choose to believe in white supremacy. Consciously, most white Americans believe that all persons are created equal and deplore racial discrimination. But our unconscious attitudes and feelings are something else altogether.
How could it be otherwise? We live in the United States of America. We have a 250-year history of whites owning blacks as if they were livestock. We have at least a 100-year history of economic discrimination, political suppression, and outright terrorism against African Americans. The attitudes and prejudices that supported these actions did not just evaporate into thin air when the Voting Rights Act was passed in the 60s or when we elected a biracial President. They are still there – in the people who have taught and nurtured us, in the lessons we’ve learned, in the schools and churches we’ve attended, in the books and articles we’ve read, in the movies and TV shows we’ve watched, in the advertisements we’ve seen, in all the data our unconscious minds have collected over our lifetimes. We are like fish that swim in a biased ocean. We do not choose the water we live in. We do not even think about it or are aware of it. We just go about our daily lives, while the water we are immersed in influences us in ways we do not recognize.
African Americans and Hispanics treated by doctors for a broken leg receive pain medication significantly less often than white patients with the same injury. School administrators suspend black students three times more often than white students. Police arrest African Americans four times the rate of whites for marijuana possession, even though both use marijuana at similar rates.
Two scholars sent out nearly 5,000 resumes in response to help-wanted ads, randomly alternating between stereotypical white-sounding names and black-sounding names. They found that it took 50 percent more mailings to get a callback for a black name. A white name yielded as much benefit as eight years of experience, according to the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
These doctors, principals, prosecutors, and recruiters probably all believe in equality and are unaware that they are discriminating, but their actions are being directed from their unconscious beliefs and stereotypes.
We whites are especially unconscious of white privilege. Black people can see white privilege very clearly, but we don’t see it. No one sees him- or herself as being privileged, especially if you’re working class or middle class or unemployed. That’s because we compare ourselves to the One Percent. Even if you don’t have a dime to your name, you enjoy certain privileges in this society merely because you are white. In the same way, there is male privilege: if you are male, you start out slightly ahead of women. In the same way, there is heterosexual privilege: if you are straight, you accrue certain benefits that gays do not. In the same way, there is Christian privilege: if you are Christian in this society, you have certain advantages that people of other faiths and certainly people of no faith do not have. In the same way, there is economic privilege: if you are rich, you are extended favors and given access to opportunities that others never realize.
White privilege is just as real, though we whites don’t see it because it’s difficult to see something you have not been denied. We can generally count on police protection rather than harassment. We can generally choose where we want to live and choose neighborhoods that are safe and have decent schools. We are typically given higher expectations at home and school, have more money spent on our education, and are given more opportunity and resources to learn. We see people like us in textbooks, commercials, news, movies, and TV shows. If we get into trouble, people expect us to be able to change and grow, and we are disciplined differently and penalized less than people of color. We have more recourse to and credibility within the legal system. We are typically given more attention, respect, and status in conversations than people of color. We can shop in department stores without being followed, and we don’t have to worry about throwing away our receipt before leaving the store. We can walk on any sidewalk of any neighborhood without being assumed to be a robber or rapist. Of course, some of us will have more of these benefits than others depending on our gender, sexual orientation, religion, educational level, and financial status, but all else being equal, it pays to be white. The greatest privilege of all about being white is that white is seen as “normal” and as “American.”
One of the blind spots of white privilege is that we don’t see race or racism. Or as Stephen Colbert says in his right-wing persona, “I don’t see color. I don’t even know what color I am. People say I’m white, so I guess I am.” Polls show that white Americans believe that racism is not a significant factor in Ferguson or law enforcement in general, that cops are just doing their jobs, and that racism is a thing of the past. Well, that’s not entirely true. A 2011 study by scholars at Harvard and Tufts found that whites, on average, believe that anti-white racism is a bigger problem than anti-black racism. A benefit of white privilege is that you can ignore the weight of history and remain willfully blind to patterns of racial power, privilege, and domination that still persist.
