Sunday, November 29, 2015

Stone Soup Sunday

This service was presented by Rachel Alvarez on November 29, 2015.

Reading #1:  GARDEN MEDITATION by Reverend Max Coots

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people, for children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are.

Let us give thanks for generous friends ... with hearts ... and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends, as tart as apples; for continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, sour as rhubarb and as indestructible; for handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the others, as plain as potatoes and so good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes;

And serious friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes; for loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter.

For all these we give thanks.

Reading #2
Strange and Foolish Walls by Rev. A. Powell Davies

The years of all of us are short, our lives precarious.
Our days and nights go hurrying on and there is scarcely time to do the little that we might.
Yet we find time for bitterness, for petty treason and evasion.
What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?
Here we are -all of us- all upon this planet, bound together in a common destiny,
Living our lives between the briefness of daylight and the dark.
Kindred in this, each lighted by the same precarious, flickering flame of life, how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else?
How strange and foolish are these walls of separation that divide us!
               At First Parish Church in Cohasset, Massachusetts, where I grew up, we had an annual tradition around the time of Thanksgiving, called Stone Soup Sunday.  The RE program would participate by acting out the legend of Stone Soup, and parishioners would contribute vegetables to the pot.  After the service, the whole congregation would enjoy a lunch of soup, prepared by the children and the RE teachers.  I always enjoyed this tradition, and it became the inspiration for today’s service, which I hope we can make an annual tradition here at the UUFHC.  At times, I feel like, as UU’s, we lack some of the ceremony and ritual that other religious denominations have, so I find it comforting to establish our own meaningful traditions.
            The story of Stone Soup can be interpreted and retold in a variety of ways, but for me, the take-away is that we, as a community, are better and stronger together than we are apart, as individuals.  As stated in the second reading, “strange and foolish walls” divide the world, as we’ve seen historically as well as in recent events, when unfortunately, we all possess unique strengths and assets that we could share with those around us, if only we could be generous, open, and caring enough to do so. 
            I would like to examine this concept from the small scale, as our congregation, and also from the large scale, as members of the global community.  In considering the small scale, I have been thinking about previous presentations by Laurie, Ashley, and Dale, in which we as a congregation are being called to come together and strengthen this fellowship, and also to consider how we can give of ourselves to others.  I found a relevant sermon, called “Covenant Power,” by Rev. Anthony Makar, which I will read from now.  In “Covenant Power,” Rev. Makar calls the members of his congregation to support one another, and take an active role in making the church community stronger and better.  He explains:
            Just like the [soldiers] in the story, Unitarian Universalism comes to us. Comes to our        village, and like the [villagers], at first we are cautious. “What? Me?” “I’m sorry, I have            nothing in the house.” Now, to be fair, this might not echo absolutely everyone’s experience. You might have grown up in some religious community and it was a good experience for you. You might have been in a place in life where you were ready again for another experience of religious community. If so, you handed over food to the stranger immediately. You already knew what was going to happen next, because you’ve been there before. And since you carried no burdens of hurt or anger, your heart was open and easy.
            For some of you, perhaps. But I suspect that for many of us, especially many people now, Unitarian Universalism came to us and we WERE cautious like those villagers. For one reason, we might have grown up unchurched, so we don’t have any first-hand experience of what we’re getting ourselves into. This is especially true with regard to being asked to make an annual financial pledge. It can take a while to understand what this means and why it’s important. Couple this lack of familiarity with what we hear about organized religion on the news—the way the news often focuses on the negative—and you bet we’re cautious. It’s no wonder it no longer works just to wait for people to find us. People who identify with no religious tradition whatsoever—don’t just show up.   We have to reach out….
            Now, maybe we did grow up in church. But what if the experience we had was not so      good? Was terrible, in fact? God is an Incredible Hulk figure to us. Religion is the last place where we seek out adventure and joy because it was always a scene of terror, no   mistakes allowed, got to toe the line and get it right or you are going to HELL! It wounded us, it hurt us. And like all wounds and hurts, our old experience plays inside us like a broken record, making it nearly impossible to hear a sound that is truly new and sweet. Making it nearly impossible to believe that religion could be anything other than brutalizing and diminishing…
            For all these reasons, and more, Unitarian Universalism comes to us, and we are cautious. What is it? Is it the same old thing as before?
            But here you are. Here we are. The story doesn’t end with caution or with the villagers      saying, “I’m sorry, I have nothing in the house right now.”
            Because what happens is that the soldiers say, “Not to worry. If we just use a few stones and if you will let me put it in a pot of boiling water I’ll make the most delicious soup in the world.” They have a vision. We can create something amazing, if we are all engaged, if we all contribute.
            The most delicious soup in the world. Not the same old thing as before, but something      truly different. That’s why we’re here. We want it! Soul food! Soul soup! Unitarian Universalist style, which tastes of fundamental sacred Mystery and many paths into the Mystery and truth about the Mystery that takes a lifetime to encounter and we are changed and changed again and it is savory, it is just the best thing, it is GOOD!
            Unitarian Universalism says we can have this, and we are curious. Can it be true? So, just like the villagers, we give into the possibility. Someone brings out a big pot filled with water, another brings out potatoes, a third adds tomatoes, then another adds onion, then comes the celery… We do this. It happens because we give our gifts, we create the common meal.   How otherwise can the most delicious soup in the world be made?
            There has to be a vision that makes all the work worthwhile. And then, there must be the power of WE to make it happen. Which is so very different from the very American emphasis on the power of ME. For some things, yes, power of ME. OK. But when you want to bring a little slice of heaven down to earth? When you want to do that? NOT power of ME. It takes power of WE. How do we channel and support the power of WE?
            This big question resounds throughout all aspects of our life together. The most obvious    case of this has to do with our theological diversity. We are atheists and we are theists in         worship together. We are atheists and theists and Buddhists and Pagans and Jews and           Christians and New Agers and star-bellied Sneetches and plain-bellied Sneetches and I- don’t-know-what-I-am-but-I–know-what-I-don’t-like and on and on and on. "Whaaaat?" says most of humanity. Whaaaat? How do we do this? How do we work this miracle?
            How do we get anything done? How does it all hang together?
            The answer is one of our Unitarian Universalist essentials. Covenant. If you open up your hymnal to the pages right before the first hymn, you will see: “WE, THE MEMBER   CONGREGATIONS OF THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION,             COVENANT TO AFFIRM AND PROMOTE?” See that? “Covenant” is a word you need to know if you are a Unitarian Universalist. It’s one of our essentials. Because it tells us how we come together and stay together, and this way is different from what you might see in many other religious communities.
            Go back to the story. The soldiers want to engage the village community in making the     most delicious soup in the world. But they don’t care what you may believe about God or the afterlife or any of the other key religious questions of life? All they want to know is, will you contribute something good to the making of the soup? Will you protect the space of our common meal? This, as opposed to such things as:
