Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, South Carolina

My Musings

A More Personal Treasury of Memories (May 27, 2015)

posted May 25, 2015, 10:03 AM by Neal Jones

         In the last Unigram, I reminisced about some of our shared experiences over the past ten years as your minister. Today, I am recalling a few more personal memories:

         I remember when we called a congregational meeting on October 1, 2006, to consider a statement I had written opposing the proposed amendment to our state constitution banning same-sex marriage. That amendment would, I wrote, “legalize discrimination, create a new category of second-class citizens, and further polarize us as a community.” The congregation voted unanimously to endorse my statement, and we became, as far as I know, the only congregation in South Carolina to take an official stand against Amendment One.

         I remember signing my contract as your fulltime minister at the pulpit with Peter Kandis, our congregational president, during the service of July 29, 2007. After serving three years as your part-time minister, this would be the first of several one-year contracts I would sign each year … until I was called as your settled minister on December 2, 2012. As a “Minister’s Addendum,” I added to that first contract: (1) Champagne shall be served every Sunday, preferably before the sermon; (2) The Rev. Jones shall be provided with a  year’s supply of barbeque and mustard sauce; and (3) The library shall be converted to a ministerial sauna and whirlpool.

         I remember when I gave the invocation at the Martin Luther King Day at the Dome in 2008, when Presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. John Edwards, and Sen. Barack Obama were the featured speakers. It was quite a treat to sit on stage and meet all three. Because it had been several years since the Clintons had been in the White House, I didn’t recognize whom I was sitting beside – Chelsea Clinton – who was now a grown woman.

         I remember when I joined three other ministers as plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by Americans United for Separation of Church & State against the state of South Carolina to halt the “I Believe” license plate. A year later, U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie ruled that the explicitly Christian plate “clearly gives favored government treatment to one faith,” and she ordered state officials to stop issuing the plate.

         I remember being surprised by a huge chocolate cake (my favorite!) on my birthday on November 2, 2008, during our worship service in the social hall (we were meeting in the social hall while the new floor was being laid in the sanctuary). But I received the most gratifying present two days later … when Barack Obama became the first African American elected President, something I never imagined seeing in my lifetime.

         I remember officiating Don Mohr’s memorial service on October 27, 2012. I don’t know that any memorial service is particularly “easy,” but Don’s was difficult for me because, not only was he the closest thing to an elder our congregation has had, but he was a dear friend. And it didn’t help that Don had left me his own words to read at the service, so it was as if he were present with us. Don had literally been the first person I met at the UUCC when I came 16 years ago. He was a greeter, and he remembered my name by my second visit. He delivered the first sermon I heard here (he talked about his heart surgery). As the chair of the Worship Committee, he interviewed me to serve as the stand-in minister during the previous minister’s sabbatical. Despite his hesitation to hire a former Baptist, he took a chance on me, and because he did, he deserves the credit (or blame) for my eventually becoming your minister. I remember how calmly and courageously he shared his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer during Candles of Community. A few months later, he was gone. His ashes were the first to be buried in our Memorial Garden, which was fitting because he oversaw its construction. Mark Twain said that the death of someone you love is like having your house burn down. For years later, you are discovering what you lost. We are still discovering the many losses we have suffered with the loss of Don Mohr.

         And I remember my installation service on January 27, 2013, one of the most affirming experiences of my life. Friends from across the years and across the country attended, including members of my former pastorates and even a childhood friend whom I had not seen since my high school graduation. Twenty clergy friends wore their clerical robes (I had to borrow mine). All three of our choirs performed – the Adult Choir, Bon Voyage, and the Junior Choir. Speakers included former congregational presidents Peter Kandis, Mike Paget, Barry Ahrendt, and Ann Johnson; Rev. Dan King, my “mentor minister”; Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, the “conscience of the General Assembly”; and Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church & State. Our DRE, Lisa Eason, presented me with a stole with the hand-prints of our congregation’s children. Then there was an exquisite reception in the social hall catered by a real chef, our own Jeff Kruse. I still don’t know how we packed everyone in the sanctuary and social hall. So many nice things were said that I felt like I was attending my own funeral.