Yet facts are hard to ignore:
White privilege allows you to believe in the Calvinist myth of individualism; that if you are successful, you are being rewarded for your drive and initiative; that if you end up unemployed, in prison, or dead, you are receiving your just deserts. White privilege allows you to believe that the system is working just fine – that race is not a factor, that police always act reasonably and without prejudice, that protestors are mobs of looters and law-breakers, that everyone has an equal chance, and that good character and hard work guarantee you a good life. White privilege allows you to see Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and all the other inexplicably dead young black men as isolated cases, detached from history, with no reference to any discernible pattern. You get to live in a comfortable make-believe world when you look at the world through white-tinted glasses.
Last Sunday I talked about some of the reasons we come to church. One reason is to become more conscious, more aware, dare I say, more enlightened? Indeed, “Buddha” means “enlightened one.” We come to church to become more enlightened about ourselves, which means to become conscious of our unconscious beliefs and attitudes because they determine our actions much more than we wish to acknowledge. We come to church to become more enlightened about our culture, which means to become informed of how our legal and educational systems, our politics and economics are not a level playing field, but are skewed in favor of some Americans. We come to church to become aware of how, as William Faulkner said, “the past is not dead; it’s not even past.” Nothing that happens happens as an isolated event; it happens within the context of culture and within the context of history.
Speaking of history, Melissa Harris-Perry has reminded us that Ferguson is just outside St. Louis, where the black man Dred Scott sued for his freedom on the grounds that he and his wife had lived for many years in a free state. I have visited the courthouse where his case was presented when I was in St. Louis for the General Assembly of the UUA. As you know, his case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney delivered the opinion of the Court that Scott had no right to sue because as a black man, he was never intended to be an American. Said Taney, “It is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted [the Constitution].” The black man, he said, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The black man had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.
Those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it, and those who do not know themselves are doomed to repeat the sins of the past.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
Joan Watterson and the Leadership Development Committee have my sympathy. They are responsible for recruiting Board members, committee chairs, and other leaders of our congregation, and they are having one heck of a time. We began our new church year on July 1st, yet we still do not have a Religious Education chair or a Building & Grounds chair, both of which are extremely important committees in the life of our congregation. Everyone they have approached has been too busy to assume these responsibilities. So now would be the perfect time for your minister to lay on a guilt trip about your commitment to this congregation and how the benefits of this community directly derive from the contributions of time and money you make to it. I could do a really good job of that because having been raised a Baptist and in the South, I have been well schooled in the art of guilt trips. But I won’t … because that would make me feel guilty.
If you live in America in the 21st century, you have to listen to people tell you have busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy,” “Crazy busy.” Just about everyone I know is busy and complains about being busy, yet just about everyone I know keeps finding more ways to fill up their calendars and feels guilty and anxious if they are not overscheduled. I get the feeling that none of us want to live like this, any more than anyone wants to be caught in a traffic jam, but it’s something we collectively force one another to do.
Even our children are busy, scheduled down to the half-hour with classes and extracurricular activities. They come home at the end of the day as tired as grown-ups. I remember coming home after school and having three hours of totally unstructured, largely unsupervised time every afternoon and nearly all weekend. I used to do everything from surfing the World Book Encyclopedia to getting together with friends in the woods to chuck dirt clods directly into one another’s eyes. I was enjoying retirement without having to wait to get old. That kind of carefree childhood now seems like centuries ago, and I feel sorry that kids today don’t know what they’re missing.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, this problem of having no time. Back in 1928, economist John Maynard Keynes, who founded the World Band and the International Monetary Fund, composed a short essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” and in it he imagined what our world would look like in a hundred years. By 2028, he predicted, the growth of our technology and the global economy would usher in the 15-hour work week. We would work about three hours a day, and for the first time in human history, we would be faced with the challenge of figuring out what to do with all our leisure time.
By the way, Keynes was one of our pithier economists. He’s the one who said, “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.” He also gave this definition of education: “the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent.”
Eighty years after Keynes’ prediction, half of it has come true. The U.S. gross domestic product has grown in total by a factor of sixteen; gross domestic product per capita has grown by a factor of six; and the global economy has grown at a similar rate. Our technology has produced wonders that Keynes could not imagine: laptops, microwaves, smart phones, smart watches, smart refrigerators, and Snuggie blankets. We may have become as rich as Keynes imagined, but this wealth has not translated into leisure. Do you know anyone who complains about having too little to do? What happened? As time goes by, why do we seem to have less of it?
