Sunday, March 29, 2015

Expanding our Religious Vocabulary

This sermon was given on Sunday, March 29, 2015 by Ashley Hummel.

Children's Story: The Gnat on the Bull's Horn, from Aesop's Fables

 It was that time of year, late in summer, when the air is often filled with gnats, swarming and making a sound like Zzzzz Zzzzz with their tiny wings. 

A very dignified bull, grazing in his pasture, tried his best to ignore the pesky gnats, but one of them suddenly alighted on his horn. And there it sat, going Zzzzz Zzzzz, until at last the bull could control his annoyance no longer, and he began shaking his head.

"Say, what's your trouble?" asked a tiny voice near his ear. "If I'm too heavy for you, I'll go visit someone else, who's not such a sissy!"

And the gnat buzzed off, much annoyed. 

Moral: Everyone takes a large view of his own importance.

Reading 1 (responsive): #654 from Singing the Living Tradition

Impassioned Clay- Ralph N. Helverson

Deep in ourselves resides the religious impulse.
  Out of the passions of our clay it rises.

We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.
  We have religion when we hold some hope beyond the present, some self-respect beyond our failures.

We have religion when our hearts are capable of leaping up at beauty, when our nerves are edged by some dream in the heart.
  We have religion when we have an abiding gratitude for all that we have received. 

We have religion when we look upon people with all their failings and still find in them good; when we look beyond people to the grandeur in nature and to the purpose in our own heart.
  We have religion when we have done all that we can, and then in confidence entrust ourselves to the life that is larger than ourselves.

Reading 2 (responsive): #647 from Singing the Living Tradition

An Eternal Verity- W. Waldemar W. Argow

Ancient as the home is the temple; ancient as the workbench is the altar.
  Ancient as the sword is the sacrificial fire; ancient as the soldier is the priest.

Older than written language is spoken prayer; older than painting is the thought of a nameless one.
  Religion is the first and last--the universal language of the human heart.

Differing words describe the outward appearance of things; diverse symbols represent that which stands beyond and within.
  Yet every person's hunger is the same, and heart communicates with heart. 

Ever the vision leads on with many gods or with one, with a holy land washed by ocean waters, or a holy land within the heart. 
  In temperament we differ, yet we are dedicated to one august destiny; creeds divide us, but we share a common quest.

Because we are human, we shall ever build our altars; because each has a holy yearning, we offer everywhere our prayers and anthems.
  For an eternal verity abides beneath diversities; we are children of one great love, united in one eternal family.

Sermon: Expanding our Religious Vocabulary, a narrative:

This sermon was originally an essay I wrote for Steve’s Sociology of Religion class a year or so ago. The assignment required us to visit three places of worship for a service and write up a sociologically significant observation. He had these categories, and each place we visited was supposed to come from a different category. If we had a sound argument for planning visits outside of the categories, we might get special permission to go outside of this categorical outline.

As you know, my arguments are always thorough and persistent. Three of the four categories were different kinds of Christian groups, and the third was non-Christian. I don’t say this as a criticism, either, because there is much diversity among Christians. My family is Southern Baptist, Catholic, and Methodist, among other things. I felt overly familiar with Christian worship, and if I’m honest, I have to say that I was bordering on resentful at being required to go to yet another Christian church. I explained this and asked if I could go to all non-Christian churches, to observe what their corner of the Valley was like. This is such a heavily Catholic and Latino area that the minority religions likely also represented minority ethnicities, too. Steve is a reasonable sort of fellow and told me to go for it. When I turned in my essay, I said that it was more of a sermon than a paper. While my observation had the required sociological significance, what I learned from it had a deeper moral implication for my life. We talked about revising it a little for the pulpit, and that’s what you’re getting today.

I was raised in a white Protestant congregation and saw much of the world just as I expected to. The culture at large represented things that my church of origin taught me were correct: modesty is a lack of glittering decoration in your church and a fashionable just-above-the-knee skirt; generosity is sharing a coin in the bucket for the foodbank; these might be considered universal virtues, even though they are practiced in different ways around the world. Even after leaving my childhood faith, I took this spiritual/cultural cohesion for granted, and would hazard a guess that many of the majority do the same.