         At funerals, I sometimes say, “We are sustained by loving memories and eternal hopes.” As you and face this next transition, may we be sustained by both.
Neal

A Treasury of Memories (May 13, 2015)

posted May 25, 2015, 10:00 AM by Neal Jones

         As I mentioned Sunday, I have noticed over the last few years that it’s becoming common at memorial services to show a slide-show of the departed throughout his or her life, often doing common, everyday things.  Blowing out birthday candles.  Standing on the beach.  Posing in a new dress.  Reading to the grandchildren.  Laughing at a joke.  By highlighting these common, everyday moments with photos, it is as if we are sanctifying a person’s life because life is made up mainly of common, everyday moments.

         So it is with congregations, as well. In anticipation of my leaving the UUCC and Columbia, I have caught myself reminiscing over some of our shared experiences.

         Do you remember … when we held our Sunday services in the social hall while the new sanctuary floor was being laid? The old floor was covered with bolts embedded in the cement which had secured the rows of theater seats we had inherited from the Tree of Life synagogue. In order to purchase 250 stackable chairs, we conducted a capital campaign called “Bring Your Seat to Church,” in which each member was asked to buy at least one $50 chair. Our children drew and colored several cut-out chairs, which we used to mark our progress. Each Sunday, Mike Paget climbed a ladder to post additional cut-out chairs to show how many chairs had been purchased.

         Do you remember … when the Shillington-Perez family joined our congregation? Because Nancie, Emilio, Santiago, and Mercedes were our 200th members, we presented them with a toaster.

         Do you remember … when we prominently displayed the black-and-white “Torture Is Wrong” banner outside our building after the revelations of Abu Ghraib? We obtained it from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, who informed us that we were only one of two congregations in South Carolina that exhibited the banner (the other was a Quaker church in Myrtle Beach). We took it down after President Obama issued an executive order ending torture two days after his election.

         Do you remember … when we had a Bike-in one Sunday morning before our service, in which 20 of us met at Sims Park and biked to the congregation? We gathered around the bicycle rake donated by Bob and Joan Amundson for a brief dedication ceremony. We hoped the new rake would encourage nearby members to

bike to church.

         Do you remember … when we voted to change our name from the UU Fellowship to the UU Congregation? Our original name derived from the Fellowship movement of the American Unitarian Association in the 1940s and ‘50s to start lay-led groups of religious liberals in urban centers and college towns. Back then, we were a small, lay-led, cigarette-smoking, coffee-drinking discussion group meeting in a house.  Since then, we had grown up and become something that resembles a church, with a building, a minister and staff, and lots of organized programs. We chose the name "congregation" because it designates a religious community, and it refers to our congregational polity. We changed our name because we had changed. 

         Do you remember … when we held a ceremony in the playground to give thanks to the gigantic, 200-year-old oak, which shaded the entire area, before it was cut down? Because of its age, huge limbs were starting to drop in the playground, and we were concerned about the safety of our children. Regina Moody gave me a small painting of that oak, and it will be one of my prized mementos from the UUCC.

         Do you remember … when our congregation was awarded a Chalice Lighter Grant from the Southeast District of the UUA to help finance our social hall and foyer renovations? SE District President (and now UUA Moderator) Jim Key presented an enlarged check to Don and Pat Mohr, who wrote the laborious grant application.

         Do you remember … when we had a farewell party for Brian and Leela Duncan, and their children Carli and Connor, before their move to Houston? During the service, I presented them with copies of the Jefferson Bible and commissioned them as UU missionaries to the “heathen land of Texas.”

         Do you remember … when the Free Times voted us “the best congregation in Columbia”? Here is what the editors said: "A church where skepticism is welcome and adherence to dogma is suspect? A church where all religions are invited but none are beyond introspection? A church that regularly presents nationally touring singer-songwriters? A church where half the congregation might have been at Hunter-Gatherer the night before? Now that's a church we can support."

