Rev. Neal Jones, PsyD

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, South Carolina

Sermons by Rev. Dr. Neal Jones

Coming Out as an Atheist (April 13, 2014)

posted Apr 13, 2014, 9:30 PM by Neal Jones   [ updated Apr 13, 2014, 10:01 PM ]

          I am an atheist.  Do you realize how hard it is for me to say that, especially in South Carolina -- where the first question someone asks you when he or she meets you, “So where do you go to church?”; where people regularly talk about God as their co-pilot and Jesus as their fishing buddy; where prayer is considered a viable solution to every problem, from ending drought to finding a parking place. 

          Recently, a group of atheists in Spartanburg were excluded from volunteering at a soup kitchen.  Its executive director said she’d resign from her job before she would let atheists volunteer and be a “disservice to this community,” adding that her Christian organization that runs the soup kitchen "stands on the principles of God."  Apparently, allowing others to help the less fortunate goes against her Christian principles. So what did the Upstate Atheists do?  They raised over $2000 to give care packages to homeless people across the street from the soup kitchen.

          Recently, when Charleston atheist Herb Silverman was invited to give the invocation at a City Council meeting, several City Council members got up and walked out.  Two gave their reasons for walking out in the Charleston Post and Courier.  Wendell Gilliard said that an atheist giving an invocation is an affront to our troops because they are "fighting for our principles, based on God."  Mr. Gilliard apparently believes that our troops are involved in a holy war.  I thought we were fighting against the Taliban; I didn’t realize we were the Taliban. The other Councilman, Robert George, said about Silverman, "He can worship a chicken if he wants to, but I'm not going to be around when he does it."  Herb refrained from telling George what he really thought – “that praying to a god makes about as much sense as praying to a chicken.”  By the way, if the name Herb Silverman rings a bell, it may be because he spoke here a couple of years ago.  Herb is the person who challenged South Carolina’s law prohibiting atheists from holding public office, including serving as a notary public.

          I wonder if the City Council members who could not bear to be in the same room with an atheist giving an invocation can understand how it must feel for many non-Christians when they are continually subjected to Christian prayers at City Council and other government meetings, when they see their tax dollars given to Christian schools in the form of vouchers and tuition tax credits, when they see “in God we trust” on our currency, when they must use the phrase “one nation under God” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, when they must place their hand on the Bible when testifying in court, when prisons allow Bibles as the only reading material for inmates, when courts mandate religious drug and alcohol treatment programs, when service men and woman are forced to attend religious events, and when child custody cases are decided against non-believing parents because it is assumed that non-believers make bad parents.  The First Amendment may establish the separation of church and state, but apparently not everyone has received the memo.

          No person running for public office in America would ever openly admit that he or she is an atheist.  To do so would be political suicide.  Gallop has found that 95% of Americans would vote for a woman, 94% for a Catholic, 92% for a Jew, 92% for an African American, 79% for a Mormon, and 79% for a homosexual; about half would vote for an atheist.  Publicly admitting that you are an atheist in America is about as risky as burning a flag in an American Legion hall.  I don’t have to tell people in South Carolina that being an atheist is not popular.  Being an atheist can get you denied a promotion and fired from your job.  It can get you disowned by your family and deserted by your friends.  It can get your house or car vandalized, and it can get you physically harmed.  Prejudice against atheists may be the last socially acceptable bigotry.  
          If you were expecting me to criticize Christianity, ridicule religion, or tell you why you shouldn’t believe in God in today’s sermon, you may be disappointed.  I don’t have the temperament for that.  I don’t enjoy arguments. I know that some of you do, but I don’t.  I don’t like arguing in my personal life, and I don’t like arguing in church.  Besides, I am sure that you are already well versed in the reasons for and against belief, and I doubt that I could tell you anything you don’t already know. 

          Besides that, I have become convinced that reasons are not the only reason people choose to believe or not believe in God.  Emotion has a lot to do with that decision, particularly emotion around identity and community.  I think the chief reason people are religious is because they were raised to be religious.  If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you are likely to be Muslim; if you were born in Thailand, you are likely to be Buddhist; and if you were born in the United States, you are likely to be Christian; not because most people make a rational choice to be Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian, but because most people are raised to be that way and to reject that way often means to reject your family and culture, your identity and community.  That’s a price too high to pay for many people.  Most atheists were also raised to be religious, and I have observed that they started discovering reasons not to believe when they discovered a community of like-minded people through reading and through their personal relationships; and this new community allowed them to develop a new identity.

          So this morning I am not going to make the case for being an atheist.  Instead, I want to make the case for coming out of the closet as an atheist if you are already an atheist.  As you well know, the phrase “coming out of the closet” was first used by LGBT people, and I think it is relevant for atheists, as well, because being an atheist, like being gay, carries a stigma.  Even the symbol for atheism is a scarlet A.  People assume that if you are an atheist, you are immoral and you have no meaning or joy in your life.  Carita Barr expressed the feeling of most people when she asked me earlier this week what today’s sermon was going to be about.  I told her that the title was “Coming Out as an Atheist.” 

          She said, “I’m surprised that you’re an atheist.” 

          “Why would that surprise you?” I asked.

          “Because atheists tend to be cold and soulless,” she said.

          Hey, just because we don’t believe in the existence of souls doesn’t mean we’re soulless!

          To be theologically correct, I guess I should clarify that technically I am probably an agnostic instead of an atheist since I don’t know with 100% certainty that there is not a God, any more than a believer knows with 100% certainty that there is.  When you get down to it, I don’t know that we know anything with 100% certainty, so I suppose we are all agnostic.  If I must use a theological or philosophical label to describe myself, I prefer to say that I am a humanist.  Whereas “atheist” describes what one does not believe and whereas “agnostic” describes what one does not know, “humanist” describes what I do believe and what I do know.  What I do believe is that I am ultimately responsible for my life and that we are responsible for our world.  No one else can be me, and there are no saviors to save our world.  It’s up to you and me.  What I do know is what I can see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears.  As far as we know, there is no life beyond this life and no supernatural world beyond this world.  What you see is what you get.

          Humanist writer Greta Christina has just published a book entitled Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.  In preparation for writing her book, Christina read and listened to literally hundreds of “coming out atheist” stories, and there was immense variety among them.  She read stories that were hilarious, poignant, tragic, ironic, sweet, dramatic, joyful, and anticlimactic.  But one consistent theme emerged – most of the time, coming out atheist turns out okay.  It’s not that she didn’t read painful, sad, and maddening stories and some that were truly horrible.  But the horror stories were the exception, not the rule; and the painful, sad, and maddening stories mostly turned out okay over time.  She read lots of stories about atheists’ families greeting their atheism with tears and recriminations and threats – and then getting over it, years or months or even weeks later.  She read stories of atheists’ bosses or workmates proselytizing and praying at them – and then learning to knock it off.  There were stories of atheists’ friends being freaked out – and then getting past it.

          This jibes with the coming out stories some of you have shared with me this past week and which I share today with their permission.

          Kevin Meredith became an atheist relatively late in life, in his early 30's, and told his sister a few years later during a visit to the family home in Florida.  Says Kevin, “She immediately told my mother and one of my brothers, who was also visiting, and he confronted me with my mother and sister present.  The "meeting" wasn't particularly unpleasant because, although all of my family, except me, are some version of right wing Republican, mostly bordering on wing nut, they are also at their core decent, loving people.”

          He continues:  “I didn't want to have the conversation because I knew no one's mind would be changed, but I went ahead and sat there. Among the most memorable things my brother said was that I was a ‘socialist,’ and then we argued for a time about gun rights and homosexuality….  Also memorable, my mother blamed my atheism on the liberal arts education my parents provided.  Looking back, I wish I'd pointed out that Jesus was a socialist by some definitions.  The conversation ended, and my mother and I never discussed it again, and I maintain a strong, treasured relationship with her.  My brother and I agreed to continue the discussion over email, which forced each of us to collect our thoughts and present our best argument, but was otherwise not of much use as no one's mind was changed….  Bottom line, however, I remain close to everyone in my family, and religion never comes up, in person or other email.  And those two facts are probably related.”

          I can second that emotion, Kevin.  I discovered a long time ago that my family and I have a much more pleasant Thanksgiving and Christmas when we agree to disagree … in silence.

          I thought I had received a heavy dose of religion as a Southern Baptist, but my Baptist beginnings can’t compare with the religious upbringing of Dean Smith, who was raised Pentecostal.  Says Dean, “I was a Royal Ranger, the Assembly of God version of the Boy Scouts, because the Boy Scouts were too worldly.  I spoke in tongues.  I memorized Bible verses.  When I was 15, I undertook to read the King James Version of the Bible cover-to-cover.  I was baptized, and they had to dunk me twice because my hand was sticking out of the water the first time.”

          Though it was a gradual process, Dean Smith also became an atheist later in life, primarily as a result of education.  Going back to college in his 30’s, he courses in astronomy, logic, and intro to religion in the same semester.  Dean observes, “Not long after that, I realized I was no longer keeping a space in my head for God.  I became an atheist without being conscious of it, and I didn't mind thinking of myself as one because I knew it didn't mean I had a closed mind, just one that required more evidence to believe.”

          When I asked him what kinds of reactions does he get from others when they discover that he is atheist, he replied, “It varies.  One young lady asked me if that meant I worship the Devil.  I found out from a friend who used to report to me that the reason I did poorly in a survey was that many people on my team were reluctant to approach me because of my atheism:  I got rated as 'unwelcoming' and 'difficult to approach.'  I did fine in those areas before I got 'outed' at work.  My policy is 'you ask, I'll tell'; otherwise I keep it to myself….  My father's side of the family knows, which has led to more intense proselytizing when I visit.  It's irritating enough that I take particular pains not to let my mother's side of the family in on it.  I like having some relatives who don't regard me as a 'conversion object.'”

          Dean adds, “I've never lost a friend over it, though.  Never got in a shouting match.  I wouldn't flaunt it in a small town though, or put a sign in my yard reading 'home of a proud atheist.'  I won't put anything on my car that marks me as an atheist because I would expect it to be vandalized at some point.”

          As we have learned from our LGBT brothers and sisters, you have to be selective about coming out.  If coming out as an atheist would mean risking your job, your home, you support system, your children, or your safety, you would want to think twice about it.  Everyone has different circumstances and different personalities, so we have to come out on our own time-table and in our own way.  But I suspect we can come out with more people more often than we assume.  In the hundreds of coming out stories Greta Christina read, the results were overwhelmingly positive.  She heard from exactly one person, just one person, who said they regretted having done it.

          Coming out as an atheist can be extremely powerful, even transformative, in at least two ways.  It can be transformative socially.  Another thing we have learned from our LGBT brothers and sisters is that they only way to melt the fear, ignorance, and hatred in our society is to come out and show others that LGBT people are people and that atheists are people.  When I was growing up, we were not even talking about homosexuality; now LGBT people are getting married, and all of us regard Ellen Degeneres as our best friend.  The remarkable pace of change in attitudes toward LGBT persons in our lifetime would not have happened unless, one by one, they started coming out of the closet to their sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, bosses and coworkers. 

          Research consistently shows that people’s bigotry against a group is diminished when they know a person in that group.  All of us in this room have experienced this.  I was brought up to be prejudiced against African Americans, but when the schools were integrated and I got to know people of color outside my segregated, uptight, all-white world, I came to the startling conclusion, “My goodness, black people are people, too!”  I was brought up to believe lies about LGBT people, but as I got to know people one-on-one, I discovered, “What do you know, gays and lesbians are people, too!”  If we atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics, and free thinkers want bring down the bigotry against us, we have to have the courage to come out, too.  It’s hard to come out of the closet, especially in the early stages of a society’s consciousness, but this is how a nation’s consciousness is changed – one person at a time.

          We are already seeing this nation’s consciousness changing.  The fastest growing religious group in America is, ironically, not religious.  They are the “Nones,” the religiously non-affiliated, and they comprise about 16% of Americans today.  Among 18 to 35-year-olds, that number rises to one in three.  This is the highest level of religious disaffiliation since the Pew Research Center has been taking such polls. 

          Coming out as an atheist can be transformative socially, and it can be transformative personally.  One of the most painful coming out stories I have heard was told to me by Andrea Moore.  Her coming out was actually a forced outing.  Here is her story:

          It was just after my second child was born.  I left my children with my then mother-in-law, whom we lived with at the time, so I could get some time away from the house.  When I got home, I discovered my bedroom had been taken apart.  All the books I had on different religions and anything that could be considered religious, but non-Christian, was wrapped up in a bag and tossed into the yard.  If that wasn't upsetting enough, the next day she went to my parents' home and told them about all the ‘evil’ things she found.  My parent's, being pretty fundamentalist and going to the same church as my mother-in-law, were horrified.  They said nothing to me until the next time I visited them.  My mother let loose and accused me of witchcraft.  She threw me and her grandchildren out of her home.”

          “The story of my 'idolatry' spread quickly through the rest of my family, and it would be five years before I would be let back into any family functions.  The really funny part is when we were able to move our stuff out of her house, I found that she had covertly attached Bible verses to the bottoms of many of my things (pictures, posters, my bed) as a ward or voodoo type of magical protection; yet I was the crazy one!”

          Andrea continues, “After all of this with my family happened, I decided that it was only a matter of time before all of my friends found out, so I wrote a mass email to explain my real positions as an atheist.  I am a former Columbia International University student, so all of my friends were alumni as well.  They all met with me and told me we no longer had enough in common to be friends. Apparently, my faith or my appearance of faith (I had been a closeted atheist for over a year) was what our friendship had been based on.” 
          “I also was asked to resign from my two contract positions as a gymnastics instructor, which I did.  I worked for my mother- in-law in her mobile business and at a gym she and a friend had opened.  Part of every class was a devotional with the kids, and I was no longer allowed to read the Bible to them or facilitate prayers.  Despite the fact that I had the most training and the most experience teaching, I was somehow became unable to do my job in their eyes.” 
          “It was a very painful and stressful time in my life that I wouldn't wish on anyone, but I wouldn't go back to that life if you paid me.  The fear and guilt that I was constantly wracked with was almost overwhelming.  The peace I found on the other side of atheism is amazing.”

          The peace that Andrea found is the peace of being true to yourself.  It’s the peace of making your words and actions consistent with your values.  It’s making your outside match your inside.  It’s the peace of living with integrity.  I know, not from reading books or hearing from others, but from personal experience that living with authenticity is the most powerful part of coming out of the closet, whatever your closet may be.  And I did not have that experience in my life until I met a group of people called Unitarian Universalists.

          In my last sermon, I read a poem from William Ward:

          To laugh is to risk appearing the fool,
          To weep is to risk appearing sentimental,
          To reach out for another is to risk exposing our true self,
          To place our ideas, our dreams before the crowd is to risk their loss.
          To love is to risk not being loved in return,
          To hope is to risk despair,        

          To live is to risk dying.

          But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
          The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
          He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow,

          I suppose today’s sermon is not merely about atheism or coming out as an atheist.  It’s about the courage and peace of taking the risk to be yourself. 


The Man in the Crowd ... and You and Me (March 30, 2014)

posted Mar 30, 2014, 7:44 PM by Neal Jones

          Ana Levy-Lyons, the minister of the First Congregational Society of Brooklyn, New York, tells of being at a subway station on a particularly hot day.  Commuters were packed into the station like sardines, sweating profusely up against each other while waiting for the next train.  Rev. Lyons noticed a man slowly making his way through the crowd, and he did so in a most curious fashion.  He lightly touched each person he passed on the shoulder or arm almost as if he knew them and had now been reunited with an old friend.  He moved through the crowd with a touch of intimacy.  Rev. Lyons found herself wondering what his deal was.  Maybe he was from another country with different social customs than ours.  Or maybe he was a Clintonesque politician, skilled at the art of connecting with people.

          Lyons returned to her Blackberry when she heard a gasp and saw someone falling in the midst of the crowd.  People were catching him and lowering him to the floor.  It was the same guy!  People were shouting, “Get help! Get help!” but in a second the guy was coming to and getting back up with the help of others.  “That was the strangest feeling,” he said.  Apparently, he had passed out from standing for so long in the heat, and also apparently, he had been trying to steady himself as he threaded through the crowd by lightly touching each person he passed.  The intimacy Rev. Lyons had noticed had been borne of vulnerability.

          Intimacy and vulnerability, the two go together like peas and carrots.  The man had become vulnerable, so he reached out intimately to those around him; and the people around him responded to his vulnerability with intimacy:  somebody offered him a bottle of water, a doctor checked his chest with a stethoscope, a few others called for help on their cell phones, and everyone around him helped him to the floor and then back up again. 

