Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Over the past few weeks I have been talking about how Unitarian Universalism got to be such a ‘big umbrella’, encompassing a wide variety of beliefs and perspectives. Now we may not be as diverse a group as Meg Barnhouse just described in the tour bus going to the Taj Mahal, but we are certainly more diverse than most congregations, and faith communities of all kinds, meeting in Pensacola on a weekly basis. I’ve talked about Unitarian Universalism being called a “chosen faith” because so many of us have made our way here by leaving other traditions. Either we found that our previous tradition didn’t fit with our own religious conscience or we didn’t fit into our previous tradition’s expectations of us, or both.
As Unitarian Universalists, most of us have traveled paths in our lives where we did not fit neatly into prescribed categories. We have tended to march to the sound of a different drummer, wandering off from mainstream conventions, venturing into new territories, many times on our own or maybe with one or two trusted friends. You might even say that most of us as Unitarian Universalists have become quite familiar with living on the fringe. Not comfortable in the middle of any homogenous crowd, we tend to gravitate to its outside borders where there is more room to move around and choose our own paths.
Hey, isn’t there a television series on now called Fringe? I imagine there are at least a few of us here who still watch TV. Yes, there’s a show on television called Fringe and it’s a creative science fiction series that kind of follows in the footsteps of the X-Files with its wacky writing about strange occurrences. It even has a character that shows up occasionally played by Leonard Nimoy, who was Spock on the original Star Trek series decades ago. In this new show called Fringe, the fringe is actually the interfacing of parallel universes – one being the reality we know as daily life and the other as an alternate reality with all the same people, but they have chosen slightly different life paths and experienced a different series of events. Whenever the two universes overlap and come into contact with each other, there are crazy distortions and some very confused people.
Apparently some physicists these days are talking about not necessarily parallel universes, but rather multiple dimensions of reality. When I lived in California with my daughter I took her to see Stephen Hawking when he spoke at the University of California in Davis. Of course, he used an automated voice and there were long pauses as he entered his thoughts into the technology that projected his words to his listeners. He has a great sense of humor actually, but I must confess I wasn’t able to follow all his scientific talk even though he was trying very hard to speak plainly for the general public. He did talk about string theory though and the idea that like a shaft of hair with some split ends, alongside the main reality we know to be true there are alternate strands branching out and pursuing other possibilities simultaneously. These other possibilities are not usually visible, but apparently there is some evidence that they exist. This may be one of those cases where the truth is stranger than any fiction we might invent. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it, but I think it’s a good exercise to try every once in a while.
This image of the’ fringe’ or ‘border’ between multiple realities, and even the image of string theory with multiple dimensions of the same reality, are interesting ones for us as Unitarian Universalists. We are not strangers to the experience of choosing an alternate path, of exploring options in our lives that are not always the most obvious or visible ones presented to us. In a number of different ways, the typical Unitarian Universalist simply doesn’t fit neatly into mainstream categories or homogenous groups. We have always been a little different from the rest, shall we say? Am I right?
Think now of your own path to this place of being here in this particular UU setting today, even if you are here for the very first time. Many of us who have been in Christian settings before and even some other faith traditions, grew uncomfortable with the exclusivity we experienced – the shutting out of the other. We would hear in so many words “If you are not _______ (fill in the blank), you don’t belong here.” For many of us this practice of exclusivity did not jive with the teachings of love and acceptance that inspired us. We encountered situations that appeared contradictory or hypocritical, where one thing is said and another is actually done.
Let’s face it, that’s part of human nature. It’s frankly quite difficult to walk our talk all the time. It’s easier to say one thing and do another. So we are all guilty of contradictory or hypocritical behavior to a certain extent. But we do usually try to live by our deepest values, even though they are challenging to live by, especially when the ‘rubber meets the road’ in everyday life.
I mean think about how difficult it is to truly practice the radical hospitality that was attributed to Jesus’ behavior in his day. He consorted with all kinds of the wrong people – women, outcasts, criminals and strangers. He really pushed the known boundaries of the Kingdom of God in his time, and this notion is still pushing at the boundaries of accepted norms today.
I’ve heard it said that Unitarian Universalists, because of our personal histories of not fitting neatly within the usual categories of homogenous groups, are a people who are familiar with living along the borders. We have often pushed against the boundaries of accepted norms of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.
As Unitarian Universalists, we know what it means, when we are the ones who are not ‘in’. We know what it feels like to be outside the accepted boundaries. We know how it feels when we are not accepted for who we are. We know what it’s like to be the “other” in our midst, to go against the grain of what is expected of us. Am I right?
Pause for a moment and think about the various settings you have found yourself in your own life – when you felt like an outsider, different from the rest and struggling just to hold your own. Have you thought of at least one occasion yet when you felt like you just didn’t belong?
I remember how nervous I was when I was in seminary and it was time for me to do my student chaplaincy in a regional trauma center. I was in a small group with other student chaplains, but as a Unitarian Universalist, I didn’t feel like I fit in with either my Episcopal colleagues or being a chaplain at all, since to me it held connotations of being Christian. Oh and besides that – it is a hospital! I was one of those people who get nervous just entering a hospital, even as a visitor!
Now seeing as it was my fourth year in seminary I’d gotten used to the idea of meeting with fellow UU’s in a pastoral setting. I didn’t have a problem with meeting with people to listen about what was challenging in their lives and being supportive, but my idea of walking into a stranger’s hospital room to offer support and potential counsel, knowing that they probably assumed I was a Christian candidate for ministry was way out of my comfort zone. At first.
I had to get over my discomfort with not fitting a label I was pretty sure was assumed about me. I had to figure out how to just go in there and talk with a fellow human being who happened to be in the vulnerable situation of wearing a hospital gown. I knew that there would be a time when I’d be asked to pray with a hospital patient and I would be even farther out of my comfort zone. I learned to ask specifically what the patient felt like praying for and I learned to listen closely for the personal hopes in which a patient found comfort. I learned to pray with, and for, another person. It did not come naturally to me, or easily, but I learned how to do it! Whether they assume I was a traditional Christian (whatever that is, or not), was beside the point, when the ‘rubber met the road’ and I walked into a perfect stranger’s hospital room. It was another border that I grew familiar with and found that I could travel along. These days when I go to the hospital to visit someone (and usually they are Unitarian Universalist, but sometimes not), I sometimes chuckle at how nervous I felt before just walking into the building.
It’s still not the most fun place to be, as anyone who has spent time in a hospital as a patient or visitor knows, but it is a place where the preciousness of life is known and felt and shared, among companions along life’s path.
When you think back to the times when you felt you didn’t fit in, didn’t go along just to belong, you know what it feels like to be an outsider. You know what it feels to push against the boundary or borders that often separate us. Having known that experience and chosen to remain true to what you have known of yourself, how do you think that has helped you to relate to other people who may be struggling at the boundaries and borders of their lives? How has your own experience of being an outsider equipped you to welcome the stranger in our midst, to reach out to someone who is outside their comfort zone?
Whenever we are able to navigate and negotiate the boundaries and borders of our lives and to see the common humanity in the person who is struggling under a label of being different or other, we are building a bridge of understanding, a bridge of acceptance. In a world where insular pockets of homogenous groups are getting more difficult to maintain, we need to learn how to build bridges of understanding along the borders and boundaries that divide us. We need to listen to the stories and songs of our neighbors whose lives may have been radically different from our own, and yet who share so many of the same hopes, dreams and aspirations that we hold dear.