When I arrived at the Shiv Shakti Temple in Edinburg it looked closed. It was 9:30 on a Saturday morning; their website advertised a weekly Balaji Suprabhatam and Vishnu Sahasranama, which I think are some kind of prayer service. I removed my shoes and left them on a shelf, then pushed open a large, ornately carved wooden door to find myself in what appeared to be a banquet hall. The room was dark, but I tried an inquisitive hail from the door. With no answer, I wandered outside towards the back of the building to discover brilliant white marble tiles leading up to the actual temple, which had a large bell handing above massive double doors. Upon entering, I was greeted by the priest, who seemed a little perplexed at my presence. “Do you need anything?” He asked as though he expected some tragedy had befallen me and I had only come to the temple seeking aid—perhaps a phone or a tire iron. When I told him my purpose in coming was to see and learn, he welcomed me to walk around, or sit out of the way, or offer puja, which is prayer, if I knew how. I sat for a while to enjoy the visual feast. 

There were nine shrines around the walls of the temple, each to a different deity. I recognized Ganesh the Elephant God and Krishna with his flute, but not the others. Some had multiple statues, some had statues of multiple incarnations of one god, and all were glittering with gold, silver, brass, and gems. The shrines were in alcoves lined with garlands of flowers and filled with fruits; the air was thick with incense. A handful of men were in the temple, visiting shrines at will, and sometimes going back and forth between two or three, performing some kind of water ritual at the fountain near the front of the room. There was no pattern; people prayed at will, sometimes here, sometimes there, standing, sitting, bowing, or prostrating as they chose. A few women came and went as well. 

Though the people were aware of me and would not in greeting if they passed close, only two spoke to me. First it was a woman who asked if I was pure (not experiencing menses), because if I was impure the priest would have to cleanse the whole temple after I left. “He cannot ask you because he is a man, but I am asking you because you might not know this,” she said. While on the surface this may seem a bit forward, and WASPs would certainly consider it inappropriate, this woman was acting on the knowledge that many people don’t know about Hindu beliefs and practices. She was not mean or snappy, she was simply trying to protect her religious culture from the honest mistakes of ignorant people. She had no way of knowing whether or not I had done my homework. She and her husband spoke to me for a while, and on confessing my limited knowledge of Hinduism, her husband smiled and said, “You will learn.” Shortly after, he explained some of the shrines. The first was a Yogi, Sai Baba, who is venerated as a saint. “He is like Jesus. He was killed, and then three days later he was resurrected,” the man said, and proceeded to tell me other similarities between Sai Baba and Jesus of Nazareth. He pointed out Ganesh and advised me that this is the god to pray to when you are starting something new and that he prays to Ganesh regularly for his business. When I said I recognized that one, his reply was an amused, “Everybody knows that one!” Then he took me to the shrine of Hanuman, the monkey god, and told me that was the prayer coming out of the two large speakers at the front of the room. Near the shrine was a basket of prayer books and he encouraged me to take one and read it in English, adding that he said this prayer every Thursday in his home. 

Before the temple closed, the priest performed some sort of ritualized prayer and blessed the couple who spoke to me as well as another couple in a complex ceremony of incense, flower petals, water, and constant musical chanting. When all was done, the priest gave me a piece of holy fruit, called prasadam, from one of the altars, instructing me to eat it and not give it away so that God would bless me. As I walked out, the couple spoke to me again about the temple and the Monday night potluck, inviting me back if I wanted to learn more. The man said, “Soon, you will be Hindu!” Then promptly followed it with, “No, I am only kidding,” which struck me as something an American Christian would never say. It was as though they wanted to convey hospitality and openness to outside curiosity without offending my presumed religious identity. 

At the Temple Emanuel Synagogue I was greeted with the same assumptions. One man asked if I was Jewish, and on discovering I was not, proceeded to speak to me as though I were Christian. “Come to Torah study! We have Christians who sometimes come to Torah study, and they say they learn more about their own faith. You will learn more about your religion if you come to Torah study.” 

