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Feeding The Spirit

Posted by on Jan 6, 2013 in Worship Services

Feeding The Spirit

Reading: Rev. Raymond Baughan: “What Is Your Theology?”

What’s your theology?  You try to say the world the way it means to you.  You look at what you live and try to speak it; and the mystery turns into a search for language to tell how it is, and what the world has to say about what you mean.  We are all theologians. We step, says Wallace Stevens, “barefoot into reality.”  We touch the running water and the rocks.  We hurt, we laugh, we grasp and are grasped. We fall and are embraced.  We find ourselves in others and others in ourselves.  Broken and fragmented, we are driven toward wholeness, toward integrity, toward healing what separates and divides us from one another.  Long before we hold any belief about it, we feel the presence of something sacred and meaningful.  Unable to name it, we respond with metaphor, with vision, with decision, and we live as though that were the way the world is.  Your theology is your commitment.  In Herman Melville’s words, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

Sermon

We are looking for our true places. Driven toward wholeness , integrity, healing, we are looking. But why?  What is it about us human beings that we are on such a journey?  Is it by choice, life circumstance?  Or are we somehow hardwired for this. . . . for worship . . . or spirituality or faith . . . . . . . . . . or something that those words point to?

My curiosity set me off on a brief meandering journey into the cognitive science of religion, linguistics, philosophy, theology, history and neurotheology.  Within and among those fields of study, arguments of all kinds are being made about why humans are and are not religious.  One that caught my attention is a variation on the creation/evolution debate where fundamentalist perspectives on each side are playing out.

Those who believe the creation of humanity was a divine act claim we are hardwired for faith because we are created by god and god hardwired us that way. We are hardwired for god and in the course of our lives we search for and may find god.

Those who believe human beings are the result of evolution argue “we are religious because . . . our ancestors acquired . . .  genes that expressed. . . an instinct for faith that has proved to be adaptive.” Being hardwired for religion has enabled human survival by “inclining us toward group cohesion.” We are hardwired for community and in the course of our lives we search for and may find community.  (Haught, Commonweal, Hard-wired for God? 4/5/2010)

In this one area of scientific inquiry, the human need for god and the human need for community are beyond curiosity, desire, prosperity, struggle or convenience.  These needs are part of what it is that makes us human.  No matter the side of the creation/evolution argument  human beings are hard wired to reach for something greater than the individual self.

John Dominic Crossan is a scholar of the historical Jesus and early Christianity.  He has weighed in on this notion of humanity’s hardwiring.  He writes we are hard wired for religion just as we are for language but not for “God” any more than for “English.”   We are not, Crossan writes, “pre-programmed for any specific religion or any specific language.”  We are hardwired to search for meaning.  That search need not begin with “god”. That is but one – and only one – perfectly valid name for the mystery that surrounds us. (On Faith blog, 12/6/06)

Now I’m inclined to accept this notion of hardwiring and to say yes to all three of these purposes for it:  a connection to god, a preference for community, a search for meaning.  I say yes to all of them, apart from any argument claiming the truth of one over another.  I say yes to all of them because I believe we are hardwired for something more, for something larger, beyond the individual self and that it inspires us to seek god, community, meaning.

I say we are hardwired for wholeness.

Listen again to these words from the Raymond Baughan quote:
“Broken and fragmented, we are driven toward wholeness, toward integrity, toward healing what separates and divides us from one another.  Long before we hold any belief about it, we feel the presence of something sacred and meaningful.”

Among our sources of faith is reliance on direct human experience of that transcending mystery and wonder . . . .  There is one experience in my life I can now describe as having traveled that hardwired pathway calling human beings toward wholeness.  It happened in the Blue Ridge Mountains in my home state of Virginia at a place called Thunder Ridge, where a stone overlook atop the ridge looks west.

I was standing on Thunder Ridge.  It was cold, incredibly and loudly windy, with a clear sky. From the overlook the Shenandoah Valley spreads wide before me and across it the Appalachian Range is visible. As I stood there on the ridge, it seemed the only sound was the wind, that no other sound was even possible.  As I stood there, trying to brace myself against the wind, I felt a change – from the wind pushing on me, being a sound outside me to the wind being within, being  the breath in me.  The wind on the ridge and my breathing became one.  And I became rooted to the small patch of earth on which I stood.  My feet were of the earth – not on it but of it.  Whatever pulse of life there was on the ridge was soon enough beating inside me.  This was as complete an experience of connection to this fragile and resilient blue planet as I can imagine.  The implications and consequences of those moments on Thunder Ridge shape my theological journey and my understanding of my place in the world to this day.  Those moments shape my search for the holy, for community, for meaning.