Rather than being separated by our real differences, may we find the ways to celebrate them, learn from them, and appreciate the common bonds that still unite us in the human family. Perhaps you’ve known what it’s like to always be the new kid in town, or perhaps you have known the struggle of being gay in a culture that has allowed judgment and bullying to escalate into violence, even of the most desperate kind in the form of suicide. Perhaps you have felt so isolated by the borders and boundaries that have defined your life that you have come to doubt yourself in the depths of your being. Perhaps you couldn’t find a friend to turn to in your loneliness.
You, my friend, are not alone here – in this company of travelers. Let’s share our stories and songs with each other and help to make the world safer for all of us. Let us continue to push the boundaries and borders that separate us, honoring our differences while building bridges of understanding and human kinship. May it be so.
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Have you ever made a promise that you found was hard to keep? I bet you have. For those of us who have kids, we can easily identify with Meg Barnhouse’s story about the pumpkins. We say, we’re going to do something for or with the kids and then, maybe it rains. And if it doesn’t rain, something else happens, like the car breaks down. Despite our best intentions, it is hard to keep the promises we make to kids.
Oh yeah, and then for those of us who have been married or in committed relationships – which are both built on promises made – we really know how hard it is to keep a promise, don’t we? Oh yeah, the closer we try to build our lives around and with another person, the more we learn about what happens to our best intentions over time. Yes, when the rubber meets the road, our sweet sounding promises are often put to the test. Right?
With all this nice cool weather I’ve been starting to get into the spirit of the fall season, haven’t you? One of the things I love about this time of year is the pumpkin patches. You know those few places where your eye is treated to the warm orange glow of a large congregation of pumpkins. For those of you who know how much we enjoy Meg Barnhouse’s stories, you’ll understand how I had to take the opportunity to include the one about Dumpster Pumpkins. It’s not really a story for the kids, although they’d probably appreciate it, but it is a good story to help us think today about how Unitarian Universalism got to be such a ‘big umbrella’. It has to do with promises, both the beauty of making sweet sounding promises and the challenge of keeping them.
Do y’all know what I mean when I say that Unitarian Universalism is a big umbrella? Other than a Unitarian Universalist congregation, where else will you find Christians and Jews sitting with mystics and poets, scientists sitting with atheists? How did this come about in a religious movement? I’m here to tell you that it has something to do with promises.
In contrast to the majority of religious communities which are built on common statements of belief, often formulated in a creed of some kind, Unitarian Universalists build communities on a statement of intentions, promises made to one another, which in marriage are called vows, and which in our UU communities is called our covenant.
As Unitarian Universalists our religious roots are found in the Jewish and Christian traditions especially in those places that affirmed that revelation is not sealed, but ongoing. What does this mean exactly? It means that no text or scripture, no body of knowledge about the human condition and its place on this earth and in this cosmos is complete unto itself. No, the nature of life and human beings, is that we are constantly growing and changing. Our curious minds are always seeking more understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. We believe that there is always much more we have yet to learn and so we say that revelation is not sealed. We certainly don’t already know everything there is to know. We are open to learning.
The chalice lighting ritual that is commonly found in UU settings embodies our commitment to our coming together to learn. We light a flame that symbolizes our ongoing process of coming together with an open chalice of our being to receive more insight, more knowledge, more wisdom, more understanding. We open ourselves to the greater wisdom that lies within us, that still, small voice that knows what is true for us. When we believe that revelation is ongoing and not sealed in any one scripture or text, we are honoring what there is to learn from each other, from the multiple perspectives that many different people can bring and we are honoring our own right of conscience. We are able to pursue the paths of growth that speak to us personally. We feel the courage and commitment to honor our own paths to growth and wisdom, even when they are different paths than the ones our families might have chosen for us, or our school teachers or religious leaders. As Unitarian Universalists we have permission to march to the sound of a different drummer, and to feel empowered to know it is the sound of our very own heartbeats.
For Unitarian Universalists, our covenant tradition came out of the Protestant Reformation, a reaction to the Catholic and Anglican Church, that affirmed every person’s direct relationship with the divine or a greater knowledge that was not necessarily provided through set doctrines or absolute statements of faith and which did not depend on the role of religious intermediaries acting on our behalf, such as priests or saints, or any intermediary.
The covenant tradition of Unitarian Universalism is part of the Congregationalist churches that sprang up in the American colonies, where the democratic process and the voice and ideas of every person was affirmed as the standing authority of the church.
Unitarians emerged from the early Congregationalist churches, when they insisted that human reason be applied to Biblical scriptures. Not only did they want to recognize that the Bible was written by various people over time in specific cultural and social conditions, the doctrines of the church, any church, were also created by humans and therefore set in a particular cultural and historical context. The term Unitarian emerged from the Congregationalist churches when the doctrine of the Trinity was challenged as being an idea imposed by church fathers and not necessarily even found in the Bible.
While the doctrine of the Trinity was the current issue of debate among the Congregationalists at the time, the larger issue reflected in the new name of the Unitarians was the use of reason to analyze scripture, and all of human experience really, and that the Bible and even the very life of Jesus, was a text and story set in a particular historical context. It is a great story, an important story, but we also know that the world is a much bigger place than the biblical Middle East of Jesus’ times. This placement of the biblical text and Jesus’ life in a cultural context, which is to be understood through a lens of human rationality, focuses the strength of the tradition on Jesus’ teachings, rather than the documented stories of his life.
The Unitarians in the American colonies were people who believed strongly in the value of education and they were highly educated. They applied their learnings to the betterment of the emerging American society, building up democratic institutions in government, education, healthcare, and all aspects of corporate life. While I don’t have time to go into the rich history of Unitarians who served as founding fathers – and mothers – of American society today, their passion for not just learning, but for social justice is a major reason why Unitarian Universalists provide a wide umbrella of views today.
The Universalist strand of the story is the other major reason for the big umbrella today. In the American colonies the Universalist message was of a loving God who would never condemn any of his or her children to eternal damnation for believing the wrong thing or making a mistake, which is what sin is about. The Universalist message was a much needed antidote to challenge the common image of the times as ‘human sinners in the hand of an angry God’. The American puritan tradition of right conduct enforced by parental authority with shame, guilt and punishment was meant to correct a fallen, sinful nature in humans. Eventually the message of a loving God and human nature as not only capable of good, but generally wired with best intentions won the day. Eventually the Universalist message of a loving God softened the mainstream Christian tactics and Christian Universalism extended to an openness to a diversity of religious paths. If you believe in a loving God and a loving nature in people everywhere, you are inclined to be open to the various ways that this love is supported and expressed. The Universalist Christian stance opened to the wisdom of other religious traditions beyond Christianity, and to the commitment to lead an ethical life in nonreligious people such as academics and scientists.
In the histories of both Unitarians and Universalists, you will find a commitment of social justice-making. It is based on a simple idea that society is meant to support the common good of both the individual and the community, and we are the ones who make that happen, despite our various religious ideas or inclinations.
Out of the intellectual and social creativity of the American colonies, also emerged a distinctly American philosophical tradition – Transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister who left the ministry to focus on writing and lecturing. He is the most prominent spokesperson for the American Transcendentalist movement, but it really had multiple expressions throughout American society in aspects of education and the arts. The essence of American Transcendentalism builds on the democratic principle of the value in each person’s direct experience of the world as a source of knowledge, both moral and practical. This direct experience of the world acknowledges all of Nature as a great teacher and lifts up the human capacity for thinking and making decisions that helps to create so much of the life of human communities.