         During my final weeks with you, please share with me your treasured memories from these last 10 years, and let us sanctify our time together.
Neal

Preventing a Blue Christmas (December 10, 2014)

posted Dec 21, 2014, 5:40 PM by Neal Jones

         It’s easy to imagine that all across America, families are sitting down together at Christmas to enjoy a lovely, stress-free meal and unwrapping presents with smiles, laughter, and cheer for everyone -- everyone’s family except yours.  It’s easy to get that impression because that’s the way Christmas cards and carols, TV and magazine ads, and Hallmark movies portray the holidays.  Reality is often disappointing when compared with the ideal.  The best defense against holiday blues is to plan ahead.  Here are some suggestions that may help:

 
Stay within your budget.  Some people go on a spending spree at Christmas, only to spend the first months of the New Year having to shoulder their self-inflicted debt.  Don’t turn your Christmas spending into “guilt money” -- expensive gifts meant to compensate for your lack of time and attention to your most significant relationships.  Money can’t buy love, not even at Christmas.  The recipients of “guilt money” can see right through it, and they will likely feel resentful.  What your loved ones want is more of you, not more stuff.

 

Shorten your family get-togethers.  If your family gatherings always end in conflict or disappointment, it may be that your family visits are lasting longer than you and your relatives can handle emotionally.  If an all-day visit leads to hostility, try visiting for just a few hours.  Wouldn’t it fare better for your family relations to have a short pleasant visit than a protracted unpleasant one?

 

Make deeper connections.  At some family get-togethers, everyone is expected to do the same thing.  Some may watch football all day.  Others may be expected to serve as the captive audience to a conversation dominated by a few self-absorbed individuals.  Unless you enjoy these group activities, you will probably end up feeling frustrated and disappointed.  Find ways to engage in more meaningful conversations with relatives you’d like to know better.  For instance, arrange the family at smaller tables instead of one big table.  If that’s not possible, sit beside someone you want to talk with at the large table.  Pull aside that special relative before or after the meal, while everyone else is glued to the tube.

 

Be patient with your grief.  That empty chair at the table or in the living room can be a painful reminder that a loved one who used to be there is no longer around because of death, divorce, service in the military, a move, or estrangement.  If you ever miss a family member who is no longer around, you can count on missing them at Christmas because our most precious Christmas memories are typically of family gatherings.  Whether the missing person has been gone one year or ten, don’t be surprised if you feel sad during the holidays.  It’s okay.  A significant part of your Christmas past is missing. 

 

Build in some buffers.  If family gatherings upset or drain you, take some time before the gathering to prepare yourself and some time afterwards to wind down.  Go for a walk, read a book, watch a movie, call a friend, take a nap, take a long, leisurely bath -- whatever you do that soothes and pampers you.  If your family visits are stressful, create your own reward for surviving them.

 

         If your family relations aren’t hunky-dory during the rest of the year, don’t expect them to magically improve at Christmas.  If we can keep our expectations of the holidays realistic, we may actually enjoy this time of year.  Hope you have a merry Christmas.

 

                                                                                                                                           Neal

Welcome New Members! (October 22, 2014)

posted Dec 21, 2014, 5:38 PM by Neal Jones

        This past Sunday we formally welcomed 18 new members to our congregation.  I regard our joining services as among the highlights of our worship services because they acknowledge the infusion of new energy, new ideas, and new commitment into our congregation. This infusion is like a perpetual refreshing stream that keeps our UU pond alive and vibrant. I was struck Sunday by the number of people who stood when I asked who had started coming in the last five years. It appeared that about two-thirds of those present were standing.

        On Sunday I observed that church membership is a process, a continuing process of greater commitment to the community that resembles the stages of growth of many committed couples. In the beginning is the honeymoon stage. When many of us converts from other faith traditions find a UU congregation, it feels like falling in love. Our new lover is nothing like the old one, who was dogmatic and narrow-minded. Our new UU lover is open, inclusive, authentic, and hip. With this new lover, we feel understood and accepted, perhaps for the first time, and we are free to be ourselves.