          Vulnerability invites intimacy.  Your guard is down.  Your defenses are lowered.  You can no longer hide behind your strengths.  You are open – open to connection with others – and usually, not always, but usually others respond to your pain or brokenness or weakness by being open themselves because they know what’s it like to be hurt, broken, and weak. 

          Being open is being exposed, and exposure invites danger as well as empathy.  Notice the knot in your stomach when you imagine standing in front of your class or a group of your colleagues, about to give a presentation.  There are people in the room who will make decisions about your grade or your salary or your job opportunities.  But not just that, they will be making up their minds about you – about whether you are smart, whether you have what it takes, whether you are the sort of person they admire.  That’s being vulnerable.

          Or imagine that there is someone you really like, someone you think is cute, who laughs at your jokes and who seems to get you and get to you.  You’re about to ask them if they would like to go to the school dance or to a movie.  You are about to put your heart on the line, about to risk rejection, about to look like an idiot.  That’s being vulnerable.

          Or imagine you have just walked into a congregation that you are hoping could possibly be your spiritual home.  But you don’t know any of the people there.  You don’t even know how people usually dress for services, whether you will know how to sing any of the songs, whether you will know when to stand up or when to laugh, whether the minister will say something you find hurtful or offensive, whether anyone will even speak to you after the service.  Even worse, what if the minister comes at you with a cordless mike and asks you to introduce yourself to the whole congregation?  That’s being vulnerable.

          At one time or another, all of us have been that guy in the crowd.  All of us know what it’s like to be vulnerable.  We’re vulnerable every time we raise our hand to speak in class; every time we voice an opinion in a meeting; every time we tell someone that we love them or that something they said or did hurt us.  We’re vulnerable when we admit that we don’t understand and when we ask for help.  We’re vulnerable whenever we speak up or stand up.  We’re vulnerable any time we create something and any time we allow someone else to see our creation.

          Vulnerability is universal.  It’s what makes us human and enables us to understand each other and reach out to each other.  It’s also very subjective and one of the things that makes us different.  What makes me vulnerable may not be the same for you, and your vulnerability may not register with me.  Everybody’s got something.  Maybe it’s something you were born with, maybe something that happened to you, or maybe something you did to yourself through bad habits or neglect.  But everybody’s got something, and that something exposes us to empathy or abuse.

          Gabourey Sidibe’s something is that she is overweight.  She’s the actress who is best known for her starring role in the movie “Precious.”  Although she surely knows she is overweight, some people have taken it upon themselves to remind her of her weight, sometimes in the cruelest manner they can.  When Sidibe was photographed at the Golden Globe awards, someone Twittered that she was “the Globe.”  Another called her a “gorilla.”  Another said she missed the “hour-glass look” by ten hours.  To which Sidibe shot back that she cried about those comments “on that private jet on my way to my dream job.”  Obviously, she doesn’t need anyone to defend her, but these jokes at her expense had to sting. 

          I don’t know why Sidibe has a weight problem.  I don’t know if it’s emotional or physical or the result of bad habits, but I do know that it’s none of my business and that, in the end, it doesn’t matter in regards to how people should speak to her and about her.  Because everybody’s got something, and if you’re looking for a vulnerability to single out and ridicule, everybody’s got material to exploit.  I love what Leonard Pitts, columnist for the Miami Herald, said of the sadistic jibes aimed at Sidibe.  He said, “Gabourey Sidibe is fat. But some of us are trolls.  And she can always diet.” 

          By the way, how did this kind of cruelty become, not just acceptable, but commonplace?  I blame the internet and other social media, which allow cowards to bully others without revealing their identity.  But I think the problem runs deeper than social media’s anonymity because frequently bullies don’t mind putting their names out there.  I think the impersonalization of social media is changing us.  We don’t interact with one another face-to-face very much anymore.  There is now a media screen between us.  Comedian Louis C.K. observes that if you go to any event in which children are performing on stage, you’ll notice that the parents are not watching their children; they are watching a small-screen image of their children.  We spend so much of our time staring at screens that we’ve forgetting how to interact with one another.  We’re losing our sense of human dignity and how to treat people like people.  But that’s another sermon for another day.

          Because we have been hurt or taken advantage of when vulnerable, it’s tempting to try to be invulnerable.  Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, has a TEDx talk on the some of the ways we armor ourselves against the risk of vulnerability.  One of the habits she mentions is the practice of “foreboding joy,” by which she means that when something good happens, we feel compelled to beat vulnerability to the punch by telling ourselves all the things that could go wrong.  When on the verge of experiencing the best, you imagine the worst.  You get a promotion – you tell yourself that it will just mean more responsibility.  That guy or gal you’ve had your eye on accepts your invitation to dinner – you convince yourself that looks can be deceiving.  You win the lottery – you remind yourself of all the taxes you’ll have to pay.  If you don’t allow yourself to get too excited, then you can’t get too disappointed.  It’s better to start feeling disappointed now than to be disappointed later.

          Brown showed participants in a study a video clip of a happy scene in which a family is riding in a car to grandma’s for Christmas.  They’re smiling and laughing; they’re singing Christmas carols; they’re anticipating giving and receiving presents and relishing a delicious meal together.  Then Brown stops the video clip and asks the participants in the study what happens next.  Sixty percent of them say that the car crashes.  An additional ten percent give more creative catastrophes, such as saying that the family discovers grandma’s house on fire when they arrive or that grandma has been murdered by a serial killer.  This is foreboding joy.  When the good times roll, we tell ourselves that the good times can’t last. 

          Another way of avoiding being vulnerable is through disconnection.  Others can’t hurt you if you don’t let them get close to you, or as Simon and Garfunkel sing: 

                                        I am a rock,

                                        I am an island.

                                        And a rock feels no pain,

                                        And an island never cries.

          Another way of resisting vulnerability is through perfectionism.  If you make sure everything is just so, if you make certain you have all the bases covered and have attended to all the details, then nothing can go wrong and you won’t get hurt -- at least that’s the illusion of perfectionism.  Perfectionism is not the same as having high standards; it’s a defense mechanism.  It’s an attempt to control all the possible variables, which, of course, is a mission impossible.  It’s an attempt to remove all elements of risk, which is also impossible.

          Another avoidance of vulnerability is extremism.  Political and religious extremism, whether of the left or right, avoids the vulnerability of ambiguity, of admitting, “I may not be right” and “You may not be wrong.”  Extremism turns faith into certainty and doubt into weakness.  But having faith is not having all the answers; it’s the ability to keep asking questions in the hope of finding better answers. 

          The most universal way of evading vulnerability is to numb ourselves.  Numbing can be anything we use to replace our authentic connections with other human beings.  Brown observes that we are the most addicted, medicated, obese, and indebted people in history.  She also notes that we are the busiest people ever, and she suspects that we use our busyness to distract ourselves from truly connecting with others because connecting with others makes us vulnerable.

          What drives our attempt to be invulnerable?  Brown thinks it is our perception of scarcity, and I agree.  From day one, we are bombarded with the message, in various forms, that there is not enough – not enough safety, not enough support, not enough love.  Actually, it’s the fear that we are not good enough, and advertisers are adept at stoking this fear.   Advertisers are not really selling things; they are selling self-esteem, status, popularity, power, youthfulness, attractiveness, love, happiness.  Advertisers exploit and reinforce our sense of inadequacy.  Your clothes are not bright enough -- buy this detergent.  Your teeth are not white enough -- buy this toothpaste.  Your body is not trim enough -- do the Zumba.  Advertisers are selling an illusion:  if you buy this, you will be somebody. 

          Vulnerability walks a tightrope.  You feel scared and hopeful because you’re walking on the edge of something that might be triumphant or humiliating, connected or rejected, welcomed or excluded.  Vulnerability always invites change, whether it’s change for the better or worse.  We don’t learn or grow unless we are willing to walk that tightrope.  Every change in life comes wrapped in the possibility of loss as well as the possibility of something amazing.  Or as poet William Ward wrote and as we recited together earlier in the service:

          To laugh is to risk appearing the fool,
          To weep is to risk appearing sentimental,
          To reach out for another is to risk exposing our true self,
          To place our ideas, our dreams before the crowd is to risk their loss.
          To love is to risk not being loved in return,
          To hope is to risk despair,        

          To live is to risk dying.

Our responsive reading did not include the conclusion of this poem, however:

          But risks must be taken, because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
          The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
          He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow,

         To live, we have to have the courage and the wisdom to be vulnerable.  We must be courageous to keep putting ourselves out there in the world and with each other, even after having been disparaged and discouraged, because unless we do, the important parts of who we are and what we can do will never see the light of day.  And we must be wise to learn from our disparagements and discouragements how to take calculated risks.  You don’t jump into the pool without first sticking in your toe to test the water.

          One of the places we strengthen our capacity for the courage and wisdom to be vulnerable is in a safe community.  This is the value of a congregation, not just a Unitarian congregation, but any congregation which respects the dignity and worth of people.  You are more likely to take the risk of being vulnerable if you know that others are willing to give you a soft place to land when you fall and are willing to lend you a helping hand to get up.  You are more likely to take the risk of being vulnerable if others let you know that you are “good enough,” without any additions or subtractions being necessary; that your mistakes do not define you; and that everybody’s got something.  You are more likely to take the risk of being vulnerable if you belong to a community that not only tolerates your vulnerable spots but celebrates the fact that they make you the unique, marvelous, and impossible person that you are.  I don’t know about you, but that’s the main reason I joined this unique, marvelous, and impossible congregation long before I became its minister. 

          I want to close by telling you about another man in a crowd.  This crowd was a group of Ku Klux Klansmen and Neo-Nazis who were holding a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Hundreds of protesters, many more protesters than Klansmen, turned out, however, to tell the white supremacists that they were not welcome in the progressive college town.  At one point during the event, a man with a SS tattoo and wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a Confederate flag accidentally ended up on the protesters' side of the fence, and a small group began to chase him.  He was knocked to the ground and kicked and hit with placard sticks.  As people began to shout, "Kill the Nazi," a high school student, 18-year-old, African American Keshia Thomas decided to act.  Fearing that mob mentality had taken over the crowd, she threw herself on top of the man, one of the men she had come to protest, protecting him from the blows.

          After the event, she explained her actions:  "Someone had to step out of the pack and say, 'This isn't right.'…  I knew what it was like to be hurt.  The many times that that had happened, I had wished someone would have stood up for me....  Violence is violence.  Nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea."
        Thomas never heard from the man after that day, but months later, a young man came up to her to say thanks, telling her that the man she had protected was his father.  For Thomas, learning that he had a son brought even greater significance to her act of heroism.  As she observed, "For the most part, people who hurt others come from hurt.  It's a cycle.  Let's say they had killed him or hurt him really bad.  How does his

          The remarkable intimacy Keisha Thomas demonstrated that fateful day had been borne of vulnerability.  Because she had been vulnerable, she recognized and responded to the vulnerability of another.  Vulnerability invites both danger and empathy.  Thankfully for the man’s safety and her own humanity, Thomas took the risk to care.  May we all have such courage and wisdom.

                                                                                                                                            Rev. Dr. Neal R. Jones

Ten Tips on How to Be Miserable (March 16, 2014)

posted Mar 16, 2014, 7:42 PM by Neal Jones

          From the Gospel of John comes a story that, at first glance, paints an unflattering portrait of Jesus.  It takes place at the pool of Bethesda, a gathering place for sick and disabled people who hoped to be cured by its healing water.  Periodically, the water would bubble and gurgle, and it was believed that the first person in the pool after the stirring of the water would be healed.  It reminds me of the homemade hot-tub Janet Swigler gave me last Sunday during the welcome-back-from-sabbatical party.  In case you weren’t here to see it for yourself, it was a very homemade hot-tub – a large, galvanized wash tub with logs underneath for a fire to make the hot-tub hot.  Janet gave me a can of butter beans so that the minister could produce his own bubbles.  There is no mention of butter beans in the Gospel of John, but it says that it was believed that an angel periodically stirred the water at the pool of Bethesda.  Maybe the angel ate butter beans. 

          The narrative states that for 38 years a crippled man had been coming to the pool and had never gotten into the healing water.  Every time the water would bubble, someone else would jump in ahead of him.  Jesus knew this.  Nevertheless, when he encountered the man, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 

          “Do you want to be healed?”  What a callous question!  Of course the man wanted to be healed.  Who wants to be disabled?  But think about it.  For 38 years this man had been coming to the pool and had never been the first to get into the water.  It’s true that he was crippled, but you would think that in 38 years he would have figured out some way to be first in the pool.  In all that time, you would think that he would have figured out exactly where to position himself to be first.  He could have called his out-of-town nephew for help.  He could have paid someone to carry him into the water.  He could have played on the sympathy of the others at the pool or shamed them to let him in first.  He could have yelled and screamed and demanded to be first until, out of annoyance, the others would have thrown him in.  Maybe Jesus was not being cruel but perceptive. 

          This is not a Gospel story that goes down smoothly for liberals.  The liberal response would be, “Why you poor helpless creature!  You’re a victim … a victim of illness … of bad genes … of a negligent family … of an inadequate healthcare system … of an oppressive socioeconomic order.  Here, let me help you.”  It’s a story about healing, but the narrative does not say that Jesus healed the man.  The narrative states that Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to be healed?” to which he explained that for 38 years he had been coming to the pool but that others would get in the water ahead of him every time the water bubbled.  Jesus did not ask any more questions or extend any words of sympathy or perform any acts of miraculous healing.  He put responsibility squarely on the man’s shoulders:  “Rise, take up you pallet, and walk,” and the man did just that.

          If people had a choice, why would they choose to be miserable?  What possible benefits could someone gain from misery? 

          Well, for one thing, when you’re miserable, people feel sorry for you.  Not only that, they often feel guilty, as if your misery is somehow their fault.  That’s good!  There’s power in making other people feel guilty.  The people who love you and depend on you will walk on eggshells to make sure they don’t say or do anything that will increase your misery.

          For another thing, when you’re miserable, since you have no hopes and expect nothing good to happen, you can’t be disappointed or disillusioned.  That’s a good thing.

          For another thing, being miserable can give the impression that you’re a wise and worldly person, especially if you’re miserable not just about your life but about life in general.  You can project an aura of someone burdened by a form of profound, tragic, existential knowledge that happy, shallow people can’t possibly appreciate.

          Family therapist Cloe Madanes has come to the conclusion that misery is an art form, requiring imagination, vision, and ingenuity.  It can even give life a distinctive meaning.  She says that if you aspire to make yourself miserable, you need to pretend that you want to be happy, like everybody else, or people won’t take your misery seriously.  The real art is to behave in ways that will bring on misery while allowing you to claim that you’re an innocent victim.  Madanes even offers some effective strategies on how to become miserable, and I’ll pass along 10 of them.

          1.  Practice sustained boredom.  Cultivate the feeling that everything is predictable, that life holds no excitement, no possibility for adventure, that an inherently fascinating person like yourself has been deposited into a completely tedious and pointless life through no fault of your own.  Complain a lot about how bored you are.  Make it the main subject of conversation with everyone you know so they’ll get the distinct feeling that you think they are boring.  Consider provoking a crisis to relieve your boredom.  Have an affair; go on a shopping spree for things you can’t afford; start pointless fights with your partner, boss, children, friends, neighbors; have another child; quit your job, clean out your savings account, and move to a state you know nothing about.

          A side benefit of being boring is that you inevitably become boring.  Friends and relatives will avoid you.  You won’t be invited anywhere; nobody will want to call you, much less actually see you.  As this happens, you’ll feel lonely and even more bored and miserable.

          Try this exercise:  Force yourself to watch hours of mindless reality TV programs every day and read only non-stimulating tabloids that leave you feeling soulless.  Avoid literature, art, and keeping up with current affairs.

          2.  Give yourself a negative identity.  Allow a perceived emotional problem to adsorb all other aspects of your self-identification.  If you feel depressed, become a Depressed Person; if you suffer from social anxiety or a phobia, assume the identity of a Phobic Person or a Person with Anxiety Disorder.  Make your condition the focus of your life.  Talk about it to everyone, and make sure to read up on the symptoms so you can speak about them knowledgeably and endlessly.  Practice the behaviors most associated with that condition, particularly when it will interfere with regular activities and relationships.  For example, if being a Depressed Person is your identity of choice, become weepy, hunch your shoulders, look at the floor, and breathe shallowly.

          3.  Attribute bad intentions.  Whenever you can, attribute the worst possible intentions to your partner, friends, and coworkers.  Take any innocent remark and turn it into an insult or attempt to humiliate you.  For example, if someone asks, “How did you like such and such movie?” you should immediately think, “He’s trying to humiliate me by proving that I didn’t understand the movie,” or “He’s preparing to tell me that I have poor taste in movies.”  The idea is to always expect the worst from people.  If someone is late to meet you for dinner, while you wait for them, remind yourself of all the other times that person was late, and tell yourself that he or she is doing this deliberately to slight you.  Make sure that by the time the person arrives, you’re either seething or so despondent that the evening is ruined.  If the person asks what’s wrong, don’t say a word:  let him or her suffer.