In the twenty-first century, with advances in science, both the Unitarians and the Universalists communities became a refuge for curious minds that would no longer acquiesce to supernatural religious beliefs. Not only was there a space in our communities for scientific thinkers, we had made a space for the full participation of women, for people of various classes and ethnic backgrounds, and a space for gays and lesbians.
The democratic affirmation of every person’s worth and dignity opened our communities to the pursuit of a variety of life paths. This promising to walk together to affirm each other, to learn from each other, and to share of ourselves is what holds us together as a religious movement , rather than a common creed of belief. Our promising to walk together is what we call a Living Tradition, meaning that it is growing and changing all the time, just as we are growing and changing.
Instead of common beliefs or doctrines that bind us together, we promise to walk together around shared values which help to guide us on our way. The seven Unitarian Universalist principles are the most recent statement of those values. They are printed each week on the back of our church bulletin. Inside the front of our hymnal, aptly called Singing the Living Tradition, is a page that has both the seven principles and the list of many sources from which we share. You are welcome now to pull out the hymnal so that you can look at them with me. You’ll find the page after the Table of Context and just before the first hymn.
Rather than reading the whole list, I’ll lift up the main points of our sources, the first being “direct experience of people in all cultures that is Life affirming”, the inspirational words of women and men who challenge us to live lives of integrity and to confront injustice, wisdom from throughout the world’s religious traditions that inspire ethical living, including but not exclusive to, the Jewish and Christian traditions which teach the golden rule loving our neighbor as ourselves. Then we also have the contemporary learnings of reason and science, and the ancient wisdom of earth-centered traditions which is equally needed in our world today as we struggle to understand the human role as stewards of a precious planet.
When you look at our seven principles and the sources of our Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism, you can see why we are so engaged in some of the most pressing and controversial issues of our time. A Living Tradition is designed, like an umbrella, to meet the present demands of our time. So UUs are there, talking about immigration legislation in our neighboring state of Alabama, we’re talking about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in our country’s military, we’re talking about calling financial leaders in this country into account with the demonstrations on Wall Street and throughout our country.
Our Living Tradition is about the promises we make to each other to walk together through thick and thin, celebrating our sweet sounding vows to each other, whether they are in a new member ceremony like we had in our service last week, or in wedding vows between two committed women in one of the few states that will permit it.
We also keep our promises by jumping into the dumpster of life sometimes, to rescue accidentally discarded pumpkins or accidentally discarded best intentions. All of this is part of the Living Tradition of Unitarian Universalism and in times like these, when the many challenging rains of life are threatening our skies, it is good to have a big umbrella. Amen.
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Even though the Unites States is considered one of the most religious of all the world’s developed nations, people who self-identify as “nonreligious” is the fastest growing religious preference marked on current survey with 15-20% of the population. Among younger people, one in four marks “no religion.”
In the polls, of course, there is a discrepancy between those who self-identify as atheist or agnostic (which still carry a significant stigma) and those who simply answer the question – Do you believe in God? with “no” or “not sure.”
Clearly more people are claiming the right to think freely when it comes to matters of religion, and yet traditional religious values and pressures are still common place in our culture. In recent years more attention has been focused on the discrepancies of religious thought and science, andthe discrepancies within religious movements. Discrepancies can be seen as contradictions embedded in text and doctrines, and contradictions between espoused values and actual behaviors. More people are turning away from established religions, not only because our current scientific knowledge has outdated long held beliefs about the nature of the universe, but people are turning away also because of the harmful and sometimes deadly consequences that some religious stances cause against our brothers and sisters. It has been said that more violent acts have been justified in the name of religion than to any other cause. While some recent authors give this as one reason to challenge all religious belief, my own opinion is that people have used, and will use, any rationalization, religious or otherwise, to pursue violent means in certain situations.
But apart from the harmful and sometimes violent and deadly repercussions of some religious beliefs, there is another large grey area when it comes to matters of religion. This is the amount of doctrine and belief that simply doesn’t make much sense in the contemporary world, and yet is still clung to as articles of faith.
You may not consider yourself an atheist or agnostic, meaning one who does not believe in God, or one who simply does not know whether or not God exists, but you may prefer another term to self-identify as someone who is not religious. Maybe you consider yourself a skeptic, a cynic, a seeker, a rationalist, a freethinker, a naturalist, a deist or a secular humanist. See, so many labels to choose from! And just as there are variations and multiple diversities within religious traditions, there is a significant variety of differences among the fastest growing group of the nonreligious. I don’t want to take the time here to unpack that list of labels I just rattled off, but I do want to lift up a few definitions to help sort out the terms.
“Free thought” and “freethinkers” belong to a tradition where a philosophical viewpoint is formed, not on a religious basis, but rather on the basis of science, logic and reason. Freethinkers do not feel bound by outward authority, social traditions or dogmas and have tended to be liberal in regards to racial, social and sexual equality. In the United States, freethinkers were often involved in the abolition of slavery and in the women’s movement. One of the leading books to document this tradition in our own country is called Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby. The list of prominent Americans range from the earlier times with folks like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and includes more contemporary folks like Margaret Mead, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan. African American history has its share of freethinkers as well – from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to more contemporary times with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker.
The term “humanism” is probably the largest umbrella for nonreligious people, and some people who consider themselves ‘somewhat religious’ too. Humanism is broadly defined as a philosophy that is not based in theism or supernatural beliefs, but rather in the human ability and responsibility to lead an ethical life. Humanism broadly supports both personal fulfillment and the greater good of humanity. Is humanism considered a religion or a faith? No, not really although it does rely on a set of personal beliefs. Humanism, like free thought, atheism and agnosticism, could all be better called both a personal philosophy and a life stance.
Unitarian Universalism is no stranger to freethinkers and humanists. We are often called the “chosen faith” because we are sought out by folks who have found their previous traditions too restricting for their own conscience. Surveys done in the past fifteen years among Unitarian Universalists show about half of all UUs self-identify as” humanist” and there is a sizable portion of folks who refer to themselves agnostic. Between 20-30% identify as earth or nature centered, and a bit smaller percentage for atheists, Buddhists, theists, Pagans, and Christians. In 2005, a UUA study was released called “Engaging our Theological Diversity.” Next Sunday I’ll be talking amore about how Unitarian Universalism got to be such a ‘big umbrella’, holding or covering this wide range of orientations.
Back in 1998, Chet Raymo, a longtime science writer for the Boston Globe newspaper wrote a book called Skeptics and True Believers, The Exhilarating Connection Between Science and Religion. Raymo is an author of several other books as well and a professor of physics and astronomy. He talks about the growing cultural divide in our country and the whole world between the two intellectual positions that he describes as ”Skeptics” and “True Believers.”
He writes, “We are Skeptics or True Believers. Skeptics are children of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. They are always a little lost in the vastness of the cosmos, but they trust the ability of the human mind to make sense of the world. They accept the evolving nature of truth and are willing to live with a measure of uncertainty. Their world is colored in shades of gray. They tend to be socially optimistic, creative and confident of progress. Since they hold their truths tentatively, Skeptics are tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. They are more interested in refining their own views than in proselytizing others. If they are theists, they wrestle with their God in a continuing struggle of faith. They are often plagued by personal doubts and prone to depression.