It’s been more than 35 years since my experience on Thunder Ridge. Try as I might and even now, I have yet to find words that do it justice, convey the intensity of those few moments.  Over the years as I have re-lived it, the heart of what happened is unchanged.  “Broken and fragmented, I am driven toward wholeness, toward integrity, toward healing what separates and divides us . . . .  Long before I held any belief about it, I felt the presence of something sacred and meaningful.” This is how it was for me that day.

It is a hard thing, this being hardwired for wholeness.  It means there is something incomplete in us.  There is room in us. Some might say an emptiness.  Some might say a possibility  a possibility that allows us to “feel the presence of something sacred and meaningful.”

It is a hard thing being hardwired for wholeness.  There are no guarantees of outcome.  Having this room in us for something more can lead us in many directions  away from god, away from community, away from meaning, into addictions, into dangers, into a seemingly endless search.  There are no guarantees.  Only the drive toward wholeness.

Here we are  humans hardwired for a search for wholeness.  Some of us are intentionally following our own path, already on our own journey, our own quest.  Others are looking for direction.  Some of us are taking a break, finding rest here for a time.  Some are struggling with an insight or question, with a hard blow dealt by hard times, by tragedy, by loss. Some of us are here with a spirit that smiles for we have recently felt the presence of the sacred.  Here we are with a wealth of traditions and stories and images and songs, a wealth of sources offered to us with the invitation to c
arefully, respectfully learn from them as we go about the tasks of making our own life’s meanings.

Here we are.  Hardwired for wholeness. Held in community. The rest is up to us.  What we bring.  What we give.  What we share.  What we make.

Let us be this way with each other:
Try to say the world the way it means to you.  Look at what you live and try to speak it.  Turn the mystery into a search for language to tell how it is, and what the world has to say about what you mean. . . Step . . . “barefoot into reality.”  Touch the running water and the rocks.  Hurt.  Laugh. Grasp and be grasped. Fall and be embraced.  Find yourself in others and others in you.  As broken and fragmented as we are, we are driven toward wholeness . . . Unable to name it, we respond with metaphor, with vision, with decision, and we live as though that were the way the world is. . . .

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The Pursuit of Happiness

Posted by on Nov 26, 2012 in Worship Services

The Pursuit of Happiness

". . . They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."  When Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness, he had nothing vague or private in mind.  He meant a public happiness which is measurable; which is, indeed, the test and justification of any government.

In Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence Garry Wills analyzes every phrase of that document, examining philosophies that informed it and cultural developments and political circumstances that led to it.  He explores the Declaration as a revolutionary charter, a scientific paper, a moral paper, a sentimental paper and a national symbol.   He presents the reader with insights into the many influences on Jefferson  among them David Hume, John Locke, and Frances Hutcheson who in 1725 coined the phrase "the greatest happiness for the greatest number."  As for Jefferson’s use of "the pursuit of happiness," Wills argues against a commonly held belief among scholars that Jefferson took this phrase lightly from the works of philosopher John Locke who spoke of "life, liberty, and property".  Jefferson was not making an oblique philosophical reference to property as equivalent to or a definition of happiness, nor to property rights of any kind.  It was Wills I quoted as I began:  "When Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness, he had nothing vague or private in mind.  He meant a public happiness which is measurable; which is, indeed, the test and justification of any government."

What is this thing called happiness?  How do we measure it?  

In 2008 Nicholas Sarkozy, then President of France, created the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, chaired by Nobel Prize Winning economists Joseph Stiglitz (a former World Bank chief economist) and Amartya Sen (professor at Harvard and an authority on poverty).  In September 2009 the Commission issued its final report.  Amidst a growing financial crisis and increasing concern over the impacts of climate change, Stiglitz and Sen wrote it "has long been clear that gross domestic product (GDP) is an inadequate metric to gauge well-being over time particularly in its economic, environmental, and social dimensions . . . often referred to as sustainability." (p.8)  They distinguish between assessments of current well-being and of sustainability.  Current well-being has to do with economic resources, such as income, and with non-economic things like what they do and what they can do, how they feel, and the natural environment they live in. Whether these levels of well-being can be sustained over time depends on whether the capital that matters for our lives (natural, physical, human, social) is passed on to future generations. (p.11)