          Try this exercise:  List the names of five relatives or friends.  For each, write down something they did or said in the recent past that proves they are deliberately trying to make you miserable.

          4.  Whatever you do, do it only for personal gain.  Sometimes you’ll be tempted to help someone, contribute to a charity or your congregation, or participate in a community activity.  Don’t do it, unless there’s something in it for you, like the opportunity to seem like a good person or to get to know somebody you can get a favor from some day.  Never fall into the trap of doing something purely because you want to help people.  Remember that your primary goal is to take care of Numero Uno, even though you hate yourself.

          Try this exercise:  Think of all the things you’ve done for others in the past that haven’t been reciprocated.  Think about how everyone around you is trying to take from you.  Now list three things you could do that would make you appear altruistic while bringing you personal, social, or professional gain.

          5.  Imagine the worst.  When you think of the future, imagine the worst possible scenario.  It’s important to be prepared for and preemptively miserable about any possible disaster or tragedy.  Always be alert and in a state of anxiety.  Optimism about the future leads only to disappointment.  Therefore, you have to do your best to believe that your marriage will flounder, your children won’t love you, your business will fail, and nothing good will ever work out for you.

          Exercise:  Do some research on what natural or manmade disasters could occur in your area, such as earthquakes, floods, nuclear plant leaks, rabies outbreaks.  Focus on these things for at least an hour a day.

          6.  Don’t enjoy life’s pleasures.  Taking pleasure in things like food, wine, music, and beauty is for flighty, shallow people.  Tell yourself that.  If you inadvertently find yourself enjoying some flavor, song, or work of art, remind yourself immediately that these are transitory pleasures, which can’t compensate for the miserable state of the world. 

          Exercise:  Once a week, engage in an activity that supposed to be enjoyable, but do so while thinking about how pointless it is.  In other words, concentrate on removing all sense of pleasure from the pleasurable activity.

          7.  Ruminate.  Spend a great deal of time focused on yourself.  Worry constantly about the causes of your behavior, analyze your defects, and chew on your problems.  This will help you foster a pessimistic view of your life.  Don’t allow yourself to become distracted by any positive experience or influence.  The point is to ensure that even minor upsets and difficulties appear huge and portentous.

          You can ruminate on the problems of others or the world, but make them about you.  Your child is sick?  Ruminate on what a burden it is for you to take time off work to care for her.  Your partner is hurt by your behavior?  Focus on how terrible it makes you feel when he points out how you make him feel.  By ruminating not only on your own problems but also those of others, you’ll come across as a deep, sensitive thinker who holds the weight of the world on your shoulders.

          Exercise:  Sit in a comfortable chair and seek out negative feelings, like anger, depression, anxiety, or boredom.  Concentrate on these feelings for 15 minutes.  During the rest of the day, keep them in the back of your mind no matter what you are doing.

          8.  Glorify or vilify the past.  Glorifying the past is telling yourself how good, happy, fortunate, and worthwhile life was when you were younger and regretting how it’s all been downhill ever since.  When you were young, for example, you were glamorous and danced the samba with handsome men on the beach at twilight; and now you’re in a so-so marriage to an insurance adjuster in Columbia, South Carolina.  You should have married tall, dark Antonio.  You should have invested in Microsoft when you had the chance.  In short, focus on what you could’ve and should’ve done instead of what you did.  This will surely make you miserable.

          Vilifying the past is easy, too.  You were born at the wrong place at the wrong time, you never got what you needed, you never got to go to summer camp, you were never given that chance to play in the major leagues.  How can you possibly be happy when you had such a lousy background?  It’s important to think that the bad memories, serious mistakes, and traumatic events were much more influential in forming you than good memories, successes, and happy events.  Focus on bad times.  Obsess about them.  Treasure them.  This will ensure that, no matter what’s happening in the present, you won’t be happy.

          Exercise:  Make a list of your most important bad memories and keep it where you can review it frequently.  Once a week, tell someone about your horrible childhood or how much better your life was 20 years ago.

          9.  Find a partner to reform.  Make sure that you fall in love with someone with a major defect (gambler, hoarder, alcoholic, womanizer, sociopath), and set out to reform him or her, regardless of whether he or she wants to be reformed.  Believe firmly that you can reform this person, and ignore all evidence to the contrary.

          Exercise:  Go to online dating sites and see how many bad choices you can find in one afternoon.  Make efforts to meet these people.

          10.  Be critical.  Make sure to have an endless list of dislikes and voice them often, whether or not your opinion is solicited.  For example, don’t hesitate to say, “That’s what you chose to wear this morning?” or “Why does your voice sound like that?”  If someone is eating eggs, tell them you don’t like eggs.  Your negativity can be applied to almost anything.

          It helps if the things you criticize are well liked by most people so that your dislike of them sets you apart.  Disliking traffic and mosquitos is not creative enough.  No one will pay much attention if you find these kinds of things annoying.  Instead, voice your dislike of the new movie all your friends are praising.  You’ll find plenty of opportunities to counter their glowing reviews with you contrarian opinion.  This is a characteristic strategy of Unitarians.

          Exercise:  Make a list of 20 things you dislike and see how many times you can insert them into a conversation over the course of the day.  For best results, dislike things you’ve never given yourself a chance to like.

          So, here are 10 ways to make yourself miserable.  Madanes observes that you don’t have to nail every one of them to succeed at being miserable; just four or five should do.  If you should succeed at performing just a few of them, make sure to berate yourself for not enacting the entire list.  I can attest that they work because at various times in my life, I have tried every one of them.  If you want to be miserable, they’ll work for you, too.  So jump in the pool … or I guess I should say, don’t jump in the pool; just lie around the edge of the pool and complain about how you can’t get in.  Amen.

A Sabbatical Summation (March 9, 2014)

posted Mar 12, 2014, 6:33 PM by Neal Jones

          During the first week back in elementary school from summer vacation, each of us students would take turns standing before the class and report on what we did during the summer.  It was the public school’s version of Candles of Community, only we students did not take as much time to summarize a whole summer as some of us take to share our joys and concerns.  By the way, you have probably noticed that we are not having Candles of Community today because today’s sermon is much longer than usual.  I’m sorry, but it’s been six months, and I’ve got a lot of pent-up sermonizing. Today is little Neal’s turn to come before the class and share what he did during his sabbatical. 

          So today’s sermon is going to be a little different from my common-variety, run-of-the-mill sermons.  Just about all of my sermons are confessional, and by “confessional” I mean that the main text from which I speak is not the Bible, the Torah, or some other sacred text but the text of my own life.  Whenever any of us dare to speak our truth, we are putting ourselves on the line, and the minister is no exception.  When I speak from the pulpit, I am offering 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 fears and frustrations, my hopes and aspirations. 

          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.  But in the final analysis, 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.

          So today’s sermon highlights a slice of my life, the past six months to be exact.  I trust that you will not find this unusually self-focused sermon trivial or irrelevant or narcissistic.  If so, come back next Sunday, and we’ll both hear something different. 

          I began my sabbatical the way I began my summer vacations back in elementary school.  Time stretched out before me like an endless red carpet I could walk down forever.  Six months.  Twenty-four weeks.  One hundred sixty-eight days (but who was counting?).  Very soon, my adult consciousness of time kicked in, and I began the countdown to the end of my sabbatical.  I have always had a keen consciousness of the fleeting grains of sand in the hourglass, at least since my early twenties, which is when my father, who was just shy of 42, died of lung cancer.  His early death impressed upon me the fragility of life and the preciousness of time. 

          I have always lived my life as if it were a race against the clock because I have been all too aware that the clock could stop at any moment.  I think our fretful, frenetic society accentuates this tendency.  Most of us see time as hour-long increments in our day-planners, and we rush to complete one task by the deadline so that we can then proceed to the next appointment or activity.  Indeed, that’s how most of us Americans measure our worth.  The more projects we complete, the more productive we are, the more worthwhile we believe our lives are.  A full calendar is a sure sign of our importance, and we know we are really important when our calendars are booked weeks and months in advance.  In America, it’s a cardinal sin to be seen as lazy, unmotivated, undisciplined, unproductive.  The theology of Calvinism may be dead, but the psychology of the Protestant work ethic is alive and well. Just listen to the rhetoric of the Tea Party.  Their most scathing accusation is to call someone “dependent,” a “taker,” a “moocher,” a “leech on society.” 

          I began my sabbatical with this characteristic outlook.  I intended to be productive and get lots of things done, to fill up my clean calendar with new appointments and activities, so that I could stand before you on my first Sunday back on the job and report to you all the things I had checked off my to-do list.  But a few of you who know me well urged me to slow down, to take a break, and to have some fun.  You don’t have fun when you’re racing against the clock.  You can’t enjoy yourself when you’re preoccupied with your productivity.  You can only experience joy when you are so caught up in the moment that you stop counting the moments.  

          So thanks to some of you who know me all too well, I traded in my list of things to do for a list of things to enjoy.  I decided to do some things for myself that I didn’t have time to do while working, or to be more accurate, that I didn’t make time to do.  I have to confess to you (maybe this sermon really is confessional after all) that doing things for myself makes me feel guilty.  I don’t know if I’m the only one here or not (I doubt that I am) who feels that it is good, appropriate, and proper to do things for others but that it is selfish to do things for yourself.  Taking care of others seems noble.  Self-care seems like another word for self-centeredness.  When you think about it, there should be no distinction between taking care of others and taking care of yourself if we really do believe that all of us have dignity and worth as human beings.  But our chosen beliefs are rational; this is irrational.  This is something I brought with me from childhood, I suspect from my Baptist upbringing.  I remember learning in Sunday School that the word “you” is an acronym for the way we should live.  “Y” stands for Yahweh, “O” for others, and “U” for you -- God should come first in your life, others second, and you last.  I may have bumped God off my list since those days, but the rest of that ranking has apparently stayed with me.

          I decided to move myself up in my ranking and do some things for myself.  I read books and articles that had nothing to do with sermon preparation or adult ed classes or any other UU activity.  I saw some terrific movies, and 2013 was a terrific year for movies: The Butler, Mud, Enough Said, Gravity, Captain Phillips, Twelve Years a Slave, Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club, American Hustle, Her, August: Osage County, Anchorman II, and Bad Grandpa, which was really funny because grandpa was really bad.  I saw the final season of what was likely the best series ever written for television.  Breaking Bad was a modern morality play about a high school chemistry teacher who uses his knowledge of chemistry to produce meth-amphetamine to pay for his cancer treatments and to leave his wife and children an inheritance.  Brilliantly portrayed by Bryan Cranston, Mr. White gains the whole world but lose his soul.  Then I saw Bryan Cranston in Boston in another morality play on the stage.  All the Way with LBJ was his portrayal of another morally complicated man, President Lyndon Johnson.  I met and heard Sen. Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Congress-woman Barbara Lee from California when they came through town to talk about the growing income inequality in this country, which is the greatest it has been since the 1920s, right before the Great Depression.  I discovered online Scrabble and have won and lost against several of you in that devil’s addiction.

          I have been taking better care of my body, which is new for me.  Like a lot of people, I have tended to live in my head and acted as if I did not have a body.  I think this is especially true of many of us Unitarians.  But as I get older, I am finally realizing that I neglect my body to my own detriment.  So I have joined a gym.  I have joined gyms in the past, but this time I have actually been going to the gym and exercising nearly every day.  In addition, I have been maintaining my vegetarian diet and have eliminated most dairy products and carbs.  In addition, I have been cooking healthy dishes for myself.  I have a lot of experience eating the cooking of others, but now I am eating my own cooking and am still alive to tell the tale.  All of this has resulted in my losing 20 pounds since I last saw you.  One of you has observed that I am half the preacher I used to be, which I take as a compliment.   

          Freed of my pastoral responsibilities, I have worshiped some Sunday mornings at Bedside Baptist.  On a couple of Sundays, I played a Unitarian evangelist and was the guest preacher at two of our neighboring congregations – the UU congregations of Charleston and Charlotte.  For obvious reasons, I don’t often have the chance to visit other UU congregations, but I enjoy the opportunity to see how other UUs do worship.  I have to confess to you (here’s another confession) that the more I visit other congregations, the more I appreciate our worship services.  I think ours has a good combination of formality and informality.  I like the casual, unpretentious character of our services.  I like the way we incorporate various styles of music and include various people, especially our children.  I like the way our services address personal and social transformation and speak to the head and heart. 

          You might think it would be easy to be a guest preacher at another congregation – just pull out a tried-and-true stem-winder and play it again.  But it’s not that simple because the audience shapes the message as much as the messenger.  The older I get, the less I enjoy speaking at other congregations because I don’t know the congregation, and I want to know to whom I am speaking.  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 Don in the hospital after his cardiac surgery, has lunch with Susan to listen to the challenges of caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s, or has a conversation after the committee meeting with Robert about his fear of losing his job.  The most effective preachers are effective pastors.  They know what to say because they know their congregation.  

          When not worshiping at Bedside Baptist or another UU congregation, I have been attending the services at the Buddhist center in West Columbia, and I have thoroughly enjoyed these practical lessons for everyday living.  We Westerners make the mistake of believing that religion requires belief in God, but Buddhism, the third largest religion in the world, with approximately a billion followers, is a humanistic religion, which is why, I suspect, so many of us UUs are interested in the teachings of the Buddha.  Buddhists do not worship God or the Buddha.  They take the Buddha at his word that he was not a divine being but an enlightened human being.  In fact, the word “Buddha” means “enlightened one.” 

          I have been attracted to Buddhism over the last two decades because it provides a different outlook than most of us usually take.  Most Westerners, especially we Americans, are taught to look outward in order to be happy.  If we accumulate enough money, get the right job, attract the right partner, or attain the right status, then we’ll be happy.  If we should lose any of these things, then we’ll be sad, or if something gets in the way of our acquiring these things, then we’ll be angry.  But Buddhism teaches us to look inward and to attend to our states of mind as the key to happiness.  It’s not what happens to you that makes you happy, sad, or mad, taught the Buddha, but how you perceive what happens. 

          Thanks to the Sunday morning lessons and other workshops at the Buddhist center, I have been paying closer attention to the way I think about and react to the events of my life, as well as to my own thoughts and feelings.  In other words, I have tried to become more “mindful,” a beloved Buddhist word – more mindful, more aware, more conscious of others and myself.  Mindfulness requires much more intention and effort than obliviousness, but it makes life much more interesting.  Another way of saying this is that I have been cultivating my sense of curiosity. 

          One of the ways I have fostered greater mindfulness is taking a meditation class.  Meditation is sometimes thought of as tuning out, but it’s actually tuning in – tuning in to how your brain works.  Most of our meditations directed our attention to some focal point in the here-and-now, usually our breathing.  We notice when our attention has been pulled away by some distracting thought, as it always is because that is how our minds work.  They can’t help themselves.  They jump from this thought to that thought, one after the other, whether these thoughts are related or not -- continuously.  During meditation, we notice and accept this distraction without judgment and gently return our awareness back to our breathing.  I know this doesn’t sound terribly exciting because it’s not.  In fact, it’s downright boring, but it’s a discipline that teaches us how to be more focused on the here-and-now of our lives.

          Studies demonstrate that regularly practicing meditation helps to alleviate depression, anxiety, anger, high blood pressure, and other symptoms of stress.  I can’t attest to that, but I have noticed that meditation has helped me to be more present in the present moment, like when I eat.  It used to be that I would gobble my food down as quickly as possible so I could move on to the next thing.  I think that’s one reason I overate and gained weight.  Not only was I thoughtless of the calories of the food I was eating, but I ate so quickly that I didn’t give my stomach enough time to tell my brain that I was satisfied.  Now I try to be more mindful of what I eat and how I eat.  I try to avoid animal protein, salt, and sugar.  I try to eat more slowly, savoring the colors and smells of the food on my plate, chewing each bite more deliberately in order to more fully appreciate the flavors and textures.  By eating more mindfully, I’m eating less but enjoying my food more.

          I have to confess to you (here’s another confession) that one thing I have missed in my Buddhist lessons these past six months is an awareness of the impact of the social, political, and economic environment on our personal growth and well-being and of the responsibility we have as individuals to shape the social, political, and economic environment which shapes us.  I have missed the social consciousness and social action of Unitarian Universalism, a dimension of our spirituality which a few of you demonstrated a few weeks ago by traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina, to participate with 100,000 other people in Moral Monday, the grassroots, progressive movement our cousins across the northern border have initiated to protest the regressive politics of that state, which closely resembles the regressive politics of this state. 