True Believers are less confident that humans can sort things out for themselves. They look for help from outside – from God, spirits, or extraterrestrials. Their world is black and white. They seek simple and certain truths, provided by a source that is more reliable than the human mind. True Believers prefer a universe proportioned to the human scale. They are repulsed by diversity, comforted by dogma, and respectful of authority. True Believers go out of their way to offer (sometimes forcibly administer) their truths to others, convinced of the righteousness of their cause. They are likely to be “born again“, redeemed by faith, apocalyptic. Although generally pessimistic about the state of this world, they are confident that something better lies beyond the grave.”
Raymo lifts up the issues and topics being wrestled in this great cultural divide. The questions apply to the nature of the universe and the contrasting views on evolution and creationism. He looks at peoples’ beliefs about heaven, hell, angels, aliens, miracles and astrology.
As a scientist, Chet Raymo, identifies himself as a skeptic, but he embraces the language of a religious naturalist. He resonates with what he calls the’ primordial religious experience of deep awe and wonder’ at the expanse and beauty of the universe. Raymo celebrates the accomplishments of science and the technological advances it has provided, including the outstanding achievements of Hubble Space Photography, but he acknowledges the current limits of science. There is so much we have yet to understand – not just about the universe, but about ourselves as well. And so added to the list of beliefs in which skeptics and believers disagree are the human questions about consciousness and soul.
Since Raymo’s book came out in 1998, there has been quite a stir provoked by best-selling authors identified as a movement called New Atheism. The term New Atheism emerged between 2004 and 2007 with the writings of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris – known also as the four Horsemen, referring to the Christian Apocalyptic text of Revelation. The so-called New Atheists are less accommodating to religion, superstition and religious fanaticism than previous secularists. The stance of New Atheism declares that religion is no longer to be tolerated, but instead it needs to be actively countered, criticized and exposed in its contradictions and inconsistencies through the use of rational argument at every opportunity.
The New Atheists have been accused of being overly aggressive, vicious and rude in their arguments that challenge the taboo subject of religious faith. Even nonbelievers are known to take offense by their tactics of rationality. But the New Atheists don’t mind the accusations or the media attention. They subject themselves to the thorough skepticism that scientists undergo and don’t seem to mind the competitive spirit of rigorous debate, at least among opponents of their own choosing. The New Atheists have also been accused of reductive science worship and that while being outraged at religious violence targeting minorities like women and homosexuals, they do not include any vocal women or people of color in their ranks.
But as I mentioned before, there are a variety of perspectives represented within the growing tide of nonreligious people who are taking a stand to be heard and who are speaking out. There are a number of organizations working for visibility with their own leaders and leadership styles. And there are efforts for many of these organizations to come together in a coalition especially to lobby in Washington D.C. on legal matters. The lobbying efforts are challenging the resistance of the representation of nonreligious people in American politics and governance, and advocating for the continued separation of church and state in the schools, in the military, and in the courts. Religious freedom and freedom of thought is a foundational value of American democratic tradition, and yet these freedoms continue to be challenged in the public square.
At times, we may find ourselves feeling shocked by the challenging rhetoric of our day. We are shocked both by reactionary tactics to preserve a status quo that’s held as some kind of Golden Age from the past, and shocked as well by provocative and sometimes even militant resistance to the status quo.
We need to remember that historically marginalized people have often had to resort to provocative measures, even militant measures, in their attempts for recognition and acceptance. The challenge always is to not only think critically about the perspectives with which we disagree, but to apply that critical thinking to our own ideologies, assumptions and beliefs.
Our human knowledge and human wisdom grows through a process of confronting dated ideas with new perspectives and sometimes new information. I hope this morning’s service will be only one among many explorations and conversations about the role of religion in contemporary thinking and the many ways that Unitarian Universalists are free to engage with it.
There is no easy summary or convenient stopping place in this ongoing exploration, and so in closing, I offer two short poems by the poet Mary Oliver. The first is called “In Blackwater Woods” –
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
And the second poem –
Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled —
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
May it be so.
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Now I would imagine that among those of us gathered here today, some of us may be feeling too busy in our lives right now. Maybe most of us feel this way. There are always so many details to attend to: bills, appointments, groceries, cleaning the bathroom, mending the broken chair or torn favorite shirt. Then there are the demands on our time that come from our jobs, our families, our community commitments. Oftentimes we feel pulled in many directions at once and yet somehow we muddle our way through our “to do” lists, calendars and date books.
And yet while this is certainly true for many of us, there are some among us who genuinely do not feel busy enough. “How can this be?” the busy ones ask.
Well…perhaps some among us are honest about the deeper question of “how are you today?” which is “how is it with your spirit?” And when they check in with themselves – their minds and hearts and bodies – there is a sense of longing for something more. Perhaps it’s a sense of direction or perhaps it’s a genuine desire for closer companionship in their lives.
When I talk about it this way, I bet that even the folks who identified with feeling too busy can resonate with a sense of longing for something more as well.
We humans are growing beings. Always reaching somehow toward whatever kind of light in our lives draws us taller.
While many—if not most of us—do long for a clearer direction, a simpler path and a closer companionship with another along it, many of us are also carrying specific burdens with us along our ways.
I bet almost every one of us has some kind of pestering, nagging issue that we may have even been carrying around with us for years.
Now the range of things that can weigh us down is wide. Before I start talking about some of the familiar ones, I want to pause a moment here to let you see what comes to mind about you in your own life, in case something didn’t immediately pop into your head.
What’s the thing that has gotten you hooked with worry, that has made your mind go round and round while stressing your body in its particular stress point—maybe headaches, or tight stomach, or aching knee?
Probably all of us here today have something we’ve been chewing on for some time. Guess what! Join the club, that’s what it means to be human. So instead of always feeling annoyed about these parts of our lives, sometimes major ones, that aren’t working right maybe sometimes we can stop to appreciate that this is where our real personal and spiritual growth happens.
Not in the comfort zones, but in the annoying discomfort ones of our lives.
Now let’s look at the familiar sets of issues that weigh us down as burdens. First – there’s people and relationships. It may be at work or school or it may be at home. Maybe it’s your brother who lives across the country from you who you haven’t really talked with in years, or maybe it’s a neighbor who always seems to rub you the wrong way.
Second is all the issues related to our feeling of security, physically and financially. Are you worried that your job may be phased out? Or perhaps you’ve been looking for work and just can’t seem to find the right thing or even anything at all? Some of us here may be worried about losing our homes – not being able to keep up with bills or maybe the responsibilities of keeping up the place. Some of us are trying to figure out how to apply our education and life experience to work, while others are struggling with the transition to retirement. All kinds of everyday challenges are the burdens we are carrying round with us today.
The third category of issues that present us with challenges to our growth are issues of personal well-being – our emotional, mental and physical health. This is just another of the territories which come with the equipment we were issued as human beings. Not a single one of us has escaped facing some kind of significant health issue at some point in our lives, right?
All this is to say that we share a common humanity through our day to day struggles of moving through life. We’re all in the same boat of struggling to meet the challenges that come our way. It is a very big boat.
Not only have we all faced a vast array of human challenges, I’d venture to say that most if not all of us assembled here have faced—and somehow miraculously overcome—major obstacles that have appeared on our life paths.