            • bringing something rotten and insisting that you have every right to add it to the pot       (freedom of speech you say! inherent worth and dignity you say!) even though it spoils             everything for everybody;
            • gossiping about what someone else brought, behind their back;
            • if you feel there’s only one way to make the soup and it’s your way, and you aren’t        getting your way, then you take your particular contribution out of the mix and go home;
            • pushing the pot over;
            • getting into fights around the pot;
            • getting so caught up in conversation about the soup that nothing actually happens about actual soup being actually made.
            What the soldiers want—what Unitarian Universalism wants—is not this. We dare not      have this, if we want to channel the power of WE in constructive, creative ways.
            Therefore, we Unitarian Universalists say that the best way for individuals to journey        together in community is through covenantalism, not creedalism. Creedalism basically says that the best way to organize as a group is everyone believing in the same things, down to the details. To this way of thinking, you can’t really have a religious identity otherwise. Identity means uniformity.
            Covenantalism, on the other hand, is when a group organizes itself around the deep           promises people make to each other about how they are going to treat each other and work together, and this leaves the details of particular beliefs to individuals themselves. Thinking alike is not the point, but loving alike is. That’s where we get religious identity from.
            The practice of covenant runs deep in our way of religion. Trace it back, for example, to    1568 and the first and only Unitarian king in history, King John Sigismund of Transylvania.  The reason why Transylvania looms large in our history is that during the 16th century and beyond, Unitarians were pretty much murdered everywhere else in Europe. Transylvania was one of the only safe zones for people like us. This is what he said, this Unitarian king: “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied….” Essentially this says that the preacher in our tradition gets to say what his or her heart moves him or her to say; the pulpit is free. But it also says that the congregant in the pew doesn’t have to swallow it; they are free too. They can agree or disagree, as their own reason and conscience and heart dictate. What gathers preacher and congregant together is not agreement on everything but respect. That is the spirit of covenantalism. That is what makes what we are doing right now work.
            Not thinking alike, but loving alike.
            The answers to questions we have about the future are unknown. But getting to the           answers I think is a lot like making soup. Promising we will all contribute something good. Promising we will protect the common space of our common meal. Don’t bring something rotten. Don’t gossip. Don’t insist that it’s my way or the highway. Don’t push the pot over. Don’t get into fights around the pot. Don’t get so caught up in talking that we never get to doing.
            Unitarian Universalism comes to us. Our congregation comes to us. All there is at first is   a stone. But if we fulfill our deep promises of respect to each other: that is how we can know we are living in the truth of our spiritual way. That is how the most delicious soup in all the world is made.
            On a more global scale, I wanted to share some thoughts from a sermon titled, “Not in Isolation,” by Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray.  She states:
            Obviously, giving is a central part of the holiday season. This is one of the most charitable times. But the story of Stone Soup is not a story of charity, but a story of common wealth, the abundance we have when we work together. The soldiers appear at first as beggars, but turn out to be wise men. They remind the people what they find when they come out of their homes, out of isolation, and raise their concerns beyond their own families, to really share and live together.
            This story is in deep contrast to so many of the stories we are told, and that we tell            ourselves, about how we are to live. Arising out of the American dream itself, we have told (and often tell ourselves) that we need to do everything for ourselves, provide everything to our children, be completely self-sufficient, self-sustainable, in need of no one. This is the success we celebrate as the American dream, money, power, and the idea that we are independent and solely self-reliant.
            Now, some of this is good--self-reliance encourages individual creativity and innovation. It fuels new ideas, new technology, new art. It is a powerful motivator. But it is also not  entirely true. When we move too far down the path of valuing the myth of isolated self-sufficiency, we are deceiving ourselves, and more than this, depriving ourselves.
            Now I’m going to add in a little side note: With the recent events in the news, and the horrifying backlash against refugees, I have been reading and hearing a lot of this rhetoric—that we need to worry about ourselves, our own people, etc., rather than open our doors to those from other corners of the globe, who are feared as threats to OUR security, when in reality, they are fleeing the same violence we also fear.  I won’t get into the politics more than that, at the moment, except to connect this current issue to Rev. Frederick-Gray’s assertion that, “We are all dependent and interdependent on one another and on the larger system.”  She continues to say,
            “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the    universe.  It is the same with our own lives. We are all dependent on one another and on our system of community. To deny the value of the ways in which our lives can be enriched by widening our understanding of independence and common wealth, and turn instead to a one-sided story of independence and self-sufficiency, leaves us hungry as a people for the riches that lie beyond money.
            Fundamentally, when we all try to each have everything we need--our own swimming       pool, TV’s for every person in the house, personal computers for each person, a playground in the each backyard--we have far more than we “need.” When we have all this we rarely have a need to go out and do things with our neighbors. Taking care of all our needs in our own private homes depletes our community’s strength. It minimizes or eliminates our relationships of sharing, socializing and depending on our neighbors.
            At the same time, it has an environmental cost -- and that cost is coming around in such a way that we are realizing we cannot solve the issues of climate change, food shortages, and water and energy issues by each person doing their part. We have to work together, locally, nationally and globally, to really address these issues.
            For my money, the key, the wisdom, the path to sustainable lives and the path to a            satisfied life is a balance: a balance between our individual dreams, desires and concerns and our attention and contribution to common life with our neighbors, our community and one another. One without the other is not sustainable. When each of us feels like we have to provide alone for all our families’ needs, the pressure is intense and we can feel like failures when we can’t do it all. Yet, without nurturing some of that spirit of independence and personal dreams, our spirits languish as well.
            Chuck Collins, and economist, an activist for the commonwealth, a Unitarian         Universalist, and an heir to the Oscar Meyer fortune, who at 26 years old gave his entire trust fund away to charity said:  “Do you build a wall of money around your life to   protect yourself, or do you invest in the commonwealth? You can't be too rigid or ideological. So you put money in a college fund and give to the United Students Association so they can work toward making tuitions lower. I want to cast my lot with everyone else I know. I would rather work for a society where people take care of each other and not one based on whether you can amass a small fortune to provide basic care. I believe you shouldn't have to be rich to have a decent life in this society." From Riches to     Responsibility: Defending the Estate Tax by Kimberly French, UUWorld. March/April 2003, (12.5.09).
            During this holiday season, let us remember our dependence on one another, and the interdependent web of existence.  We must care for one another, and remember our own vulnerabilities.  Our community, whether that be our congregation, our city, our region, our nation, or the whole world, will be stronger if we can work together and share what we have to improve the common good.  In the words of Rev. Frederick-Gray, “In this season, may we all be called out of isolation and into the common life, finding true wealth in common wealth.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Who Do I Think I Am?