          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 miniskirts and listening to rock-and-roll.  They may have read the Bible and quoted Bible verses, 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. 

          One of the reasons I became a Unitarian Universalist is that UUs have a long history of speaking truth to power when it's popular and when it's not, or as the Bible says, “in season and out of season.”  We UUs stand on the shoulders of prophets like William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson,  William Lloyd Garrison, and Theodore Parker, who spoke out against slavery; like Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe, and Susan B. Anthony, who spoke out for women’s rights; Horace Mann, who spoke out for public education; Henry David Thoreau and John Haynes Holmes, who spoke out against war; Charles Spear, who spoke out against the death penalty; and James Reeb, who literally gave his life for the civil rights of all Americans. 

          As your minister, I have tried to honor that sacred heritage, even during my sabbatical.  I have continued to participate in Openings, a local network of ministers and members of Columbia congregations who are supportive of LGBT people and their rights.  Our name derives from our mission to open doors, hearts, and minds to LGBT humanity and equality, and it has been my pleasure to discover that UUs are not the only game in town regarding LGBT issues. 

          I have continued my work with Americans United for Separation of Church & State.  This fall Pat Mohr and I attended our national meeting in Washington, where we had the privilege of meeting and hearing AU’s Person of the Year, Ellery Schempp.  As a brave high school student 50 years ago, he brought the lawsuit which resulted in the famous Supreme Court ruling Abington School District v. Schempp, which prohibited public school officials from coercing children to read Bible verses.  Some of you are old enough to remember when that practice was commonplace in our public schools.  I was proud to learn that Schempp is both a humanist and a Unitarian. Our Columbia chapter of Americans United experienced a local victory for church-state separation when we requested that the Richland County Recreation Commission stop using our tax money to sponsor Bible studies in community centers all across the county.  The rationale given by the executive director of the commission was the typical rationale given whenever there is not a good reason for doing something:  “That’s just what we’ve always done.” 

          This fall I participated in the campaign to defeat the so-called “Strong Mayor” proposal.  I did not regard this as a moral issue, an issue of right and wrong, but as an issue of good governance.  It seems foolhardy to me to place too much power into the hands of a single individual, regardless of who that individual is.  The concentration of power may be more efficient, but it also has the potential to be more corrupt.  That campaign surprised me in two ways.  First of all, it was a grassroots campaign that defeated the big money of the Chamber of Commerce, and it encompassed a broad coalition of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites.  In politics, I am not used to winning, and I am certainly not used to seeing people from opposite sides of the political divide come together for a common cause.  That campaign gave me hope.

          This fall I took part in the planning of Truthful Tuesday, South Carolina’s version of North Carolina’s Moral Monday.  Believe it or not, the North Carolina legislative is not the only one that has passed punitive policies against working families.  On the opening day of the General Assembly, our legislators were greeted by a thousand citizens demanding that they expand Medicaid under Obamacare, which we are paying for anyway with our federal taxes; that they fully fund public education, which is our state’s only hope to step out of poverty and into the 21st century; and that they quit erecting more obstacles to voting, the foundational right of democratic government.  Yes, these are political and economic issues.  But more than that, they are moral issues because the moral test of government is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.  Progressives have made a mistake in ceding morality and religion to the right wing.  When they steal health care, education, and the vote from ordinary people, we should call it what it is – a sin.

          The coalition that spoke truth to power that day was a broad coalition.  It included the Progressive Network (of which our congregation is a member), the NAACP, the Christian Action Council, the AFL-CIO, the National Association of Social Workers, the SC Education Association, the SC Alliance for Retired Persons, and dozens of other organizations and congregations, including eight Unitarian congregations, four Unitarian ministers, the moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and three prominent “Standing on the Side of Love” banners.  There were more UUs at that rally than any other faith group, and I was proud to be one of them. 

          Spirituality should certainly include a more acute mindfulness of our internal world, but if it doesn’t also include greater mindfulness of and responsibility to our external world, then it is a self-absorbed spirituality, and I would say an incomplete spirituality.

          One of the benefits of a sabbatical is that it grants large blocks of uninterrupted time, and blocks of uninterrupted time is exactly what writing requires.  I took advantage of this opportunity to submit several articles to various journals, magazines, and other periodicals, some of which were published.  I had a column published in The Journal of Religious Humanism, and I will have one published in Quest, the publication of the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship.  I can always count on The State and The Free Times to use my editorials as filler.  The most noticed was my Christmas column, “The Christmas Story: Neither Fact Nor Fiction,” in which I asserted that the virgin birth of Jesus is ludicrous if taken literally but meaningful if understood metaphorically.  Of course, Biblical literalists took exception to my interpretation, and they are not shy about making their views known.  What was especially gratifying, however, were the innumerable emails I received expressing appreciation and support for a progressive religious viewpoint, such as this one:

          Dear Rev. Jones, I am sure you are bracing yourself for the tsunami of letters-to-the-editor condemning you for your recent column.  But I want you to know that there are many of us here in South Carolina who appreciate your courageous voice.  You speak for many of us who will not or cannot say out loud what we know to be true in our hearts.  Please keep writing your thought-provoking articles.  You provide more encouragement than you can possibly know.  I would like to visit your church one Sunday.  If you preach from pulpit what you write in the paper, then you must be the minister of an extraordinary church.

          Yes, this is an extraordinary church, and if you are here this morning, Mary, I hope you will introduce yourself to me.

          I also began writing the first chapters of a book I hope to publish later this year, A Godless Spirituality.  More and more Americans are leaving their religion behind because of its antiquated beliefs and narrow-minded prejudices, but they are not leaving behind their spirituality.  More and more Americans are saying that they are “spiritual but not religious.”  I am writing a book that describes what spirituality outside a traditional religious framework, including belief in God, would look like.  I believe that all of us, even humanists and atheists, are spiritual because spirituality refers to our capacity to get beyond ourselves and connect with something larger than self.  These are not divine traits but the human capacity for gratitude, stewardship, meaning-making, faith, self-love, compassion, justice, forgiveness, and living with our mortality.  If you’re one of the dozen people who buy a copy, I’ll see to it that you get an autographed version.

          I concluded my sabbatical with a mission trip to Africa.  As a boy, I had heard of Baptist missionaries bringing the light of Christ to deepest, darkest Africa.  Well, Africa, at least the part I saw, was neither deep nor dark.  The Serengeti is flat and easily accessible, and Tanzania is bright, sunny, and warm, a welcome change from the tundra in Columbia we left behind in February.  Led by Brother Don Dodson and his merry band of cowboys and cowgirls from Texas and a few Unitarian missionaries from Columbia, we endeavored to convert the natives of Tanzania to our Unitarian ways.  We tried to convince them to eat free-range tofu and drink fair-trade green tea, to wear Birkenstocks with socks, to listen to NPR and watch Susan Sarandon movies, and to have more discussion groups.  But they just smiled and nodded politely, seeming content with their own ways.  So we left them, leaving only footprints and taking only memories … and cheap souvenirs.

          Those of you who have been around for a while know that one of my favorite TV series is The Andy Griffith Show.  I grew up in a small town in North Carolina watching a TV show about fictitious small town in North Carolina.  One of my favorite episodes is the one in which Aunt Bee leaves town to visit a relative.  It’s one of the few times when she actually does something for herself.  Usually, she is at Andy and Opie’s beck and call.  Without their live-in maid service, Andy and Opie make a pig sty of the house.  Just before she is due back, however, they clean and tidy the place immaculately.  As they settle down on the sofa to rest, Opie ponders out loud, “Pa, we did such a good job cleaning the house that we don’t need Aunt Bee.”  Andy realizes that Aunt Bee may very well feel unwanted and unneeded when she returns, so he and Opie jump up and make a complete mess of the place.  This time when they relax on the sofa, Opie says, “It sure is a lot more fun making a mess than cleaning it up.” 

          They can’t relax for long, however, because it’s time to go pick up Aunt Bee at the bus station.  While they are gone, their nosey neighbor, Clara Edwards, stops by, peeks in, and is appalled at the mess that Aunt Bee must come home to.  So she thoroughly cleans the house before they get back.  When they arrive home, Andy and Opie are amazed that the house has been miraculously cleaned, and just as Andy had predicted, Aunt Bee is downcast when she sees how well the boys have managed without her.  While she sits despondently in the living room, Andy secretly dashes into the kitchen to create a mess, and he sends Opie upstairs to his room to do the same.  Aunt Bee catches both of them, but she assumes that they are trying to clean up, and she is relieved and delighted that the kitchen and bedrooms are pig sties and that she is needed after all.

          I want you to know that I am relieved and delighted that you have not intentionally or unintentionally created a mess while I was away.  In fact, from all reports, it appears that things have gone extremely well these past six months, hopefully not too well.  That is because many of you have stepped up and assumed even greater ownership of our congregation, which is as it should be.  A congregation is much more than a minister or a slate of programs or a set of activities.  It is first and foremost a community, and many of you have invested your time, money, ideas, and energy into making this a caring community. 

          I want to thank the Rev. Hugh Hammond, who came down from Charlotte to lead several of our worship services and two workshops.  I want to thank our co-presidents, Ivy Coleman and Robin Scherer, and our Board of Trustees for taking on their extra responsibilities these last few months.  I want to thank Kate Noel Wells and the Worship Committee for planning and conducting our worship services during the sabbatical.  I want to thank Sandy Chubon, the Caring Committee, and the Listening Ears team for their pastoral care during the sabbatical.  I want to thank the Interior Committee – Greer Lawson, Jean Capalbo, Regina Moody, and Jim Burton – for getting our building in the best shape it has ever looked.  I want to thank the Shared Ministry Committee -- Mike Paget, Donald Griggs, Keitha Whitaker, and outgoing member Janet Swigler – for their overall planning of the sabbatical.  I want to thank the most competent, self-motivated, and dedicated staff that a congregation could possibly have:  Andrea Dudick, Lisa Eason, Ann Cargill, and Jeff Kruse, who has painted just about everything in this building that has not moved.  Andrea Dudick was apparently envious that she did not get a sabbatical, so she created her own sabbatical by having back surgery.  Her absence more than mine made this sabbatical a challenge, but you more than met this challenge with your commitment and devotion. 

          I want to thank all of you for this sabbatical because your sacrifice made it possible.  Because of your commitment and devotion during these last six months, I believe we are a stronger, more viable congregation, and I believe that I will be a stronger, more viable minister.

          This sabbatical was fleeting, as I knew it would be.  These days are fleeting.  Life is fragile, and time is precious.  Life is most fulfilling when it is filled with love, and time is most meaningful when it is spent with friends.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have had some time away, and I am grateful to be able to come back to loving friends.  It’s good to be home.

                                                                                                                                                                  Rev. Neal Jones

The Faith of a Trapeze Artist (Sept. 1, 2013)

posted Sep 7, 2013, 1:36 PM by Neal Jones


          This morning I’m going to talk about a word that we Unitarians don’t use very often – “faith.”  Faith has become synonymous with blindly accepting particular religious beliefs: Jesus died for my sins, God created the world in six days, Noah survived a flood in an ark, a talking snake hoodwinked Adam and Eve.  For most Unitarians, indeed for most people who live in the modern world and think with a modern understanding of the world, such beliefs are neither intellectually tenable nor morally acceptable.  Faith defined as religious belief is what Mark Twain was getting at when he said that “faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” 

          We Unitarians feel more comfortable talking about reason and experience than faith, but I want to point out that faith doesn’t have to be contrary to reason and experience.  It can be an extension of reason and experience.  I think of reason and experience as shining a light on our path.  We walk as far as our logic, common sense, and past lessons take us, and then we take a step of faith into the darkness.  Our leap of faith is not contrary to our reason and experience but an extension of them.  I am suggesting that faith involves our imagination and will more than our minds.  It’s imagining a future that’s different from the past and living as if that future is possible, and by living in the possibilities, faith enables that future to come true.  Faith is not believing the unbelievable; it’s trying the untried.  I think this understanding of faith accords with the Biblical definition of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” 

          Speaking of the Bible, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam refer to Abraham as the “father of faith.”  He became Father Abraham because God told him to leave his home behind and travel to an unknown land where he would become the father of a great nation.  With nothing more than the clothes on his back and a promise, Abraham went despite the fact that he was 75 and that his wife Sarah’s biological clock had long stopped ticking.  Yet, lo and behold, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90, they cashed in their Social Security checks for a stroller and a playpen.  If you or I became first-time parents between the ages of 90 and 100, we probably wouldn’t think that was a laughing matter.  But Abraham and Sarah thought it was so funny that they named their son “Isaac,” which in Hebrew means “laughter.”

          I think of Abraham and Sarah as trapeze artists because living with faith is being willing and able to let go of the old and grab hold of the new.  Most fairy tales conclude with, “And they lived happily ever after,” and “happily ever after” implies that you have arrived.  But real life is a journey without destinations.  Life is continually challenging us to let go – to let go of childhood naiveté, to let go of your parents’ way of thinking or your own way of thinking, to let go of single life or married life, to let go of a job or a vocation, to let go of outdated dreams or outgrown frustrations, to let go of special possessions or special people, and eventually, to let go of life itself.  Sometimes we freely and deliberately let go; sometimes life forces us against our will to let go.  But let go we must in order to grab hold of greater life.

          The scary part, of course, is when you let go of the old and are in the process of grabbing the new, that in-between state of suspension, that “up-in-the-air” feeling of not having anything secure to hold to.  This is the test of faith – not believing something you know ain’t so, but being willing to live with uncertainty and insecurity until you get to where you’re going.

          I don’t have to tell you that that up-in-the-air time between trapeze bars is scary.  Some hang onto the old bar too long.  They avoid the anxiety of the unknown by clinging to the known.  They don’t take chances.  They play it safe.  They do the same thing the same old way it’s always been done.  “Better safe than sorry” is their motto. 

          Poet Janet Rand reminds us, however, of the unavoidable risks inherent in living a full life:

          To laugh is to risk appearing foolish.

          To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.

          To reach out for another is to risk involvement.

          To expose your feelings is to risk exposing your true self.

          To place your idea, your dreams before the crowd is to risk their loss.

          To love is to risk not being loved in return.

          To live is to risk dying.

          To hope is to risk despair.

          To try is to risk failure.

          But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.

          The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.

          He or she may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he or she simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love – live.

          Only a person who risks is free.

          At the other extreme are people who are too quick to grab the next new thing.  They try to avoid the pain of grieving what they have lost by rushing to the new.  They only look forward – they don’t look back.  The future is always brighter than today.

This is the distinctively American way of dealing with endings.  We barely give ourselves time to relinquish the old before beginning the new.  Maybe it has something to with our being a New World of opportunity for the pre-Columbus Old World of oppression, war, disease, and rigid social caste.  Maybe it has something to do with having had an endlessly open western frontier to which one could always escape and literally start life over with a blank slate.  ("Go West, young man, go West!")  Maybe it has something to do with our ever new technology that quickly replaces yesterday’s gadgets with today's inventions.  Whatever the reason, we Americans are great at making new beginnings, but we typically don’t give ourselves time to let go of the old.  Yet, unless we allow ourselves to grieve what is left behind, a part of us is left behind.  We get stuck in unfinished business.  We cannot fully embrace new life until we fully mourn what has died. 

There are some things we can do to bolster our faith while moving from the old to the new.  One is to nudge ourselves to take reasonable risks.  Life is not a smoothly paved, well-marked interstate.  It is a winding trail with many curves, potholes, and roadblocks.  To successfully navigate life’s journey, you have to be willing to take detours off the familiar, well-worn path and try a new way.  Whenever you do anything new, from learning to ride a bicycle to having a baby, it’s disorienting and scary.  You will not have a map or an owner’s manual.  You will not know exactly where you’re going or what you are doing.  There are no guaranteed outcomes.  You will not have all the answers.  You will not feel good for a while.  You will feel vulnerable and lost and anxious before you feel better.  You have to be willing to put yourself in that suspended state before you grab the next trapeze bar.  It is an unavoidable part of change.

Another thing we can do to bolster our faith between the bars is to keep before us a dream, a vision of where we’re going, a promise of what can be.  A few months ago, I spoke of Victor Frankl, a psychotherapist who was condemned by the Nazis to Auschwitz.  In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he details the daily deprivation and degradation that marked his existence there.  Frankl makes the observation that once a prisoner lost his faith in the future, he was doomed.  A hopeless prisoner would either commit suicide or become subject to mental and physical decline and die of “natural causes." 