Whether it was a difficult childhood, an unexpected trauma, a loss of a loved one or the painful end to an important relationship. Perhaps it was the loss of a job or an exciting opportunity. Maybe it was an addiction that started out as a simple coping mechanism and grew out of control. Or perhaps it was a physical affliction that for a time overshadows the rest of our lives.
Everyone is presented at one time or another with a major obstacle in their lives. It hold us back from doing lots of things we’d like to do, while preoccupying our minds and hearts as we search for ways to get past them, or simply to make it through intact.
In this room, we have courageous human beings who have lived through war and abuses of all kinds. We have those who have triumphed through the dark despair of losing a child, the wrenching grief of a loved one’s suicide and the horrible sentence of terminal disease. We have friends among us who have been forced to adapt their lives to physical disabilities and barriers of all kinds that have prevented them from pursuing their deepest dreams.
We humans here are a complicated lot. We have known our share of burdens to carry.
And yet, we are survivors.
The resilience of the human spirit has graced every one of our lives at some critical point when we thought surely we could not go on. Life has taught us each in our own ways the basic techniques of holding on when the winds are raging round us.
Eleanor Roosevelt who had both an immensely difficult and an immensely rewarding life was known to say this -“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’” Roosevelt assures us with these words – “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
We have to be careful and vigilant as we face life’s greatest challenges not to fall too deeply into a mode of finding blame – either with ourselves or others.
In Wayne Muller’s book which we heard from earlier today called Legacy of the Heart, Muller relays a story about Jesus. By the way, the subtitle for Muller’s book is “The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood.” Muller wrote “Some people once brought a blind man to Jesus and asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? They all wanted to know why this terrible curse had fallen on this man. And Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.’ He told them not to look for why the suffering came but to listen for what the suffering could teach them. Jesus taught that our pain is not punishment; it is no one’s fault. When we seek to blame,” writes Muller, “we distract ourselves from an exquisite opportunity to pay attention to see even in this pain a place of grace, a moment of spiritual promise and healing.”
Some people in their lives end up feeling battered, wounded and sometimes crippled by life’s challenges, but most of us can recall, if we allow ourselves to, the often hidden gifts and strengths we have received and earned by living though our hardest times.
We have been given a new passion to appreciate the simple joys of life, and sometimes even the courage to pursue our deepest passions. Our difficult experiences have taught us a profound understanding of what others in similar circumstances are facing and wrestling with. We can offer a genuine hand of comfort and support to those in the midst of their own crisis.
Here’s a true story by author Dawna Markova from her book called No Enemies Within. She wrote“When I was in the hospital, the one person whose presence I welcomed was a woman who came to sweep the floors with a large push broom. She was the only one who didn’t stick things in, take things out, or ask stupid questions. For a few minutes each night, this immense Jamaican woman rested her broom against the wall and sank her body into the turquoise plastic chair in my room…Of the fifty or so people that made contact with me in any given day, she was the only one who wasn’t trying to change me…she just looked and saw me. Then she said simply, ‘You’re more than the sickness in that body.’
“Without any instruction from me, this Jamaican guide had led me to a source of comfort that was wider and deeper than pain or fear.
“It’s been fifteen years since I’ve seen the woman with the broom” Markova writes, “I’ve never been able to find her. No one could remember her name, but she touched my soul with her compassionate presence and her fingerprints are there still.”
It’s important for each of us to remember that we are always more than any of the burdens we are carrying. We are more than our greatest insecurities, more than our disabilities, more than any of our current challenges, or healing scars from the past.
We can keep ourselves busy with meeting all the demands and obligations of our every day lives, but I hope that each of us can slow down every once in a while, long enough to appreciate all that we’ve been through in our lives, and the people we have become because of it. May we be able to rest in the quiet every once in a while, feeling connected with our struggling brothers and sisters and yet being able to put our own burden down for a time. In the quiet, may we find a peace of mind, a peace in our bodies, and a peace like a burning flame within our hearts. May we be nourished by the peace for a time and strengthened… for when we take up our burden again.
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Many people may be familiar with author Riane Eisler from her controversial and international best-selling classic The Chalice and The Blade which came out in 1987. Last summer Eisler spoke to UU’s at our annual General Assembly in Portland, Oregon about her newest book The Real Wealth of Nations.
Eisler fled her native Vienna, Austria from the Nazis first living in the slums of Havana and then later in the United States. Eisler has been preoccupied throughout her life’s work as a social scientist, attorney and social activist with this question: “Why, when humans have such a great capacity for caring, consciousness and creativity, has our world seen so much cruelty, insensitivity and destructiveness?”
In 2004, Eisler was invited by the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation to participate in a forum on the future of economics. The conversation there started with a critique of dominant economic analysis that is known as “neoclassical” based largely on the modern capitalist theory of Adam Smith who wrote the “bible” of capitalist theory in 1776, that we know as The Wealth of Nations.
Smith was born in Scotland and developed an optimistic vision of the future based on the central belief that although people are inherently selfish, this selfishness could work for the common good if the market was left alone to regulate production and commerce without governmental interference. He believed the forces of the market would counter selfishness through competition. He used a familiar phrase “the invisible hand of the market” to promote the idea that competition would lead to higher living standards.
The critique is our current economic models of capitalism, socialism and communism, have not been able to successfully address the mounting global problems of poverty, overpopulation and environmental degradation. Instead of providing higher living standards for everyone, free market capitalism has helped to concentrate wealth in a small percentage of the population. These economic systems have proven to be dysfunctional in many ways. Eisler is among social theorists who believe strongly that we need a Caring Revolution as an antidote to our high-tech mentality that is still guided by values of conquest, exploitation and domination.
Eisler asks us to look at our beliefs about human nature. Then she encourages us to help rethink and remake the economic systems we have created.
Growing our awareness of a pervasive economic double standard is an important step in this direction.
For instance, we know about mainstream economic indicator tools such as the GNP and the gross domestic product. These are tools that are supposed to tell us how well we are doing economically by looking at our overall productivity. But a huge part of every nation’s economic productivity is not recorded in these indicator tools such as how the basics of food, health care, and education are distributed – much of what is considered the “housework” of caring for the young, the sick and the elderly, or the extensive contributions of volunteers, much of which is supplied by women. The real wealth of nations should not be the amassing of assets by a few but rather the human potential of the many.
The United Nations Human Development Report publishes that the value of women’s unpaid work is estimated at $11 trillion each year. The report suggested that “if national statistics fully reflect the ‘invisible’ contribution of women, it will become impossible for policymakers to ignore them in national decisions.” The report also documented that “if women’s unpaid work were properly valued, it is quite possible that women would emerge in most societies as the major breadwinners or at least equal breadwinners—since they put in longer hours of work than men.”
A shift toward an economics of caring would replace these traditional indicators with global quality of life measures. With this kind of approach it has been proven that a better predictor of quality of life is to show the status of women, rather than the gross national product.
Nordic nations such as Finland, Norway and Sweden have found that investing in caring policies and programs – from universal healthcare and childcare to generous paid parental leave has been an investment in a higher quality of life and a more innovative economy. From 2003 to 2006, Finland was ahead of even the U.S. in the world economic forum’s global competitiveness ratings.
In an economics of caring which Riane Eisler firmly states is the real wealth of nations, all activities that go to nurture and actualize human beings and our natural environment are given a higher value than activities that promote military spending, environmental, and human, degradation. Instead of being counted as gross national product, these activities could be considered gross national costs.