        But the honeymoon eventually ends. It always ends. We start seeing things less idealistically and more realistically. We become disillusioned, and I find that word “disillusion” most intriguing. Dis-illusion -- to become separated from your illusions. At first, this new community is a warm, fuzzy ideal, but then reality sets in. There are bills to pay, a budget to balance, and tables to set up. Committee meetings drag on forever, and everyone has at least three opinions that they must share. Some people are downright irritating with their egos, their tempers, and their blind spots. To our new members, let me give you a heads-up: we will disappoint and disillusion you. You can count on it.

        And this is a good thing because disillusionment spells the end of expecting your congregation to be perfect. It means recognizing that a congregation is a human institution, and like any human institution, it is made up of wounded and wounding human beings. It means realizing that you don’t passively find community; you actively build community. When the honeymoon ends, the work of commitment begins, so that while some will step back and drop out when conflicts and trials come, others will remain steadfast through these tough times.  They are in it for the long haul. 

        I commend you18 brave souls who have taken a leap of faith into disillusionment. Your joining us demonstrates that you sense that this congregation is a grand experiment in which we bring our life experiences, our hopes and dreams, our foibles and frustrations, and pull them all together in a form that creates community, gives each person an identity, and even allows us to occasionally experience transformation. When the experiment works, we successfully construct a cross in which the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our lives come together. When it doesn’t work, we stick with the experiment and try again and again and again in the hope that some day it will.

Neal

Our 10th Anniversary (October 8, 2014)

posted Dec 21, 2014, 5:35 PM by Neal Jones

         We Americans are allergic to failure and avoid it like the plague. There is another way to face failure, however. Joseph Campbell used to tell a story from the “Arabian Nights.” This farmer, who was plowing his field, stumbles and falls. He notices that he has stumbled on an iron ring, so he digs down into the soil and finds that the iron ring is attached to an door that reveals a cave filled with jewels right there in his field. The moral of the story is that “where you stumble, there your treasure is.” 

  
       This parable emphasizes digging down. This is not looking in the way we typically look at failure. This is not problem-solving to learn how to plow more efficiently. This is not about how to engage in positive thinking. I would call digging down "soul work." This is not about examining the problem but examining yourself. This is about looking at your life and at life itself unflinchingly. It's about allowing an ordinary experience to be a possible spiritual experience.  There are probably as many definitions of spirituality as there are people, but one common definition is that a religious experience leads to an epiphany, an awakening, a higher consciousness, a deeper understanding. 
 
        I have to confess that after my divorce, it was tempting to brush myself off and move on as quickly as possible. Fortunately, I saw a therapist who encouraged me to dig down.  I have to admit that I didn’t like what I saw. I saw more clearly than before my tendency to put my work before my relationships. Like a lot of men, I think, knowing how to be successful at the office comes a lot easier than knowing how to be successful at home. This tendency comes naturally to me because I come from a working class family in which work was all they knew. They didn’t socialize. They didn’t have hobbies. They didn’t balance career with personal time. They worked. And as different from my family as I am, the fact remains that early childhood learning is an inheritance you never escape. You never lose it, but if you are lucky, you can become aware of it and decide how to respond to it. Where you stumble, there your treasure is.
 
        My therapist Bruce encouraged me to dig deeper. I had to face the fact that, for me, work was not only a comfortable tendency; it was a comfortable means of evading intimacy.  At work, you can set goals, work hard and reach them, and then get complimented for doing so. Work is pretty cut-and-dried. Relationships are messy. There are no goals or deadlines or bottom-lines. They require continual cultivation, like cultivating a garden. When you cultivate a garden, you don’t set a watering goal and then reach it or have a weeding deadline and then stop. You attend to it each day, responding to the needs of the moment, sometimes getting actively involved, sometimes waiting patiently and expectantly. Relationships are tended in the same manner, and in my family, I did not learn the art of cultivation. But with awareness comes the possibility of teaching an old dog new tricks. Where you stumble, there your treasure is.
 
        We might as well learn how to fall because, sooner or later, we will.  No matter how competent or lucky we are, we will stumble.  We will face all kinds of limitations and losses, some of our own making, some beyond our control, some simply because we're human and loss comes with the territory, including, in the end, our own death.  Maybe with enough practice, we'll get really good at falling.  Maybe we can learn not to be afraid of failure.  Maybe we'll even choose to risk failure.  After all, you can't laugh if you aren't willing to risk appearing foolish.  You can't dream if you aren't willing to risk disappointment.  You can't love if you aren't willing to risk being hurt. One thing that is worse that failure is never having a dream to believe in or never making an effort to fulfill it. 

Neal

Where We Stumble, There Our Treasure Is (August 27, 2014)

posted Dec 21, 2014, 5:32 PM by Neal Jones

         We Americans are allergic to failure and avoid it like the plague. There is another way to face failure, however. Joseph Campbell used to tell a story from the “Arabian Nights.” This farmer, who was plowing his field, stumbles and falls. He notices that he has stumbled on an iron ring, so he digs down into the soil and finds that the iron ring is attached to an door that reveals a cave filled with jewels right there in his field. The moral of the story is that “where you stumble, there your treasure is.” 

  
       This parable emphasizes digging down. This is not looking in the way we typically look at failure. This is not problem-solving to learn how to plow more efficiently. This is not about how to engage in positive thinking. I would call digging down "soul work." This is not about examining the problem but examining yourself. This is about looking at your life and at life itself unflinchingly. It's about allowing an ordinary experience to be a possible spiritual experience.  There are probably as many definitions of spirituality as there are people, but one common definition is that a religious experience leads to an epiphany, an awakening, a higher consciousness, a deeper understanding. 

         I have to confess that after my divorce, it was tempting to brush myself off and move on as quickly as possible. Fortunately, I saw a therapist who encouraged me to dig down.  I have to admit that I didn’t like what I saw. I saw more clearly than before my tendency to put my work before my relationships. Like a lot of men, I think, knowing how to be successful at the office comes a lot easier than knowing how to be successful at home. This tendency comes naturally to me because I come from a working class family in which work was all they knew. They didn’t socialize. They didn’t have hobbies. They didn’t balance career with personal time. They worked. And as different from my family as I am, the fact remains that early childhood learning is an inheritance you never escape. You never lose it, but if you are lucky, you can become aware of it and decide how to respond to it. Where you stumble, there your treasure is.

         My therapist Bruce encouraged me to dig deeper. I had to face the fact that, for me, work was not only a comfortable tendency; it was a comfortable means of evading intimacy.  At work, you can set goals, work hard and reach them, and then get complimented for doing so. Work is pretty cut-and-dried. Relationships are messy. There are no goals or deadlines or bottom-lines. They require continual cultivation, like cultivating a garden. When you cultivate a garden, you don’t set a watering goal and then reach it or have a weeding deadline and then stop. You attend to it each day, responding to the needs of the moment, sometimes getting actively involved, sometimes waiting patiently and expectantly. Relationships are tended in the same manner, and in my family, I did not learn the art of cultivation. But with awareness comes the possibility of teaching an old dog new tricks. Where you stumble, there your treasure is.
 
        We might as well learn how to fall because, sooner or later, we will.  No matter how competent or lucky we are, we will stumble.  We will face all kinds of limitations and losses, some of our own making, some beyond our control, some simply because we're human and loss comes with the territory, including, in the end, our own death.  Maybe with enough practice, we'll get really good at falling.  Maybe we can learn not to be afraid of failure.  Maybe we'll even choose to risk failure.  After all, you can't laugh if you aren't willing to risk appearing foolish.  You can't dream if you aren't willing to risk disappointment.  You can't love if you aren't willing to risk being hurt. One thing that is worse that failure is never having a dream to believe in or never making an effort to fulfill it. 

Neal

Advertising Our Faith (August 13, 2014)

posted Dec 21, 2014, 5:29 PM by Neal Jones

         A few years ago, our denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, did something that was unprecedented – a national advertising campaign for Unitarian Universalism.  This was so uncharacteristic of us.  We UUs are typically shy about sharing our faith.  I know we Southern UUs are, I suppose because many of us have been accosted by hard-sell evangelists who are anxious to impose their religion on us – the shouting, Bible-waving preachers on street corners; the religious tracts, stuck under our windshield wipers, warning us of hell; the happy, all-too-eager, smiling faces ringing our doorbells on Saturday morning. 

 
        Many UUs refer to the “elevator speech.”  This is what you would say to a stranger in an elevator who asks you, “So what is Unitarian Universalism?”  You would have only a few minutes to say your piece from the time the elevator traveled from the ground level to an upper floor.  I prefer to call this the “checkout line speech” because I’m not sure we have many elevator rides in Columbia.  Whatever you call it, what would you say to such a question? 
 
        I’ve given this some thought, and I think I would tailor my answer to the person asking.  To intellectual and academic types, I would say …

         We Unitarian Universalists believe that spirituality must be reasonable.  Many of us grew up in religious traditions that discouraged questions and felt threatened by doubt.  We UUs will not believe something just because some religious authority, ancient   book, or long-standing tradition tells us to believe it.  A belief must pass the test of reason for us to embrace it.  We believe that the search for truth is a never-ending          journey that is best traveled with an open mind.


To social activist types, I would say …

         We Unitarians Universalists believe that spirituality must be concerned with peace, justice, and equality.  UUs have a long history of social action, from the abolition of slavery to the labor movement, civil rights, the women’s movement, and gay rights.  We are fond of saying that “service is our prayer,” reflecting our conviction that a mature spirituality should lead one from self-preoccupation to a concern for others, the community, and even the well-being of our planet.

 

To those who value diversity, I would say …

         We Unitarians Universalists embrace all spiritual paths because truth and meaning are too big to be contained by one tradition or defined by one book, creed, or dogma.  We    draw inspiration from our direct experience of mystery and wonder, the words and deeds of prophetic men and women, wisdom from the world’s religions, humanist teachings, and earth-centered spirituality.  Instead of dictating the “Truth,” we prefer to support and encourage people to be true to themselves as dictated by their experience, reason, and conscience. 

 

To those seeking community, I would say …

         We Unitarians Universalists believe that spirituality must affirm the dignity and worth of all persons.  Most churches are creedal – you must accept their dogma before they will accept you.  Ours is covenantal – we are bound together by promises of how we will behave toward one another.  We promise to accept people as they are; to be fair, just, and compassionate with each other; and to support one another in our search for meaning, purpose, and value in our lives.  What holds us together is not that we believe the same but that we treat each other the same.  Our motto is “Deeds, not creeds.”

 
        How would you answer the question, “What is Unitarian Universalism?”  If it makes it easier, don’t think of yourself as an evangelist.  Think of yourself as someone who has discovered an enriching community of seekers who would like others to share it … because you and I have.
  
                                                                                                                                       Neal

A Teacher Who Taught Lessons of Acceptance (July 23, 2014)

posted Dec 21, 2014, 5:25 PM by Neal Jones

         Was there ever a person better suited to be a teacher than Hal French?  He may have started out as a minister, but he eventually found his true calling, though I have the distinct impression that Hal was something of a minister to his students.  He loved learning, and he loved inviting others to join him in the adventure of seeing things from a different perspective.  The Latin root of “education” is “educo,” which means “to draw out.”  That was Hal’s method, and in this sense, he was a genuine educator.  His goal was not to impose his views and beliefs but draw out a student’s natural curiosity – a curiosity we are all born with but which usually gets stifled by teachers who insist that we color within the lines and sit in rows and raise our hands to use the restroom. 

         It would have been easy for Hal to be imposing with his knowledge because he was incredibly knowledgeable.  He edited an eleven-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism, for Pete’s sake!  But unlike a lot of Unitarians, Hal did not wear his knowledge on his sleeve.  He literally did not wear his knowledge on his sleeve.  Rannie once asked Hal why his black academic robe didn’t have those colorful bars on the sleeves like the other faculty members -- the ones which indicate what kind of doctorate you have -- and he said simply, “I don’t care to do that.”  Hal was more interested in knowing than in showing how much he knew.

         I think the quality which made Hal an inspiring teacher and human being was his humility.  Now I realize that in our highly competitive culture, humility is not often prized or even understood.  Many mistakenly think that it’s a sign of weakness, but humility requires strength of character because it is the ability to set aside ego in order to be open to what life can teach us.  The religious among us would say it’s the ability to submit your will to God’s will.  The more humanist among us would say that it’s the ability to reach for ideals which transcend self.  I’m not sure, by the way, which category Hal would be in.  I suspect he would be in both, but my uncertainty is a testament to his humility.  Unlike some religious people, Hal did not self-advertise, and he was not pushy about anything, least of all his religion.  He was more interested in finding out what you thought than in telling you what he thought or what you should think.  He was an engaging teacher because he was first and foremost an inquisitive student.

         One of the most memorable lessons Hal taught in his classes and in his life is summed up by the Buddhist phrase, “This is it!”  This is it.  Right here, right now.  Not some other place or time.  Not where you wish you could be or where life ought to be or where things are as they are supposed to be, but now, this moment, this day, the only day we have.  Whatever else there is, or was, or might be, you and I have this day.  Hal challenged himself and his students to match this glorious gift with their highest attention and appreciation. 

          Two years ago, former student Alden Earl wrote Hal, “You taught me a new way to approach life, which is more useful than any class.  Although I carry on now with my hectic life, the tools I learned in your class will remain with me forever.  ‘This is it,’ could not be a truer statement, and I would like to thank you so much, Dr. French, for making my ‘this’ so much better.”

          Yes, thank you, dear teacher and friend, for making our “this” so much better.

                                                                                                                                        Neal

The Supreme Court's Wobbly Hobby Lobby Decision (July 9, 2014)

posted Jul 7, 2014, 5:35 PM by Neal Jones

          Does Walmart believe in God?  Can General Motors pray?  Most of us would not imagine that corporations have religious rights, but that’s not what the Supreme Court says.  The High Court recently ruled in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby that certain private companies do not have to provide their employees with contraceptive coverage, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act, if the company owners object to contraception on religious grounds.  Fortunately, the ruling applies only to “closely held” companies, which legally means those with more than half of their stock owned by fewer than five people.  Unfortunately, this includes about 90 percent of businesses and 52 percent of workers.   

          The case was brought by the billionaire Green family, who own the chain of arts-and-crafts stores and who are evangelical Christians.  The Greens say they morally object to four of the 20 FDA-approved methods of birth control covered by Obamacare because, they contend, these methods induce abortions.  (In point of fact, they don’t.)  The Affordable Care Act already exempts houses of worship and other religious ministries from having to directly pay for insurance coverage for birth control.  Hobby Lobby requested this same exemption, and the Supreme Court gave it to them, despite the fact that selling glitter and glue guns has nothing to do with worship or a religious activity.

          This latest decision signals a disturbing trend that we are seeing with the Supreme Court.  The conservative, male, Catholic majority on the Court (and I intentionally use all these adjectives because I think they are relevant to the Court’s decisions) is giving “religious freedom” a peculiarly expansive definition such that the religious beliefs of some are given preference over the basic civil rights of others. 

          In 2012, in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the Court ruled that a Lutheran school could fire a teacher, despite the fact that her dismissal violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In that case, the religious beliefs of the school administrators trumped the employment rights of the teacher. 

          A couple of months ago, the conservative majority of Justices ruled in Greece v. Galloway that the town of Greece, New York, could convene town council meetings with explicitly Christian prayers, despite the fact that the First Amendment explicitly states that government shall not respect an establishment of religion.  In that case, the religious beliefs of the religious majority trumped the right of all citizens to be represented by their elected government. 

          And now with its Hobby Lobby decision, the conservative majority on the Court has ruled that the religious beliefs of a corporation – as if corporations were people and could have religious beliefs – trump the right of women to make their own healthcare decisions.  Shouldn’t women make their decisions regarding birth control based on their needs and convictions, not those of their boss?

          The Religious Right touts these rulings as a triumph of religious freedom, but let us be clear: “religious freedom” is the right to believe and practice your religion as your conscience dictates; it does not mean the right to impose your religious beliefs on others, even if you happen to employ them or even if you happen to be in the religious majority.   
      
          Our Constitution ensures not only the rule of the majority but also the rights of the minority.  In fact, our Constitution preserves our individual freedoms by preventing oppression by the majority.  The First Amendment’s wall of separation between church and state is one of the Constitution’s protections of our freedom, and it’s a wall that needs continual protection itself.  Or as Thomas Jefferson himself put it, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

                                                                                                                                        Neal

A Communal Experiment with a Worship Experience (May 14, 2014)

posted May 20, 2014, 2:50 PM by Neal Jones

            During Candles of Community, we invite members to come forward, share a significant happening in their lives, and light a candle in the community chalice.  Candles of Community is at its best when members briefly share the poignant moments of their lives, whether joyful or tragic.  These moments are sacred because the participants become more transparent and we as a community get to know each other more deeply, allowing us to celebrate each other’s pleasures and to support each other in life’s hurts, sorrows, and disappointments.  Candles of Community is less successful at community-building when it shifts from the sharing of significant personal stories to other agendas.  Some of our more introverted members hardly ever share during this ritual; some of our more extraverted members share habitually. 

 

            Some of us look forward to this time of the service with eager anticipation; some report feeling frustrated and irritated.  We clearly do not have a consensus in our congregation about Candles of Community, and a recent survey conducted by the Worship Committee bears this out.  Of the 70 members who participated in the survey, only one in three likes Candles of Community as it is and would like it to remain as it is.  The other two-thirds would like to see it modified or discontinued.  If it’s any comfort, please know that every UU minister and every member of a UU congregation I have spoken to about their sharing of joys and concerns have the same compliments and complaints that we do.  Candles of Community (or some version of it) appears to be both a heartwarming and a problematic ritual in just about every UU congregation.

 

            There is a dynamic that makes Candles of Community inherently problematic over time – the growth of a congregation.  As more and more members participate in the sharing of joys and concerns, the ritual becomes more unwieldy and time-consuming.  At some point, a growing congregation has to modify it or discontinue it.  The modifications are as varied as UU congregations.  For instance, I have seen the following versions at larger UU congregations I have visited:  joys and concerns are published in the newsletter only; members write their joys and concerns in a book or on a bulletin board to be read by members after the service; members light candles or drop stones in a basin in silence during the service; the minister or worship leader reads joys and concerns submitted earlier by members; the minister or worship leader merely reads the names of members with joys and concerns.

 

            The Worship Committee and I have had considerable discussion concerning Candles of Community based on the survey, comments that we have heard, and our own observations of this ritual in our congregation and in other UU congregations.  We are not sure what changes, if any, we will make, and we are not ready to make any permanent alterations at this time.  Because this is a vital part of our worship service, we want to take our time as we deliberate.

 

            As a part of these deliberations, the Worship Committee has asked me to experiment with Candles of Community.  During the summer months, beginning Sunday, June 1st, we will try a different approach.  People will email me (minister@uucolumbia.org) their joys and concerns ahead of time, which I will read during the service.  (When I am not in the pulpit, the worship leader will read them).  As I read each one, that person will come forward and light a candle. 

 

            This approach has several advantages:  it will allow us to streamline our joys and concerns so that significant events may be shared and extraneous events and words may be omitted; it will allow the congregation to put a face with a name so that we may continue to speak more personally with fellow members after the service, offering them our support and encouragement; and it will permit more people to participate while being less time-consuming.   I am hopeful that this approach will make Candles of Community a more reverent part of our service.  I am also hopeful that some of our more reserved members who are reticent to speak before the whole congregation will feel more comfortable sharing their joys and concerns in this way.  In other words, I am hoping that we can minimize the more problematic features of Candles of Community while expanding its participation. 

 

            So I invite you to join me in this experiment for a limited time.  Like trying on a new pair of shoes, let’s slip them on, walk around in them for a little while, and see how they feel.  After three months, the Worship Committee and I will deliberate on how the experiment went, and we would like your input, as well.  This will be an on-going, inclusive conversation because our worship is organic and communal.

                                                                                                                                                                                                            Neal

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