Frankl tells of a friend who dreamed that the camp would be liberated on March 30, 1945.  The dream filled him with hope until the day drew near and it became apparent that the camp would not be freed.  His healthy, hopeful friend suddenly became ill on March 29, became delirious and lost consciousness on March 30, then died on March 31.  Frankl also reports that the death rate at Auschwitz was the highest each year between Christmas and New Year’s, despite the fact that there was no significant change in the weather, their food supply, or their work conditions.  Frankl believes that many prisoners lived in the hope that they would be home for Christmas and that once they lost that hope, they lost their will to live.

Through his observations at Auschwitz, Frankl became convinced that a person’s chances for survival were not the result of environmental conditions alone but of an inner decision, a fundamental choice between life and death.  Frankl came to understand intimately the truth of Nietzsche’s statement: “A person who has a why to live for can endure almost any how.”  Frankl’s reason for surviving Auschwitz was his longing to be reunited with his wife and his desire to publish a manuscript which the Nazis had destroyed and which he constantly rewrote in his mind.  A vision of the promised land can sustain you while struggling through the wilderness.

          One more thing that can bolster your faith when you’re suspended between the old and the new is depending on your friends.  I hesitate to use that word – dependence – because of another distinctive American trait:  we venerate independence and denigrate dependence.  We are a nation of solitary explorers who came to this New World seeking a fresh start, of solitary pioneers who made their way across the prairie to start a new life, of solitary settlers who cleared the land and carved out their existence without anybody's help.  We are a nation of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, do-it-yourself, self-reliant self-starters.  Our heroes fly onto the scene wearing capes and single-handedly save the day, or like Dirty Harry, take the law into their own hands and mete out their own form of justice. 

          In our culture, especially for men, it is shameful to turn to others (that means you’re “dependent”), to have physical and emotional needs (that means you’re “needy”), to not be proficient or all-knowing in everything you do (that means you’re “incompetent” or “inadequate”), or to ask for help (that means you’re “weak” and not a man).  You don't want to be a burden on anyone.  You don't want to be a moocher.  You don't want to be a leech on society.  If you listen carefully to the current debate over the proposed quarantine of the homeless in Columbia, you will hear echoes of this view of homeless people as moochers and leeches. 

When you’re going through a transition, don’t go it alone.  You don’t have to.  Don’t hesitate to lean on your friends.  A friend reminds you that you are special: “You are strong enough to get through this”; “You have what it takes”; “You are doing the right thing.”  A friend also reminds you that you are no different from others: “There’s nothing wrong with you”; “Everyone goes through this at some time”; "You are not crazy for feeling this way."  Friends have faith in us when we have lost faith in ourselves.  This is where the trapeze metaphor may break down because I’m not sure if you can take a friend with you as you swing from one trapeze bar to the next, but you can have friends in the stands to cheer you on.  To depend on your friends doesn’t mean that you’re weak or needy.  It means you’re a human being and you’re a part of a human community that nurtures and sustains us. 

Eleven years ago, you presented me with a trapeze bar which I was hesitant to grab.  I had moved to Columbia five years earlier to complete my pre-doctoral internship in psychology at the University Counseling Center, and I had become the psychologist of the Pastoral Counseling Center at Baptist Hospital, where I was engaged in fulfilling work.  I conducted psychotherapy with individuals, couples, and families; I performed psychological assessments for the clergy candidates of four denominations; I managed a satellite center in Sumter; and I served as the interim director of Pastoral Counseling.  I was carrying forward my mid-life transition from having been a minister to being a psychologist.  I had let go of one trapeze bar and was firmly grasping the next one. 

Letting go of ministry had not been difficult.  I had always admired and tried to emulate the ethics of Jesus – and I still do – but I could not abide the church’s superstitious beliefs about Jesus and God and a lot of other things.  If you define faith as a head-game, as believing the unbelievable, you could say that I had lost my faith.  But if you define faith as a heartfelt trust, as trying the untried, then you could say that I had found my faith and had taken a leap of faith by going back to school to become a psychologist. 

Ever since I first heard his life story, I have identified with Rev. John Murray, the founder of Universalism in America.  Because of his belief in the universalism of God’s love, he was labeled a heretic and excommunicated from his Methodist church.  To make matters worse, his wife became sick, which caused him to go into debt, which caused him to be arrested and cast into debtors’ prison.  When his wife and infant daughter died, he decided to leave it all behind -- his home, his land, his ministry -- and start over with a clean slate in America.  Murray thought he was grabbing a new trapeze bar, but a man by the name of Thomas Potter presented him with a different bar. 

Murray’s ship became sand-barred at Good Luck on Barnegat Bay, New Jersey.  When he went ashore to seek provisions, he met Thomas Potter, who had built a chapel on his farm and was waiting for God to send a preacher.  Potter was operating on the assumption that if you build it, they will come.  “You’re the man for God’s plan,” Potter told Murray.

“You don’t understand,” replied Murray.  “I’ve had it with religion and I’m through with ministry.  Besides, I’m a Universalist.”  (Oooh)

Said Potter, “I’m a Universalist, too.” (Oooh)  But it gets even freakier.  “If your ship is still stuck on that sandbar come Sunday, that will be a sign from God that you are supposed to preach in my chapel.” 

Thinking there was no way the wind would not change direction before Sunday, Murray agreed.  Come Sunday, September 30, 1770, the wind had not changed direction, Murray’s ship remained stuck on that sandbar, and Murray was stuck with preaching a sermon he didn’t want to.  So he gave them a Universalist stem-winder that he was sure would put to rest any ideas Potter and his neighbors had about his becoming a minister again.  To his surprise, they loved his sermon, and 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.  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 ministry behind and was embarking on a new journey, but you presented me with a different trapeze bar.  You were my Thomas Potter who persuaded me to preach in your chapel, and to my surprise, you seemed to appreciate what this heretic had to say, and even more surprising, I enjoyed being a minister again.  The occasion was the six-month sabbatical of our previous minister, during which you hired me as your monthly minister.  On my last Sunday of that sabbatical, here is what I said to you:

Preaching is risky business; it’s a hit-or-miss endeavor.  You never know for sure if what you have to say is relevant to those who have to listen.  For the last six months, I have taken the risk of saying what is interesting to me in the hope that it will be interesting to you, and you have acted as if it has been interesting and relevant.  Whether you have been acting or have been sincere, I am grateful.  And not only have my words been respectfully and warmly received, but I have as well, and for that I am grateful, too.

You are a treasure here in Columbia.  How many other congregations in this town honor the dignity and worth of every person or advocate for social justice and respect for the interdependent web of existence?  You know as well as I that there aren’t many.  Unfortunately, you are largely a buried treasure.  I wish you would advertise yourself more and reach out more vigorously to the community because you are a refreshing oasis in this conservative desert.

In the last chapters of E.B. White’s children’s classic, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, the spider Charlotte, having spun her last web, says to her friend Wilbur the pig, “Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond.  The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again.  All these sights, sounds, and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur -- this lovely world, these precious days.”  And Charlotte continues, “You have been my friend.  That in itself is a tremendous thing.  I wove my webs for you because I liked you.”

          “I conclude my final worship service with you,” I said eleven years ago at the end of a sabbatical, and I repeat today at the beginning of a sabbatical.  “You have been my friends.  That in itself is a tremendous thing.  I have woven my webs for you because I love you.” 

                                                                                                                                                    Rev. Dr. Neal Jones        

In Memory of Trayvon (August 11, 2013)

posted Aug 15, 2013, 3:25 PM by Neal Jones


          Though we will never know for sure what exactly happened that rainy evening when George Zimmerman initiated a confrontation with Trayvon Martin, when you stand inside that confrontation, it appears that the jury passed a just sentence within the confines of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.  Zimmerman felt his life was in danger.  Though 100 pounds lighter, the 17-year-old Martin apparently managed to get on top of the 28-year-old Zimmerman while they struggled on the ground.  Martin allegedly banged Zimmerman’s head against the ground, so Zimmerman shot the unarmed teenager in the chest and killed him. 

          But if you take a step back from that deadly confrontation, you see a travesty of justice.  Trayvon Martin’s death was unnecessary and unjustified.  The confrontation itself was unnecessary and unjustified.  Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer for the gated community where he and Trayvon’s father’s fiancée lived, called the police to report that there was a “suspicious guy” in the neighborhood “up to no good.”  He never clarified what made Trayvon look suspicious or how he was up to no good.  He also told the police that he was following him, whereupon the dispatcher told him not to do so and assured him that the police were on their way.  But Zimmerman decided to take the law into his own hands.  He pursued Trayvon, who apparently didn’t have a right to stand his ground.  Zimmerman created his confrontation with Trayvon, and then he caused his death.

          Zimmerman’s justification for murdering Trayvon reminds me of what some South Carolinians say to justify our state’s participation in the Civil War.  They act as if Sherman’s troops just marched through here for the heck of it, as if the North had had enough of grits and sweet tea.  They fail to mention that South Carolina seceded from the union, setting off a chain-reaction of secession from other Southern states, and that South Carolina started the war by firing on Fort Sumter.  South Carolina fought and lost a war that it caused, yet according to all the Civil War monuments cluttering our Statehouse grounds, you get the distinct impression that South Carolina was an innocent victim of “Northern aggression.”  In the moment he shot and killed Trayvon, Zimmerman may have thought his life was in danger – and his life may have in fact been in danger – but he unnecessarily created the situation which ended in the death of a teenager.

          Who was this young man?  He was a junior in high school, and his English teacher describes him as an A and B student who “majored in cheerfulness.”  He loved building models, his favorite subject was math, and he dreamed of becoming a pilot and an engineer.  His parents were divorced, and he lived with his mother and older brother.  He and his father were visiting his father’s fiancée and her son when the murder occurred.  Thanks to right-wing talking heads, like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, we know some other things about Trayvon, as well.  We know he had been suspended from school three times, once for tardiness and truancy, once for writing graffiti on a school door, and once for possessing a marijuana pipe.  Pictures of Trayvon giving the finger surfaced on the internet.  What were Limbaugh, Hannity, and company trying to prove by publicizing a shadier side of Trayvon’s life?  That the murder of this teenager was somehow justified?

          Take another step back from that confrontation, and we see yet another violent death from a gun.  I know, guns don’t kill people; people kill people, as the National Rifle Association is quick to remind us.  Yes, people do kill people -- effectively, efficiently, thoroughly, and at an alarming rate -- when they live in a country whose laws make guns plentiful and easily accessible.  As a result, Americans have the highest gun ownership in the world -- 88 guns per 100 people to be exact.  In contrast, in Great Britain, gun ownership is only 6 percent; in Japan, it's less than 1 percent.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the more guns a society has, the more gun fatalities it will have.  In Germany, 381 people are killed each year by guns.  In France, 255 people are killed each year by guns.  In Canada, it's 165.  In Great Britain, it's 68.  In Japan, 39.  In the United States, it's over 11,000

          Thanks to the lobbyists and campaign contributions of the NRA, our Congress can’t pass the minimal, the most common-sensible of gun regulations, such as a ban on military-style assault weapons, a limit on bullet magazine capacity, and background checks at gun shows, measures supported by over ninety percent of the American people, including responsible gun-owners.  Thanks to the NRA, it’s easier in many states to buy a gun that it is to buy Sudafed, to get a cell phone contract or a scuba diving certificate, or to vote.  Zimmerman was able to get a permit to carry a gun despite the fact that he had been previously charged for assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest following a physical altercation with an undercover alcohol-control agent, that his ex-fiancée had filed a restraining order against him, alleging domestic violence, and that he had been required to take an anger management class.

And thanks to the NRA, several states, like Florida and South Carolina, have so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws, which give the benefit of the doubt to Zimmerman and others claiming “self-defense” by allowing people who say they are in imminent danger to shoot people.  Some states, like South Carolina, limit this defense to people’s own homes, but others like Florida, allow it anywhere.  It turns out that in some states the old West is not old at all but alive and well.  These “shoot first, ask questions later” laws have turned common law and common sense on their heads by enabling people with guns to provoke conflicts, resolve them with deadly force, and avoid imprisonment.  Our Constitution insures the right to bear arms, but no right, including the right to free speech, press, and assembly, is absolute and beyond regulation, and certainly the right to bear arms does not trump the right to be safe and the right to life. 

Take yet another step from that fatal confrontation, and you see the enduring imprint of race on America.  I know that Zimmerman claims that race had nothing to do with his actions, but we would be naïve at best and callous at worst not to see the impact of race on this tragic incident.  What about Trayvon made him look “suspicious” and “up to no good”?  All Zimmerman saw was a teenage boy wearing a hoodie in the rain, carrying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles he had bought for his stepbrother … and who was black.  Black suspects had burglarized several homes in that neighborhood, so it is reasonable to assume that Zimmerman may have suspected that Trayvon was one of them.  But so what?  Did that give him the right to be judge, jury, and executioner?  Civilized countries employ police to enforce the law so that vigilantes will not take the law into their own hands.  Zimmerman saw a young black man, not Trayvon Benjamin Martin, because the first casualty of racism is individuality, the right to be your singular self.  That is what was stolen from Trayvon before his life. 

In America, to be a young black man is, by definition, to be suspicious and up to no good.  Being a young black man is synonymous with being violent, criminal, impulsive, promiscuous, primitive, subhuman.  These associations have been a part of our American culture since the beginning, since the days of slavery and all the justifications we used to prop up that “peculiar institution.”  We are still inundated every day with messages that link whiteness with goodness and being black with being bad in the movies and TV shows we view, in the advertisements we watch, in the news coverage we receive, and in the books we read.  We are like fish swimming in a biased ocean.  We did not choose the water we live in.  We don’t 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 see.  These stereotypical ways of thinking seep into our unconsciousness.  Consciously, we do not believe these beliefs or hold these attitudes.  In fact, I would venture that everyone in this room has deliberately chosen not to believe racial stereotypes.  But on an unconscious level, they guide our thoughts and actions much more than we want to believe, and they are so influential precisely because we are largely unaware of them.

For example, Joshua Correll, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, has conducted a study which shows that police officers, students, and members of the community playing a video game are faster to “shoot” an armed black man than an armed white man.  They are also more prone to avoid shooting an unarmed white man than an unarmed black man.  The decision to shoot takes only one-fifth of a second, so there is no time to make a conscious decision.  But it’s enough time for unconscious racial stereotypes to kick in.  These results are consistent, by the way, for white and black participants.  For better or worse, stereotypical thinking is no respecter of color. 

I don’t think white people can begin to imagine what it’s like to have your humanity denied on a daily basis in your personal life, in the media, and in political discourse merely because of your skin color.  We think that racial stereotyping ended with the Civil Rights Movement and that if it happens now, it’s only among the tobacco-chewing, Confederate flag-waving types.  We’ve got ourselves a black President now, so surely all that is behind us.  As informed and aware as I like to think I am, I am always taken aback when I take the time to listen to a black person’s experience of being racially profiled.

Just listen to Warren Bolton, the African-American associate editor of The State newspaper:

·        “My two brothers and I would be followed the entire time we were in the local five-and-dime, while little white boys had the run of the store – with no escort.”

·       “When I was a pre-teen playing football at the local Boys Club, a coach who was a Columbia police officer told me he knew a black guy with the same name as mine who carried a weapon in his afro.  He then asked me if I had a weapon.”

·       “As a college student at USC, I walked into a department store at Columbia Mall carrying a bag from another establishment.  An employee told me he needed to staple my bag shut.  Meanwhile, white patrons with multiple bags walked by without hindrance.”

·       “During an internship while in college, a white female editor told me she didn’t think we were going to get along.  It was her first time meeting me, along with the other dozen or so interns.  The internship was with a North Carolina newspaper; I wasn’t the only one from Columbia or South Carolina or the South.  I wasn’t the only male.  But I was the only African-American.”

·       “In my first-ever trip to Augusta for an overnight stay, it took me a while to find my hotel.  A police officer pulled me over; I still don’t know why.  He said it seemed as if I didn’t know where I was going.  I told him I was looking for my hotel.  He never offered to help, but he did make it a point to ask me how long I was going to be in town and what time I was leaving.”

·       “I lived in the Spring Valley subdivision for eight years.  About every other month, neighborhood security would stop me, ask for ID, and inquire whether I lived there.  Sometimes it was the same officer, and I was driving the same car – with the homeowner’s sticker on the bumper.”

·       “A couple of dozen newspaper people took a trip to Miami for training one year, and I was one of only two black men in the group.  We all went out for seafood one evening, and when it was time to pay the tab, our waiter took everyone’s payment one by one and placed each in his pocket without a glance – until he got to us black guys.  He stood over us and counted the money.  Before either of us could say anything, our colleagues demanded to know why he picked us out.  He attempted to deny it, but it was too obvious.”

Bolton states that he could cite many more examples, and he admits that his examples might seem trivial to some people.  “But,” he adds, “no one wants to spend a lifetime under suspicion.  No one should have to.”