This sermon was presented by Laurie Ruiz on September 20, 2015.

Hi.  My name is Laurie Hamblin Oliver.  I am a white middle-class Presbyterian from Wisconsin - well I used to be Laurie Hamblin Oliver, but now I am Laurie Oliver Ruiz.  I used to be from Wisconsin, but now I live in Texas.  I guess I’m still middle-class – it depends on your definition and it sure doesn’t go as far as it used to.  Presbyterian – not anymore – now I'm a Unitarian Universalist.  And white - I still am, right? So much of our own identity comes from those words we use to describe ourselves:  religion, race, ancestry.  I consider myself a member of each wonderful, or not so wonderful, sometimes transitional  category.  But, come on, I’m from Wisconsin?  I learned way back in 4th grade that Wisconsin didn’t even become a state until 1848 - OK, I didn’t really know that, I had to look it up.  Better said - I was born in Wisconsin. I have lived in Texas for more than 30 years which is why I no longer consider myself a Wisconsinite but yet can’t, or won’t claim to be a Texan.  I've always considered myself to be part of a broader group – Scottish. Maybe that is part of the reason I have had such a desire - more accurately described as an minor obsession - with researching my family tree. To borrow from the TV show - “Who Do I Think I Am?”

I’ve never really thought about why I can’t seem to stop doing research on my ancestors.  I decided to look for reasons that people do genealogy.  They varied greatly: finding adopted family members, finding stories and pictures before they are lost forever, understanding personal traits, knowing where to travel on vacations, finding connections to people and places in the world, proving and/or disproving family lore, conquering the puzzle, a personal connection to history. Another important reason was for medical reasons - tracing genetically passed on conditions or a pattern of health problems.  For me it’s a combination of reasons and it seems they change as I get older.

     Alex Haley, author of the book and miniseries Roots writes: Young and old alike find that knowing one's roots, and thus coming better to know who one is, provides a personally rewarding experience. But even more is involved than uncovering a family history, for each discovered United States family history becomes a newly revealed small piece of American history. Stated simply: a nation's history is only the selective histories of all of its people. It is only through an unfolding of the people's histories that a nation's culture can be studied in its fullest meaning.

In  my words - Have you ever done a crossword puzzle?  If you have, you quickly learn that one wrong entry can sabotage filling in the rest of the puzzle.  Did you want to “cheat” and peek at the answers in the back of the book - maybe just one or two words that would enable you to then use your brilliant thinking skills to find the answers on your own  - only to find out that the answers are not printed - anywhere?   Now imagine a puzzle that immediately dangles two new questions for every solution you do find. Growing exponentially , taunting you to continue on. That, to me, is the essence of genealogy. Add in the fascinating stories, internet “friending” of relatives and I find myself unable to stop. 

I have always had an interest in my ancestors.  When my son was in kindergarten and Thanksgiving rolled around I figured he would love to share the story of his ninth great-grandfather, John Howland, coming to the New World on the Mayflower, falling overboard, and being one of the original pilgrims. Nah, he didn’t want the attention and never took the carefully printed paper out of his backpack . Now, me, I had gone on this new “internet” to get the Pilgrim details that I had long since forgotten.  Wow - talk about a “New World”. Once I started I didn't stop.   I thought I “knew” my heritage.  I was Scotch and English.  My dad’s parents were born in Scotland and my mom's family were from England of the Mayflower and through the Revolutionary war.  How little I actually knew.

One of the first things that became crystal clear was that I could not choose my relatives.  By the time I looked him up online that pilgrim, John Howland, had racked up some 2 million descendants.  I discovered a distant relation to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Christopher Lloyd.  Pretty cool.  But then - you've got to take the bad with the good.  I was also related to George Bush - and I have more recently learned Sarah Palin.  Genealogy research can leave with with some warm fuzzies, but you also have to be prepared for anything. And I mean anything.  Partway into my research I heard from my cousin, a fellow family historian, that some of our ancestors had been slave owners. 