One person trying to answer this question is Brigid Schulte, a reporter for the Washington Post. She has written a book entitled Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. One theory she entertains is that busyness has acquired social status. The busier you are, the more important you seem. Thus, people compete to be – or, at least, appear to be – harried. A researcher she consults at the University of North Dakota, Ann Burnett, has collected five decades’ worth of holiday letters and found that they’ve come to dwell less and less on the blessings of the season and more and more on how jam-packed the previous year has been. Based on this archive, Burnett has concluded that keeping up with the Joneses now means trying to out-schedule them. In one recent letter, a mother boasts of schlepping her kids to so many activities that she drives “a hundred miles a day.” “There’s a real ‘busier than thou’ attitude,” Burnett says.
Later in her book, Schulte fixes on the same culprit that so many other women have: men. Most American women today work outside the home. More than two-thirds of mothers with school-age children are employed outside the home. Many now out-earn their husbands; in dual-income couples, about a third of wives make more than their husbands. Even so, studies show that women do the lion’s share – or maybe that should be the lioness’s share – of the housework: between seventy and eighty percent. If they have children, the bulk of the childcare also falls on them. Though men today certainly spend more time caring for their children and doing more household chores than their fathers and grandfathers did, it is still about half of what women routinely do. Small wonder that so many women feel overwhelmed.
Several economists have also wondered how Keynes could have been so right in predicting a future of economic growth and improving living standards but so wrong about diminishing leisure time. They collected their thoughts in 2008 in a work called “Revisiting Keynes.” Some contributors to the volume attribute Keynes’ error to a misreading of human nature. Keynes assumed that people work in order to earn enough to buy what they need. And so, he reasoned, as incomes rose, those needs could be fulfilled in ever fewer hours. Workers would knock off earlier and earlier, until eventually they would be going home by lunchtime. But this isn’t what people are like. Instead of quitting early, they find new things to need. “Most types of consumption are strongly habit-forming,” says Gary Becker of the University of Chicago. “After an initial period of excitement, the average consumer grows accustomed to what he or she has purchased and rapidly aspires to own the next product in line,” he writes. This insatiable raising the bar of needs and desires is probably hardwired into our human nature. Do you know anyone who is completely satisfied with what they have, who doesn’t want more? Our competitive drive also kicks in. As we see others acquire more stuff, we feel the need to have bigger and better stuff.
Joseph Stiglitz, an economist at Columbia University, argues that people’s choices are molded by society and, over time, become self-reinforcing. We “learn how to consume by consuming,” he writes, and how to “enjoy leisure by enjoying leisure.” In support of this position, Stiglitz cites the contrasting experiences of Europeans and Americans. In the 1970s, the British, French, and Germans put in just as many hours at work as Americans. But then the Europeans began trading income for leisure. The average employed American now works roughly 140 hours more per year than the average Englishman and 300 hours more than the average Frenchman. Current French law mandates that workers get 30 paid vacation days per year; British law, 28; in America, zero. Stiglitz predicts that Europeans will further reduce their working hours and become more skilled at taking time off, while Americans, having become masterful consumers, will continue to work long hours and buy more stuff. TVs, he notes, “can be put in every room and in both the front and the back of automobiles.”
I’m sure there are multiple psychological and economic causes for the evaporation of our time, and I have my theory, an existential theory. I believe our busyness serves as a kind of reassurance, a hedge against emptiness. My filled calendar is a validation of my existence. Surely my life must be meaningful and worthwhile if I’m completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. If you’ll notice, the people who complain about not having any time – people like you and me – are not generally people who are pulling back-to-back shifts in the ICU or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs. It’s almost always people whose busyness is self-imposed: work and obligations they have taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they have encouraged their kids to participate in. We are busy because of our own ambition or drive or anxiety. I think we’re addicted to busyness because we dread having to face ourselves in its absence. What is my worth if I am not being productive?
It’s important to recognize that the present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. Writer Tom Krieder has a friend who was driven out of New York City by high rent and moved to a small town in the south of France. She describes herself as happy and relaxed for the first time in years. She still gets her work done, but it doesn’t consume her entire day and brain. She says it feels like college again. She has a circle of friends who all go out to the café together nearly every night. She has a boyfriend again. (She once ruefully summarized dating in New York: “Everyone’s too busy and everyone thinks they can do better.”) What she had mistakenly assumed was her personality – driven, cranky, anxious, and sad – turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment.