Even our President has had to live under the weight of suspicion as a black man.  A few days after the Zimmerman verdict, President Obama observed, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”  He continued, “When you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that … doesn’t go away.  There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store.  That includes me.”

It was a rare moment for our first black President to speak publicly about race, even though the issue has dogged his Presidency.  He has apparently understood that Americans do not want to talk openly and directly about race.  We talk all the time about race in coded language.  When we talk about welfare, the inner city, the ghetto, the underclass, and a culture of dependency, everyone knows we’re talking about race.  But we don’t talk openly and directly about race because it makes us feel defensive, embarrassed, guilty, afraid, uncomfortable.

We are especially fearful of arousing black anger because in addition to being suspicious and up to no good, being a young black man also means being angry.  The sight of an angry black man is scary for many white people.  In mainstream white culture, we are taught to be polite, never to raise our voices, to be reasonable and calm at all times.  In other words, we are taught to act like Unitarians.  When we get angry, we have learned to stuff it.  If we are men, we are taught to take out our frustrations on someone weaker and smaller than we are.

If black people would just not get angry, we could go on pretending that we’re all one, big, happy family.  When black people do express anger, we are taught to discount and dismiss them. 

·       “Calm down.  Don’t get so emotional.”

·       “I didn’t mean any harm.  You’re being too sensitive.” 

·        “It’s just a joke.  Don’t you have a sense of humor?” 

·       “You’re always so serious.  Lighten up.”

·       “I’ve got to watch every word I say now that everyone is so politically correct.”

·       “You people are always whining about your rights.  White people have rights, too.”

·       “I don’t see color.”  (And Stephen Colbert would add, “I don’t even know what color I am.  I’ll take your word for it that I’m white.”) 

The last time Obama spoke this intimately and extensively about race was during his first Presidential campaign, when he addressed criticism of the comments of an angry black man, his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Candidate Obama then urged a national dialogue about race, just as President Obama did after the Zimmerman verdict.  Rodney King implored us to have a dialogue about race after his beating by police and the ensuing LA riots.  Martin Luther King tried to start a dialogue about race with his March on Washington, the 50th anniversary of which is the end of this month.  Despite all that has changed since then, so much remains the same.  We are still afraid to talk about race.

I don’t think we need a racial dialogue.  I think we need a racial monologue.  We white people need to listen without speaking, just listen to people of color.  We need to listen to their anger because their anger is in response to injustice.  If we listen, we can begin to understand how we have failed to live up to our democratic ideals of equality, fairness, human dignity, and the rule of law.  We need to listen to their personal stories because their stories get drowned out by the dominant story of mainstream white culture.  If we listen, we can begin to understand that we have an extremely limited version of history and an extremely distorted picture of politics and economics.  If we listen, we can begin to understand that our group profiles do not allow us to know the humanity of individuals and that our stereotypes rob our personal lives of friendships and deprive our national life of community.  If we listen, just listen.

Scott Peck says that “listening requires that we make the effort to set aside our presuppositions and actively shift our consciousness.”  Listening requires courage and is, by necessity, hard work.  There are no exceptions.

                                                                                                                                                      Rev. Dr. Neal Jones

The Road Less Traveled (July 21, 2013)

posted Jul 22, 2013, 8:19 AM by Neal Jones

          Several of us recently finished listening to a lecture series on the history of early Christianity by Dr. Bart Ehrman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.  One of the points Ehrman made that stands out for me is that Paul, not Jesus, is the real founder of Christianity.  It was Paul who turned the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus.  Instead of continuing the teachings of Jesus, Paul made up beliefs about Jesus, namely that he was the son of God, that his death saved people from their sins, and that he came back to life after being put to death.  Paul insisted that people had to believe these things in order to be a Christian, and Paul’s beliefs carried a lot of weight in the early development of Christianity because he was a frenetic missionary in the Roman world and his letters to many of the early churches formed half of the New Testament.  Ironically, Paul never met Jesus, except in some kind of vision he had of Jesus.  These beliefs of Paul came to define orthodox Christianity.

          “Orthodoxy” literally means “right belief” in the same way that “orthodontic” means “right teeth” and “orthopedic” means “right bones” and “orthography” means “right spelling.”  Here’s the way it works.  Some group of people have the arrogance to proclaim that some set of beliefs are the right beliefs, and they always happen to coincide with their beliefs.  These beliefs are declared as the ultimate and final truth.  This is how it is.  This is how it will be.  End of discussion.  But there are always others who want to continue the discussion, and they are labeled heretics.  “Heresy” is an interesting word.  It comes from a Greek word meaning “choice.”  Heretics want to exercise choice about what they believe instead of just swallowing hook, line, and sinker what they are told to believe.  They want to seek for more light where others tell them not to look.  They take the road less traveled.

          One of the ironies of Christian history is that the early Christians were declared heretics by the Roman pagans because they did not believe in the pagan gods.  In fact, one of reasons Jesus was executed, according to the New Testament, is that he was regarded as a heretic by orthodox Jews.  This, too, seems to be a pattern of orthodoxy.  Once you believe you have the right to declare your beliefs as the only right beliefs, then it is one small step to believing that you have the right to declare all other beliefs as wrong.  Then it’s another step to believing it is your right to eliminate wrong beliefs, which leads to believing it is your right to eliminate people who hold the wrong beliefs.

          Christians didn’t start out waterboarding and burning people at the stake.  (You did know, didn’t you, that the Bush administration did not originate waterboarding?  It was invented by the Spanish Inquisition.)  Christians started out with a creed defining orthodoxy, which eventually led to waterboarding and burning heretics at the stake.  In our lecture series, we learned that the church’s first major creed was the Nicene Creed, which made belief in the Trinity an orthodox belief and Unitarians heretics.  Eventually, the familiar pattern kicked in.  A young Spanish doctor, who discovered the circulation of blood, Michael Servetus, wrote a treatise entitled On the Errors of the Trinity, and he was put on the hit list of the Spanish Inquisition.  For two decades, he managed to elude them, but then made the fatal error of seeking refuge in Geneva, where he assumed another heretic of the Catholic Church, John Calvin, would provide safe haven.  This was a case where the proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” did not prove to be true.  Calvin had Servetus burned at the stake in 1553.

          Unitarians in Poland were called Socinians because they followed the anti-Trinitarian teachings of the humanist Biblical scholar Fautus Socinus.  (Doesn’t that sound like a Harry Potter character?)  One of them, an elderly woman named Katherine Weigel, took the road less traveled and publicly disavowed the Trinity.  She was arrested and locked up by the bishop of Krakow, but she refused to recant for the next ten years.  The bishop’s patience eventually ran out, and he had her burned at the stake when she was 80 years old.  Otherwise, the Socinians thrived in tolerant Poland, building churches and schools, until the Jesuits took control of the government and made Poland intolerant by decreeing that those who would not profess belief in the Trinity could not own land or have other civil rights.  Socianian churches and monuments were obliterated, and many fled to Transylvania.

          In Transylvania, Francis David, who is considered by many historians to be the father of Unitarianism, took the road less traveled.  He grew up Catholic, became Lutheran, then Calvinist, and finally a Unitarian.  Like many Unitarians, he had a meandering spiritual journey.  The king of Transylvania, John Sigismund, was an intellectual who hosted theological debates at the royal court.  The talented David took on the Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists and bested them, probably because he had been one of them at some point in his life and knew the errors of their ways.  Each of his opponents declared that if he were victorious, he would condemn David to death as a heretic.  David replied, “If I win, I shall defend to the death your right to be wrong.”  Because David was so convincing, King Sigismund chose Unitarianism as his religion, but unlike almost every other monarch in history, he did not make his personal religion the state religion.  Instead, thanks to David’s influence, he issued the Edict of Torda, which instituted religious tolerance in Transylvania, even of Jews and Muslims.  In the words of David, “We need not think alike to love alike.”  Tolerance lasted only a short while, however, as the young king died from a hunting accident a few years later.  Catholics said his premature death was God’s punishment for his heresy.  When the Jesuits came to power after Sigismund’s death, they banished Unitarians and locked up Francis David, who died in prison in 1579.

          Unitarianism from Poland and Transylvania eventually found its way to England, where Joseph Priestly took the road less traveled.  Priestly was an English Thomas Jefferson, a true Renaissance man, with interests and accomplishments in theology, philosophy, literature, politics, and chemistry.  Some of you may remember from chemistry class that Priestly is the one who discovered oxygen.  He was also a Unitarian minister, and his book, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, caused quite a stir with its charge that Christianity had gone astray by abandoning its unitarian view of God and its humanistic view of Jesus.  But it was Priestly’s politics as much as his theology that got him in trouble.  After supporting the American Revolution, he then supported the French Revolution, neither of which was a popular position in England.  On Bastille Day, an unruly mob (what other kind of mob is there?) burned Priestly’s church, his home, and his laboratory.  Priestly interpreted these events as a sign that he was no longer welcomed in England, so he and his wife set sail for America, where they joined his friends George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Jefferson.  Priestly started the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia.

It’s hard to believe today that once upon a time, people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed and that wars were fought and entire populations slaughtered over a particular religious belief, especially over belief in one God instead three Gods in one.  But that’s what happens when church and state are not separate.  When religion has the power of the government at its disposal, heresy is not merely an errant way of thinking; it becomes a punishable crime.  And as Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong points out, heresy-hunters are not only ruthless;  he says they are ignorant and idolatrous, as well.  They are ignorant because they think they know what ultimately cannot be known, namely the nature of God.  They are idolatrous because they have identified God with a definition of God.  They have bound God inside human words, concepts, and creeds.  They have created God and think that their creation is God.  This is the meaning of idolatry.

          Our Unitarian ancestors here in America continued the heretical heritage of our European ancestors.  William Ellery Channing, whose words on “the free mind” we read earlier as our responsive reading, distinguished us from Trinitarian Congregationalists in an ordination sermon in 1819 entitled simply “Unitarian Christianity.”  Taking some ninety minutes to deliver (and you thought you had it bad!), it became one of the most famous sermons in American history.  Its printed version became the most popular publication in the country up to that time, save only Tom Paine’s Common Sense.  What you may not know about Channing is that the Unitarian church he had served for forty years tried to require its members to conform to a statement of Unitarian beliefs, and he resigned in protest.  To the end of his life, Channing continued to take the road less traveled. 

          By the 1830s, a new generation of Unitarians called the Transcendentalists began challenging Unitarian orthodoxy.  In his address to the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School,  Ralph Waldo Emerson scandalized his former teachers by saying that Unitarians had become “corpse-cold” in their rationality, custodians of a “second-hand faith.”  Rather than reading about other people’s faith in the Bible, Emerson dared Unitarians to experience the divine directly in the beauty of nature around them and in the moral law within them.  It would be another forty years before Emerson would be invited back to Harvard.  We Unitarians today like to claim Emerson as one of our stars, yet the orthodox Unitarians of his day considered him a heretic.

          The most radical of the Transcendentalists was Theodore Parker, who delivered an infamous ordination sermon in 1841 entitled “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in which he said that creeds, doctrines, and confessions of faith were mere transient expressions of faith.  He also said that the Bible was a transient expression of faith.  He also said that Jesus was a transient expression of faith.  “If Jesus of Nazareth had never lived,” said Parker, “still Christianity would stand firm.”  What is permanent about Christianity and other religions according to Parker?  Their ethical teachings.  His Unitarian colleagues were appalled.  They blacklisted him, not inviting him to speak from their pulpits.  The Boston Association of Ministers asked him to resign, but he refused, so they left his name off the published roster of members.  When Parker insisted on taking his turn in preaching the “Great Thursday Lecture,” they discontinued the series.  We Unitarians today like to claim Parker as one of our stars, yet the orthodox Unitarians of his day considered him a heretic, as well.

          By the turn of the century, another generation of Unitarian heretics took the road less traveled called humanism.  In the Humanist Manifesto of 1933, they declared that religion itself had lost its significance and was “powerless to solve the problem of human living in the Twentieth Century.”  They advocated science against supernaturalism, democracy against tyranny, reason against superstition, and experience against revelation.  Today humanism is the dominant frame of reference within this religion called Unitarian Universalism.

          Here’s another pattern in the orthodoxy-heresy dynamic:  yesterday’s heresy becomes today’s orthodoxy.  Jesus was declared a heretic by the Jews.  Martin Luther and John Calvin were declared heretics by the Catholics.  Unitarians and Universalists were declared heretics by the Protestants.  Darwin and Freud were declared heretics by other scientists.  Thomas Jefferson, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King were declared heretics by the political establishment.  The pattern seems to be for history to make monuments to heretics after they have died and for their followers to make their radical message a tame creed.  They “orthodox” the heresy.  I cannot imagine Luther being a Lutheran or Freud being a Freudian, and I absolutely know that Jesus would not be a Christian.  He would be both baffled and infuriated by the things done in his name – the cruel wars and senseless acts of violence against those who disagree, the petty prejudices and hostility toward those who are different, the ostentatious wealth at the expense of those who are vulnerable, and the callousness of those with so much and their neglect of those with so little … in his name.  He would think he had arrived in Bizarro World, in which everything is turned upside down, where the first stay on top and the last are ground down even further, where the Golden Rule becomes twisted into, “Do others before they do you, and do them real good.”

          We UUs have been described as the “children of heresy.”  This is not simply our religion’s history; for many of us, it is our personal history.  Many of us took the road less traveled in our families.  We could not abide the religion, politics, and prejudices of our families and embraced a more liberal, rational, and open-minded understanding of the world.  Many of us from the South have rejected its hyped-up evangelical religion, its vindictive conservative politics, its anti-intellectualism that pretends that ignorance is a virtue, it’s preoccupation with a sordid past of which it feels ambiguously proud and ashamed, and its thin-skinned peevishness waiting eagerly to be offended behind a thin veneer of superficial politeness.  Southern culture is a good-old-boys club that does not take kindly to those who choose the road less traveled.  They have been calling us heretics our whole lives.  Heresy means choice.  We could have kept our mouths shut and continued to go along to get along, but we made the choice to live with integrity, to match our words and actions with our convictions, to be true to our conscience.  And that takes courage, much more courage than it takes to wave a Confederate flag in the faces of black people because your side lost 150 years ago and your side is losing today.  I don’t have to tell you that it’s lonely being the black sheep in your family and an exile in your own land.  Thankfully, when we discovered Unitarian Universalism, we discovered that we were not alone and not crazy, and when we come to this congregation, it is a grateful homecoming.

          Being heretics is both a blessing and a curse.  Our willingness to take the road less traveled brings wider horizons, fresh insight, and new life.  It also brings some wackiness.  What do UU congregations have in common with bowls of granola?  Both contain fruits, nuts, and flakes.  But if you’re like me, you wouldn’t have it any other way.  I suspect that Unitarian Universalism will always be a minority religion because if we ever get too popular and mainstream, we will have to become … God forbid! … orthodox – a fate worse than death.

                                                                                                          Rev. Dr. Neal Jones        

A View from the Wall (July 7, 2013)

posted Jul 8, 2013, 8:35 PM by Neal Jones

          It has become a tradition here at the UUCC that every July 4th we hear a sermon about the separation of church and state.  Part of the reason is personal.  I grew up Baptist, and Baptists have traditionally been staunch advocates of church-state separation, realizing that a “wall of separation,” as Jefferson called it, protects the integrity of both government and religion.  On one hand, that wall prevents religious zealots from using the power or purse of the government to force their religious beliefs and practices on the rest of us; on the other hand, that wall prevents overreaching government from interfering with or intruding in matters about which it has no business.  Baptists used to feel that way … when they were a religious minority.  But once they became the dominant religion, especially in the South, they just couldn’t help themselves.  Imbued with social status, economic muscle, and political supremacy, they, along with other members of the Religious Right, have used the power of the state to impose their brand of conservative Christianity.  If power corrupts, it seems to corrupt religious people absolutely.  Despite the apostasy of many of my brothers and sisters, this Baptist preacher has remained true to his Baptist heritage, at least in this respect.  This is why I have been a member of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State since I first became a minister 27 years ago and why I’m proud to serve currently on AU’s Board of Trustees. 

But even if I were not an ex-Baptist and a member of Americans United, I would still feel an obligation as a minister to preach the gospel of separation from the sacred text of the Constitution because of the unfortunate but well financed and largely successful misinformation campaign waged by the Religious Right.  Over the past four decades, they have convinced many Americans that the separation of church and state is a myth, that the Founding Fathers were Christian, and that they established the United States as a Christian nation.  They couldn’t be more wrong if they tried.  Some of the Founders were Christian, but not in the mold of present-day, born-again evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.  Some were theists, some were even Unitarian, and several were deists, who were the 18th century versions of agnostics, atheists, and humanists under the cover of religious language.  Then, as now, public officials had to be careful about being too public with their true feelings about religion. 