Eisler asserts that much of our dysfunctional economic behavior is based on that assumption of human nature as basically selfish and the false justification that selfishness leads to greater productivity. She points to recent results in the field of neuroscience to challenge these assumptions.
In a study with 18 month-old babies, scientist Felix Warnekan in the field of evolutionary anthropology discovered even young babies are actually physically programmed to respond in caring and helpful ways. Without rewards or praise, babies would repeatedly offer to help retrieve objects that were accidentally lost, and fail to respond when items such as clothespins and books were intentionally thrown.
This may not seem like a strong case of biology over culture but we all know that our neurochemistry provides a unique pleasure to us whenever we are genuinely caring toward a child, a friend, a lover and even our pets. Scientists can argue that it is a grace of evolution, that when offered a choice, we choose mutual caring over selfishness and greed.
Eisler helps to point out that the stress of competitive conditions has been proven to override our innate desires to bond with others. The cruelty we see even in families is often the result of poorly coping with stress. So many of us have experienced the results of poor parenting because our parents were under pressures they simply do not know how to cope with and not due to a lack of love from them.
Neuroscientists know that children who are abused or neglected will most often continue the pattern in their adult life unless they experience some kind of supportive, respectful environment.
The costs of not being able to provide good childcare and healthcare are enormous – from crime, mental illness, and drug abuse to the shameful loss of human potential. Evidence from neuroscience supports policies of good care, especially for children.
Our UU principle which affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person is often connected to our human responsibility for ethical action. As UU’s, often we overemphasize our imperative for good moral character and neglect our basic need for love, acceptance and support…as we are. The power of our caring communities is a testimonial to this and to our Universalist heritage which affirms a loving God under all conditions and for all people.
This Mother’s Day, may we each affirm the quality of caring that has supported us through life and its invaluable contribution to our personal sense of wealth and well-being. May we feed empowered to offer care to our families, friends, communities and even strangers, knowing that the simple act of affection can work wonders. And may we reach out and offer comfort to all of those who are feeling isolated and neglected this day. May we each feel the care of others freely given our way.
The value of caring is real and it is often greatly underestimated and unacknowledged. In closing I share this passage by Kay Hardie as quoted in the book Some Do Care by Anne Colby and William Damon – “I am one of these people who have been loved every day of my life. I am a person who has been told by the words or actions of those people closest to me, ‘We just think you’re great. You can just do anything.’ I remember thinking a long time ago that in this painful world, if you have been given the kind of things I’ve been given which is the gift of limitless expectations for your life, and security, and a nest to come from, one that was warm and safe, and you look around you and if you have any sensitivity at all, you know that’s not the way most people got their start or live their lives. And for me I would think it would be the road to madness if you didn’t try to give some of it away.”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
I must confess, personally my mind does not want to consider Rebecca Parker’s hypothesis that rather than anticipating the Apocalypse, it has already happened. There have been some terrible things that have happened in our not very distant past and yet it’s hard at times not to imagine how much more terrible it could get. It reminds me of the classic line from Laurel and Hardy – “This is one fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”
But seriously now – ,this question which is fourth in my sermon series called Questions of Faith, this question, just “How Are We Saved?” is really kind of a perennial one. I think it has two major dimensions. One is how is the world saved, and second, how am I personally saved, as an individual.
All of the world’s major religious traditions hold the prospect that human beings can find a way out of the suffering, confusion and alienation that we experience in life. Although each of the traditions is distinctive despite their commonalities, there are basically three categories of human thinking about the religious question “How Are We Saved?”
One category of thinking is that we are saved as both a species and as individuals by living in harmony with the dynamics or laws of nature. The second category of human salvation has to do with ethical living. All traditions agree that adherence to a core of ethical values can effect a transformation of the human condition. The third category holds that right relationship with our creator God and each other will save us.
Religious doctrine about the source, nature and function of what has saving power for humans is referred to theologically as the area of “Soteriology” which comes from the Greek word “soter” which means “savior”. While Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism have more elaborate soteriologies, the other major traditions address the question as well.
For instance, Confucianism holds a classical Chinese view of human nature which is that people are naturally capable of choosing between either good or evil actions. The central concept is that we all have an innate capacity for moral improvement. Now the successor of Confucius, Meng Zi, took this original concept further with his belief that not only can we choose, but human beings are essentially good and naturally inclined to ethical betterment.
Even a later Confucian teacher who was more skeptical about human nature, Xun Zi said that despite human’s natural tendency toward self-centeredness, we can be taught through proper education to be more ethical in our choices. An interesting contrast that we find in Confucianism is that when people choose to act selfishly they hurt themselves and others but it does not damage the essential relationship between the human and the divine as other traditions teach.
While people can always have the opportunity to right their wrongs if they are willing to face the responsibility of neglected or sabotaged relationships, in Confucianism there is no notion of salvation or redemption as we find in other traditions but rather a focus on exemplary persons who serve as moral role models such as the Buddha.
In Buddhism discovering our own inherent Buddha nature is the way out of human suffering, while Hinduism provides many paths to an experience of oneness with God which is known as yoga or devotional practices. In Buddhism and Hinduism, salvation is seen in the simple sense of a release from the status quo that sees no antidote for human suffering.
In Christianity we find a doctrine of not only salvation but also redemption. It is said God sent his son Jesus to die and rise from the dead in order to prove human victory over both evil and death. In addition, believers not only feel “rescued” through the actions of Jesus but also embrace the concept that Jesus redeems them to a previous state of innocence which existed prior to humanity’s fall into sinfulness. This word redemption comes from the Latin to “buy back” which helps to explain the Christian concept. Buddhism and Hinduism, while having their own doctrines of Soteriology, do not share the Christian concept of reinstatement to a prior state as part of their belief systems.
In Taoism, all things exist naturally in a primordial harmony which is a balance between Yin and Yang forces at work in the world. When things go wrong in nature or human society, according to Taoists it is the result of disequilibrium between the Yin and Yang forces. Taoists acknowledge the human tendency to seek control and to attempt to dominate even nature, but they believe in the end nature will always restore a basic balance.
Interestingly, Taoists believe that humans are able to purify themselves of disharmonious qualities even to the extent that we can live eternally and join a Paradise of Immortals. They say a purified human can choose to die in a physical form but more often they find a substitute for the human body and slip unnoticed toward the external paradise. While some Taoists share this concept of immortality beyond death, as in the resurrection, there is no single savior recognized in Taoist thought.
Islam, like Judaism and many indigenous traditions, focus on a right relationship with the Creator God and with other humans. The Muslims are called to practice the Five Pillars of Faith – first acknowledging the one God and Muhammad as a prophet, then encouraging extensive daily prayer, giving to the poor, fasting during Ramadan, and pledging to make a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. In a similar way, practicing Jews strive to preserve their community and do acts of justice making while honoring the cohesive force of Judaic law.
The religious question of “How Are We Saved?” is often tied to a sense of human survival against all that threatens to destroy us collectively and personally. We humans have always been at the mercy of the forces of nature and the frailty and foibles of human nature. Religious traditions offer us a sense of security and agency as we face any threatening circumstance that life brings our way.
While there is security in the effort to do the right thing and seek harmony with nature, some traditions teach that even the strongest and most pure of heart among humanity still need assistance from something greater than a human power. The word “Grace” is often used when referring to the superhuman or divine aid known as the power of salvation.