Not many of us can relocate to the south of France in order to live a calmer, saner life. It is difficult not to get caught up in the whirlpool of busyness in our society, especially when it seems normal, as if everyone else is living this way and as if you will somehow miss out or be left behind if you don’t live this way, too. It may be difficult to swim against our cultural stream, but it is possible, especially with a little help from our friends. Believe it or not, I believe church can help, and not just this church, but just about any place of worship, precisely because of that word – worship. “Worship” shares the same root as “worthy” and “worthwhile.” Church is where we come to worship, to determine what goals are worthy to pursue in life, to explore what makes our lives worthwhile. Unitarian minister Jacob Trapp, who wrote the responsive reading we read this morning, defines worship more poetically:
To worship is to stand in awe
Under a heaven of stars,
Before a flower, a leaf in sunlight,
Or a grain of sand.
To worship is to be silent,
Before a tree astir with the
Or the passing shadow of a
To worship is to work with
Dedication and with skill;
It is to pause from work and
Listen to a strain of music.
The strain of music in our busy lives is working, running errands, paying bills, taking the kids to their soccer games – the “immediate wheres and whens and hows that face us daily,” as Frederick Buechner puts it. But to hear the rhythms and patterns of the music, you need back away from it. You need a little distance in order to truly hear the music, to hear the “life-and-death questions about meaning, purpose, and value.” “To lose track of such deep questions as these,” warns Buechner, “is to risk losing track of who we really are and where we are really going.” We come to church so as not to lose track of these questions.
To worship, to step out of the din of our lives to hear the music, is to see ourselves differently. From the day we are born into our capitalistic culture, we are bombarded by messages that we are nothing more than consumers. "Bombard" is not an overstatement. By age 20, the average American has seen over a million commercial messages, and the message is this: the key to having a happy life is to buy more stuff and the key to having a meaningful life is to stay busy. The word "consume" used to be a negative term; it used to mean "to exhaust, pillage, lay rent, and destroy." “Consumption" used to be another word for tuberculosis. Now, consumption is what props up our entire economy: seventy percent of our economy is based on consumer spending. Now, consumption holds the key to our happiness.
One of the spiritual consequences of our consumerism is that it leaves us feeling deprived, inadequate, and empty. No matter how much I buy, it’s not enough. No matter how busy I am, there’s always more to do. At church, however, I am reminded that I am the rich recipient of so many gifts I have neither bought nor earned, the greatest of which is life itself. I am reminded that I have worth simply because I am a human being, and nothing I buy or do can add one bit to my worth. We come to church to learn our true identity. We are not human doings; we are human beings, and our humanity requires more than things and activities. In addition to making a living, we want and need to make a life.
We come to church to ask the deeper questions: What am I working for? Am I busy being happy? Is wasting time really wasting time? Am I doing what is truly important to me or what makes me feel important? Am I trying to keep true to myself, or am I trying to keep up with others? Do I possess my possessions, or do they possess me? Is my life a chore to be completed, or is it a gift to be unwrapped? These are the kinds of questions we explore at church, and we would explore them further this morning … if we had more time.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones
I think one of the loneliest experiences you can have is when you arrive at an airport late at night, and there is no one at the gate to welcome you home. Today’s Water Communion is the antithesis of that experience. An annual tradition in just about every Unitarian Universalist congregation, the Water Communion is a grand hug welcoming all of us back from our various absences during the summer, some short and some long. In a faith tradition with few rituals, the ritual of bringing water from our diverse summer destinations and adding our waters to a common bowl reminds us that we have a home to come back to – a home that welcomes you as you are, a home of acceptance and love, faith and reason, conviction and hope.
Like all rituals, there are literal aspects. We bring literal water from literal places, perhaps from lakes, streams, rivers, oceans, swimming pools, or the kitchen sink; perhaps water from summer showers, thunderstorms, dewy mornings, or misty evenings; perhaps from faraway, exotic places or from our own backyards; perhaps with friends or family or by ourselves. Whoever we are and wherever we have been, we are not alone in this community. The water we bring comes from a variety of sources, but the common bowl into which we blend our water represents the unique community which our unique personalities and gifts create. Like all rituals, literal elements are used to express symbolic meaning.