A deist was someone who believed in a Creator God who was only a creator.  The deist God created the universe much like a clock-maker creates a clock.  He puts it together, winds it up, sets it on a shelf, then ignores it as he goes about his business.  God, for the deists, set the universe in motion in the dark, distant past, and then stepped aside as nature’s laws took over.  A deist would not pray to this God or expect this God to intervene in human affairs to stop wars, end plagues, or cure diseases.  For the deist, God, for all practical purposes, is nonexistent.  This was the religion of several of the Founders, certainly of the prominent ones like Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, and Franklin. 

They founded a government that is secular and that takes a neutral stance toward religion.  The First Amendment explicitly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and the Fourteenth Amendment applies the separation of church and state to state and local governments.  Article VI of the Constitution explicitly prohibits religious tests for public office, which means you don’t have to be a Christian or even religious to hold office … though it would certainly improve your chances of getting elected in places like South Carolina.  The Constitution makes no mention of God, Jesus, the Bible, or Christianity.  Our national motto is indeed “In God We Trust,” but that was changed in 1956 because of the Red Scare of McCarthyism, when the Right Wing became obsessed with “godless Communism.”  The Founders had denoted our national motto as E. Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One.”  “In God We Trust” was not printed on our paper currency until 1954 because of McCarthyism, and the phrase “under God” was not inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954 because of McCarthyism.  A National Day of Prayer, our government’s unconstitutional endorsement of a religious practice, did not become official until 1952 because of … you guessed it, McCarthyism.  The United States of America was the first country in history to institute the separation of church and state, and except for those times when have been overcome by fear and prejudice, we have recognized the wisdom of maintaining a wall between government and religion.

This morning I want to review briefly some of the current battles to maintain that wall, and I’d like to begin with a success story, the Supreme Court’s ruling just days ago against DOMA, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.  DOMA violated the Equal Protection clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which ensure that every person must be treated the same under the law.  We have long recognized that the government cannot discriminate against people because of their color, religion, or sex.  We are finally beginning to recognize that people should not be discriminated against because of who they love.  The DOMA ruling not only upholds the Constitution; it upholds one of the sacred tenets of democratic government – that all people are created equal; that while people do not possess equal talents and abilities, all people do have equal worth and dignity. 

This is not merely a matter of idealism.  This is a matter of down-to-earth practicalities, of dollars and cents.  DOMA denied married same-sex couples more than one thousand federal benefits given to straight spouses.  Same-sex spouses could not file joint tax returns and therefore had to pay higher taxes than straight spouses.  Unlike straight spouses, same-sex spouses could not automatically include each other on their health insurance policies and had to pay taxes on their partner’s premiums.  Unlike straight spouses, same-sex spouses were not entitled to each other’s Social Security benefits, and they had to pay estate taxes on the house they both owned.  By striking down DOMA, the Supreme Court was essentially saying that gay and lesbian spouses are not second-class citizens.

I want to point out, in addition, that DOMA was also a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”  DOMA enshrined into law one particular religious definition of marriage.  Under the Constitution, all religious groups have the right to define marriage within their own religious communities, but they do not have the right impose their particular definition of marriage on the rest of society. 

Various religious groups prohibit interfaith marriage, for instance, but under the Constitution, they cannot impose their religious restrictions on civil marriage for all.  Various religious groups prohibit marriage after divorce, but under the Constitution, they cannot impose their religious restrictions on civil marriage for all.  In the past, various religious groups prohibited interracial marriage, but the Supreme Court has ruled they that could not impose their religious restrictions on civil marriage for all.  It is ironic, if not hypocritical, that Justice Clarence Thomas voted against marriage equality for same-sex couples when his own marriage would be illegal in some states if the Supreme Court had not previously ruled in favor of marriage equality for interracial couples.

          Let me cite some success stories for separation of church and state in several states.  This year in eight states, to be exact – Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Virginia – attempts to slip creationism into public schools were turned back.  Creationism is the religious belief that the earth was created by God in six days, only 6,000 years ago.  Science teaches us that the earth took billions of years to form, coming into being approximately 4.5 billion years ago.  “Intelligent Design” is the new-and-improved version of creationism.  Despite its sophisticated, even scientific bearing, intelligent design is still a religious belief in that it insists on a supernatural explanation for the creation of the earth.  Neither it nor creationism should be taught in a science class because of the obvious fact that only science should be taught in a science class, not religion. 

          There appears to be some intelligent design, however, behind all these attempts to teach religion in science classes because the wording of the proposed legislation in all eight states is nearly identical.  In every instance, the bills were couched as measures to protect “academic freedom,” to promote “critical thinking,” and to offer “equal treatment” of “alternative points of view.”  The Montana bill is typical of the other seven.  It would have required schools to encourage “critical thinking regarding controversial scientific theories” such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, random mutation, natural selection, DNA, and fossil discoveries.” 

Now, everyone is in favor of academic freedom, critical thinking, equal treatment, and alternative points of view, but let’s be clear here.  Scientific facts are not up for debate, no matter how much you may like or dislike them.  You either accept a fact or you disregard it.  If you want to dispute a scientific fact, you have to marshal evidence to disprove it.  You don’t disprove a fact with feelings or beliefs or ideology.  Under the guise of the academic language of “critical thinking” and “alternative points of view,” Fundamentalists are attempting to undercut the teaching of evolution, climate change, the carbon dating of fossils, and other scientific facts which threaten their prescientific, Biblically literalistic view of the world.  What they are really trying to do is to undermine belief in science itself.  Can you conceive of a better way to cheat our children of their education and of their bright future in the 21st century than to teach them a truncated version of science?

          Who is the culprit behind what appears to be a coordinated effort to introduce religion into science classes?  Follow the money trail, and it leads straight to ALEC.  ALEC is not a Fundamentalist preacher.  ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate lobbying group that writes model legislation to be introduced in multiple state legislatures at the same time.  Some of the members of ALEC are Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, BP, United Healthcare, Pfizer, Bayer, and the infamous Koch brothers – corporate interests that have a lot of interest in undermining environmental regulations and belief in global warming and in science itself.  ALEC is on record supporting the view that “human activity plays little to no role in harmful climate change” – and even if the earth does warm substantially, it is likely to be “of benefit to the United States.”

          The person overseeing the ALEC committee that creates much of its anti-science model legislation is Sandy Liddy Bourne, who, incidentally, is the daughter of Watergate felon-turned-born-again-activist G. Gordon Liddy (it’s a small world isn’t it?).  Recently leaked internal memos show that Bourne is pursuing an astonishingly cynical strategy to undermine public faith in science by manipulating public school science curricula.  ALEC also proposes model legislation opposing sex education and vouchers for private schools.  When you combine the fervor of religious Fundamentalism with the money of big corporations, you create a lethal recipe for the separation of church and state, public education, the teaching of science, and the future of our children.  Yes, it may be true that the more ignorant the public is about global warming and science in general, the more money these corporations stand to make.  But for how long?  Don’t these people have children, too?

          Now let me cite a success story here in South Carolina, where we need all the good news we can muster regarding the separation of church and state.  Last month our state Senate voted against a scheme that would have given tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools or homeschool, as well as tax credits to individuals who donate money to nonprofits that provide scholarships for children to attend private schools.  Again, if you follow the money trail, you discover the Golden Rule – those with the gold make the rules.  New York real estate tycoon Howard Rich (what an appropriate name!) has poured millions of dollars into South Carolina over the last several election cycles for the sole purpose of electing legislators supporting vouchers and tuition tax credits to benefit private schools.  Rich and his allies have come dangerously close to passing their legislation several times, and thankfully they have failed one more time.

          This latest scheme would have dealt a stomach punch to public education in South Carolina.  An estimated $39 million in revenue would have been lost if the tax breaks had been granted -- this in a state that already woefully underfunds public education and which routinely ranks among the worst educated states in the nation.  One of the frauds of the scheme is that it would promote “competition” between public and private schools.  But the education of our children is not a competition, as if schools were rival businesses competing for customers in the free market.  We Americans decided a long time ago that we would not allow the market to determine who gets an education and who doesn’t.  We decided that education is not the luxury of a few but the right of all. 

Another fraud of this legislation is its claim that it provides “choice,” but the only people who can choose to attend a private school are those who can afford it.  These tax credits are a drop in the bucket to cover the costs of a private school, costs that nearly all working class and middle class parents cannot begin to afford.  Do taxpayers really need or want to subsidize the education of the rich?

But here’s what makes vouchers and tuition tax credits for private schools a violation of the wall of separation:  most private schools are religious schools, and in America, you are not forced to pay for religious institutions not of your own choosing.

Before concluding, I want to highlight a new battlefield that has opened in the perennial struggle to maintain the wall of separation.  It’s in the field of healthcare.  The Affordable Healthcare Act mandates birth control in health insurance plans.  Clearly, both individuals engaged in family planning and society as a whole benefit from such coverage.  Houses of worship and other religious ministries are exempt from the mandate, but secular businesses and corporations are not.  Incredibly, some conservative Catholic and evangelical Protestant businessmen have filed multiple lawsuits asserting that their religious liberty is being violated.  They are the latest attempts to kill Obamacare by a thousand cuts before the American people are allowed to realize the benefits of a reformed healthcare system. 

One of them is David Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores that employs 22,000 people.  (I noticed, by the way, that Hobby Lobby ran a full-page ad in The State for July 4th providing copious quotations supporting Green’s belief that America is a Christian nation).  Green says that he opposes birth control on religious grounds and that therefore his company should not have to provide coverage for his employees.

The definition of religious liberty of the owner of Hobby Lobby is wobbly.  The First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty protects your right to make moral decisions for yourself, not your employees.  Employees are free to accept or reject contraceptive coverage. The First Amendment shields you from being forced to pay for someone else’s religion, but nothing in the Constitution protects you from paying for things you just happen to object to.  Conservative Christian businessmen are twisting the definition of religious liberty to deny their employees their liberty to access health care.  They are cynically using the First Amendment to try to impose their religious beliefs on their employees.

And so it goes. 

I give today’s final words to George Carlin, who said, “I’m completely in favor of the separation of church and state.  These two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.” 

                                                                                                      Rev. Dr. Neal Jones

Some Pastoral Advice (June 30, 2013)

posted Jun 30, 2013, 10:21 PM by Neal Jones

          On this day when we install our Board of Trustees and give thanks to some of the many volunteers who make this community happen, let us also openly acknowledge how difficult it is for some of us to recruit volunteers and for others to make the commitment to volunteer.  By the way, this is not just a challenge for our congregation.  Last week, I heard several of my colleagues at General Assembly admit to the same challenge, and according to my colleagues in other denominations, this is a challenge in their congregations, as well.  I suspect there are as many reasons as there are people.

Many people, if not all people, are just plain busy and can’t squeeze in one more obligation in an already overbooked schedule.  Some have other priorities.  Some fear getting stuck in something from which they cannot escape … which is why I’m glad we now have term-limits as committee chairs.  In the old days, becoming a committee chair was like getting appointed to the Supreme Court – it was a lifetime tenure.  (Speaking of the Supreme Court – and getting totally off subject – wasn’t Wednesday a glorious day?)  Some may fear making a deeper commitment to their congregation.  Some may feel they are inadequate, not up to the task.  Some may feel a lack of ownership.  Some may feel a lack of connection to other members of the congregation.  Some may have volunteered and volunteered and volunteered until they have nothing left to give, to whom I would say, “Please do take a break, and just come here to receive without having to give.  This place should be a joy, not a chore, so please do nurture yourself and let us nurture you, as well.” 

One of the challenges of serving on our Board and as a committee chair is how to motivate members to engage in the life of our congregation.  How do we do that?  Well, for clues, we could look at an employee satisfaction survey conducted with 600 employees of 22 mental health agencies.  Here are the top five responses indicating staff satisfaction:

1.      I have confidence in the leadership of the agency.

2.      I am proud to work for the agency.

3.      I feel I can trust what the agency tells me.

4.      I feel I am valued by the agency.

5.      The agency treats me like a person, not a number.

Notice that the top reasons mental health employees find their work satisfying has nothing to do with salary or benefits or office space – the kinds of things employers typically assume will motivate their employees.

          Which brings me to Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory.  Now I’m stepping into organizational psychology, and you may be wondering what this has to do with a congregation, but bear with me for just a moment because I think it’s relevant.  Herzberg interviewed lots of workers to find out what pleased  and displeased them about their work, and he made a fascinating discovery.  He discovered that the factors causing job dissatisfaction were different from those causing job satisfaction.  He called the factors causing job dissatisfaction hygiene factors because these are maintenance issues that are necessary to avoid dissatisfaction, but they do not provide satisfaction.  Hygiene factors are things like company policy, supervision, working conditions, salary, your relationship with your boss, and your relationship with your coworkers.  If these things aren’t right, you will likely be dissatisfied with your job.  If you are not paid enough or if your boss is a petty tyrant or if your coworkers are back-biting gossips, you will probably be displeased with your job.  But the absence of these irritants is not what motivates us to get out of bed each morning and go to work.

          Herzberg found that what truly motivates us is a whole different set of factors – things like achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement, and personal growth.  Think about those times when your work was most satisfying.  Those times probably involved your enjoyment of what you were doing, having a sense of accomplishment, being trusted to exercise responsibility without having someone look over your shoulder, being praised for a job well done, growing in your knowledge, skills, and experience, or being given more opportunities as you prove yourself.  Hygiene factors are different from motivation factors.  The way I see the difference is that hygiene factors, like working conditions and salary, pertain to our physical and security needs, while motivation factors, like achievement and growth, have to do with our psychological and spiritual needs. 

          Ok, so what does this have to do with our congregational life?  I think it’s helpful to recognize that we have hygiene factors and motivational factors within our congregation, and the two sets of factors are different.  What are a congregation’s hygiene factors?  What are those things in our congregational life that can cause dissatisfaction when they are not working right.  They are things like our relationships with one another.  Are our relations with fellow members warm and supportive, or impersonal and conflicted?  Worship is a hygiene factor.  Is our worship intellectually and emotionally fulfilling, or is it sterile?  Music is a hygiene factor.  Is our music engaging, or does it miss a beat.  Programming is a hygiene issue.  Do our programs and groups create community and help us find meaning, or are they merely busy-work, another chore on the to-do list?  Coffee is a hygiene issue, especially for Unitarians. 

          These are maintenance issues.  If they aren’t working right, we will feel dissatisfied.  But here’s an important point:  Fine-tuning these issues may eliminate our dissatisfaction, but it will not create satisfaction.  Motivation involves a different set of factors.  What motivates us to immerse ourselves in the life of our congregation are things like affiliation.  Do I feel I belong here?  Responsibility is a motivation factor.  Do I have a voice in what happens here?  Achievement and affirmation are motivators.  Can I accomplish some things here, and am I recognized for the contributions I make?  Meaning and purpose motivate us.  Does this place articulate values that guide my life?  Personal growth is a motivator.  Am I enlarged by my involvement here (and I’m not referring to potlucks)?

          Boards and committees spend a lot of time and energy, probably most of their time and energy, addressing hygiene issues, like policies, programs, worship, and interpersonal relationships, which is necessary.  What I want you to consider this morning, however, is that these are maintenance issues.  These things keep the engine running smoothly, but they are not the reason we want to jump in the car and head to Vegas.  I would like our Board members and committee chairs also to consider those things that motivate us to invest ourselves in this congregation and give us a sense of satisfaction when we do -- things like having a sense of ownership … like having a transcendent purpose … like having gifts to share … like our recognition of members’ gifts.

          These things may sound ethereal, so let me bring them down to earth in the form of questions.  Usually our questions to members address maintenance issues, and I am as guilty as anyone of asking these kinds of questions.  How do we get people to serve on the Board and on committees?  How do we get people to pledge more money?  How do we get more people to attend our meetings?  These kinds of questions are not very interesting, much less motivating.  I would like to challenge our Board members and committee chairs and myself to address “heart issues.”  Actually, I would like to challenge everyone sitting in this room to address your own heart.

          In regard to having a sense of ownership … whenever you step into this building, ask yourself, “Who owns this place?”  If you catch yourself believing that this place belongs to someone else, you’re right and wrong.  It belongs to every other member, and it belongs to you.  As minister, I don’t deserve much of the blame or credit for what happens here.  A congregation based on congregational polity is the most democratic institution in our society.  This congregation is whatever you make it.  Its well-being is in your hands.  Its future is your creation.  You are the cause as well as effect of this community.  The questions you and I need to ask ourselves are, “What are you willing to risk to be a member here?” and “How valuable an experience do you plan for this to be?”