All of us know of situations where despite the fact we were aligned with the integrity of our strongest values, we have continued to suffer. We have been treated unfairly we have been at the mercy of poor health and mean-spirited people. The wrongs that have been done to us have not been righted. We are still vulnerable to doubt and heartbreak. We disappoint ourselves, and we are at times terribly disappointed in our fellow humans.
So how are we saved? We can know the beliefs that offer a sense of security and wisdom. And some of us have experienced the presence of some kind of grace in our lives during the hardest moments. Whether that was described by us as the presence of God, or simply something greater than us, such as peace, compassion or maybe even…Love.
Although there are many ways to look at the questions of salvation and redemption, all of us at some time or another have sought to be more of who we are. We’ve longed to become more whole, more balanced and redeemed not in the sense of being paid back but more like achieving our full value, of cashing in a coupon to reveal our hidden strengths and talents.
And a critical part of seeking wholeness, which is one way that we are saved, so to speak, is to heal the parts of ourselves and others that serve to hold us back and distract us with pain.
Rebecca Parker likes to refer to a phrase often used by a recent UU luminary, James Luther Adams. They remind us that “there is a love that holds us and will never let us go.” Whether this is a compassionate presence of the divine or simply the power of our guiding principles in life, there is a love that does not let us go, and never gives up on the possibilities of our being more whole, more healed, and even saved when we need it most.
“Once I was lost but now I’m found… How sweet the sound of amazing grace.”
May the power of love working in our world, in any and all forms, be the power that saves us one and all. Amen, Shalom, Namaste, and Blessed Be.
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
A Time for All Ages (Sermon follows)
Have you ever known somebody in your life that has died? Maybe it was your grandmother or grandfather, or an aunt or an uncle? Maybe it was someone in the family of one of your friends…
Well, even if you haven’t yet lost someone you love to death, one of these days you will and you might even know already that it is one of the hardest things that happens to us in life.
On Easter every year lots of people are celebrating the beauty of springtime after the winter months by remembering the man who was called Jesus. 2000 years ago Jesus led an amazing life, so much so that he has touched the loves of millions of people around the world since that time and still does today.
When we join in celebrating Easter, we remember the important part of Jesus’ life which is that he was killed for speaking out about the things he believed in like fairness for all people. On what is called Good Friday, Jesus was killed by the Roman army along with people who were found to be criminals. The crime that Jesus had committed according to the Roman army was he was introducing religious ideas that encouraged people to fight against unfairness and so he was considered to be dangerous.
And the Christian story tells us that after Jesus was killed by being hung on a cross to die, three days later when the women he knew went to tend to his grave which was in a cave in those days, the big stone that had been used to cover the cave had been rolled away and Jesus’ body was gone.
Then some of his closest friends really thought that they saw Jesus again, as if he didn’t really die! Wow, can you imagine how amazing that would be if it happened to you?
Well when this happened a lot of people started talking about how, even though Jesus had been killed alongside with criminals, somehow he was still alive and most importantly – people still wanted to believe in the things he was always talking about…how close we are to God and how important it is to be loving towards other people, even people who are very different from us.
We really don’t know what happens to people when they die and different religions and people have different ideas and beliefs about that, but you know, almost everybody around the world uses all kinds of flowers to celebrate the life a person they have lost.
It is a way of remembering the beauty we have known in that person and a way of reminding ourselves that even when our hearts are as sad as they can possibly be – there is still beauty in our world and life keeps going on even when it feels like it has stopped.
Today as Unitarian Universalists we celebrate a Flower Communion to honor the importance of the Easter holiday. When the choir sings Rhythm of Life I want to ask you all to come up here one at a time and pick a flower that you like best to take with you for today. We hope that the flower will remind you that even when you are having the hardest time you’ve ever had, maybe even because you have lost someone important in your life – you will be happy to know their beauty stays with you even after they are gone – in the same way that you will be able to remember your flower’s beauty from today—in a few days when it will have died.
Sermon: “A Triumphant Life”
There is a curious Greek Orthodox Christian tradition. Believers gather on Easter Monday to trade jokes. Doris Donnelly, a teacher of spiritual theology says “since the most extravagant ‘joke’ of all took place on Easter Sunday- the victory, against all odds, of Jesus over death- the community of the faithful enters into the spirit of the season by sharing stories with unexpected endings, surprise flourishes, and a sense of humor.”
Traditional Christian churches regularly celebrate Jesus’ victory over death with the practice of communion – breaking bread and drinking wine, symbolizing the body and blood of Christ which was given, they believe, for the salvation of humanity.
This kind of communion is rarely celebrated in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Although we recognize the extraordinary teachings and example attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, we do not require the standard belief held by Christians that he died to save us from our sins. Rather, we believe that Jesus’ integrity to stand by his beliefs, even at great risk to his personal safety is an incredibly powerful tribute to his teachings, and a personal challenge to us all. Although we greatly respect the personal sacrifice Jesus made in his willingness to die rather than betray his deep convictions, we do not believe that a loving God would require the brutal killing of any of God’s children, let alone one who was sent to fulfill specific requirements for all of humanity’s salvation. Unitarian Universalists believe that Jesus was executed for human political reasons, not divine or religious ones. Unitarian Universalists believe in a loving God who does not condone or advocate violence of any kind, let alone require any kind of violent death in order to establish redemption on earth.
The flower communion that many UU congregations celebrate annually on Easter morning, we find to be a more fitting act of remembrance and inspiration. The flower communion ritual originated with a Unitarian minister in Czechoslovakia as an annual festival to include children in worship prior to the summer church break. But since Rev. Norbert Capek’s death in the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau at the hands of medical experiments, UU congregations has tied the martyrdom of his life to defend his convictions for religious freedom and tolerance with the beautiful flower ceremony that celebrates the legacy of an honored life beyond its individual death.
As we approach the 50th Anniversary celebration of this congregation in Pensacola, we are bringing fresh eyes to a painful part of this church’s history. In 1994, while volunteering as escorts at a local women’s health clinic, church members Jim Barrett was murdered and his wife June was shot. Many people in Pensacola were outraged by the extreme violence that was perpetrated, supposedly by religious people feeling justified by religious reasons yet relatively few were willing to take a public stand to denounce the violence.
Amidst the heated controversy and complexity over the woman’s right to abortion and the larger issue of women’s access to reproductive healthcare including contraception, several of our church members rallied with other people of conscience in Pensacola to continue providing volunteer escort services, even under the dangerous conditions of local women’s health clinics.
A surprising twist to this real story is that today, fifteen years after the initial clinic violence which as we recall spanned several years, a group of young people in association with the Women’s Studies Program at the University of West Florida are about to submit a resolution to Pensacola’s City Council petitioning for a Day of Remembrance for the victims of acts of domestic terrorism, including the doctors who were murdered and several others injured.
This student organization called the Women’s Studies Collective is joining with other local organizations like the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and American Civil Liberties union to sponsor a film series on Reproductive rights. Next month the film Soldiers in the Army of God will be hosted here at UUCP where segments of the film were made. Members of this congregation have been faithfully serving as escorts ever since these awful events, even today, as there is a resurgence of pro-life activism at local clinics. There is a real need for these faithful volunteers to be supported by the willingness of new people to get involved as escorts and advocates for women’s rights to healthcare.
