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Singers Of Hope

Posted by on Apr 12, 2012 in Worship Services

Singers of Life

This Easter Sunday is a memorable for many reasons.  It was on this day, the 8th of April, nineteen years ago, that a great American passed out of life and into history. Marian Anderson was arguably the greatest contralto of the last century, but it was her role in the struggle for civil rights as much as her extraordinary voice that imprinted her on the world’s imagination.

She grew up singing in church, African American hymns and spirituals, songs of exile and the promised land. Even as a child, she enchanted listeners and began to sing at rallies and community events for twenty-five cents a performance. Her family was working poor, her mother taking in laundry and scrubbing floors to afford the increasingly expensive music lessons that would eventually launch her toward a triumphant European tour, singing for kings and queens and heads of state. In Finland, the composer Sibelius toasted her with champagne and wrote a song in her honor. At the Salzburg Festival, conductor Arturo Toscanini told her that "a voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years." When she returned from Europe, she sang for the President and his wife, Franklin and Eleanor, at the White House. But in Washington D.C. as in much of America, there were homes and public places where Marian Anderson was not welcome.

The finest concert venue in the nation’s capital was Constitution Hall, home to the National Symphony and the Washington Opera. With its outstanding acoustics and seating capacity for four thousand, it was the only auditorium comparable to the settings Marian was accustomed to. But Constitution Hall was owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who had established a strict "whites only" policy for performers there. When the D.A.R. refused to allow Marian to sing on stage, the First Lady resigned in protest and called her friend the Secretary of the Interior to see if an outdoor concert might be arranged on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

No one can visit that memorial without feeling moved. The marble effigy of the seated figure is itself enormous, nineteen feet high and nineteen wide. But it’s the brooding, pensive, expression on Lincoln’s face that gives the monument its power, not the expression of a victorious commander but of a weary man who has seen too much sadness and borne the pain of war in his own soul. Along each side of the seated figure are carved words to the Second Inaugural and the Gettsyburg Address. But the Great Emancipator might as easily have been flanked by words to the old spirituals like the ones Marian Anderson included in all her concerts and sang that day …

Been in the Storm So Long
Hard Trials
Motherless Child
Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen

Like few other national shrines, Lincoln’s Memorial is a site made holy by suffering, consecrated by the tears and blood of those who died in a transcendent struggle for freedom. And all of this was surely in Marian Anderson’s mind when she ascended the steps and looked out on the seventy-five thousand people gathered on the mall and began to sing …

My country ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty;
To thee we sing.

Land where my fathers died,
Land of the Pilgrim’s pride,
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!!

She sang it more as a prayer than as an anthem, the invocation of better days to come.For it was 1939. Hatred was engulfing central Europe. Jim Crow still ruled the South. It was a cold spring day, overcast, with a spitting wind. But none of that seemed to matter. It was Easter Sunday, and it was a triumph. A triumph of hope and decency over ignorance and fear. A triumph of sisterhood and brotherhood over barbarism and inhumanity. A triumph of good over evil. Walter White of the NAACP came to the microphone at the conclusion of the performance, seeking to restrain the throngs that were crowding the singer and threatening to mob her. "As I did so," he remembered, "a single figure caught my eye in the mass of people below … It was a slender black girl dressed in somewhat too garishly hued Easter finery. Hers was not the face of one who had been the beneficiary of much education or opportunity. Her hands were particularly noticeable as she thrust them forward and upward, trying desperately, though she was some distance from Miss Anderson, to touch the singer. They were hands that despite their youth had known only the dreary work of manual labor. Tears streamed down the girl’s dark face. Her hat was askew, but in her eyes flamed hope bordering on ecstasy."

"Life which had been none too easy for her now held out greater hope because one who was also colored and who, like herself, had known poverty, privation, and prejudice, had, by her genius, gone a long way toward conquering bigotry. If Marian Anderson could do it, the girl’s eyes seemed to say, then I can, too." For the rest of her life, wherever she sang, at the Met in New York, in Israel, South America or the Far East, people would approach her to confide, "I was at that Easter Concert."

And strains of that day still echoed a generation later when Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on those same steps and again evoked the dream. Let freedom ring, he said. Let it ring from Georgia’s Stone Mountain. Let it ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire and the curvaceous slopes of California. Invoking history, King told the quarter million gathered to hear him that "Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we now stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice." But blacks were still not free, King told his audience. They were confined to islands poverty within a great sea of American prosperity. They remained manacled by discrimination, second class citizens in their own land. But as he did so often, Martin Luther King assured his listeners that this experience of struggle and deprivation carried in itself a redemptive meaning, a transforming purpose. Using language from Gandhi, he assured them that "soul force" would prove stronger than the powers of hate.

After all, King himself had been arrested and jailed on Good Friday, just a year before, and a black man in a Birmingham jail in 1962 had to know fear. The letter he wrote from that jail cell was a masterpiece of erudition. It was addressed primarily to the clergy, and displayed King’s wide knowledge of theology and church history and Biblical criticism, as he appealed to the hearts and minds of his fellow ministers in Christ to overcome their timidity and take the risk of acting on their professed principles. But the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" which became a landmark in the literature of ethical reflection was no academic exercise. It could only have been written from a prison cell, by a man who’d been stabbed and shot at, known helplessness and humiliation, yet who would still rather have received threats and absorbed blows to his own body than given them to others.

King believed that people could obtain a wisdom and purity and moral power through suffering they could achieve no other way, not only because Jesus said "Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn," but because he had experienced this as a fact in his own moments of hardship. It was at the center of his commitment to non-violence as the key to social change. And he expressed this faith in the speech he gave in 1963, under Lincoln’s awesome presence.