          In regard to having a transcendent purpose … when you discover your purpose, you feel its demand.  It plants within you a burning desire to get to work on it.  Back in December, you called me as your minister, but the questions you must ask yourself are, “What am I called to do as a member of this congregation?” and “How do I want to live out my Unitarian Universalist principles in my life?”

          In regard to having gifts to share … we are not defined by our deficiencies, by what’s missing; we are defined by what is present, by our gifts.  We know who are when we acknowledge what our gifts are, and we know our purpose when we choose to share them with the world.  The question for us as members is, “What gifts do I have and wish to share with this congregation,” and the question for this congregation is, “How will we honor the gifts our members share with us?”

          These are the kinds of heart questions our congregational leaders need to ask our members, and more importantly, these are the kinds of questions each of us need to ask ourselves. 

          Since I’m offering free advice today, let me offer these suggestions, as well, to our Board and committees:

1.      Make sure you let the congregation know that volunteers are needed.  As a Board member or committee chair, you may be very well aware of the needs of our congregation, but our members may not know unless you tell them.  No one wants to do busy-work, but it’s been my experience that most people will respond to a legitimate need if they know about it.

2.      When you ask people to volunteer, make your request as specific as possible.  A vague request receives a vague response.  People appreciate knowing what exactly is expected of them.  When we have specific expectations, we can set specific goals and know how to reach them and when we reach them, and this gives us a sense of accomplishment.  And make your request time-specific.  No one wants a lifetime appointment.

3.      Ask people to volunteer to take on a task, not merely to serve on a committee.  Serving on a committee feels like serving a sentence.  People want a job to do, not a sentence to serve.

4.      When you ask people to take on a task, let them know how you and others can and will support them, and let them know how their job will benefit the congregation.  It’s easier to take on a responsibility when you realize that others share that responsibility, and it’s more meaningful to take on a responsibility when you realize how you are contributing to the greater good.

5.      Respect a “no” to your request as much as a “yes.”  Maybe the task is not quite right for the person, or the time is not quite right.  Every person’s first responsibility is their own self-care, and we should respect and encourage that obligation.

6.      Generously acknowledge and thank volunteers for their efforts.  Their contributions of time, energy, money, and ideas are gifts of love given from busy lives.  Today’s service is a good example of a heartfelt thank-you.

7.      Finally, if you are ever asked to volunteer and are not sure if it’s the right job or the right time for you, test the waters with a one-time commitment.  Try it on for size.  If it doesn’t fit, you don’t have to wear it, and if it does, you and the congregation will be the better for it.

I’ll end today’s advice-giving with a quote from Ellen DeGeneres, who advised the graduates of Tulane in her commencement address:  “Don’t give advice.  It will come back and bite you.  And don’t take anyone’s advice.  So, my advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.”

                                                                                            Rev. Dr. Neal Jones


Some Fatherly Advice (June 16, 2013)

posted Jun 18, 2013, 12:49 PM by Neal Jones

          For those of you who are fans of Jeopardy!, I don’t have to tell you who Ken Jennings is.  He’s the contestant who holds its longest winning streak.  In 2004, he won 74 Jeopardy! games, earning over $3 million dollars.  Most know-it-alls are not, but Ken Jennings really is.  So when he wrote his book The Truth behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids, I paid attention.  On this Father’s Day, I turn to Ken’s book, which is replete with scientific facts, to debunk some of the advice many parents have given their children; for if we Unitarians put our faith in anything, it’s science facts.

          For example, “Don’t eat poinsettia leaves,” which I suppose is a temptation during the Christmas holidays.  The truth is, it’s safer to eat an entire poinsettia plant than fruitcake, which, in my opinion, should be made illegal in any civilized country.  According to Jennings, poison control centers say you’d have to gorge on 600 poinsettia leaves to get a meaningful dose of irritating compounds, and even then, the symptoms would be no worse than a stomach ache.  I know this for a fact because at this past Tuesday night’s potluck, I made a delicious veggie chili, and the main ingredient was poinsettia leaves. 

          “No swimming for at least an hour after you eat, or you’ll have cramps.”  Jennings observes that while it is true that when we eat, our bodies do divert blood to the stomach to aid digestion, but that does not immobilize your arms and legs.  In fact, long-distance swimmers are routinely fed in the middle of races to make sure they stay nourished and hydrated.  However, I have conducted my own personal scientific experiment and discovered that drinking too much alcohol before swimming is not a good idea. 

          “The more often you shave, the faster your hair will grow.”  No true.  Hair follicles are located a millimeter or two below the surface of the skin, so anything that goes on up above has no effect on the growth of hair.  Jennings also cites some very reliable research that suggests that a beard is a sure sign of wisdom.

          “Take off that band aid to let your cut air out.”  This was disproven back in 1962, when Dr. George Winter compared open-air to covered wounds healing on pigs.  He found that skin cells regrew at about twice as fast on the covered wounds, which stayed moist and didn’t scab.  Let’s try not to think too long on that image.

          “Sugar makes kids hyper.”  Now I have to admit that I tend to believe this common parental advice, but Jennings cites dozens of recent studies that dispute this claim.  Sugar doesn’t really jack kids up, they now believe.  It’s just that many of the occasions when kids eat lots of sugar, like birthday parties and holidays, tend to jack kids up anyway.  In fact, some research has even found that sugar may have a calming effect on younger kids.  Still, I wouldn’t feed them fruitcake.

          “Most of your body heat escapes through your head.”  This old saw comes from experiments done in the ‘50s in which soldiers were sent into subzero temps wearing survival suits – and no hats.  Shockingly, they lost a lot of body heat through their heads!  Hypothermia expert Daniel Sessler, M.D., explains that you get the same results if any body part is exposed to the cold.  Since our faces and necks are five times more sensitive to temperature, these areas may feel more vulnerable, but they don’t lose any more heat than a bare leg or arm. 

          One more common parental misadvice:  “You should drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.”  Now many of us have heard this – that it can’t be juice, milk, coffee, or tea; it has to be water.  Jennings discovered where this advice came from.  Back in the ‘40s, the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council recommended “one milliliter of water for each calorie of food.”  A 1,900-calorie diet would work out to be about 64 ounces of water a day.  But everyone seems to have forgotten the next sentence in the report:  “Most of this quantity is contained in the foods we eat.”  So how much should we drink a day?  Our own Bill Moody recommends two martinis.

          Not all parental advice, of course, is inaccurate.  In fact, some would qualify as wisdom.  I like to distinguish knowledge and wisdom in this way:  being knowledgeable is knowing the facts well; being wise is knowing how to live well.  The two are not necessarily the same.  One thing I have learned about people with academic degrees, myself being one of them, is that having a higher degree signifies that you have a lot of knowledge about one particular subject, but it does not necessarily signify that you are wise.  Wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from making mistakes and learning from them, which reminds me of something Will Rogers said:  “There are three kinds of men.  Some who learn by reading.  Some who learn by observation.  The rest have to pee on the electric fence.”

          I suppose nearly everyone here knows not only Will Rogers but Tim Russert, who for 16 years was the longest serving moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press.  I don’t think anyone enjoyed Presidential elections more than Russert.  Remember how he would get out his dry eraser board and show all the possible outcomes of the electoral college vote?  It’s hard to believe that it was five years ago on Father’s Day weekend that he died suddenly.  His son Luke Russert recalls some of the life lessons his dad taught him.

          “Believe in yourself.”  Luke says that if there was one phrase his father could not abide, it was “I can’t.”  When Luke was a freshman in high school, he had a terrible time with geometry.  His dad found a tutor, but he still struggled.  So the teacher suggested that he meet with him at 7:00 each morning before school for extra help.  “I told my day, ‘That’s crazy!  I can’t do that!’”  He replied, “You’re doing it.  I’ll bring you.”  So every morning at 6:45, they’d leave the house.  Despite working 12-hour days, often with a Today show appearance between 7:00 and 8:00 am, his dad never once missed driving him to school.

          “After months of studying,” says Luke, “I was facing the final exam.  I was so nervous.  If I bombed, I was looking at summer school, and worst of all, failure.”  On the day of the final, his dad took him to school.  He got out of the car and walked with his son the first 20 yards.  Then he hugged him and said, “Luke, believe in yourself.  You can do it.  Whatever happens, it’ll be okay.  I love you, and I know you can do this.”  Says Luke, “His words made me realize that I needed to trust in my ability and in the hours of work I had put in.”  He ended up passing, and it still ranks as one of his proudest moments.  When he got his grade, the first person he called was his dad.  He screamed, “Yes!  You worked your butt off, buddy!  You earned it, and you believed in yourself!”

          Luke says that even now, whenever he worries that a task is too much for him or has doubts about himself, he thinks back to that geometry exam.  “My dad taught me that no matter how hard something is, if you’re willing to work, you can succeed.”

          “It’s okay to be scared.”  Luke recalls a flight he and his father were on that hit some very bad turbulence.  The plane seemed to fall hundreds of feet in a few seconds.  Luke was terrified and held onto the armrests for dear life.  But Tim, who was a veteran flier, didn’t flinch.  He put his hand on his son’s back and said it would be okay.  Still, Luke came away from the experience with a fear of flying.  Since his job required him to fly, he would do so, but he always dreaded it and had to force himself to travel.  Because he wanted to appear tough, he didn’t mention his fear to anybody.

          One Sunday night, his dad drove him to the airport, and he could tell his son wasn’t himself.  The skies looked ominous, and he was hoping his flight would be cancelled.  He was curt and furiously tapping the door handle.  As they pulled up to the terminal, he was really sweating, and he blurted out, “I’m terrified about flying.”  His father responded, “I’m coming in with you.”  At the counter, to his son’s astonishment, Tim used his frequent flyer miles to buy himself a ticket.  Luke asked, “Don’t you have to be on the Today show in the morning?”  He responded, “I do, but I’m going through security and walk you to the plane.”  Luke was mortified.  “I was 21 and I needed an escort.”  His father told him, “It’s okay to be scared.  Let’s talk.” So they went through security and sat in the waiting area.  His father reminded him that pilots are well trained, that airlines fly only under safe conditions, and that air travel is by far the safest form of transportation.  When it came time to board, he said, “I love ya, buddy.  Call me when you land,” and Luke got on the plane.

          “My dad taught me that it’s okay for a man to show fear and vulnerability,” says Luke.  “He could have said, ‘Suck it up.  Don’t be a wuss.  Be a man.’  Instead, he went out of his way to support me in my weakness.  To this day, I don’t believe in a ‘no fear’ attitude.  All of us have fears.  But if you can acknowledge them – you might need help, like I did – you can overcome them.”

          “Remember the little things.”  People are always coming up to Luke with a “Tim Russert story,” usually about a thoughtful thing his father did.  Says Luke, “Dad was a big believer in random acts of kindness.”  When Luke started working at NBC News himself, a coworker sought him out to tell him this story.  He was working for his father when his own father became seriously ill, and he needed to take extra days off.  Whenever he asked for permission, Tim always said yes.  But he did much more.  The coworker talked about the many emails and phone calls he got from Tim, just checking up on him and his sick parent.  When his father passed away, Tim sent flowers and gave him all the time off he needed.  The man said, “I hadn’t been at NBC for that long, so to know that Tim Russert, perhaps the busiest man at NBC, cared that much about me and my family meant the world to me.” 

          Says Luke, “I have tried to continue my dad’s caring ways, whether it’s by making a quick phone call, giving an unexpected gift to a friend, or helping someone who’s a few dollars short at the grocery store.  Dad taught me that the little things do matter.” 

          Luke Russert’s remembrances of his father’s life lessons motivated me to so a little research into other father’s life lessons.  Jessie Bridges, daughter of Jeff Bridges, reports, “Recently, when I was an assistant on a movie, I ended up being put on camera.  I called up Dad to ask for advice.  He went through different approaches and ways to prepare, and he finally said, “Come on, Jess, remember to have fun!”  Whenever I’m under pressure, he always reminds me that life is about having fun.”

          Jack Nichlaus, Jr. recalls that in high school, his brother and he were playing in the state championship football game.  He father was competing in the World Series of Golf at the time, but in the middle of the tournament, he jumped on a plane and came to their game.  Says Jack Jr., “He knew how important it was to us, so he made it important to him.” 

          Susie Buffet, daughter of Warren Buffett, relates, “I was nervous about telling my father when my son wanted to leave college and pursue his interest in music.  But instead of saying, ‘He ought to finish school,’ Dad said, ‘Good for him!’  He taught us that it’s not about the money; life is about doing what you love.  He’s always supported everything we’ve done.”

          Linda Powell, daughter of Gen. Colin Powell, tells the story of when her father taught her to drive.  “One day, I was at a busy intersection and the engine stopped.  I panicked.  Dad gently said, ‘Put it in neutral, push the gas once, and turn the key.’  I did, and the car started.  ‘By the way, never start this car with the air conditioner on – it doesn’t like it.’  We cracked up.  I stayed calm because Dad stayed calm.”

          Nell Newman, daughter of Paul Newman (a Unitarian, by the way), remembers, “He told us kids:  ‘If you don’t vote, I’ll disown you.’  It was not an idle threat.  He believed strongly that we should all take part in politics, at the very least by voting.  I disagreed with him on some issues, but I always knew that getting involved was not an option.”

          And finally, this from Matthew Reeve, son of another Unitarian, Christopher Reeve:  “‘Either you stay in the shallow end of the pool, or you go out into the ocean,’ my dad used to say.  Too often fear immobilizes people.  Perhaps they’re scared of what could happen if they try, or they’re afraid of what people may think.  At any moment, your life can unalterably change, so there is no excuse for letting fear stand in your way.”  (Of all people, Christopher Reeve should know).

          I think it’s also possible for parents to teach us inverse life lessons.  As I read these reminiscences of fathers, especially Matthew Reeve’s, I remembered my father and how much he hated his job at the Sylvania plant.  This was back in the days when TVs and stereos were made in America.  My father started working there when we was young and worked there his entire adult life.  But factory work was – and I suppose still is – repetitive and dull.  He used to begin getting irritable on Sunday nights because he dreaded having to start another dreary week of work he found neither interesting nor meaningful.  Yet each morning before the sun would rise, he would drag himself off to work and then drag himself home late each afternoon, where he would veg out in front of the TV, remaining mute to the rest of us, until he went to bed to begin the same routine the next day.  He lived this wearisome life week after week, year after year, for as long as I knew him.  He always seemed bored and tired, not the kind of tired you get when you give your all to something, but a kind of emptiness you feel when you have to do something you don’t want to do.  He died of cancer at 42, but I always suspected that he died because he was tired of living and that cancer was more of an excuse for dying than a reason.

          On occasion, my father would talk wistfully about how he wished he had started his own TV and stereo repair shop, and he always talked about this dream as if it could only have happened in the past, as if he couldn’t have pursued it later in life, which actually would have been a better time because later in life he had more experience and better financial footing.  I remember thinking at the time – and I only thought it because we never had serious conversations in my family, especially between children and parents – I remember thinking, “My God, man, what have you got to lose!  Go for it!”  But in my family, the worst sin you could commit was failure, and the surest way to avoid failure is to avoid trying.  So I guess you could say that my father taught me an inverse life lesson by showing me what not to do.     

I relied on this lesson many years later when I began experiencing sleepless nights at my second pastorate in a traditional Christian church.  I was dragging myself through each week to reach the Sunday deadline, feeling bored and tired, not enjoying what I was doing or believing what I was saying.  From the perspective of now, it seems incredible, but at the time I was afraid to make a change.  For years, I had dreamed of being a minister.  My mentors, the men I had looked up to and wanted to be like, had been ministers.  I had invested considerable time, money, and energy in earning a Master of Divinity degree.  I had prepared long and hard to be a minister, yet I found ministry neither interesting nor meaningful.  I felt I had made the biggest mistake of my life, but it was too late to even consider doing anything else.  My life’s course had been set, and all I could do was bear with it and make the best of it.

Then, on one of those sleepless nights, it dawned on me that I was following in my father’s footsteps, despite the fact that I had spent all of my life determined not to be like him.  So I rolled over and went to sleep.  I didn’t know what I would do the next day or for the rest of my life, but I knew that I wasn’t going to continue to do what I was doing … until much later when I encountered a bunch of damn Unitarian Universalists.  My father taught me what Matthew Reeve’s father taught him:  “Fear immobilizes people.  Perhaps they’re scared of what could happen if they try, or they’re afraid of what people may think.  At any moment, your life can unalterably change, so there is no excuse for letting fear stand in your way.” 

Sometimes life lessons are taught directly; sometimes they are taught inversely.  However they are taught, it is our responsibility to learn them.  And if we don’t learn them, we can count on life to continue to present us with the same lesson over and over until we do.  Amen. 


                                                                                                                                                                                    Rev. Dr. Neal Jones





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