One example Stiglitz and Sen use to illustrate this shift in thinking is increased driving.  As GDP is measured now, increased driving is a good thing, a very good thing. It increases production and consumption of both gasoline and cars and all manner of things associated with them. But if GDP were measuring wellbeing and sustainability we’d have other things to account for, like the hours of leisure and work time lost to long commutes and traffic jams, and the environmental costs of pollutants both on the production and consumption sides of the equation. (Peter Goodman, Emphasis on Growth is Called Misguided 9/22/09)   

As the report noted, "What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted." Within two years of the report, the governments of France, Great Britain, and the United States began processes to determine meanings and measures for wellbeing and sustainability – gross wellbeing to go with gross domestic product.                                                                  

Well before the 2009 report; before France, Britain, and the United States headed down this path, and long after Jefferson penned the phrase the pursuit of happiness . . . in 1972 the term "gross national happiness" was coined by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of the tiny Eastern Himalayan kingdom called Druk Yul or the Land of the Thunder Dragon, better known to the world as Bhutan.  As the King prepared to open Bhutan to the "modern age" he used the phrase "gross national happiness" to signal a commitment to developing an economy based on Buddhist spiritual values.  The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion. The King believed that beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side, as they complement and reinforce each other.

The four pillars (the framework) of GNH (gross national happiness) in Bhutan as stated on the Gross National Happiness Commission’s web site are:
i. Developing a dynamic economy as the foundation for a vibrant democracy;
ii. Harmonious Living  in harmony with tradition and nature;
iii. Effective and good governance; and
iv. Our people: investing in the nation’s greatest asset.
Collaborating with an international group of scholars and empirical researchers, the Centre for Bhutan Studies in the capital city Thimphu further developed the four pillars, expanding them to eight general contributors to gross national happiness:  physical, mental and spiritual health, time balance, social and community vitality, cultural vitality, education, living standards, good governance, and ecological vitality.

The GNH framework of four pillars and eight contributors reflects its Buddhist origins.  The four pillars parallel the Four Noble Truths of the Buddhist tradition, the first teachings of the Buddha after attaining Nirvana.  The eight contributors to happiness parallel to Buddhism’s Noble Eight Fold Path – the way leading to cessation of suffering and the achievement of enlightenment. It is the path of insight into the true nature of reality and to eradicating greed, hatred and delusion.  GNH is also grounded in empirical research from psychology and other social sciences.  (2011 Report from the Bhutanese Government’s Gross National Happiness Commission found on the Commission’s website. Sources: (http://www.gnhc.gov.bt/; www.bhutan.gov.bt/; Wikipedia)

A nation need not be Buddhist in order to follow the lead of the Bhutanese. In April this year, Bhutan hosted meetings at the United Nations following the adoption of the July 2011 UN Resolution "Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development" in the General Assembly.  The resolution invites all UN Member State governments to "pursue public policy steps that would better capture the importance of pursuing happiness and well-being in development."

Our 2012 elections are now over.  I am holding on to optimism, and even some hope, that we will see change in our political discourse.  Changes away from political identity conflicts forcing people into corners and off any common ground that might exist.  Changes away from political fundamentalisms that view compromise, and even dialogue that suggests compromise, as failure or worse.   I find the story of Bhutan compelling because it allows me to see possibilities for our political
life, possibilities rooted in our national story and the pursuit of happiness.  As Garry Wills said, when Jefferson spoke of pursuing happiness, he had nothing vague or private in mind.  He meant a public happiness which is measurable; which is the test and justification of any government.

When the Bhutanese King spoke in 1972, he set in motion the creation of a new and different frame for understanding the purpose of government and the happiness  the collective well-being – of the people.  We have the need and opportunity to do the same here  to create a new frame for our political life.  George Lakoff, (Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant about the creation and use of frames in the politics) defines frames as structures of thought we use every day.  All words in all languages are defined in terms of frame-circuits in the brain. Ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world.  And how we see the world determines how we act.  

If I were reframing the purpose of our government I would take one item from the Bhutanese, a few words from the Declaration of Independence and a page from George Lakoff. From the Bhutanese happiness index I’d take investing in our people  our nation’s greatest asset.  From the Declaration of Independence I’d take the words unalienable rights; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; secure these rights; governments are instituted.  The page I’d take from Lakoff is about democracy.