Temple Emanuel blended more with the surrounding neighborhood than the other places I visited. The architecture was modern and inside it looked like many Protestant churches I have been to, just a bit more pretty. There were offices to one side, a banquet room with a large-quantity kitchen on the other, a hall leading to a gift shop, and right in the middle was a small chapel. The chapel was plain, carpeted in blue with bookshelves near the back, which held copies of the Torah and the Siddur. From my seat in the back I could see an American flag in one corner of the room and an Israeli flag in the other, which seemed very… American. There was a dais at the front which had a table for laying out the Torah scrolls and a large stained glass cabinet in the form of a window which ran all the way to the ceiling; it looked like a depiction of the burning bush. Another table was placed near the front of the seated area for reading from the Siddur. 

The rabbi, who is a South American immigrant and medical doctor, had a young girl accompany him in leading the Shabbat prayers, which lasted above an hour, and sometimes included the rabbi banging on a drum. He would ask the congregation questions sporadically: 

                Why am I using the drum?! 

                How many instruments were in the temple?! 

                What means Hallelujah?!

                And in what language does it mean this?!

Eventually, the young girl and a boy of similar age opened the cabinet to reveal five massive scrolls wrapped in blue cloth and crowned and crested with silver. The rabbi took one down and paraded around the room with it, the children behind him. As he went by, men touched their prayer shawls to it and women would use the Siddur or a sleeve to touch it; each person kissed what had touched the holy scrolls to show devotion to the Torah. Then everyone took turns reading from the Torah. The first man who read stepped aside for the next woman who read, then when she was finished they shook hands and he sat back down, while she stepped aside for the next person to read. Each turn ended thus, with a handshake or a kiss on the cheek. When the reading—the story of Noah—was complete, the Torah was again paraded around the room before being placed back in the cabinet. Shabbat ended with more prayers from the Siddur: for the country, for the government, for the sick, and for the dead. These rituals moved me to tears. 

Afterwards, everyone gathered in the banquet room to partake of challah and toast with wine blessed by the rabbi. I was strongly urged to participate in the toasting and join them in fellowship over Latkes and smoked salmon. The was great curiosity over what kind of university class would send a student out to a synagogue, and one woman was particularly interested in whether or not I planned to go to a mosque as well, and if I would promise to come back and tell them about my experience there. This is when I was invited to Torah study to enhance my understanding of Judaism and my presumed Christianity. The rabbi is enthusiastic about educating the synagogue members about Jewish culture and traditions, which is reflected in their weekly Israeli dancing lessons, group trips to Israel, and the videos he makes for their website. I was fortunate enough to have lengthy discussions about Judaism with a few members, who were generally volunteering information and appeared pleased that someone was curious about their community. 

Of all three visits, the congregants at the mosque were the most prepared for curiosity. My experience up to this point lead me to expect that I would again be assumed a Christian, but the first question that many people asked me was which university I came from and what was my major. Masjid Arridwan evidently hosts a great number of students and student groups who, for various reasons, would benefit from learning, as one man put it, “how to interact with the Muslim community.” Though I missed the weekly service, the correct time was established and I was welcomed to come back and see “the whole thing,” which included the midday prayer and a lecture by the imam. 

When I pulled into the parking lot, a large group of boys were playing outside with fishing poles and two men were supervising their activity. When asked, one kindly directed me to the women’s prayer area, where I was approached by a woman in traditional robes and a hijab, who prodded me gently for my purpose and offered me a slice of home-made orange cake that she and the other women and girls were sharing. The feeling in the women’s area was one of fellowship. From what was visible over the partition, the men’s prayer space was the same. There were at least thirty men scattered about the room in pairs and small groups who were engaged in discussion, many of them were also dressed traditionally. The woman who greeted me was able to hail one of the men—I am not sure how—and he came to the entrance of the women’s area to discuss the basic workings of the mosque, the monthly potluck, weekly lectures (and their correct time), and community functions. He even offered to get the imam to discuss the mosque with me in his office, but, having no questions prepared, I declined the offer and made my way out. 

The mosque, even more than the temple and the synagogue, struck me as a place for community and support. Their complete lack of surprise at a stranger coming to watch them was—and perhaps should not be—astonishing. In the typical American Protestant church, visitors are assumed to be interested in joining. No one would think that it might be a Hindu, Jew, or Muslim who popped in to learn about their religion and worship style. In many, if not all, Protestant churches visitors are asked to fill out a form with their names, addresses, and phone numbers, then gifted with church literature or a miniature Bible. This was not the case in any of my visits. When people thought I was not of their faith the reaction was not to proselytize, but to educate in language they guessed I would understand. It was a fair guess, because I was born to a majority faith and my religious vocabulary reflects that. Even with a burning curiosity about other religions, it never occurred to me that my ignorance was one-sided, or that these foreign religions would have to learn the language and customs of the majority faith in order to successfully navigate society. I consider myself a hobby-scholar of religion and mythology. I know a considerable amount about many different religions. I would even say I know more than most lay people on the subject of religious practices around the world. But, during my visits I was just another ignorant American. As I’ve said so many times, people of other faiths aren’t so different from each other, nor are their values, but the voice of minority faiths is small and muffled in the religious dialogue of our society. My adventure has urged me to strain my ears a little and try hard to truly hear and understand the experiences of all religious groups.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Pale Blue Dot and Human (In)significance

This sermon was given on Sunday, 1 March, 2015, by Stephen Merino.

There are two reasons I’m giving this sermon today: my dog and Netflix. I started listening to podcasts on my twice-daily walks with our dog a few months ago, and Radiolab quickly became a favorite. It’s a popular science-oriented podcast that is accessible, earnest, curious, and often moving. Even spiritual, as I understand spirituality in my own way. What about Netflix? Well, we missed Cosmos reboot narrated by the wonderful Neil deGrasse Tyson when it aired last year, and we were thrilled to discover that it’s available on Netflix’s streaming service. We’re almost done with the series, and have enjoyed watching it together as a family. Often jaw-dropping and inspiring, Cosmos explores the history of science and questions about earth and its place in the universe. There’s something about both that make them, at times, unsettling. I love this about science. How curiosity and the search for truth – for explanations – can be unsettling.

So I’ve had science on the mind, and what it has taught us about our place in the cosmos. But it’s not like I’ve had some big epiphany. After all, I haven’t learned a whole lot that I didn’t already know. But you know how the same ideas can affect you differently at different times in your life. So what I’ve been thinking about is how this enterprise we call science has gradually dislodged humans from the center of, well, everything, and humbled us in the process, forcing us to confront new realities. And we’re often slow – quite slow – to confront those realities.

Why were we ever at the center of things? Our seemingly superior intelligence and complexity surely made our ancestors feel that they had some purpose on this planet. Our ability to find and recognize patterns, coupled with our need for meaning and purpose, led those ancestors to find meaning in the stars. And to tell stories of where we came from. Stories of gods. And creations. We seemed to be at the center of the universe. Everything seemed to revolve around us. But as Carl Sagan so wonderfully put, “We have not been given the lead in the cosmic drama. Perhaps someone else, perhaps no one else has. In either case, we have good reason for humility.”

Scientist Dave Pruett writes that, “The back-to-back punches thrown by Copernicus and Darwin disfigured the human face in the mirror of self-perception. The message from science runs counter that of religion, which proclaims our divine origins and special status. It is like having two parents, one who underscores our uniqueness and the other our commonness. Whom should we believe?”

Of course, we used to literally think that everything revolved around us. Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the cosmos lasted until Copernicus argued that the Earth and other planets revolve around the Sun. It took more evidence, of course, which was furthered by Galileo’s telescope and others who would come along. But this was a huge revelation that brought the ire of the Church. Again, from Dave Pruett, ““Of all discoveries and opinions,” Goethe observed, “none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus.” Why? Einstein appreciated that Copernicanism “… was … the severest shock [our] interpretation of the cosmos ever received [because] it reduced the world to a mere province … instead of it being the capitol and center.”

In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan writes of a “series of Great Demotions, downlifting experiences, demonstrations of our apparent insignificance, wounds that science has, in its search for Galileo’s facts, delivered to human pride.” The next Great Demotion was our realization that our Sun isn’t even at the center of the universe, but is rather thirty thousand light years from the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Other demotions would come. Our galaxy is, of course, one of billions. Then, of course, we began to further see our insignificance. We have been on this earth, 4.5 billion years young, for but a brief moment. And that our universe is nearly 14 billion years old. In the series Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson often stands on a graphic presentation of the Cosmic Calendar, which condenses the 13.8 billion year lifetime of the Universe into a single year. Our Sun didn’t come along until the last day of August. It wasn’t until late September that life appeared on earth. Mammals? The day after Christmas. Primates come along on December 30. Hominids on the last day of the year, well into the afternoon. The first humans show up, but pretty late to the New Year’s party. Just an hour and a half before the end of the year. The first dynasty of Egypt appears with twelve seconds to go. The Roman Empire with just five seconds to go. Modern science and technology? The American Revolution? The World Wars? The moon landing? All in the final second of the year.

But we were placed on earth in that final second for some great cause! Created for a special purpose! Charles Darwin, of course, showed how one species can evolve into another by entirely natural processes. We are latecomers, evolved from other life on earth, and very intimately (and genetically) related to all other life on earth. The earliest documented members of the genus Homo are Homo habilis, which evolved around 2.3 million years ago; the earliest species for which there is positive evidence of use of stone tools. We now know that anatomically modern humans evolved from archaic Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. But even before that, Darwin sensed that this revelation would not be well received, when in response to a review of his Descent of Man he wrote, “I shall soon be viewed as the most despicable of men.”

On February 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe took a photograph from a record distance of about 3.7 billion miles from earth. In the picture, Earth’s apparent size is less than a pixel. A tiny dot in the vastness of space. Carl Sagan’s 1994 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space is named after the photograph. In it, he writes:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Yet, our narrow-mindedness, our lack of proper perspective – it runs deep. We’re slow learners. I recently listened to a Radiolab episode the story of a skull. A famous skull found in Tanug in South Africa in 1920s. Europeans digging mines at the time opened up cave and found what looked like bones. It appeared to be a child’s skull, but smaller than human skull. The foramen magnum at the bottom, which meant that creature walked upright. A “link” between the apes and us. A man named Raymond Dart published his findings, but they were rejected by European scientists, because Africa was thought to be “backwards.” Our human origins must be in Europe! The Piltdown Man already found in England, was thought to be missing link. This started a long debate among scientists. The idea that only 2 million years ago our ancestors had smaller brains was disturbing to many. But more fossils started popping up in Africa. Scientists found increasingly that the Piltdown Man was an anomaly. He was different. And, a fraud, it turns out. This 2.2 million year old child helped prove that our origins are in Africa. On that pale blue dot, people who should know better were reluctant to accept the evidence, because it was it found on the wrong part of that dot, and because it unsettled their ideas about what it meant to be human.

In a fascinating (and delicious) twist, there ended up being considerable debate over how did the child died. It was originally thought that she must have been murdered by other a community member or enemy of the group. Or by a large cat. But based on careful analysis of the skull, it was discovered that an eagle or large bird probably killed the child!

We’re still slow learners. Last fall, a documentary called The Principle was released. The film questions the Copernican principle, the assumption that neither the earth nor the Sun are in a central, specially favored position in the universe, and seems to promote geocentrism. And, of course, we live in an age when we ask each other whether we “believe in evolution.” According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, a third of American adults believe that “humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” A quarter of adults believe that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.” So very deep runs our need for meaning! For purpose! For meaning and purpose at which we are the center. I find this human feature to be incredibly wonderful, but worry sometimes that it all too often divides us into inward-looking collections of humans called religions, races, and nations. And that it makes us slow to see the pale blue dot.

I believe that we cannot fully grasp, confront, and solve the problems that we face as a species without fully grasping our place in the cosmos. Without seeing ourselves the way that Voyager 1 saw us in that famous photograph. Without realizing that we’ve just showed up in the final seconds of the Cosmic Calendar. Our Unitarian Universalist faith, I hope, can help get us there. Seeing that pale blue dot, of course, makes us realize how precious we are. And how interdependent we are as passengers on this “blue boat home.” In the Fall 2014 issue of UU World, James Ishmael Ford calls himself a “First and Seventh Principle preacher.” He writes, 

We need both principles, the dynamic of the one and the many, to fully ground our message. That older call of individual liberty was a deep and true insight. But it is missing something. The Seventh Principle calls to the wisdom that is in our very hearts about how and why the individual is precious. The knowledge that we are completely woven out of each other and the cosmos itself in a living song of intimacy is where we find our completeness. We find within this insight of “I” and “We” an ethic for our individual lives, we find guidance for how we gather together as people, and we see how we need to relate to the planet from which we take our being. We understand it as the perennial story sung around ancient campfires, the heart of Jesus’s message, the Buddha’s word, the teachings of sages of the Advaita Vedanta, as well as the truth constantly revealed by scientific inquiry.

I think that all of us, in our great variety, need to engage it from the traditions that inform our lives separately within this great spiritual cooperative that is our contemporary Unitarian Universalism. We need to look at the many facets of this wisdom jewel. We need Jewish and Christian interpretations. We need earth-centered and rationalist humanist interpretations. We need Buddhist interpretations.

It is my hope that we can learn to be more grateful for the precious gift that is life, while rejecting views of our place in the universe that are too comforting and too short-sighted. As Sagan suggests, “If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

I'll close with one more quote from Carl Sagan, "Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies you will not find another...."

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The long and winding road that leads from tolerance to acceptance...or something like it

This sermon was presented on Sunday, 15 March, 2015, by Laurie Ruiz

 When you struggle against this moment, you’re actually struggling
against the entire universe. Instead, you can make the decision that
today you will not struggle against the whole universe by struggling
against this moment. This means that your acceptance of this moment is
total and complete. You accept things as they are, not as you wish they
were in this moment. This is important to understand. You can wish for
things in the future to be different, but in this moment you have to
accept things as they are.
-Deepak Chopra

We are, each of us, on a road, long and winding, that has taken us from the person we used to be to the person we are now. On this perilous journey our direction has been influenced by people, events, and the places we have been. Think of the number of people who have crossed your path in just the last 12 months. Reflect for a moment on the things you have read or encountered that have given you pause, things that have either filled you a sense of wonder or bewilderment, maybe disappointment. The manner in which we deal with these feelings is paramount to our levels of tolerance and or acceptance.

Let’s look at tolerance for a minute. The definition from the Merriam/Webster Dictionary: Full Definition of  TOLERANCE . 1: capacity to endure pain or hardship: endurance, fortitude, stamina. 2: sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own.

So, living in Deep South Texas I have become tolerant of hot summers. I am smart enough to know that there isn’t much I can do to keep that mercury from trying to kiss the top of the thermometer, so I have developed a tolerance. Actually that tolerance keeps me from having to deal with my distaste day after day. I may not like it, I find it somewhat distasteful, but I deal with it. I find ways to best avoid the offending heat - run errands early in the morning or in evening. This definitely fits with the first section of the definition - capacity to endure pain or hardship - endurance, fortitude, stamina. But what about when my tolerance refers to an attribute of another person, a physical fact over which they have no control? Take age for example. Is it tolerance, possibly barely masked, I am exhibiting when I maneuver around an older driver driving below the speed limit? Tolerance would dictate that I at least show sympathy or indulgence for their belief that 45 mph is a safer speed for them at that particular time. I checked the law - 40 mph is minimal limit - so they are within the law. Am I actually being tolerant - or just impatient? Since we’re talking about age - what about teenagers? Ah, let me list the ways I that I might dig deep to show tolerance - music, dress, language, the umbilical cord to electronics… Have I ever said - Oh, that’s just how they are. Age is something over which they have no control. Is my “tolerance” actually about being positive toward our differences or am I patting myself on the back for holding myself above that fine line between tolerance and contempt for those who are not quite like me. What about skin color, sexual orientation, physical handicaps? Do I ever generalize, verbally or in my mind, about a group? Is it fueled by fear...ignorance?

What about tolerance with reference to practices differing or conflicting with mine - another aspect of the definition of tolerance. OK, religion. I know that I cannot wrap my mind around the ideas of God shared by many of my friends and family. It just doesn’t work for me. Does my tolerance of their beliefs diminish my value of them as a person? This is where I see that mere tolerance can be, in general, a negative thing. It’s fine to say I tolerate the heat, but if I tolerate my neighbor it’s not exactly a glowing endorsement. If I tolerate someone or their ideas in sympathy or indulgence for my own different beliefs it implies that there is something wrong or bad about them. If someone believes differently than me, the complete opposite from me - both of us strong in our beliefs - does tolerating those ideas allow me to treat them or even think of them as wrong?

This is where I find it necessary turn down the road - away from tolerance toward acceptance. Let’s again start with the definition of acceptance from Merriam/Webster: the act of accepting : the fact of being accepted : approval . My research here showed that putting it into practice is not an easy road. In an article on Acceptance vs Tolerance Matt Kailey warns us of the potholes in the journey toward acceptance. He writes:

Acceptance still has its unspoken baggage — “I
accept you — in spite of your sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnic
background, religion, pathetic bank account, unimpressive job, really
bad hair.” Acceptance can also comes with a disclaimer. Not only that,
but the whole idea of acceptance can often be accompanied by a notion
of generosity and do-goodliness on the part of the acceptor, who can
walk away feeling very self-satisfied that he or she was able to put
prejudices aside and accept you for who you are.
This still leaves you in the subordinate position — the position of being
the one who is accepted. And for this, you are supposed to be grateful.

The difficulty here is that while I may not be able to agree with the beliefs that others hold, I need to accept - approve - of their belief in them. I need to understand and accept that these beliefs are are part of who they are. During my research for my sermon on the third UU principle, ACCEPTANCE OF ONE ANOTHER AND ENCOURAGEMENT TO SPIRITUAL GROWTH IN OUR CONGREGATIONS, I really started to look at accepting people and beliefs differently. I did more research and, go figure, there is not an easy way to become an accepting person. Do I accept, approve of the person, yet reject their beliefs. There were articles that gave that as the answer. Jason Sharp describes acceptance in this way: Acceptance involves understanding and togetherness; it celebrates differences and allows people of different places and lifestyles to live together and help each other. Accepting someone means that you let them completely into your heart regardless of their lifestyle or way of thinking. You connect yourself to them and openly share yourself with them and them with you. There are no boundaries, just different ways of approaching the same problems.Different ways of approaching the same problems not a right and a wrong way. Of course this brought me around to the sermon Emily gave a few months back on the different ways that liberals and conservative process information. It makes sense to me that before I accept the person but disregard the idea I owe it to both of us to at least try to understand why they feel as they do. An article in Time Magazine reported on a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, a group of political scientists and neuroscientists have found that conservatives and liberals use different parts of their mind when making risky decisions, and that these differences in brain function can be used to predict party affiliation. While these differences do not mean that ideas cannot be changed through information and education, it does indicate that if we don’t try to understand why others beliefs differ so much from our own we will never be able to really accept each other or meet on common ground.

Again from Jason Sharpe: I use “acceptance” all the time, and until there is a better word — one that really signifies an equal balance between various individuals or groups — I will probably keep using it. This research has actually been life changing in the way I look at ideas, situations, and people. I hope that as I continue on my journey, long and winding and full of potholes, that I move consciously forward in my destination of being a truly accepting person.

‘Cause in the words of Lewis Caroll - " If you don't know where you 're
going , any road'll take you there" .