"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations," he said that day. "Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells.  Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by storms of persecution and staggered by winds of police brutality. You have been veterans of creative s
uffering," he told the crowds. "Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive." This is of course the decisive claim of Easter, that the cross is not the end of the story, but only a necessary way station to more love and fuller living. The passion is prerequisite to resurrection. And it’s a claim I almost believe. For while I’m not convinced that suffering always does us good, history does seem to show that the good people—the most righteous, the most humane and innocent—do tend to draw down unmerited retribution on themselves, precisely because their conscience sets them at odds with the prevailing mores which always favor the vested interests. This was true of Jesus, it was true of Lincoln, and it was true of King. They might have turned away from the test, taken the path of least resistance each one, flinched at the critical moment.  Each suffered for their unwavering purity of purpose and each attained an apotheosis in death that eluded them in life.

Like King, I believe there is a soul force in the world, an undying hope and ineradicable hunger for justice that enabled black slaves and the children of slaves not only to sing the songs of exile—Go Down Moses, Hard Trials and Been in the Storm So Long—but that enabled them to survive the dark years of oppression and lift their voices in hallelujah with spirituals like "I’m Bound For de Kingdom," and "Peter, Go Ring Dem Bells." The same frightful passage that gave birth to the blues also generated gospel and created hosannas of jubilation like "He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands." That was the song that Marian Anderson sang when she appeared once more on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. King’s March on Washington. She was older, her voice not as strong in 1963 as it had been twenty-four years earlier. But still it rang out to the far reaches of the reflecting pool, resonant and resilient, as their voices still continue to carry, to every hill and mole-hill in Mississippi, from the gated communities of Sanford, Florida to the mean streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, singing out to you and me brother, to you and me sister, across time, like a chorus from some finer world.

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Einstein's God

Posted by on Apr 3, 2012 in Worship Services

Einstein’s God

Albert Einstein’s name has become synonymous with braininess. With his swarm of frizzy, uncombed hair and puppy-dog, twinkling eyes, his face is instantly recognizable, even by the ninety-nine percent of the planet who have no clue about what his theories mean. No wonder TIME magazine in the year 2000 selected him as "Man of the Century." He might just have been the man of the millennium. Who else are people going to remember a thousand years from now? Generals? Presidents?  Mitt Romney or Barak Obama? Einstein stands in the company of Aristotle and Copernicus.

For it was his insight into the equivalence of matter and energy that launched the atomic age. It was his Special Theory of Relativity that introduced clocks that slow down like molasses, time that stretches and compresses like silly putty, and his General Theory that forced ordinary people to bend their minds around the concept of curved space. He had a major hand in most everything that’s weird and surrealistic about modern science, from black holes to quantum theory.

These days most scientific breakthroughs seem to take billions of dollars, Hubble space telescopes or giant accelerators. But Einstein made most of his discoveries with nothing more complicated than a paper and pencil, just by thinking about the world in ways no one had ever bothered to think before.  Imagining what it might be like to race alongside a light beam, for example, or whirl around inside a bucket in the middle of empty space, or noticing that free falling in an elevator, you probably wouldn’t feel any gravity. Most people in falling elevators would presumably have their thoughts trained elsewhere. But not Einstein. He had a quirky twist to his intellect.

But it was his personality and spirit as much as his frontal cortex that captivated people.  He was an old fashioned materialist, who was absolutely convinced in the independent reality of a physical universe, who bowed before iron clad laws of cause-and-effect, and who resisted with every fiber of his being what he called the "spooky" implications of sub-atomic poltergeists that don’t have any definite mass or location or velocity until they’re surveilled in the lab. He had his feet firmly on the ground (or thought he did), yet his head often seemed to be in the clouds, and there was an almost otherworldly cast to his make-up. He wore old clothes, favored baggy sweatshirts, liked dumpy wool caps pulled down to the ears and preferred no socks whenever he could get away with it. He was casual about money, and about his public image. He didn’t mind offending people in high places, but spoke his mind with refreshingly little concern for where the chips might fall.

He was also a bit of a lecher, but despite that always retained a certain childlike quality to his character (which in fact might have been part of his charm for so many women).  He needed taking care of, like the boy who never grew up, and Einstein recognized this about himself. "When I ask myself how it happened that I in particular discovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the following circumstance," he reflected. "The ordinary adult never bothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up. Consequently, I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child would have."

The notion that this mental powerhouse flunked math in school is a sheer fiction. He had no problems with algebra. But he had sympathy for students who did struggle, and Einstein famously took time to help youngsters with their homework. "Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics," he assured one struggling student. "I can assure you that mine are even greater." When an eight-year-old neighbor rang the professor’s bell one afternoon seeking help with her arithmetic, carrying a plate of fudge as a bribe, Einstein welcomed her in and later explained to her apologetic parents that the exchange was mutual; he was learning just as much from the girl as she was from him.

He was a playful person.  Yet he was often estranged from his own children. His firstborn daughter was apparently given up for adoption, her father never bothering to lay eyes on the infant.  Close emotional bonds seemed foreign to his nature. Some clinicians speculate now that Einstein may have been born with some mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is often associated with high abilities for abstract reasoning and lower than average capacities for empathy. Einstein had a habit of repeating words and phrases, another possible sign of the disorder. Said one scientific colleague, "I do not know anyone as lonely and detached as Einstein. His heart never bleeds, and he moves through life with mild enjoyment and emotional indifference. His extreme kindness and decency are thoroughly impersonal and seem to come from another planet."

He could be just as indifferent about his own fate. In 1931, on a transatlantic crossing, a terrific storm overtook the ship carrying him to America. Listening to the gale outside, feeling tossed upon the waves, the ship at the mercy of the elements, Einstein recorded in his diary, "One feels the insignificance of the individual, and it makes one happy." In old age, faced with an inoperable aneurysm, he was equally philosophical, telling his assistant Helen Dukas that "It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly."

With the same sense of formality and detachment, Einstein disliked Beethoven and the romantics, calling them "too personal, almost naked." He preferred Mozart, whose music he said was "so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe itself." Faced with personal conflicts, Einstein typically retreated to his violin, or physics. But despite this aversion to interpersonal entanglements, he was passionate about social justice and cared deeply about people in the abstract.

His pronouncements on world affairs were labeled navejust as saints and prophets have always been called navebut most were right on target, according to my way of thinking. He was a pacifist, a world federalist, a socialist. He hated militarism and the kind of super-patriotism that resulted in goose-stepping armies and blind obedience to authority. "When a person can take pleasure in marching in step to a piece of music, it is enough to make me despise him," he scoffed. "He has been given his big brain only by mistake." He warned that the Third World War might be fought with guided missiles, but the Fourth World War would be fought with rocks. By the end of life, his commitment to non-violence was so complete that he gave up eating meat, though with a typical disregard for dogmatism, he told his sister Maja (who was also a vegetarian but loved hot dogs) that weiners might be considered a vegetable.

Einstein’s social conscience was undoubtedly part of his Jewish heritage. Early on, he had renounced Judaism. On a form requesting to be removed from German citizenship in 1896, he listed his religious affiliation as "none." But as anti-Semitism surged in Europe, he identified more and more with his spiritual heritage, and despite calling nationalism "an infantile disease, the measles of mankind," he became an increasingly ardent Zionist, who before the end of life would be offered (and decline) the position as president in the newly created state of Israel.

Though his God was not exactly the God of the Bible, his deity was a mostly wise and benevolent Creator. "I’m not an atheist," as Einstein explained. "The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many langua
ges. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand" what they are.

For Einstein, of course, the language the cosmic author used was not Hebrew or Greek, but the language of mathematics, and to the end of his life he would search for the unified field theory that would unlock the greatest riddles of existencenot only of why things are as they are, but why the universe goes to the bother of existing at all, and why the equations behind it should be so transparent to the human mind. As he remarked, the most incomprehensible thing about the cosmos is its very comprehensibility.

As he put it more than once, God doesn’t play dice. Events happen for a reason, in other words. It can’t all just be chalked up to accident. "The Lord God is subtle," he affirmed, "but not malicious." One gets the sense that many modern physicists like Stephen Hawking refer to the "mind of God" a little glibly, because they know it makes their own work seem more metaphysical and profound. But when Einstein referred to the creator as "The Old One" he wasn’t just speaking poetically. The idea of God has a spiritual resonance for him.

That was why he distanced himself from the non-believers of his own day like Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell, and why he would probably look dimly on militant atheists of the twenty-first century like biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion.  "The fanatical atheists," he wrote, "are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures whoin their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’cannot hear the music of the spheres." Most of these atheists were know-it-alls, he observed, arrogant in the self-certainty of their own negations. "What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos."
"Science without religion is lame," he said. "Religion without science is blind." One evening in Berlin, Einstein and his wife Elsa were at a dinner party where the topic of astrology came up. Casting horoscopes was just superstitious, Einstein suggested. Then another guest began to disparage religion in general. Belief in God, he insisted, was likewise superstitious nonsense, a collection of old wives tales. Trying to turn the conversation, the host observed that even Einstein harbored religious beliefs. "It isn’t possible!" the guest exclaimed, turning to the great thinker to ask if he were truly religious. "Yes, you can call it that," Einstein answered. "Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion."

That kind of faith might not satisfy true believers, but for Einstein, it did was enough. It instilled a lifelong sense of wonder and reverence for the creation. It fueled his curiosity and imagination. It provided a sense of gratitude for being permitted to glimpse even a small part of the limitless ocean of truth. And at the end of life, it brought the consolation of being part of something larger than himself.

Albert Einstein never embraced any hopes for personal immortality. The notion that the universe might have eternal use for his paltry ego might survive seemed to him a strange conceit. But a few weeks before his own death, lamenting the demise of Michele Besso, his friend of over sixty years, he wrote in sympathy to Besso’s widow Anna Winteler that her husband had "departed this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between pasts, present and future is only a stubborn illusion."
Einstein died a few weeks later at the age of seventy-six. By his bedside were twelve pages of closely written equations, with erasures and multiple cross-outs, part of his quest to delve the mystery of being that continued until the very end.

The son of an electrical engineer, he had begun his career working as an unknown functionary in a Swiss patent office. And oddly, he claimed several patents in his own name, mostly for improved refrigerator. To the best of my knowledge, he never sold or made any money for his iceboxes. But that didn’t bother him. His greatest discoveries became the property of the ages. His soul belonged to the universe.

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A Faith That Chooses Us

Posted by on Apr 2, 2012 in Worship Services

A Faith That Chooses Us
by Rev. Gary Kowalski
Delivered March 4, 2012 at First Parish of Sudbury.

Choice is an important value for Unitarian Universalists. One might say it’s a sacred precept.

Faith for us is not so much an heirloom handed down as a matter of living more intentionally and graciously here and now. Few of us were born into this tradition, and even those who were reared as Unitarian Universalists had to make a conscious decision at some point to embrace this movement as our own.

You might be a Jew or a Catholic out of habit or family history. But you have to choose to be a Unitarian Universalist, not necessarily abandoning your past, but not allowing it to define you either. Ours is religion where we determine our own convictions, hammering out our own beliefs, writing our own credos, and building our own theology.
When we consider our children, we recall the words of William Ellery Channing, who said that the great aim in religious education is "not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own," not to indoctrinate them with pre-digested answers but to arouse their own spiritual curiosity. We may teach them how Hindus celebrate the New Year and what the Buddha taught, but want them to form their own convictions when they finally grow up. That’s what growing up means, not just maturing physically but developing the inward compass that lets you set your own direction in life.

And when it comes to social witness, Unitarian Universalists have gone on record supporting reproductive choice for women and end-of-life choice for the terminally ill. In wartime, our congregations have been havens for conscientious objectors who believe that military service should be a matter of individual conscience rather than forced conscription. We went from defending inter-racial marriage in the 1950’s and 60’s to gay marriage in the 1990’s, but in both cases the logic was the same, that one’s choice of mate is a profoundly private decision.

Personal predilection, not the government censor, should determine what we read and the opinions we’re allowed to express. As liberals, we cherish the autonomy of the individual.

Perhaps that’s why one of the most popular guidebooks to Unitarian Universalism is a volume titled Our Chosen Faith. There we’re reminded that the word "heresy" comes from a Greek root, hairesis, that means "to choose." From the earliest days of the Christian empire, when the church under Constantine began to assemble the trappings of worldly power and pomp, there were some who chose not to cooperate with the new world order, who challenged the powers-that-be. They were mavericks, our forebears, who insisted on doing and saying things their own way rather than sticking to the prepared script. Though our beliefs may have evolved beyond those early Christian beginnings, we still hold that any genuine spirituality has to be freely embraced, not imposed by the hand of external authority.

Supporting this faith monetarily is another choice we make.  Our ancestors were instrumental in separating church and state, to insure that people could contribute to the religion of their own choosing.  Our congregations are voluntary associations, self-governing and self-financing, which means that all of our ministries depend upon the choices we make about the allocation of our resources.
And yet there is an important sense in which the faith we live by is not a matter of choice or preference or individual decision. There is a sense in which religion or spiritualitywhatever you want to call itis not an option we select so much as an encounter with realities not of our choosing.

That was the case, for example, with a thirty-two year old man wandering the streets of Chicago. He had just been fired. His daughter, only four years old, had died recently of spinal meningitis. He had begun to drink and had no money.  Everything in his world seemed to be falling apart. According to his own account, "Finally I reached a point where I found myself saying ‘Am I an utter failure?’ If so, I’d better get myself out of the way. But I said to myself, ‘You do not belong to you, therefore you do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You belong to the universe."
At that point something strange happened. "I was on Michigan Avenue, about three or four blocks south of the Chicago River, when suddenly I found myself in a sort of sparkling kind of sphere … And I heard a voice, such as I had never heard before, saying ‘From now on you need never await temporal attestation to your thought. You think the truth.’ I couldn’t believe I was not touching the ground and that I was hearing this extraordinary thing! It was after that I started writing feverishly. I said, ‘I think I must write everything down, because I was thinking the truth." And it was also in that year, 1927, that I was inspired by the birth of a new child, Allegra … I said, ‘I’m really going to give the rest of my life to this new young life.’ I pledged, both to the daughter who died and to the daughter now born, that I was committing myself to humanity."

By now you’re probably wondering, "Who was this guy?" Certainly not one of ours, you’re thinking, because Unitarians aren’t supposed to hear voices. We’re a people whom the psychologist Abraham Maslow described as "non-peakers," not ordinarily given to religious raptures or conversion experiences. The Beacon Hill lady who, on being told of the need to be born again, replied, "Why should I be born again? I was born in Boston!" was of this type. And when a worshiper in one of our New England congregations became so excited by the minister’s remarks that he began to holler "I got religion," he was reportedly approached by an usher  who whispered, "Please say you didn’t get it here!" But religion is not something we get so much as an inexplicable force that gets us, as it got Buckminster Fuller that day, hovering on the brink of suicide. From almost total breakdown he went on to become one of the great innovators of the twentieth century.

"In 1927," he said, "I resolved to do my own thinking and see what the individual, starting without any money or creditin fact with considerable discredit, but with a whole lot of experiencecould produce on behalf of his fellow men and women." Out of the chaos of a life in which all his dreams lay shattered, there emerged a new life as inventor, architect, and visionary.

And his Unitarian connections were impeccable. Bucky was the grandson of Arthur Buckminster Fuller, a Unitarian clergyman who happened to be the younger brother of renowned Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller. Her life story includes a turning point just as profound as the one her grandnephew experienced a century latera singular moment when she nearly lost her life and in that same instant found it again.

Margaret had been reared by her fatheralthough "trained" might be a better word. Sparing with affection, he recognized his daughter’s superior mind from early infancy and drilled her incessantly, testing the limits of what one intellect could absorb: Latin, Greek, Italian, French, metaphysics and philosophy. Margaret excelled under this regimen, but as womanhood approached she realized the scholarly attainments that so pleased her papa were not likely to endear her in the same way to any other man. Domesticity and spinsterhood were the equally depressing prospects open to a woman such as herself. And by the time she reached adulthood, Margaret had fallen into a deep depression. Her male friends were finished with their education and heading toward careers in law, medicine, and the church. But her own outlooks were bleak. On Thanksgiving Day, 1831, she recorded in her journal: "I felt within myself great power, and generosity, and tenderness; but it seemed to me as if they were all unrecognized,
and as if it was impossible that they should be used in life. I was only one-and-twenty; the past was worthless, the future hopeless."

Margaret was pondering all this, walking in the woods, and had seated herself near a pool of water, when "Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover." Illumined in that golden glow, she was unexpectedly lifted up out of herself, out of her skin, out of her ordinary consciousness, as she records:

  • I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the All and all was mine. This truth came to me, and I received it unhesitatingly; so that I was for that hour taken up into God.

Like a seed that splits open when exposed to sun and light, the shell of Margaret’s individual persona seemed to be stripped away, as an energy not her own poured in. And from that point on, she began to blossom. She became the editor of the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, writing essays on feminism that would appear in book form as Woman in the Nineteenth Century. She worked as a journalist for the New York Tribune, investigating prison conditions and treatment of the insane, then as a foreign correspondent traveling to Europe where she fell in love and had a child with an Italian revolutionary, fighting for the creation of a Roman Republic. Margaret is perhaps best known for her exultant exclamation, "I accept the universe!" To which Emerson’s friend Thomas Carlyle drily replied, "Gad, she’d better." But accepting the universe for Margaret was no philosophy of shallow acquiescence or weary resignation. Rather it meant a hearty embrace of all that life had to offer—tears and blood and love and passionan unqualified "Yes" to her own birth and death and all that lay between.

This was Margaret’s faith. Not a faith she chose, but one that illumined and enlightened her as she sat alone and hopeless in the woods. And this was also Bucky’s faith, not one he arrived at through rational deliberation, but one that brought him to an understanding, staring into the cold waters of Lake Michigan, that "You have no right to eliminate yourself. You belong to the universe." To use traditional religious language, you could say that each of them was saved, brought from the pit of desolation and despair into all the richness and ripeness and potential of living … hoisted up by some impetus larger than themselves.

And this is what our faith is all about, saving souls, not in the narrow sense in which some churches use that phrase, but rescuing life from cynicism, redeeming it from bitterness and hopelessness and futility, enabling people to live fully and freely and affirmatively. Many of us were reared in denominations where being saved meant taking communion every Sunday, or reciting the creeds. Mark Twain ridiculed that kind of religion a century ago when he defined faith as "believing what any darned fool knows ain’t so."  
But that is not our faith, not the one we support with our dollars. Because religion for us is not about tithing. Not about dogma or obedience, not about ritual or living up to other people’s expectations. Rather, religion for us is an openness to the mystery that sustains and upholds life. It is a sense of kinship with the cosmos. It is an invitation to bolder dreams and more generous action.

For me, being a Unitarian Universalist is not so much a choice I make.  Rather it’s an expression of who I am and who I have to be, if I’m to be true to my deepest self.  I couldn’t choose to be a fundamentalist, for example, because I not only want to believe but have to believe that tolerance and intelligence and compassion will have the last word over prejudice and ignorance and fear.  I have to believe that any deity worthy of the name is bigger than any human conception the infinite.  I have to believe what both science and the great sages of all time tell me, that we’re all related and one family on the earth.

And I have to support these beliefs practically, with my time and money, because that’s when I come alive, when my own efforts seem aligned with some larger energy working through me and beyond me, so that I can understand myself not just as the sum of what I’ve eaten for breakfast, but as a recipient and contributor to something grander and more lasting.  Our religion thrives on Bucky’s motto, "Find something useful to do and do it!"

So get your hands dirty in our Memorial Garden, or teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, or Occupy Sudbury, remembering that the great purpose of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it, to give back to the universe that brought us into being and leave the world a better, richer place for our having been.

This is not only the faith we choose, but also the faith that chooses us.

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Religion in a Spiritual Age

Posted by on Mar 22, 2012 in Worship Services

Religion in a Spiritual Age


Our reading this morning is an excerpt from a reflection by The Rev. Lillian Daniel, senior minister of the First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

On airplanes I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.”  Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo…

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me.  There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself.  What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you.  Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.


“I’m spiritual but not religious.”  If I never hear this claim again it will be too soon.  And yet it’s everywhere these days, especially in liberal circles, sitting next to us at community meetings, selling self-help books, hanging out on college campuses.  Even Oprah has said she’s spiritual but not religious for heaven’s sake.  Spirituality without religion has become the unholy holiness of the new age.

Which is probably why Lillian Daniel’s piece, part of which we heard in our reading this morning, exploded this summer onto the liberal religious scene.  She has dared to be a cranky religious person in public (I left the super cranky parts out of the reading  they are too much for Sunday, but not for Monday — you can check them out online).  Lillian has dared to say that going to church is actually helpful.  And she has had the audacity to imply that creating a spirituality for our personal consumption and out of our own experience alone is hubris.  This is radical stuff in a spiritual-but-not-religious age.

It’s radical because our culture in general, and liberal culture in particular, tends to prioritize personal liberty and self-reliance over community.  Religious people are outliers these days because we believe that living in community  the kind of community known as a congregation  not only has value but is vital to our spiritual well being.  Somehow we’ve learned that while it’s fine to be spiritual by ourselves, we need each other to become religious.

Being religious is unusual nowadays because it means we have cast our lot with  gasp  an actual institution and that our affiliation with that institution might make an actual claim on our personal identity.  This really is counter-cultural.  The root of the word religion is the Latin religare, to bind.#  And we sense that, don’t we, that by coming here you choose to bind yourselves to a certain group of people, collectively called the First Parish of Sudbury, and to a certain tradition called Unitarian Universalism.  This morning I ask you to think about who you are bound to, and how, and why.

Many of you have heard of the Unitarian Universalist Association, or “the UUA.”  It’s easy to think of our Association as that denominational institution at 25 Beacon Street  the address of the UUA headquarters in Boston.  And of course “the UUA” is partly the institution and its staff.  But really it isn’t.  Our Association is the 1100 congregations across the country who have bound themselves in covenant to do together what we cannot do alone.  Our Association is both the collection of these 1100 covenanted congregations and the institutional architecture that connects us.

And lest these connections sound abstract, like they only exist Out There, consider just a few of our associational connections that run through this place right here and right now. The Chalice Circles small group ministry model so many of you are a part of was created by other UU congregations.  Your 12-14 year olds are in the midst of the Our Whole Lives sexuality education curriculum that was jointly developed by our UUA and the United Church of Christ.  Rev. Gary comes to you a trained interim minister thanks to the UUA’s Transitions office (and his own years of experience, to be sure).  Annemarie and your Search Committee have countless resources at their disposal, from coaching calls with me to search committee handbooks, to an online ministerial candidate matching system, to a host of UUA field staff to call for candidate references.  Check out the little bookshelf thingy in your pew.  The teal and gray hymnals were created by our Association to gather sacred music, and our publishing wing published the books.  Meanwhile, you literally walk with sister congregations under a single Standing on the Side of Love banner, and therefore amplify our faith’s justice witness.

Our Association lives. And it lives here.

Meanwhile, First Parish of Sudbury pays dues to the Unitarian Universalist Association and to the District totaling about $75 per member.  This congregation takes that stewardship seriously, and I thank you for that.  But it would be a huge mistake to reduce this congregation’s associational connections to some gross fee-for-service transaction along the lines of we pay your dues to the UUA and District and get X services in return.  The financial contribution is important, but it’s only the bluntest way that we reach out to support other Unitarian Universalists.

Associational connections are everywhere.  So much of what happens around here is enriched by these connections.  Our programs are better, our leadership is stronger, and our songs easier to sing because of our association with other congregations.  And we, in turn, strengthen others.

My partner  who is also a Unitarian Universalist  lives near Seattle, and when she comes back East she always wants to come to worship at one of our white-steepled New England Churches just like this one.  She posts pictures of our gorgeous buildings on Facebook and croons about the bells and the steeples and the grassy yards, the gilt lettering on the walls, and the organs.  She literally didn’t believe me when I told her that if you google “UU church,” 50 little red pins pop up on the map within 25 miles of my house in Jamaica Plain.  This degree of proximity and density astonishes her Western UU heart, because where she lives people FLY to District workshops.  Some have to drive hundreds of miles to visit another congregation.  And they DO!  Her jealousy blasts me out of my presumption that there’s a white-steepled UU church gracing prime real estate on every town green in America.

UUs in other parts of the country know what we have the luxury to forget: we need each other.  Imagine how important it is for the Unitarian Universalist Church in Wyoming to feel our collective presence when they raise a new rainbow flag on their church building every few weeks because the old one gets burned off its brackets.  Or how our brothers and sisters in Knoxville Tennessee felt when a team from the UU Trauma Response Ministry arrived with our Association’s President and media experts just after the deadly shootings there?  Imagine how it felt to Unitarian Universalists in Kampala Uganda when they opened a big box of hymnals from our Association after their minister told stories of running out because his congregation is growing so fast.  Or how the congregations in rural Alaska are served by a single minister who arrives by bushplane, her travel subsidized by the District.

Individual congregations can’t do this alone.  Together we can.  That is the power or our Association.  And all of these connections give us healthy dose of religion to enrich our spirituality.

One of the reasons Lillian Daniel’s piece has captured so much attention is that it resists the claim that congregations are fundamentally out of step with the 21st century.  Not only what happens IN congregations, but congregations themselves.  I just heard a new phrase that I toy with the way one’s tongue torments a sore tooth: Congregations are a 19th century technology.  If I believed that, I literally wouldn’t be standing here.  But still the phrase hints at the anachronism of congregational life in a post-parish, spiritual-but-not-religious world.  It’s impossible not to feel a little old-fashioned arriving at church on a Sunday morning and parking right next to a carriage house for god’s sake.  This church was literally built to serve another age.

And still, undeniably, this place is a refuge for our longing hearts.  Coming here slakes the loneliness and isolation we so often feel in the face of this hurting world.  There’s nothing anachronistic about this longing.  There is something deeply troubling about the postmodern presumption that we have stopped needing other people to help us make meaning of the world.  How much greater would our loneliness and isolation be if First Parish of Sudbury were the only one of its kind?  This morning we pause to remember that we need the people outside these walls too.
Every time a chalice is lit in some other church, our collective place in the order of things is that much brighter.  Even now, chalices are burning in Burlington, Vermont, and Rochester, New York; in Kent Ohio and Philadelphia, and Annapolis; Lexington, Charlotte, Charleston, and Miami.  Our isolation as religious people in a spiritual age is lightened when our understanding of who we are enlarges to include all those hearts too.

I’ve never been here to your church before.   My work brings me to many UU churches, but when I come to a place for the first time I always bring that visceral experience of being a newcomer  do you remember that that feels like?  So here I was this morning, sitting right there, admiring this beautiful space and then I heard the doxology start.

From all that dwell below the skies;
let songs of hope and faith arise,
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung;
through every land, by every tongue.

Before I became a minister I was an active lay person in a congregation a lot like this one, and Old Hundredth was always my favorite part of the service.  Something about the ritual of the same song every week added a dimension of sound and substance to the singing that reached deep and took root in me.  When I became the minister of my own congregation and lost the ability to go to worship, I would sometimes retreat into the dark sanctuary and conjure my home congregation.  I would hear them singing Old Hundredth like a lullabye, and I would feel soothed and comforted.

So I come here this morning, in a formal role, yes, but first and always a sister in faith, and as soon as I heard those first few notes, a flood of answered longing once again stung my eyes and stole my breath and I knew I was bound to you.

This power to alchemize belonging with a few bars of music is the power of our religion.  Our Association gave us the hymnal in which those words are written, the theology that adapted those new words to the old 16th century music, the freedom for that song to become a chosen tradition in this congregation, the training for Emma Jean to appreciate its place in the canon of our sacred music.#  This one little piece of music is only a single sparkle in a great web that connects all Unitarian Universalists, that reaches not only across distance but across time.  And yet those four lines contain everything I will ever need to know about why our Association is important…

I belong to you, and you belong to me, not only because of this congregation, but because of others, and because of a religious movement that gives all of us the tools we need to build a sense of ourselves as Unitarian Universalists, and the architecture to live this connection in real time and space.  Like this time.  And this space.  Let us thank God for each other, for this place, and for our larger faith, which has given us each other for brothers and sisters.


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Let's Talk

Posted by on Mar 1, 2012 in Worship Services

Let’s Talk

Everyone has a job to do.  Recently, Susan Stamberg of National Public Radio reported on a character named Miss Lilly, an eighty-one year old woman she encountered in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris whose specialty is to "parlez vous."

Stamberg had just gotten off the bus and was walking to a friend’s place when she spotted the aged woman, sitting in the sun, holding up a sign that said "Hello, Let’s Talk." Miss Lilly explained that her mission was getting people to talk with one another, and that in public places, there ought to be spots designed for conversations, just as there are locations designated for smokers, sort of the real world equivalent of a chat room. Miss Lilly speaks several languages, French of course (and everything sounds better in French), but also English, German, Dutch, a little Spanish, as well as her native tongue, which is Hungarian. She worked as a translator for many years, until she retired. Though she resides in Brussels, she visits Paris several times a year to sit and talk to strangers, not because she’s lonelyMiss Lilly says she has lots of friends and relatives to keep her companybut because she has a job to do. "This cannot be done by anybody," as she explained to the reporter. "I mean, a young girl could not do it. A man, young or old, could not do it. Only an elderly woman can do it." And in her navy slacks, sturdy shoes and porkpie hat, Miss Lilly is all business. The shop, as she calls it, opens each day at three and closes at seven.

Miss Lilly doesn’t talk about religion or politicsthose topics are off limits, more likely to provoke conflict than real dialogueand she also insists that she’s not there to talk to people about their problems. She’s not an amateur psychiatrist. The people she speaks with are of all nationalities and come from every continentsbut what they have in common is that they all like to talk about themselves and, if Miss Lilly, is right, they’re almost all a little lonely and eager for some human contact. The day that Stamberg interviewed her, Miss Lilly was surrounded by a small crowd: a young man from Africa who missed his home, a French student reading Jack Kerouac, trying to understand On the Road and getting a hand with the idioms from an older woman with better English. It was a circle of help and care that wouldn’t have formed except for Miss Lilly’s presence and her beguiling invitation. And the chance to talk gave the participants a little pleasure. It made the world a bit warmer and more intimate, at least for part of an afternoon.

Miss Lilly knows that her mission in life may seem eccentric to others. "People look at poor me as a little bit crazy," she told Ms. Stamberg. But the world is so mixed-up, in her opinion, that being regarded as offbeat is not necessarily a bad thing.

What if people spent more time talking? Not shouting at each other, not giving advice or blaming or editorializing, but just talking … about their lives and projects and fantasies and frustrations? I suppose there might be a little less hostility, a bit more tolerance and understanding, maybe even a little more peace among the human race. The world could do with a few more Miss Lillys. For although more and more people seem to be plugged-in these daysinstant messaging, gabbing on cell phones, and glued to email even when they’re on vacationthe quality of communication hasn’t necessarily kept pace. I spend more time than ever on the computerand while I appreciate the convenience of being able to zip memos to family and friends far away, I’m not sure that Microsoft has made me a better minister or done much to strengthen my relationships with anyone that really matters. In fact, one British study commissioned by Hewlett Packard found that workers who try to juggle electronic mail with other office tasks usually suffer mentally for it, with IQs dropping an average of ten pointsa "dumbing-down" equivalent to missing a whole night’s sleep or smoking two joints of marijuana.

Technology seems to be bringing the world closer together and at the same time making us feel more and more remote. Most of us suffer from information overload, and amid the constant buzz, it becomes hard to separate the signal from the noise.

Sometimes, it’s helpful to simply pull the plug.  When my children were young, more than once, I took the radical step of disconnecting the TV at our house and storing it away in the trunk of my car. It would live out there for a day or two, or occasionally for a week or two, and I seldom missed it. On the contrary, I noticed that the level of family conversation usually improved.  My son and I had a memorable exchanges, on one of those occasions, when he sat down at the piano and I pulled out my guitar and we spent the better part of an hour just talking about the music that was important to us. It wasn’t a discussion that I could have engineered as a parent. But I know it would never have happened if the TV had been on. We had to create a conversational zone where human interchange could happen, by making time to talk.

Some people take the direct approach to creating those times and spaces. Miss Lilly’s story reminded me of the Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum, who decided a few years ago to spend some time hanging out in a few of the bars and espresso cafes around Seattle, holding up a sign that said, "Tell Me A Short Love Story And I Will Buy You Coffee and Make You Famous." Fulghum says that most people looked at him quizzically at first and thought he must be joking. But then they started to open up with all their wonderful stories of puppy love, and unrequited love, and stranger-than-fiction love.

One man, for example, explained that he had been married for about nine years when he started getting mash notes from another woman. The anonymous admirer said that she saw him almost every day and had fallen hopelessly in love. The letters came about once a week, not demanding anything or trying to push a relationship or make life complicated, but always full of compliments and womanly appreciation. She seemed smart and funny, too. "The mail began to affect me," he said. "I looked in the mirror and saw that I wasn’t in great shape, so I started to work out at a gym. I went and bought some new clothes, which is something I don’t often do. She noticed. She wrote me that I was looking healthy and she liked my new style. She even sent me a great tie." The bad part was that he felt guilty. He’d never strayed from his wife, although like most men he’d thought about it. And his conscience really started to nag when she began sending erotica. "Nothing dirty or pornographic," he explained, "just short stories and some photographs of people kissing." Months went by and then one day he got a book in the mail, Sensual Love for Sensual Couples that went a lot, lot farther than kissing. By this time, of course, the man was in a lather, in good shape, well-dressed, his brain giddy with romance and his body aching for sex. "One day a huge bouquet of yellow roses arrived at my office," he continued. "There was a note enclosed that said she had decided to take the chance of meeting me and asked me to meet in the lobby of a nearby hotel that very afternoon. She would be wearing a yellow rose, sitting in the main lobby." "I went out of my mind. I couldn’t go, but I wanted to go, and I had to go. But I thought I would check her out first. I went to the hotel, went in through a side door, and went up the stairs to the mezzanine where there is a balcony that overlooks the lobby. And there she was. Beautifully dressed. Wearing a yellow rose. Sitting on a couch all alone in the middle of the lobby. It was my wife. It was our tenth wedding anniversary."
The great thing about Fulghum’s book is that every story is different. The people who tell them are real individuals, almost randomly selected, who happened to show up a
t a coffee bar on the right day. Some are about homosexual attraction, some about Platonic love, each one is singular, but none of them seem strange or foreign to me.

Each one is an account I can relate to. Because deep down, our stories are all different but somehow all the same. Each of us has tales of loneliness, of temptation, of survival, of celebration. And the greatest gift we can give each other is to swap and trade those personal narratives, to break through the walls of superficiality that keep us separate and unknown to one another, to acknowledge each other in all our sweet, human frailty.

Indeed, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggested that being in rapport and conversation with one another is the closest we come to experiencing the divine in this worldthat energizing mystery at the heart of life. And it’s illuminating to consider that the word "conversation" comes from a root that means "to turn together," which implies taking turns: listening and speaking, not interrupting, learning to find balance in being together. "Turning together" implies a change in posture: not turning our backs on other people, but facing each other in all our uniqueness and similarity.

But it’s not so easy to establish an I-Thou relationship, and not easy to get beyond casual chit chat in most of our conversations, because while most of us yearn for more authentic human connections, we don’t really want to be soul mates with everyone we meet, and no one can sustain the pressure of being intimate twenty-four hours a day, at least I can’t.  So we construct barriers that keep us from getting too close, because we fear that if the boundaries ever did come down, we might be overwhelmed by the neediness of others. While boundaries that are too strong keep us apart, we do need some boundaries to enable us feel safe enough to talk and be vulnerable with each other.

Miss Lilly sets her boundaries, for example. No evangelizing, no political harangues. The shop opens at three and closes at seven. And congregations also need to establish ground rules for how personal information gets shared.  Milestones is probably not the time or place to talk in any detail about the childhood incest you might have suffered, for example. Turning the congregation at large into a twelve-step group is a bad idea for the same reasonbecause twelve-step groups can be found elsewhere and do fantastic work of their own. You’re not likely to have a conversation that changes your life at our coffee hour, although coffee hour serves a useful function. But there are appropriate times and places here to meet people on a more meaningful level.

A friend of mine once suggested that we ought to greet each other not with the stock phrase, "hello, how are you?" but with a more genuine query, "tell me, what are you going through?"  Chalice Circles, sometimes called small group ministry, provides an opportunity to answer that question. Meeting for an hour or two every other week, small groups offer the time needed to unplug ourselves from the instant messaging and multi-tasking and engage in the slow, patient, concentrated work of paying attention and being present with one another. What are you going through? The groups are guided and structured in such a way that no one dominates or feels compelled to disclose more than they’re comfortable with. What are you going through? Whether it’s the crisis of divorce or the muddle of figuring out your religious beliefs or the challenge of adjusting to the loss of a loved one, there are people who can empathize, because they’ve been there themselves. What are you going through? Handling the hard stuff becomes somehow easier when there are others to confide in, and the satisfactions become all the richer when they’re shared.

Maybe you’re like Miss Lilly. You already have plenty of friends and acquaintances to keep you company. You don’t need to meet new people or talk to strangers to keep you occupied. But others are in need of you, and that means you have a job to do.

Because no one else can tell your story. You have a gift nobody else can share. So as they’d say in Paris, "Bonjour. Parlons nous." Hello. Let’s talk.

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