Democracy starts with citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility both for oneself and for one’s family, community, country, people in general, and the planet. The role of government is to protect and empower all citizens equally via The Public: public infrastructure, laws and enforcement, health, education, scientific research, protection, public lands, transportation, resources, art and culture, trade policies, safety nets, and on and on. Nobody makes it on their own.  We all depend on The Public.  If you have done well enough; if you have done really well; if you became wealthy, you depended on The Public, and you have a responsibility to contribute significantly to The Public so that others can benefit in the future.  (from Framing Occupy Wall Street, October 19, 2011)

At this point in my writing, I found myself thinking as much about the holidays as about politics.  Within a gross domestic product frame, this season is about the connection between consumer spending and a thriving economy.  Within a gross domestic happiness frame, this season is an opportunity to give back when so many struggle with poverty, job loss, foreclosure, and the devastation resulting from Superstorm Sandy.   

Thoughts of the holidays gave way to this simple prayer.  May we engage in the pursuit of happiness  we here together, we neighbors in the same town, state, nation.  May we be a Democracy where we care about one another and act responsibly on that sense of care.  May we be a country where the role of government is to protect and empower all people and to do so equally. May the measure of our success as a nation be the wellbeing of all.

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The Seventy Percent Rule

Posted by on Nov 21, 2012 in Worship Services

The Seventy Percent Rule
                                                                                                                                       
On Easter Sunday some 40 years ago my maternal grandmother died.  As I sat with my mother and my aunt in the pre-dawn hours of that morning reading from the Psalms, I agonized about going to church; actually about where to go to church.  I was in deep need of two things:  a place to share my grief; and to know that my grandmother was "OK."   My grandmother was Southern Baptist by conviction and convenience.  It was her conviction that church mattered in people’s lives, that having that connection for her children was a good thing.  Human beings and church just went together.   And the theology suited her.  It was convenient as it was the closest church to her house, within walking distance.  To the best of my knowledge she was never baptized.  Having died in that state, her chosen church professed to believe that she was doomed.  I refused to accept that judgment.  I needed to know she was OK.

I decided to go the small Unitarian Church I had been visiting for some time.   When I walked in and took a seat that morning, I hoped and prayed I had come to the right place.   On that Easter Sunday, that small congregation delivered!  They let me grieve in their midst while they cared  – silently, with words, a gentle touch, a nod, a cup of tea at fellowship hour, maybe even a tear or two to match my own.  And the minister’s sermon  it was one of those morning’s when I swore the sermon was written just for me.  His words spoke directly to my heart and the agonizing question I held there  a question about what happens when we die wrapped in worry about teachings of punishment for those, like my grandmother, who did not  in the eyes of the church – accept Jesus as her savior.  The message I got from the preacher was more eloquently stated than this but simply put he said:  I don’t believe in heaven or hell.  Eternal life is possible because we live on in the lives of those our life has touched, by the difference we have made, by the love we share.
 
That congregation delivered.   That morning I experienced my conversion to Unitarian Universalism.   It was almost too good to be true, and certainly too good to pass up.  A faith that could save both my grandmother and me on the same morning was surely worth my commitment, my investment. . . .
 
Many folks make a commitment to a congregation because they are, as I was years ago, looking for a community where we can be held and where we can from time to time – find insight and guidance for living, day by day, every day.

The desire for community, and those moments when a deep need is met, connects us.  This is our common ground, ties that bind.

Why we come in to such a community as this and why we stay  these can be two different things.
   
On that Easter years ago, when I came in, I got exactly what I needed.  Exactly.  And it was surely true that each Sunday thereafter would not be like that.  I would not be blessed with 100% of what I wanted/needed every Sunday.

Why stay?

My reasons for staying had to do with acceptance, with deepening my spirit and opening my mind, and with opportunities to contribute and to make a difference in the lives of others.   These were the things I received.
 
What I gave in return were baked goods for fellowship hour, teaching children in the religious education program and soon enough serving as the Director of Religious Education, volunteering to help with clean-up day, pitching in when we hung the greens at Christmas time, participating in the annual meeting, representing the congregation at district events.  
The desire for community and all the reasons why we choose to stay connect us.  This too is our common ground, more ties that bind.  

Then things get complicated.
 
Things get complicated because there is a diversity of need, and of experience, among us each week.
 
Diversity in this sanctuary comes from the stuff of life. Someone found a job, or welcomed a child into the family.  Someone else struggles with being unemployed, or grieves the death of a family member or friend.  Someone needs a silent moment to center themselves, the tumult and noise of the week has yet to subside.  Someone else bursts with joy at the successful completion of a project, or celebrates seeing a friend with an enthusiastic greeting unable to wait any longer to share some good news.
 