Some UU congregation save their water from the Water Communion, boil it, and use it during child dedication ceremonies. Here in the South, we boil ours and make sweet tea. Right now, some of our newer members from up North are not sure if I'm kidding or not.
Water symbolizes the interdependent web of life, of which we are a part. All life has arisen from water, and water sustains life in every place. The same stream of life which runs through my veins runs through yours. The same stream of life runs through the veins of Russians and Ukranians. They are not strangers. We, too, know the narrow-mindedness of nationalism. The same stream of life runs through the veins of Palestinians and Israelis. They are not strangers. We, too, know the intoxication of revenge and the seduction of reprisal. The same stream runs through Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson is not a foreign place. We, too, know the pervasiveness of racism and the rage of impotence. Differences of race, religion, and nationality are superficial; the commonality of our shared humanity is more profound. We have much more in common than in difference.
The same stream of life which runs through my veins and yours runs through deer and fish, robins and insects. It runs through the trunks and branches of oaks and pines, through the stems and leaves of ferns and flowers. The so-called lower forms of life are nonetheless precious. They form the foundation of an ecosystem that sustains us so-called higher forms of life. They are not strangers, either. Two hundred years ago, Chief Seattle knew intuitively what today science knows empirically:
All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All thing are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do the web, we do to ourselves.
If humankind does not wake up and recognize our interdependent kinship with the earth and all other forms of life of the earth, we will succeed at committing ecocide, and in so doing, we will commit suicide. Water, which gives birth to and nourishes life, reminds us of this kinship.
Water also symbolizes our tears. Each of us may be different (some of us are really different), but one thing all of us have in common is loss. Every person has suffered some kind of loss. Your mother has died. Your husband has cancer. Your spouse has left you. Your company has downsized and terminated your job. Your mobility, your eyesight, or your hearing has faded away. Your love has been rejected. Your trust has been betrayed. Your hope has been disappointed. Scott Peck said it most succinctly in the opening sentence of his book The Road Less Traveled: Life is difficult (though some people pretend that it is not). Do not be ashamed of your tears. They are proof that you have lived and loved deeply. They are proof that you have faced the worst and survived.
In the song the children sang, “I’ve Got Peace like a River,” after the verses, “I’ve got peace like a river” and “joy like a fountain” and “love like an ocean,” comes, “I’ve got pain like an arrow … in my soul.” At first glance, this verse may seem out of place, but the arrows of pain in life are what enable us to value peace and be grateful for joy and appreciate love.
Our congregation has felt pain like an arrow in recent months in the loss of some dear friends: Hal French, Helen Rader, Irene and Wilfred Diston, Clay Moore, Carolyn McLeod, and Don Mohr. Some of our dearest friends have moved away: Jerry Moore, Mike Paget, Barry Ahrendt, Jo Conner, Peter Kandis, Dorothy Garretson, Ryan Humphrey, Mary McGriff, Lisa and Kevin Eason, Andrea and Jeff Pixley. Their loss represents a death, too. Our water is a symbol of our tears, and we blend our waters in a common bowl because we grieve together as a congregation as well as individuals.
Finally, water symbolizes cleansing, rebirth, dare we say baptism. I told my baptism story in detail a few Sundays ago. It’s a familiar story to those raised in the evangelical tradition. It’s no wonder that evangelical religion spread like prairie fire across this pioneer nation because it promised a second chance. Not matter how sullied your life story, with faith you could turn the page and start over. It still requires faith, brothers and sisters! Not faith in God, but faith in yourself, faith in your dreams, faith in your future, faith in your worth. The question is not whether God will save you because you are bad; the question is whether you will save yourself because you are good.
Are your valuable enough to be saved? Are you worth enough to have a worthy life? Are you important enough to make yourself a priority and to take your life seriously? Does your life matter enough to learn from your mistakes, to get back up and start again? Tomorrow does not have to be a rerun of yesterday. The water of baptism can wash away your sins, and you can have a new beginning. There is new life waiting to be born within you, and there is new life waiting to be born because of you. This is the faith that John O’Donohue speaks of in his poem For a New Beginning:
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening . . .
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
Water, which cleans and purifies, reminds us that it's never too late to leave behind what we have outgrown.
From your summer adventures and misadventures, welcome to our Water Communion. Welcome home.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones