Monday, October 27, 2014

The Fifth Principle

This sermon, by Shirley Rickett, was given on 26 October, 2014, as part of our Seven Principles Series.

The Fifth Principle:

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large”                                         Shirley Rickett, October 26, 2014

When I first volunteered to take on this principle, I thought, there’s a mouthful.  What I found, however, was a whole meal.  Looking at the progression of the principles in the order chosen by UUA, I could see a movement from the particular to the general.  That’s fine, I thought. We begin in our consideration of what’s important to all UUs with the individual.  What could be more poignant, more true to belief in human rights, than the inherent worth and dignity of every person? 
The second principle considers “the other,” and the third, not only regards our fellow beings, but includes acceptance of them and even encouragement for spiritual growth no matter the direction that may take. In my approach to principle five, I’m going to weave the two parts:  the individual’s right of conscience and how that may extend to groups, and then the concept of a democratic process from the particular, UUA and UU congregations, to the general, our “society at large” as Americans, as a country.
The right of conscience in the fifth principle is a recognition that a person does not have a conscience in isolation from others unless one is a hermit, a monk, or nun in an order that forbids verbal communication between members.  Even then, a conscience doesn’t work in isolation unless that person is the only person on earth. 
The right of conscience I take to mean, individuals.  What is a conscience? The Sixth Edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary states the word is Old French from the Latin and means privy to knowledge, or to know. The first definition stated by the O.E.D.:  “One’s inmost thoughts, one’s mind or heart,” in other words, to be awake, mindful of oneself, self-
knowledge.   A look at further O.E.D. definitions takes us from the individual to groups.  The sixth O.E.D. definition refers to the practice of, or conformity to, what is considered right.  I take that to mean conformity or “rightness” determined by the larger group of society.
            *                                              *                                              *

The recent Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby business owners and the dictates of their religious faith is an example of the Court’s bending toward the nebulous idea of what people believe, or say they believe.  From my reading, I understand that legality enters into the issue not with what a person or group say they believe, but when an action emanates from that belief.  When a conscientious objector refuses to go to war and kill people, that person states the reason as ‘against my conscience or my religious beliefs.’    Yet people who take that step are often regarded as cowards because that behavior deviates from the norm.
The actor Lew Ayres was a conscientious objector during W.W. II.  He scrubbed latrines and did similar chores. Years later he was admired for following his conscience.  Yet SCOTUS found for Hobby Lobby not on First Amendment grounds but within the context of a law passed by Congress—the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.  How does a business that purports to serve the public selling products subordinate the diverse religious beliefs of its employees?  Employer religious beliefs trump employee’s religious beliefs, and the action emanating from one group’s religious belief deprives another group (women) of insurance coverage, which is classified as preventive healthcare in the Affordable Care Act, a law of the land.
“The Court’s four Liberals [just] called it a decision of ‘startling breadth’ and said that it allows companies to ‘opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Furthermore, “The majority decision could open the door to other closely held corporations seeking to withhold coverage for other medical procedures at odds with firm religious beliefs—a decision that could reverberate far past the Affordable Care Act to other laws and issues.”  (Politico, “SCOTUS sides with Hobby Lobby on birth control”)
Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissent that the Court’s term, closely held, is not synonymous with small.  But maybe the term was meant also to indicate something warm and fuzzy like family business.  Justice Alito did not provide reasoning why only closely held corporations would be afforded religious rights under RFRA.  It would seem the door would be open to any corporation to use the same mechanism for denying coverage to women.   (People for the American, July 7, 2014) The decision was in July, and to date, more than 80 companies have petitioned the courts for permission to use the owner’s religious beliefs to discriminate against women. (Credo Action, online)

                                    *                                  *                                  *

Martin Buber’s well –known premise and argument of the I-thou relationship of human beings holds that we have two distinct ways of engaging the world.  In the first way, the I-it experience, the other is perceived as an object.  Men and women collect data, analyze it, classify it, and theorize about it.  “The object of experience (the it) is viewed as a thing to be utilized, a thing to be known or put to some purpose.”  Buber maintains that modern society is entirely based on the I-it model. Politics, economics, public institutions “are fundamentally grounded in the fact that we view every other human being as an it, rather than a you.” (Spark Notes—online)  It is the second way, the I-you encounter that makes us truly human he says.  In the second mode, we enter into a relationship wherein both the I and you are transformed.  (ibid) 
Buber’s book, Ich und Du, was published in 1923 and translated to English in 1937.  His words appear prophetic for the 21st c. when one considers the isolation of modern people who sit behind computers (including me) or I-pads or glued to I-phones instead of the encounter with the You.  Of course Skype and Facetime give some body language and social cues.  But as for a transformation of the I and You, which Buber believes ultimately ends in love, that remains to be seen.  I wonder what he would have thought of the idea of corporations as people. 

                        *                                  *                                  *

 Without some consensus between what is right and what is wrong for groups or the public good, we would have no laws, no stoplights, no prisons, no churches, no wars, and so on.
Order and safety for the public good makes sense.  Problems arise when morality enters the picture.  A collective conscience, if there is such a thing, often collides with an individual conscience and religious beliefs.   
 I believe the first principle and the fifth—the inherent worth and dignity of each of us and the right of conscience—are the simple glue that holds our congregations together.  It is an I/you mode of relating.  An I-it model prevails in civilian militias, White Supremacist, and other hate-based groups.  Yet what happens when a groups’ beliefs are challenged or an individual’s  right of conscience is ignored or taken away, or seems to disappear?  Whistleblowers appear to me to have acted on their conscience.  Julian Assange and Edward Snowden both maintain their actions had to do with conscience, and with exposing some very questionable actions by our own government. In spite of the debate and government response to Assange and Snowden’s actions, I find it difficult to imagine their motives were not related to conscience when I consider the consequences, which they well anticipated, and the change in their lives as a result of their actions.
            The rights of conscience seems to go hand in hand with religious groups.  A Reverend Dean Kelley worked in several volumes he called The Law of Church and State in America until eight days before his death.  His publisher pared it down to five volumes and his daughter followed his wishes to make it accessible online. (1997)  He gives examples of  “exercises of conscience at variance with customary or legal norms,”  and they include “objection to military service, to saluting the flag, to jury duty, to Social Security, to union membership, to vaccination or blood transfusion” and “legal restrictions on practices deemed essential to the faith, such as polygamy, Sabbath observance, snake-handling, faith-healing, the use of ‘controlled substances’ and the sheltering of persons deemed to be violators of law such as runaway slaves or ‘illegal’ aliens.” It’s complicated.
Sometimes ambiguity appears in what is considered “right.”  In surveying the literature on the subject, I found the Texas Bill of Rights.  Section 4 regards “Religious Tests.”  It states:  “No religious tests shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall anyone be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” Apparently, one’s individual conscience or religious belief had best be held close to the heart if one intends to seek office in Texas. And note, the only pronoun used is the male one.

            I want to turn to the second half of Principle 5, “ … the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”  It appears that the democratic process is well used on the UUA level.  On the level of society and country as a whole, democracy is said to be in great danger.
            In 2008 The Fifth Principle Task Force was created by the UUA Board of Trustees.  In 2009 they submitted a 13-page report to that Board concerning the annual General Assembly.  The report found the GA dramatically broken in four ways.  This is the preface or rationale of the report:
                        Our vision is radically democratic suggesting a ground up
                        and grounded participation, congregation to neighbors to
                        district or regional representatives to Board of Trustees
                        to President to paid staff united in policies, strategies,
                        budgeting, analyses, accountabilities, and together producing
                        an energy of evangelical proportion that can propel UU
                        into the future of growth we really yearn for.

Briefly, here are the four ways of “brokenness” found by the Task Force:

                        We are not really democratic.  Without subsidization, the GA
                        is economically discriminatory, and therefore generationally
                        discriminatory; as long as the GA continues to be an annual
                        event, the cost is a heavy burden to the association and the
                        member congregations; the GA process is not in alignment
                        with the Board’s embrace of policy governance.

Big changes suggested in the report will take years to implement, such as bylaw changes and the biggest change, moving from an annual General Assembly to a biannual one.  Commitments to
convention centers must be made years ahead so that change is still in the making.  For more details, go to the UUA website and the fall, 2014 issue of UU World.  If you google the seven principles at UUA you will find a succinct, brief summary of why we affirm the seven principles.

                                    *                      *                      *

The Reverand Parisa Parsa from First Parish in Milton MA reflects on the 5th principle and ties the two parts together nicely:  “In our religious lives, the democratic process requires trust in the development of each individual conscience—a belief that such development is possible for each of us, as well as a commitment to cultivate our own conscience.  We could call it a commitment to the value of each person.  In the words of Theodore Parker, ‘Democracy means not, I am as good as you are, but you are as good as I am.’ My connection with the sacred is only as precious as my willingness to acknowledge the same connection in others.”  Sounds like an I/you connection to me.
As for the right to the democratic process in society at large, most of us are aware of how our civil rights seem constantly tested or removed.  The recent Hobby Lobby decision is only one example of how this Supreme Court leans to the far political Right.
 A Princeton study from Talking Points Memo (online) displays a piece titled, “The US No Longer an Actual Democracy.” In the essay researchers argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy where wealthy elites wield the most power.
I believe that if we, as UUs, who cherish and guard our right of conscience, who believe in inclusion and the democratic process, want to survive in this world, that perhaps we should bite off some of that evangelical proportion mentioned by the 5th Principle Task Force, and make it known what we stand for to others.  For some time now, many of us played caution when it comes to perhaps saying too much about our UU faith to others.  Let’s not scare people away we would say.
The poet James Wright used a line from one of his poems as the title for one of his books. So I will go out on a limb and use that metaphor to preface what I believe:  So much is at stake in our world.  UUs have so much to offer, and if our democracy is to be salvaged, people need to know, from us, that it works, that standing up for one’s conscience, and acting on that belief, not at the expense of others, and sometimes against what is customary or even legal, is a heroic thing.  And the branch will not break.

Read the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights


The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, sixth edition, vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 2007

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations Department of Public Education, February, 1986.

Politico, “SCOTUS sides with Hobby Lobby on birth control,” (online)

People for the American, July 7, 2014

Credo Action (online)

Spark Notes (online)

The Law of Church and State in America, Reverand Dean Kelley, A. “The Rights of Conscience,” Spring 1997 (online)

“The Fifth Principle Task force Report,” (online)

“The US No Longer an Actual Democracy,  Talking Points Memo, (online)

The Branch Will Not Break,  James Wright.  Middletown:  Wesleyan University Press, 1963

Monday, October 13, 2014

Work Day

The following was presented on Sunday, 12 October, 2014 by Rachel Udow. The poem is one she wrote after a work day at our church, and below that is a link to a sermon she picked out from UUA's website.

Work Day

You know them --
those ideas that, like uninvited guests,
barge through the soul's door,
grab a beer from the fridge,
settle into the
worn easy chair,
and meet your incredulity with swig and cocked eyebrow.

Don't expect them to
budge from that place of deepest integrity.
You'll spend your entire life spiraling
toward and away, toward and away;
fish and houseguests --
and so you are continually called back
to tend to that which you thought you'd left at the curb.

The one that has overstayed its welcome here
urges me toward work that is real,
work that builds side by side with sweat and lemonade
a community of memory.
This morning my whole being bent toward it like
a sunflower seeking the light;
for a moment, I basked in the center.

Sermon: Work and Rest: The Rhythm of Our Lives

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning

This Sermon was presented on 28 September, 2014, by Rachel Trenfield

A Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning

For the past few months, we have been reviewing the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles that we espouse. Today, I will be speaking about the fourth principle:  A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Free: not under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes.

Responsible: able to be trusted to do what is right or to do the things that are expected or required.
These two words seem contradictory to me. If I am able to do as I wish, then being responsible may be in conflict with being free to do as I wish.

So what is free and responsible? Free means that I am able to search for truth and meaning, but responsible means that I should not hurt others by my opinions. So If I tell you what I think, then why do you get offended, and tell me that you’re offended? So how can I express my spiritual beliefs without someone saying, “Well that offends me, or I don’t believe that because that other religion offends me?” But them I’m hurt because I was confronted. So they were hurt by what I said, but now I’m hurt because someone gave me the mean eye. So, you can’t win for losing. At least, that’s how I feel sometimes.

Really, I’m having difficulty expressing this, so let me read the words of Victoria Weinstein. She is the minister of the First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell, Massachusetts.  Her sermon is entitled: The Free, Responsible (and Sometimes Shocking) Search for Truth and Meaning:

Free and responsible.
I would venture to say that freedom is the most cherished religious value for all of us here. One of the reasons many of us are here in this church is because we have got to be free.  We cannot abide by the suffocation we feel in our souls when someone else dictates to us how to believe, what to think about the important questions, or even where to look to find the answers.

What interests me, though, is how Unitarian Universalists sometimes mistake freedom of religion for freedom from religion.  They come in the door all sweaty and frantic having fled an oppressive religious past and they collapse into our pews and say "Phew, that's over. I reject this and this and this and that and that other thing, and the whole scene I just came from. It all makes my skin crawl and thank Buddha or Krishna I'm here with the Unitarians where I don't have to believe anything!"
But that's not true. It's not accurate and it's no way to build a religious community or individual.  Rejecting religious doctrines that offend our spirit is just the beginning, just part one of the faith journey.  Part two is seeking understanding of those doctrines and our relationship to them so that we can heal, and let it go, and move on with a peaceful heart.  We explore religious language and ideas that previously upset or wounded us, we have the freedom to learn about and interpret them, and we either reclaim them or again, let them go. We grow. We mature.  We find what we can affirm, what we do believe – that's part three. 

We're engaging in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which means we're taking responsibility for our relationship with religious ideas, not expecting to be spared any mention of them.  Sometimes folks need to be reminded that Unitarian Universalism, for all its freedom, is a religious tradition.  It amazes me how many otherwise rational people expect UU congregations to be religion-free zones.  (This doesn't happen so much in New England, but it certainly does happen elsewhere). They are having none of that.  They want intellectual stimulation and a good "talk" – some congregations won't even call it a sermon, it's a "talk" --  but they break out in hives over anything that reminds them of that "traditional churchy stuff."

But I understand. I was once very angry at religion. I grew up the daughter of a very angry Jewish father who bore the profound wound of anti-Semitism.  We never spoke of all the Weinstein aunts and uncles and cousins who had been murdered by Hitler.  But I knew they had been, and I was victimized myself by anti-Semites in my own peer group.  I was called a Christ-killer and other names too hateful to repeat here on the school bus, and beaten up on the playground in elementary school.  I had a swastika drawn on my locker twice in high school.  Even some teachers sneered at my name and asked me "What are you doing here today?" on Rosh Hashanah. My father's family disapproved of my mother because she was a shiksa (a non-Jewish woman), and my mother's family returned the favor by disapproving of my father because he was a Jew. That's why they were married in the Unitarian church.  We went to  Unitarian Universalist church on Sundays sporadically throughout my childhood and I was dedicated at the UU congregation in Westport at pre-school age.  But, I kid you not, I had no idea that Unitarian Universalism was a religion.

Why would we belong to a religion? In my household, religion was either divisive or derisive. Neither of my parents believed in God and my grandparent's faith in Jesus Christ was regarded by all of us as a sentimental, superstitious hangover from the old country, not something intellectual people would go for. 

Therefore, my free and responsible search for truth and meaning didn't concern itself with religion at all at first, but with philosophy, literature and the arts. I am convinced that could have gone on that way for the rest of my life with no deficit to my moral or ethical development, but I had this wound, you see.  I hated religion and religious people – I thought it all incredibly stupid and harmful – and for the longest time I tightened up whenever anyone said God.  If they said Jesus or Christ, my visceral reaction was even worse. Anyone who said or sang about Jesus made me feel physically threatened. And I didn't want to live the rest of my life like that.  I wanted to be healed of this burning hostility I had about religion.  My father had died when I was in high school and I had too much pain. I think I was just desperate to unload some of it.

When I look back on the serious religious search that I began in college, it seems to me now that I started out the way someone newly diagnosed with cancer sets out researching everything they can about that cancer so they can live with it, and survive it.  I started with the word "God" itself, determined to understand this damned thing, and felt just so angry, so much anger. I was enraged for a good three or four years about the damaging God of Western culture, the God Carlton Pearson calls "the monster God." I cannot tell you how angry I was, and how I took out that anger on my boyfriend at the time, who represented the patriarchy to me.  We were together six years; that's a strong man.

But I kept fighting, and seeking to understand, to claim something of the God-idea for my own self, for my own heart, for my own life. I was wrestling a blessing out of this thing.  There was no curriculum for this; I made it up as I went along.  I took religion classes in school – hated them. I hated world religions and I hated Old Testament.  Got an F in it, that's how much I hated it.  From what I could see, organized religion was just this long, violent nightmare pitting nations against nations, culture against culture, brothers against sisters.  All of them. 

And then maybe five or six years into my search for truth and meaning, a horrible thing happened.  Something really humiliating and confusing that felt like a betrayal of myself and my people: Jesus got hold of me.  Like when someone's enraged and ranting and you just come up behind them and wrap your arms around them and just hold them – that's how Jesus got hold of me.

After years of struggling with the Bible and making no sense of it, it just opened up for me and everything went Technicolor like when Dorothy gets over the rainbow, and I had found my religion. I found my healing, I found my faith.  It came in a trickle and then a rush. And after I became a Christian, all the other religions looked so much more beautiful to me, too. I had worked for understanding and I received healing.

I kept my religious beliefs a secret for a long time because in my experience, Unitarian Universalists had such bitter disdain for Christians I didn't want to be considered a heretic by the heretics! How marginalized can you get?  My experience with Unitarian Universalists was that everyone was happy to have you search, but you weren't actually supposed to get anywhere specific.  

I'm not going to talk about the specifics of my Christian faith today because I don't think it matters.  It matters that you see the results of my spiritual practice in our lives together just as I see yours --  not that you have a laundry list of my theological beliefs.  It is my experience that some people are still very frightened by religious belief; if you share yours, they think you're trying to convert or persuade them to think the same way. I don't want to cause anyone that kind of upset.

Not a year goes by that I am not asked by half a dozen UUs why I am still here as a Christian, and not nicely, either. For one thing, I say, both Unitarianism and Universalism have explicitly and exclusively Christian roots, so I'm not doing anything that radical. I also say that I remain a Unitarian Universalist because I was dedicated as a child, it is my religious home, I love it, and because I believe that when we claim tolerance as one of our chief virtues, we don't just mean tolerance toward every religion but Christianity.  I say, "This is where my free and responsible search for truth and meaning has led me. If it upsets you, imagine how I felt!"

I well remember how disgusted I once was by the Christian faith. It is because I remember this so well that I am very careful not to speak of it too often, not to bring Christian references into our worship more than now and then, and not to bring an overtly Christian perspective or language to my ministry with you. This is, as you can imagine, intensely challenging at times.  Sometimes it has been painful, holding back a tremendous amount of passion.

But I do it because I respect the fact that many of us here are still hurting from the abuses of a conservative Christian past or offended by the vile behaviors of so-called Christians in public life in America. I share that offense, believe me. That said, I do wish that UUs were less Christian-phobic as a denomination, more willing to see and accept that there are millions of liberal, progressive Christians in the world whose values we share and with whom we could build productive, working relationships.  I wish we would more often remember that God is not a Christian concept but a universal one used by almost all religious traditions (with a wide variety of definitions!), and that the Bible is a Jewish document as well as a Christian one.

And for those who come to our church on Christmas and Easter and say, "It's so Christian," well, yes… it is on Christmas and Easter! Please come! And come for the Rosh Hashanah-themed service, too, and Earth Day and the sermon on Ramadan and to hear the readings by Buddha and Rumi and Mary Oliver and Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mahatma Gandhi and Jane Goodall.  We have many guides and inspirations in our search for truth and meaning.

For me, a free and responsible search for truth and meaning has to have a touch of almost desperate longing to it, or else we risk being dabblers, dilettantes, tourists, stopping by one philosophy after another and taking what we like, what's pretty and appealing, and avoiding the inevitably troubling or demanding aspects of them.  Emerson said that what we are worshiping we are becoming.  I take that as a warning.  There's a lot of garbage out there that the world wants us to worship.  We're free to discover our own sources of reverence, but we're called to be responsible about it.

So where are we digging our wells of truth and meaning? Is it on good ground? Can we reach something sustaining and inspiring and challenging by digging more deeply there? That's what we want in the work of spiritual growth – whether our inspiration comes from the brilliance of the sciences or the beauty of the arts or the mysteries and rituals of religion or the intensity of human relationships and the struggle for justice—all of those sources have their glory and all of them have their danger and their fundamentalisms. What we want wherever we dig for meaning is something worthy to follow, something that is both fire and water to our souls.

 Frederich Nietzsche said this, and I believe him:
"The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth' is… that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living."