Diversity in this sanctuary also comes in our identities. There are the ones you might check off on a form  racial identity, gender identity, age, education, relationship status . . . . . and more . . .  like sexual orientation, gender expression, class identity, cultural identity. There are differing religious identities . . . Theist, Atheist, Agnostic, Humanist, Pagan, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Native American, Hindu, Muslim . . . . and a label much discussed of late  those who identify as spiritual but not religious.
 
There are institutional religious labels   like "churched and unchurched", or those with previous experience in religious communities and those with none.  And there is the group researchers are calling NONES – N-O-N-E-S.  As one NONE put it, "I like the ambiguity" of going without a label," she says. "I prefer to stress the importance of acting with compassion rather than choosing a predetermined system of beliefs."  (USA Today 10/9/12)

Diversity in this sanctuary also comes through our doors by virtue of the religious or spiritual paths we choose and where we are in our journeys – which may be different than the religious label naming where we came from or the one we used for where we used to be.

So how do we collectively make room for and embrace the diversity that is us?  The diversity that will be us as this congregation grows and changes?
   
On our web site  right above a most beautiful photo of this congregation in front of the meetinghouse are these words:

We are First Parish of Sudbury, a diverse and welcoming community of spiritual seekers; we strive to learn together and support one another as we celebrate life’s important moments and serve the larger community.

In support of this mission I offer something that may seem a bit out of character in a Unitarian Universalist context  a rule; the 70% rule.
   
Credit for this bit of wisdom goes to the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Minister Emeritus of Riverside Church in New York City. Riverside Church is a congregation of persons from many racial, ethnic and cultural and religious backgrounds.  Rev. Forbes knew well the diversity of identities and of spiritual hopes and needs making up that congregation on any given Sunday.  I imagine him in conversation with his god  seeking guidance on how to help build and sustain a community where, from time to time and sometimes often, individuals will be faced wit
h hope only partially realized or not at all, a need only slightly satisfied or nearly ignored.
 
Not to be satisfied by tolerance alone AND to strive for inclusion – these are principles by which we intend to live.  How do we do that here? Follow the 70% rule.  As applied to worship it might look something like this:

On a good Sunday, on a really good Sunday, each of us will get about 70% of what we most deeply need.

On an average Sunday, we will get something more like 50%.

And what happens to the rest  the other 30% to 50%?  We give it away.  We give it away to those who need something different.
 
Maybe it will be the choir’s voices, a particular piece of music, the simplicity and beauty of the space, Moments for All Ages or a Milestone that touches the heart . . . perhaps the sermon will speak to your deep need as that Easter Sunday sermon of 40 years ago spoke to me –   some combination or something else will be just what you need (or close enough) and the rest goes to someone else.
 
Exactly which 50%-70% will be for us on any given Sunday, we can’t know in advance.  And which 30%-50% we’ll give away, we can’t really plan for.  "I’ll take the choir’s singing and you get the prelude and the opening words"  it doesn’t work like that.  This is not about bargaining.  

It’s about giving.
 
It’s about welcoming  not just tolerating  welcoming the diversity that is us and will be us.  It is about sharing with each other.  It is about including each other.

On that Easter Sunday 40 years ago I got exactly what I needed from that small congregation.  Exactly.  I don’t remember any other Sundays like that.   Certainly I got my 50% worth often enough to keep me connected; to remind me how much my life was joined with the lives of the others in that community.  And I got an amazing 70% worth from time to time; like the Sunday I was welcomed into membership with the congregation’s words of welcome, the minister’s words emphasizing the meaning of membership, the special celebration at Fellowship Hour, and personal expressions of genuine gladness from those present that Sunday.
 
Only that once was it everything.  
Almost always it was, and is, enough.  
Enough so my mind grows more curious.
Enough so my heart opens even more.   
Enough so my spirit grows still deeper.
Enough to make a life of faith and purpose.
Enough to give away.
Simply and gladly, it was and is enough.

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Under Our Charge

Posted by on Nov 5, 2012 in Worship Services

Under Our Charge

The 1999 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, held in Salt Lake City, Utah, opened with a Ceremony of Native American Acknowledgement. Forrest Cuch, the Executive Director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Indian nation, welcomed us. In his remarks, he spoke about the conquest of native peoples, what our history books call the Indian Wars.  He said we still believe that there needs to be a discussion, and a thorough grieving of what took place. And once we forgive each other, we should move on. He closed by saying,

  • Our spirits are the same, because they all come from the same source. We are all related, we are all brothers and sisters, we are all connected, and I say, welcome brothers and sisters.

When those words were spoken in 1999, we had no idea that in 2009 when our General Assembly returned to Salt Lake City, we would open with an acknowledgement of the complicity of the American Unitarian Association in the removal of the Northern Ute from their home land  the shining mountains as they call it  in what is today Colorado.  Here’s the story told to the 2009 Assembly by the Rev. William Sinkford who was completing his service as UUA President.

Following the Civil War, soldiers of the Union Army were deployed to take the lands of the native peoples on the Great Plains so that whites could pursue their Manifest Destiny. The armed conflict was often intense and deadly. Remember Custer’s Last Stand at the Little Big Horn River.

The Indians were finally overwhelmed and forcibly relocated onto reservations, mostly lands that were of no use for whites. Government Agencies were set up on the reservations and at first the military ran them. But in 1870, President Grant launched his "Peace Policy", asking the various Protestant religious denominations to take responsibility for different agencies. With religious groups involved, Grant believed there would be a greater chance for denominational resources to be directed to the Agencies, a greater likelihood for conversion of the Indians to Christianity, and more significant progress towards assimilation.  

Under the Peace Policy, the Northern Ute, who still lived on a smaller portion of their lands in Colorado,  were offered to the Unitarians.
The American Unitarian Association accepted the responsibility.  From the AUA Yearbook 1870:

  • "A new feature of work has been suggested during the year by an invitation from the Government to take part, along with the other religious bodies of the country, in the elevation and improvement of the native Indians."

Unitarian ministers were dispatched to two agencies with responsibility for the Ute  White River and Los Pinos. The goal, according to Unitarian Rev. E. H. Danforth, agent at White River, Colorado, was

  • "to induce them to settle in permanent abodes and assume the habits and dress of civilized life, – to do some kind of work other than hunting."

Today we would call this cultural imperialism; forcing a new culture, a new way of life on a people. Then it was called offering civilization to the Indians. The results were tragic. Francis Walker, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, writing in 1872:

  • "To the white man freedom of expansion is of incalculable value. To the Indian it is of incalculable cost … We are richer by hundreds of millions; the Indian is poorer by a large part of the little that he has. This growth is bringing imperial greatness to the nation; to the Indian it brings wretchedness, destitution and beggary."

The white appetite for land- and natural resources such as gold – remained voracious.  By 1881, the Ute were forced to leave what was left to them of their precious "shining mountains".   They were relocated once again to what became the state of Utah.  It is the Ute who gave the state its name.

An attempt was made to start schools for the Indian children. Rev. Edward Danforth, Indian agent at White River, in a letter to the AUA:

  • "A little has been done by us to be reported in the direction of a School. A year ago last fall Mrs. Danforth had all she could do to attend to those who came to her. Later in the season they fell off, and through the Winter and Spring months the average attendance at the school, I believe, was eight."

Our ministers did defend the Ute and urged the government not to allow whites to make war on them. Rev. J. Nelson Trask, agent at Los Pinos, Colorado, writing to Washington:

  • "The truth is, that many of the people of this territory are indefatigable in their efforts to make the Indians appear vicious and dangerous, and so as to help each other in filling the papers with rumors of danger, making everything seem to tend toward war. I regard war with the Utahs as utterly inexcusable, for the Utahs do not want war, and prompt, strong measures should at once be taken to prevent such an occurrence."

Based on the historical record, it seems that the Unitarian agents were not very effective, failing, for example, to secure sufficient funds to develop and maintain boarding schools for Ute children.  Perhaps, as a result, they did less damage than some of the more "successful" denominations.  

That’s a short version of the story.

So why does this history from the days of the AUA and the more recent story from GA 2009 matter?  There are two reasons.

First – because as a religious people reconciliation matters.  It matters that we tell the truth and that we continue to learn and tell more of it more often, that we know and tell the stories.  It matters that we confront the truth of harm done  that we confess, acknowledging our role.  It matters that there is an honest apology  – I understand that I/we were wrong and harmed you and I am sorry.  It matters that the one harmed find space in their hearts to forgive, but not forget.  And it matters that those who caused harm engage in repair  finding a way to stand with and support those who have been harmed.  Don’t misunderstand – this is not how reconciliation is completed and checked off the to do list.   This is how it begins, how we as a religious people, as a religious community begin to "turn ’round right."   

Second, it matters because this Unitarian Universalist faith is not a possession.  We don’t own it.  We live it.  And as we live it we renew and reshape the faith we inherited into the faith that will be our legacy.  But here’s the deal:  we inherit the whole thing, not just the good parts or the parts that speak most directly to our personal spiritual paths.  We inherit the whole thing.  And part of our inheritance is the harm caused to the Ute by our forbears participation in the Grant Administration Peace Policy.  That harm is not in the past only.  It continues to this day, impacting the lives of the Ute as individuals and as a community.  We are the inheritors.  The harm continues to this day.  And so it is our task to do what we can to turn this faith ’round right.  Working with Jim Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me) we developed information on possible congregational initiatives (handout) and working with Forrest Cuch we developed a relationship with Rising American Indian Nations (letter from Forrest about their new initiatives.)

So here we are   in between Yom Kippur and Columbus Day/ Indigenous Peoples Day.   That puts us exactly where we should be as this story is told  the possibility
of forgiveness on one side and the truth of our history on the other.

President Sinkford concluded his 2009 statement with these words:

  • "And so, to the Ute people, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations offers our heart-felt apology. We participated, however ineptly, in a process that stole your land and forced a foreign way of life on you. We ask for your forgiveness and we promise to stand with you as you chart your way forward."

A decade earlier Forrest Cuch concluded his statement with these words:

  • "Our spirits are the same, because they all come from the same source. We are all related, we are all brothers and sisters, we are all connected."

If the Book of Life were still open, these words separated by a decade and joined by history, should be written on our page:  We offer our heartfelt apology.  We ask your forgiveness.   We promise to stand with you.  Our spirits are the same.  They all come from the same source.  We are all connected.

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To Forgive To Repair

Posted by on Sep 23, 2012 in Worship Services

Sermon – To Forgive, to Repair
Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris
September 23, 2012

The Days Of Awe  the High Holy Days of the Jewish tradition   began at sunset last Sunday with Rosh Hashanah, the new year, a commemoration of Creation, and end when Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is over at nightfall this coming Wednesday.  Tradition has it that on Rosh Hashanah books of account are opened wherein the fates of humankind are recorded.  The month preceding the High Holy Days – the month of Elul  is a time of preparation for T’shuvah, the act of turning, turning to the best in one’s self and doing what we can to make right our relationships with others. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are time to acknowledge how we have “missed the mark” and make our “turn”.  Soon the Book of Life for the new year will be closed.

In her poem Aaaayee Babo (Praise God), Sonia Sanchez asks a question fitting to this holy time. “Who shall journey to the place we require of humans?” Who shall journey to that place where relationships can be made right?

Seen through my Unitarian UniversaIist eyes, with the 7th in our list our principles so central to my own religious life; I am drawn in by the connection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  These Holy Days of Judaism begin with a commemoration of creation  this interdependent web of life of which we humans are a part – and end with a call for us to know where we have missed the mark.   The obvious question comes  how have we missed the mark in relation to this planet we call home?  We struggle with human causes of climate change, hear news of melting ice sheets and disappearing glaciers, of drought, wildfire and flood.  We debate energy sources, energy use.  And we find it hard to believe that even now some small island nations and some cultures dependent on ice for hunting are already at risk. Sometimes I think the entire planet is in a state of dis-ease. If I were still Southern Baptist I might well be studying teachings about the time of tribulation!

How can we “turn ’round right” in our relationship to this planet we share?

Locally, our congregations are greening sanctuaries and other spaces and events.  We are adopting energy saving practices in everything from our choice of light bulbs to low flow toilets to how we heat and cool our buildings.  We recycle.  We join organizations such as Interfaith Power and Light.

Nationally, through the UUA and our partner organizations, we engage in shareholder and legislative advocacy.

Globally  this is a harder question to answer  as the disparities between what economists, politicians, and others refer to as the developed and developing worlds put sustainability and justice at odds.  Poverty.  Environmental racism.  Drought and famine.  Water rights.  Just how do we make these right?

In the practice of my faith, in this time of year, in this season of such visible change and often glorious color, I wonder about my relationship to this planet, and to the very particular part of this planet I call home?  This turning of the wheel of the year is a time for asking – How is my/our relationship to creation?  And what can I/we do to be turned ’round a little more right?  Who shall journey to the place we require of humans?” When shall we be inscribed in the Book of Life as justice loving and compassionate toward this ground of our being?

The Days of Awe also ask us how we can turn round right in our relationships with each other.

Unitarianism was once described as the branch of our religious family tree believing humanity too good to be damned while, it was said, Universalists held that God is too good to damn us.  At the end of the 19th century, Unitarian theology expressed optimism about human capability and possibility.  Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke published a volume entitled “Vexed Questions in Theology,” including in it a sermon from 1886 listing “Five Points of a Theology for the Future”:

1. The Fatherhood of God
2. The Brotherhood of Man
3. The Leadership of Jesus
4. Salvation by Character
5. The continuity of human development in all worlds or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.