I started searching, back in 1998, with a simple internet search using the few names I knew and I was not finding any results.  This was back when most of the research sites were free, with slow, loud, dial-up connection that worked best in the middle of the night.  I had a hand-written list with names of my grandfather’s parents, his grandparents and some scribbled names for his uncles, Georgie, Scn, Mac - but according to the internet these people were all attached to the wrong families. It was frustrating and I figured my ancestors had all “been gone”  when the census taker came by.  I remember standing in the kitchen late one night and, out loud, asking my grandpa, long since gone - who are these people?  Lo and behold - he answered.  The very next day in the mail I got a letter from my aunt - telling me she had a letter from a cousin of my grandpa.  She lived in New Zealand and was trying to contact the American “Oliver” family.  The letter went on to tell me that her father was George - one of the names from the paper!  The “coincidence” still makes me shiver and I thank - or maybe blame -  my Grandpa for pushing me to research further.  After a few mistakes - like writing a wrong answer on that crossword puzzle-  I was pretty sure that my grandma’s parents had been first cousins - I quickly learned that accuracy and attention to detail and proof is very important.  I also learned to look passed or maybe around the obvious.  A wonderful, detailed copy of an old letter of family information from my new relative in New Zealand explained why the names I had been searching for never matched up.  My great-grandfather was , and I quote “the product of a liaison between William Oliver and a local servant girl”.  He was raised by his father’s family and both parents went on to marry other people.  My first lesson in making no assumptions.  With reference “make no assumptions” another family I found that during a 10 year period between the census records the mother had disappeared,  the kids were living with other families as “wards”, and the father was living with a cousin. I mourned for the kids losing their mother so young.  Just this week I came across a death certificate with her name, correct birthday, but apparently 92 years old, remarried, and up near Houston.  I need to do more research, but it appears I had taken the easy path, not the correct one.

Another interesting experience was one of those late night research endeavors to find death certificate of a particular ancestor.  These documents can be rich with details, including relevant medical information, like the one I just mentioned.  It was one of the few time I was using a paid source and being “Scotch” ( in other words -  thrifty) was used my credits sparingly.  Of course I had the misfortune to be looking for James Stuart in Scotland - sort of like John Smith here in the United States.  I knew generally where, when and with whom he had lived but none of the matches were quite close enough for me to spend the money to open the links.  Finally exhausted from the middle of the night search I decided to sleep on it.  During the night I got up and glanced at my box of old pictures near the bed.  I saw a picture of a woman I had never seen before but at that moment -knew to be Jane Green - wife of the man I had been searching for.  I can still see the details - long skirt with an apron, hair pulled back tight into a bun, black boot-like vivid.  She was repeating -”You’re looking in the wrong place, You’re looking in the wrong place.”  I never figured out if it was totally a dream or if I had even really gotten up, but in the morning I cranked up the computer and looked for James Stuart - in a different city, a different place - and there he was. I ordered the document and got a wealth of information.  For me - the connection - real or perceived - to this much greater “web of existence” is a big part of what keeps pushing me. 

I long ago decided that I didn’t want to collect names - but rather collect stories.  It’s a sort of like detective work.  I find a person in the different census reports and imagine the changes that had happened over the years.  A move across the country or the ocean, the death and/or birth of more than one family member, a marriage.  All of these can be pieced together to put together a story.  I knew that my great-grandparents had been married in Terre Haute, Indiana and didn't know why one family married in Indiana when everyone else was on the East coast.  Further research in the census showed me that my great-grandparents had lived a block away from each other in Boonton, New Jersey.  After the death of her mother the family moved to Indiana where her father had relatives.  Within months of the move she married, in Indiana, her beau from New Jersey and was again living on the East coast. I can imagine her emotions at losing her mother, moving away from her true love, and then leaving her father to move back East.  All done in the late 1800’s.  Another example was figuring out how my Grandparents met when they lived at opposite ends of Scotland.  The death certificate of my great-grandfather (my grandma's side) listed his place of death as the city my grandfather lived in – a connection that explains how they may have ended up meeting. Those are the details that I find so compelling.

 I've discovered that my mom's mother had been one of the few women Yeoman in the Navy during the first world war and worked a “decoder”.  And that my great great-grandfather had contracted malaria while camped in the Chickahamony Swamp during the McClelland Campaign outside Richmond during the Civil War.  His military pension file is full handwritten descriptions of the conditions, treatments, and lasting effects of the mercury pills they were given to “cure” the disease.    Or another ancestor – a soldier at Gettysburg in the Civil War – who for the rest of his life set an extra plate at the table and left the porch light on for his younger brother who had died  in a confederate prison camp.  For the first time I’m excited about history. I feel like I am a part if it.

Another unexpected benefit of my research was discovering the vast network of individuals who are willing to help each other in their research.  I had people In Scotland look up birth records in Edinburgh, others look up headstone inscriptions in Aberdeen.  The kindness was overwhelming.  Even better was when some of the people I “met” online were in fact cousins.  I have found grandchildren of my grandma’s sisters and brother in Scotland, England, and Australia.  We’ve set up a Facebook page where we can all share picture and stories.  It is an amazing connection.

Fast forward to fast internet and DNA testing.  Talk about expanding my web of existence!  My sister had her DNA tested and shared it with me. The first thing I saw was - 42% Ireland.  It was an odd feeling to see that what I had thought all of my life - who I was - dismissed so easily.  I don't feel a connection to Ireland, the people, the customs. Careful reading of the results explained that there isn’t a specific Scottish, English, or Irish category because they have been so busy conquering each other for centuries.  They do split it into Great Britain(more English) and Ireland (more Gaelic) I was about half and half.  So I was back into my comfort zone, but in the end maybe a little disappointed.  I also had just enough different traces of other European countries thrown in to keep me looking for those elusive “other countries”.  Alas, it's again the unexpected but the first day I looked at the DNA results I connected with a women who shared my great-grandfather, but not my great-grandmother.  It seems that my great-grandfather, an archeologist at Chichen Itza and consul to Yucatan had 3 familes.   One when he first moved to Mexico(about 5 kids), one when his wife moved to Mexico(6 kids – one of which was my Grandpa)and one after my great-grandmother and her school age kids came back to Massachusetts(about 5 kids).  It's been an interesting online reunion with some of the other grandchildren.  Another woman was angry because our trees didn't show an immediate match while our DNA indicated 3-4th cousins. She wanted me to call Ancestry and tell them they were wrong. It's been an interesting journey.

But what if your DNA results really don’t match what you always thought of yourself to be.  Would it make a difference in the way you think of yourself? If we live in the present does it matter where your ancestors came from, how they got here?  How much of our self image is tied to our ancestry?  My husband recently did a DNA test.  For those of you who haven’t met him he was born in Edinburg and is Mexican American.  He’s always know that he had a little bit of European ancestry, although you wouldn't really know it by looking at him.  One grandparent supposedly had some German background, there were some green eyes and fair skin that supposedly came from Spain…  Before his results came back we made some “educated guesses” about what we expected to see.  We assumed a lot of Mexican Indian, some Spain, and maybe a little German.  And, we were wrong.  To make a long story short - his DNA showed his ancestry to be 41% Native American.  It was a little disappointing to not be able to pinpoint which type Native American but it was surprising that it was under 50%. Even more surprising was that 52% of his ancestral DNA came from Europe- and only 15% was from the Iberian Peninsula.  A whopping 28% of his DNA came from Italy/Greece.  We never imagined, never once thought to look there for records.  He had never considered himself to be Greek or Italian, at all.  Then his trace DNA - well 9% Ireland, Scandinavia, Britain, European Jewish - throws a few more ingredients into the soup.  It puts a whole new spin on the 1900 census where his grandfather is apparently the ward of a family living in Brownsville - and the head of the household is Conrad Lawrence Cloetta born 1832 in Livorno, Italy.  Cloetta's obituary states that he came to this country as a young child and chose to live in Matamoros from 1868-1898.  What a story that will be to unravel - if the connection proves correct.

Most importantly, does it affect the way my husband thinks of himself in the world. In a nutshell - Hell, yes.   Suddenly there is a connection to millions of people never before considered.  He now feels compelled to learn about the area, geographically and culturally.  And the thought that he  might have 2nd, 3rd, 4th cousins in Italy or Greece is mind blowing.  The term “Mexican American” no longer seems adequate to describe him. It will take more research until he feels comfortable with any new “label”.

So, who do you think I am?  How do I fit into this world?  Our UU “web” is a perfect description – it's ever expanding and sometimes tangled.  If you look at my family tree and DNA results and put them with my husband's tree and DNA results, which coincidentally makes up my son's ancestry, it will touch, in some way, every continent.  With that connection to history, that connection to so many countries, that many people how can I not continue to do research.  How can I not care about the lives, the stories, the travels that are in some way tied to me, to the life I know.  Again, Alex Haley says it perfectly: Every genealogical researcher shares one frustration that I know I will always live with. Was there something else I should have uncovered? My long curiosity about my family's roots and the twelve years of obsessively pursuing and writing about them surely have not ended my curiosity. Again put simply: I have learned to live with my genealogical addiction..... I can relate, Alex.

So. Hi, my name is Laurie Hamblin Oliver Ruiz and I am a Gaelic, British, a little bit European, Unitarian Universalist living in Texas.  Who do you think you are?

What I Choose to Believe and What I Really Believe

This sermon was presented by Doug Trenfield on September 13, 2015.

My sermon today is titled “What I Choose to Believe and What I Really Believe.” I think if you look askance at the title and don’t think too hard, you get a pretty clear idea of what I want to talk about today, but if you look at it head on, like English teachers do, you can’t help but wince. You can’t choose to believe something; you either believe it or you don’t. It can’t be intensified. It makes no sense to really believe something, nor to sort-of believe something. If you wrote one of those in an essay for my class, I’d bust you up good. To believe something -- I almost said truly believe! -- is powerful. When you say you believe something, you imply that you’re ready to act on that belief. “I believe abortion is murder,” means you’re ready to fight as fervently to protect zygotes as you would be to keep an armed assailant from killing your neighbor. “I believe God watches over me and intercedes on my behalf,” means you will throw caution to the wind.

Degree of belief and power of belief are worth considering in some contexts. It’s important when trying to predict what behavior we can expect from a group of people. It’s a complex relationship, but only complex because the relationship allows for contradictory beliefs. We, the Aristotelians among us -- the annoying body of us who are bound to logic (I didn’t say logical) as an ideal -- cannot abide contradictory beliefs. To knowingly hold contradictory beliefs -- to believe God watches over you and intercedes on your behalf but also to believe that you should have insurance -- is untenable, it’s fingernails raking over a chalkboard, it’s . . . well, pretty awful.

I sound pretty tight-you-know-what, right? I am, but I’m not that bad. Let me illustrate. One Christmas season, my son Steve, probably aged 5 at the time, told me he thought there was no Santa. I talked with him about it, then confirmed his revelation. He was cool with it; it was time. The next Christmas season, then, I was surprised that Steve seemed to believe as fervently in Santa as he had before his revelation a year before. I asked him one day, gently, in a conversation, about his revelation the year before. He said, yeah, he knew, but believing in Santa was more fun. And you know what? I didn’t argue with him. See, I’m not that bad. I don’t take candy from kids, at least not my own, and I don’t poke holes in everyone’s beliefs just because I believe they are not grounded in logic.

I idealize logic. But I know it usually doesn’t carry the day for anyone, and is even less likely to when a belief in question is one that identifies who one is. The basic tenets of Catholicism, Judaism, or Islam, for example. I was raised, more or less, Protestant. We weren’t big churchgoers, but Protestant beliefs were definitely in the background. And in dem days -- I was in elementary school in the sixties -- the basic tenets of Christianity were, if not taught in schools, at least assumed to be true. Still, I was less connected to Protestantism than most, so shaking a lot of the beliefs was not so difficult when I went off to college -- really, for me, even before -- but even now, forty years later, their ghosts are with me. Here are some of the friendly ghosts (I’m happy to report the unfriendly ghosts of guilt and eternal damnation don’t reside in me), some of the things I choose to believe, sometimes, when I want to, when I need to, but that, nah, I don’t really believe.

I like to believe that God (I’m going to use masculine pronouns when referring to God because, dammit, that’s what we did) -- He has a special love for me. And you. And him. And her. And for each of the billions of people on earth, and the billions of people who ever were on earth. A special love for each of us. I had to include everyone, because that just makes sense. If He has a special love for me, He must have a special love for everyone, but what’s important to me is that He has a special love for me. He holds me in the palms of His hands. [Sing.] Isn’t that a nice thought? I don’t know if you, those who don’t believe this, can let yourself go in the belief for a moment, but if you can -- doesn’t it feel like you’re a kid reveling in the love of a parent? Maybe if you weren’t so lucky to have loving parents who protected you, this isn’t so powerful, or maybe it is because you missed it when you were young. But it’s powerful for me. I believe this most when I’m lonely, or when I hit a spate of bad luck, or when I make a spate of mistakes.

I like to believe that God answers prayers. I don’t believe this very often. I don’t really think about it very often, but when I do, I need help. When my mom was dying of cancer. Trying to understand my father after his death. My divorce. Bleak, confusing times like those. I didn’t know what else to do but to send out some kind vague plea to God. I don’t recall asking for anything specific, but I had to believe that He’d hear me, and that speaking to Him was important.

I don’t really believe these things. They don’t make sense. I’ll say more diplomatically that to me they don’t make sense, but as an Aristotelian, I really believe that they just don’t make sense. You might see it differently. I believe logic can give us all the answers if we have all the data, but I never said I was a perfect practitioner of logic, so if you disagree with me regarding these beliefs, I’ll grant that you might be right and I might be wrong. And if anything hung in the balance until we settled our disagreement, then we should debate. But I don’t think much does, and though I place a high value on truth, it’s not all I value. I value you, whether you agree with me or not. I value your integrity, who you are. I value beauty. I value peace.

Belief to most of us isn’t the solid, hard, impenetrable monolith it is to an Aristotelian. It has more functions, more important functions, than to reveal truth. I recall a good friend of mine finally able to lean back into this after spending forty years of his life trying to get everything from logic. He did what some of us came to call a backward conversion. You know how many of us UU’s are disaffected Christians? My friend converted to Christianity from UU-ism, and into a charismatic fundamentalist sect. But when he converted -- wait, a sidebar about the conversion. [Tell Eric story.] But when he converted, he tried to justify his conversion logically. And he couldn’t. His witness, which was important to his sect, was weak. He’d argue using the Bible as his sole source, which gave him no traction with those who don’t believe the Bible is the unadulterated word of God, I’m sure you know. Slowly, he let this go, though, and became a happier guy and, probably, a better witness.

Many Christians (and I’ll assume believers of other cosmologies as well) seem to understand this. A popular Christian pop song is called “I Choose to Believe.” Its chorus?

I Choose to believe

And never give up hope

God is good

He's in control

I'll keep the faith

I trust in His way

Even when His face is hard to see

I choose to believe

Googling around, I found a lot of this phrasing, “choose to believe.” Elder L. Whitney Clayton at the last General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints gave a presentation called “Choose to Believe.” Author Stephen King said in an interview in Rolling Stone, “Religin is a dangerous tool, but I choose to believe God exists. It makes things better.” There was a reference to something evangelist Kenneth Copeland said, but I didn’t think I could stomach reading that.

Is it so wrong to choose to believe something rather than have that belief confirmed by logic? I say no, so long as that belief doesn’t interfere with others. It can create so much beauty. T.S. Eliot (I can’t have a sermon without mentioning Mr. Eliot) pretty much chose to convert from UU-ism to Anglicanism because, he said, the beliefs and rituals helped him jump a synapse between a worldly and a spiritual existence. His poetry and plays following his conversion in 1927, the content and tone of his work shifted. As much as I like Eliot, I won’t claim to be an Eliot scholar, so I’ll throw this out there, my own observation, without confirmation for from the literati. I always thought his work after his conversion was more beautiful and hopeful (though no more or less artful) than his earlier work.

Believing what a community believes expediates social interaction and strengthens social ties. In 1969, Vern Bengston, a professor of social work at USC, began a study of 350 families that ran four decades. His research confirms that people activate their social needs more than they activate their logic when it comes to faith matters. The study, culminating in his book, Familes and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations, looked at, among a few other things, faith transmission. HIs central conclusion (he had a lot of interesting conclusions other than this, so get the book if you’re interested) was that family bonds matter.

Bengston conducted the research, I’m assuming (I’m not in a position to critique his research), as dispassionately as a researcher should. In fact, he himself was not a believer in the faith of his family of origin. Until he was 67 and winding down his research, when he had what could only be described as a charismatic experience when he visited an old church in Santa Barbara on Easter. He didn’t report that in the service he attended the pastor was especially persuasive in his arguments for a Christian cosmology, but simply that he had a spiritual experience that made him a believer.

I haven’t had an experience like that, but since Eliot and Dr. Bengston, so firmly grounded in logic, can have them, I try to stay open. The limits of logic are astounding. I think we’ve got the process down pretty well -- major premise, minor premise, conclusion -- but we have so little data that it’s going to take us forever (I mean, forever) to figure it all out. I feel like we’re working on a 20 trillion piece jigsaw puzzle of our galaxy and we’ve only found a hundred of the border pieces. Is there a shortcut? Maybe. Maybe that’s what Eliot and Bengston and billions of others have found. And a shortcut to what? This jigsaw puzzle of the galaxy -- if we’re to truly see any part of the picture we need the whole picture, if we insist on the puzzle analogy. But maybe, if all I want to do is feel connected and affective with my communities (which is pretty significant) -- family, Harlingen, the region, the state . . .  -- maybe I don’t need that puzzle as much as I think I do.

My father used to say -- turns out he was quoting Unitarian and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. -- your freedom to swing your fist stops where my nose begins. I believe we need to, and as UU’s we do, apply this to the beliefs of others. Mostly the cosmology someone believes in does not affect us. Peace.


Monday, November 2, 2015

A Long, Strange Trip - Part I

This sermon was presented by Shirley Rickett on 25 October, 2015.

Imagine yourself in a cave.  It is deep in the womb of the earth. It is so completely dark you cannot see your hand in front of you. Then the torches arrive and you begin your charcoal sketches on the walls of the cave. It is spirit that guides your hand, the hand of the artist. The walls offer a shoulder to an animal, a ripple for running legs.

Some years ago, my spouse and I watched a 3-D documentary directed by Werner Herzog:  The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  It was one of the most mesmerizing pieces of film and art I have ever witnessed.  The artists created magnificent cave art 35,000 years ago in the Chauvet cave in southern France.   The people were Cro Magnum humans of the Bear Clan.  Not the amusing Disney creatures of the Ice Age but people we have much more in common with than we may like to think.

Artist, John Robinson, who specializes in rock art said, “The Bear Clan couldn’t have survived without possessing a sophisticated language, let alone have created art.”  (The Art of the Chauvet Cave:  Ice Age Paleolithic Cave Paintings, Bradshaw Foundation, “Return to the Chauvet Cave,” online).   Robinson, one of the few people allowed in the cave to study the art in Chauvet, was astonished at the beauty of line, the energy and detail.   In the film, archaeologists and linguists explain that humans of this time believed that there was only one language shared with trees, grass, wind sky, water. In other words humans were not separated from what surrounded them.  Much like indigenous peoples of the world, they were a part of it all:  one language, one spirit, one all.

A few years ago I attended a workshop held by John Phillip Santos. His book, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, was a National Book Award Finalist.  The workshop was on the genre Memoir, which in recent years had been booming. He spoke about how something was happening. He didn’t believe the recent rush to and the Genome Project was accidental.   He cited at least three books that discussed how our DNA could be changed based on the newest technologies.  He believed the heightened interest in ancestry and memoir was a kind of unconscious collective movement in response to advances in technology that is moving faster than the time needed to know and understand what that may mean, ethically and morally. Modern science tells us that the history of the human race lies in the DNA of each of us.  If DNA is changed in us, who or what will we be?

 I begin here on the long, strange, trip to make a point about UUism. Human beings evolved and adapted and we share the history of ourselves, our species, in our DNA.  Just to touch that time and people through art gives me goose bumps. It was long before Christianity of course, but the quality of art speaks to us today, and illuminates the seventh principle, “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are all a part.” 

Now imagine the time is 100 years or more before the birth of Christ.  Near Qumran, “white-robed ‘spiritual-seekers’ had walked out of major cities of the fertile crescent to gather into small communities” in the most remote parts of the desert.  (The Essene Book of Days, 2002, p. 7).  Professor  L. Michael White has said that:  “It has been sometimes suggested that Jesus, himself, or maybe John the Baptist were members of this group.” (“A Portrait of Jesus’ World—The Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” online). This group known as the Essenes had abandoned Jerusalem in protest over how the temple was run. (White)

The Essenes, mentioned in the Bible in the company of the Sadducees and Pharisees, were only a few of the diverse, early Christian groups present around the time Jesus was born.  We know more about the Essenes because of the scrolls they hid nearly 2000 years ago in several caves on a rugged cliff on the banks of the Dead Sea. They were first discovered around 1947.   Both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the books known as Nag Hammadi first discovered in 1945, were found by accident, and both took years to come to the eyes of scholars due to theft, antiquities dealers,  and the black market, until they finally attracted the attention of the Egyptian, Palestinian and Israeli governments. (Pagels, p. xv)l

 Elaine Pagels is a scholar of the history of Christianity.  Her book, The Gnostic Gospels, is a fascinating look into one of the Christian groups around the time of Jesus that allows us to understand origins of ideas other than orthodox we know today, and to consider diverse ways of thinking on words  Jesus said, may have said, or that were hidden from those who would destroy them. Her thesis is to show how gnostic forms of Christianity interact with orthodoxy and what that tells us about the origins of Christianity itself,  (Pagels, p. xxxiv). She says at the end of her introduction, “By investigating the texts from Nag Hammadi, together with sources known for well over a thousand years from orthodox tradition, we can see how politics and religion coincide in the development of Christianity.” (Pagels, p. xxxvi)l

Briefly, here are three religious liberal ideas from the Gnostics:
                        They questioned if suffering, labor, and death derive from human sin.
                         They celebrated God the Father and the Mother. Women were considered equal and participated in their services and worship.
                        Christ’s resurrection was considered symbolic, rather than literal.

In the town of Naj ‘Hammadi, December, 1945, an Arab peasant stumbled on 13 papyrus books bound in leather.  An excited Professor Gilles Quispel, distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht in the Netherlands, flew to Egypt in the spring of 1955.  He deciphered some codices from Nag Hammadi and was startled to read:  “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.”  This was a newly found text of codices that had finally made its way to the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Did Jesus have a twin brother? Could this be an authentic record of Jesus’ sayings?  “What Quispel held in his hand, the Gospel of Thomas, was only one of the fifty-two texts discovered at Nag Hammadi…” (Pagels, p. xiv)  In the same volume, the Gospel of Phillip stated,  
                        … the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene.
                         [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples,
                        and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth].  The rest
                        of [the disciples were offended] … They said to him,
                        “Why do you love her more than all of us?  The Savior
                        answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you
                        as (I love) her?” (Pagels, p. xv)
This is Pagels:  “Other sayings in this collection criticize common Christian beliefs, such as the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, as na├»ve misunderstandings. Bound together with these gospels is the Apocryphon, literally, ‘secret book’ of John, which opens with an offer to reveal ‘the mysteries [and the] things hidden in silence’ which Jesus taught to his disciple John.” (Pagels, xv, xvi)

Quispel and others first published the Gospel of Thomas and they suggested the date of c A.D. 140. Some thought that since these gospels were considered heretical that they must have been written later than the gospels of the New Testament, which were dated c. 60-110.  Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University, “has suggested that the collection of writings in  the Gospel of Thomas, although compiled c. 140, may include some traditions  even older  than the gospels of the New Testament, ‘possibly as early as the second half of the first century’ (50-100)—as early as, or earlier, than Mark, Mathew, Luke, and John.”  (Pagels, xvi, xvii)

Some of the texts that describe the origin of the human race, that is, the Garden of Eden story is quite different from the Old Testament.  The story is told from the point of view of the serpent! “Here,” Pagels says, “the serpent, long known to  appear in gnostic literature as the principle of divine wisdom, convinces Adam and Eve to partake of knowledge while ‘the Lord’ threatens them with death, trying jealously to prevent them from attaining knowledge, and expelling them from Paradise when they achieve it.”  Another text, entitled, Thunder, Perfect Mind,  provides this poem in a feminine voice of divine power:
                        For I am the first and the last.
                        I am the honored one and scorned one.
                        I am the whore and the holy one,
                        I am the wife and the virgin …
                        I am the barren one,
                                    And many are her sons …
                        I am the silence that is incomprehensible …
                        I am the utterance of my name.
                                                                        (Pagels, p. xvii)
Pagels asks the obvious questions, “ … why were these texts buried and why have they remained virtually unknown for nearly 2,000 years?  She answers with:  “The Nag Hammadi texts, and others like them, which circulated  at the beginning of the Christian era, were denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians in the middle of the second century.  We have long known that many early followers of Christ were condemned by other Christians as heretics.” ( Pagels, xviii)

Bishop Irenaeus who supervised the church in Lyons, c. 180 wrote five volumes of condemnation that began a campaign against heresy, the action in itself an admission of the Gnostic Gospels persuasive power, says Pagels, yet the bishops prevailed.  Emperor Constantine’s conversion and the official recognition of Christianity as an approved religion in the fourth century saw Christian bishops in power who were formerly victimized by police.  Copies of banned books were burned and destroyed.  Possibly a monk from a nearby monastery hid the Nag Hammadi books in jars where they remained almost 1,600 years.  (Pagels, p. xix)

Why are all of these stories important to the history of Unitarian Universalism ?   Two things:  The unorthodox and unincluded  texts from the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi books carry again and again signs of liberal religion thinking. Second:  UUs tend to lean toward metaphor opposed to the literal translation of words said to be church law.  In religious discussions this was important historically and seems to be just as important today. In some cases, people’s lives depend on their ideas and beliefs, then and now.

Pagels tells us that the writings are unmistakably related to Jewish heritage and many tell secrets about Jesus.  These Christians are called gnostics from the Greek work gnosis.  “For those who claim to know nothing about ultimate reality are called agnostic (literally, “not-knowing.”) And the person who does claim to know such things is called gnostic,” or ‘knowing.’ “The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge ,” such as ‘he knows me,’ she knows math.’ The gnostics use the term to indicate insight because gnosis includes an intuitive process of knowing oneself. “And to know oneself, they claimed, is to know human nature and human destiny … To know oneself at the deepest level means to know god, this is the secret of gnosis.” (Pagels, p. xix)

A gnostic teacher, Monoimus said:
                        Abandon the search for God and the creation and other
                        matters of a similar sort.  Look for him by taking yourself
                        as the starting point.  Learn who it is within you who
                        makes everything his own and says, ‘My God, my mind,
                        my thoughts, my soul, my body.’ Learn the sources
                        of joy, love, hate … If you carefully investigate these
                        matters you will find him in yourself. (Pagels, p. xx)
This and other passages struck me as similar statements UUs make when we speak about who we are:  Everyone must find her own path.  Everyone is free to seek what is inside of him, to use what experiences she brings to a sacred space to find the Beloved.   In other words, liberal religion.

Pagels reasons that what was found at Nag Hammadi shows striking differences between the New Testament and the references the gnostic texts made to it, and to the Old Testament scriptures, and the letters of Paul.  Briefly the differences are, 1, Orthodox Jews and Christians insist a chasm exists between humanity and the creator. The gnostics contradict this idea with this:  self knowledge is knowledge of God and the self and divine are identical.  2, The ‘living Jesus’ of the gnostic texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment versus sin and repentence. Instead of a saving us from our sin, Jesus comes as a guide and spiritual master.  3.  Orthodox Christians believe  Jesus, Son of God, is forever distinct from the humanity he came to save.  The gnostic Gospel of Thomas says that Jesus sees and recognizes Thomas, and says to him that they both came from the same source:  “Jesus said, ‘I am not your master.  Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out’ …”  (Pagels, p. xx).

The Gnostics stayed close to the Greek tradition, and for that matter to  Buddhist and Hindu traditions.  The British scholar of Buddhism, Edward Conze, points out that Thomas Christians (those who knew the Gospel of Thomas) were in contact with Buddhists in South India and knew that influence.  Gnosticism flourished from A.D. 80 through 200 as trade routes between the Greco-Roman world and the Far East opened up. (Pagels, xxi) Unitarian Universalists draw on  East and West religious thought as they do among other world  religions as sources.  

Gnostic ideas, writings, and practices were too “creative,” “inventive” to withstand the Nicene Council and the organization and authority of orthodox Christianity.  Elaine Pagels says that the fifty-two writings discovered at Nag Hammadi gives only a glimpse of the complexity of the early Christian movement.” (xxxv) She concludes that
                        … the Nag Hammadi discoveries give us a new perspective …
                        we can understand why certain creative persons throughout the ages,
                        from Valentinus and Heracleon to Blake, Rembrandt, Dostoevsky,
                        Tolstoy, and Nietzsche, found themselves at the edges of ortho-
                        doxy.  All were fascinated by the figure of Christ—his birth, life,
                        teachings, death, and resurrection:  all returned constantly to
                        Christian symbols to express their own experience.  And yet
                        they found themselves in revolt against orthodox institutions.
                                                                        (Pagels, p. 150)

This paper serves only as a brief examination of the diverse early Christian movements and signs of liberal, religious thought, which were the reasons many early Christian groups were condemned as heretics.  Part II will begin with the Nicene Council and cover one particular figure, Michael Servetus, who lived in the Middle Ages.