The progress of mankind onward and upward forever.

As we moved into the 20th century, our optimism was tested and tempered by World Wars  fox holes, mustard gas, concentration camps, internment camps, the nuclear bomb  and the Great Depression in between.   Yet this optimism remained, and is still today, a strand woven tightly into the fabric of our faith.  This aspect of our heritage – the optimism of Rev. Clarke’s theology for the future joined with our individualism extrapolated from our first principle focusing on respect for worth and dignity of every person  this can leave us theologically thin and relationally tested in the face of circumstances that demand turning; that call us to journey to the place we require of humans; to the place of forgiveness and repair.  When the Book of Life is opened to the U’s, I suspect we’ll find inscribed there a few lines about how these things have led us to miss the mark.

Now I don’t know about you, and I don’t know about here . . . but sometimes . . . we are so reluctant to admit weakness or failure or struggle to ourselves, let alone to others.  Many of us learned to keep a “stiff upper lip”.  Tough it out.  Though surrounded by friends, family, and others who could offer support, our focus on individualism can leave us stranded “knee deep in a river” of companions and “dying of thirst”.  Our fierce affirmation of tolerance can mean we “put up” with harmful or demeaning behaviors when respect, dignity and interdependence demand we put a stop to them.

Over the last few years I had come to believe that we just might be in the midst of a collective “turning ’round right.”  In Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World Elizabeth Spelman writes

“Homo reparans stalks the land.  Humans seem everywhere and ceaselessly engaged in projects of repair  nursing machines back to life, patching up friendships, devising paths of reconciliation for conflicting peoples. (102) Repair destroys brokenness.  The consolation it offers is that undesirable states of brokenness can themselves be broken . . . . When I offer an apology to you . . . I am seeking to destroy the state of rupture between us. (p 134) Repair is necessary because  theological views aside we are manifestly imperfect creatures in an imperfect world. (p.136) To apologize to someone is to say that there is a harm worth attending to, a relationship worth mending, a rule worth honoring, a community worth preserving. (p.83) An apology is an invitation to share in a ritual of repair, in a dance that takes more than one dancer. . . . forgiveness might be seen as a willingness not just to acknowledge the invitation to dance but to accept it, give it a whirl, to engage with a partner even if warily. (p85)

Bishop Desmond Tutu was a central figure in The Truth and Reconciliation process that followed the end of Apartheid in South Africa  a process requiring wary engagement of one partner with another — confessing evil perpetrated against others, seeking forgiveness from the victim or the victim’s family.  Bishop Tutu attributed the success of Truth and Reconciliation, at least in part, to the African concept of Ubuntu  “my humanity is caught up in yours, and if you are dehumanized, I am dehumanized, and anger and resentment and retribution are corrosive of this great good, the harmony that has got to exist between people.”

I confess that these days my fear is that rather than turning round right we are turning away.  My fear is this dance, so powerfully reflected in Truth and Reconciliation, is fading into oblivion, overshadowed by demeaning political discourse, the use of violence to express difference, opposition, and anger; and the assumption that engagement and compromise are signs of weakness.  The music of this dance of apology and forgiveness, the music of mattering, is being drowned out. It can not be that another’s pain, another’s hurt, another’s oppression do not matter.

Prompted by the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln which falls within the Days of Awe (yesterday, September 22), Rabbi Wendi Geffen writes, “As Jews, we find ourselves in one of the most spiritually intense periods of the year -the Aseret Ymei Teshuvah — the 10 Days of Repentance carrying us from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. . . The Jewish liturgy offers an expansive confessional section (called Vidui) where the community verbally confesses together to any number of offenses.”  This year, Rabbi Geffen says, “I’ll be adding a verse to the list: Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha — for the sin we have committed against You by mindlessly reaping the benefits of slavery. . . .” She continues, “Whether grounded in the teachings that have carried the Jewish people over the millennia or from the values written down by Abraham Lincoln a century and half ago, the ideal of freedom for all is still one to which we must not only aspire, but for which we are responsible in assuring is made fully real.” (Huffington Post Religion Sept. 20 2012)

Grounded in and bound together in this interdependent web by the shared principles of respect and dignity, by justice, equity and compassion; we are among those called to make things right.  We are among those called to journey to the place we require of humans – that place of engagement, apology, forgiveness, repair, freedom. May this be the time of our turning.  May these holy aspirations be made real.

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