For centuries, UU’s have been living out the faith of their conviction despite danger and adversity, and this is part of our celebration of the flower communion on Easter.
But I have another story I want to share with you today that recalls the anguish of Good Friday and the transformational act of being renewed which is the glory of Easter.
This is the true story of a young man from Kansas City and his deeply moving transformation from soldier to antiwar activist. This story is now being widely told through a 2007 award-winning documentary film called Body of War, which was co-directed by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue. Remember him?
Phil Donahue was inspired to make this documentary after Ralph Nader invited him to visit a woman and her son, a seriously wounded soldier, in Walter Reed hospital. This is where Donahue met a heavily medicated Tomas Young. Donahue was so moved by this young man’s desperate predicament and the courage with which he and his family were facing it, that he endeavored to produce an intimate and thoughtful reporting to share with the public. Both Donahue and co-director Ellen Spiro wanted to offer a brave example of the free press which is guaranteed by our Constitution as a much needed antidote to the sanitized coverage provided by the corporate media on the war in Iraq.
Two days after President Bush spoke on the ruins of the Twin Tower from 9-11, Tomas Young enlisted in the Army to defend our country and to help find Osama Bin Laden. He was 22. A year later after expecting to go to Afghanistan but being sent to Iraq instead, Young was shot just above his left collar bone on his first mission. He had been in Iraq just one week when he was riding in an unarmored Humvee with his fellow soldiers and they were fired upon.
The bullet severed Young’s spinal cord in his upper back so that he has no bodily functioning from the chest down. In addition to not being able to go to the bathroom without manual assistance, Tomas can’t even cough, and has to regulate his body temperature with the use of ice packs.
Surprised by Donahue and Spiro’s interest in his personal story, Young weaned himself from the excessive morphine needed to manage his pain so that he could share his heartfelt message with the world. Young feels betrayed, not only by the Bush administration’s ill planned and misguided approach to the war, but also by the lack of medical care he has received since returning him from that war.
Despite terrible depression and grief, and constant physical discomforts of various kinds, Tomas Young is claiming his new life built on the anguish of his past, as a serious anti-war activist making personal appearances as often as he and his family who cares for him can manage. After this intimate documentary was completed, Young has produced a companion soundtrack album, also called Body of War, with a wide array of artists including Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who provided two new songs for the documentary.
When Donahue and Spiro were interviewed by Bill Moyers, they admitted it was difficult to co-direct this ambitious project, as they struggled with their different styles, and a desire to balance the subtle and poetic intricacies of Tomas’s life with a direct and hard-hitting political critique of what is likely to become known as one of the worst mistakes in this country’s history.
But Donahue and Spiro wholeheartedly agree that they were personally inspired by the bravery and patriotism of Tomas Young and his family.
This Easter as we recall the bravery and courage which Jesus showed in his darkest hours, as well as the legacy we have inherited from countless generations of lives which were not given, but taken, may we celebrate the beauty of their hard won lives of honor. May we keep our hearts and minds open to the ongoing beauty of life when we ourselves are facing our darkest moments.
And may we join with others around the world this Easter morning in a prayer for peace and an end to needless violence.
As we prepare to participate in the flower communion, which we will observe in silence as the music plays, I’ll close today’s message with Norbert Capek’s flower communion prayer.
“In the name of Providence, which implants in the seed the future of the flower
and in our hearts the longing for people to live in harmony;
In the name of the highest, in whom we move and who makes the mother and father,
the brother and sister, lover and loner what they are;
In the name of sages and great religious leaders, who sacrificed their lives
to hasten the coming of the age of mutual respect—
Let us renew our resolution—sincerely to be real brothers and sisters
regardless of any kind of bar which estranges us from each other.
In this holy resolve may we be strengthened knowing that we are God’s family;
that one spirit, the spirit of love, unites us. Amen.”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
It is fitting that the third message in my sermon series called Questions of Faith is presented with the question of “What Lies Ahead?” in the context today of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is also known as Passion Sunday because it marks the beginning of the Christian Holy Week that culminates next Sunday with Easter. When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem by riding on the back of a donkey in the week that led to his crucifixion, it is said that he was fulfilling yet another sign as a Hebrew messiah, as written in the ancient text. It was told that the messiah who would come to avenge the enemy of the Jewish people would be seen riding a donkey, rather than a horse, to show that the Hebrew people would be avenged by peace, rather than war.
Expectations of a Messiah arose in the Jewish tradition first during and after the Babylonian exile, and then again in the extended occupation of the Jews by the Roman army two thousand years ago.
For some Jews, the details and message of Jesus’ life and death fulfilled their expectations of him as the messiah for humanity. And for other Jews, their messianic expectations did not end with the life and death of Jesus.
Although we will begin to explore the question of “What Lies Ahead for the future of humanity?” in the context of the Abraham traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, we will soon broaden the scope to include the Eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, and I’ll add a contemporary global look for today.
The religious question of “What Lies Ahead for the future of humanity?” is a question that is deeply rooted in the cosmologies of individual religious traditions. Cosmology has to do with fundamental beliefs and views about the nature of time and space in the universe and what it means to be an embodied human. The western traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which follow the lineage of Abraham all embrace a concept of time that is linear. For these monotheistic faiths, time and history is moving from a distinct beginning, through middle to an anticipated end.
The area of Systematic Theology to which the question of “What Lies Ahead?” refers is the area called Eschatology – derived from two Greek words meaning “the study of last things”. The last things include juicy topics like death, judgment, heaven and hell.
While the traditions which arose in the Middle East have a linear orientation with the beginning, middle and end in a historical sequence never to be repeated and culminating in a final transformation of humanity and the universe, the traditions of Asian origin assume instead a cyclical view of time. The incredibly expanded Asian view of time sees the same cycles of nature reflected in various epochs of time. They see history as an infinite cycle of creation and destruction, beginning with a time of order and peace through various ages of disorder until peace is eventually restored. For the Asian traditions, human death continues into a physical cycle of rebirth and transformation.
More common in the Western traditions is the notion of an after-life where the human soul is subjected to a day of judgment in another realm of existence. Although the Jewish tradition did not interpret the story of Adam and Eve into a belief of original sin, Christians see the death of Jesus on the cross as an act of atonement for all of humanity’s sinful or fallen nature. This follows the ancient Hebrew notion of sacrifice by one for the purification and renewal of all. For Christians, Jesus’ death and reported resurrection brings about for humanity a salvation through victory over evil and death. Jesus is understood to redeem and restore humanity to its earlier state of innocence.
Overall, we do not find the concept of “millennialism” in the Asian traditions that see the cyclic progression of time as an unlimited chance for human enlightenment, by which is meant, recognizing and realizing one’s own divine nature through various paths of practice and devotion.
Millennialism which we find in the Western religious traditions refers to the expectation that at a certain point in time, human history will experience a dramatic turnabout resulting in the very end of time itself. A millennium, which refers to a thousand years, is a shared expectation of time that several past communities have named. The expectation of these “End Times” is an ancient theme with Jewish roots and common in the time of Jesus.
Religious traditions the world over have anticipated various cataclysmic events as a possible future for humanity. They have fallen into two major categories-environmental disasters and escalated human conflict, or both. The escalated human conflicts are often foretold in mythic proportions of a final battle between virtually superhuman personalities representing the forces of good and evil in the world.
Many people in the world today are actively anticipating the “End Times”, an apocalyptic battle of spiritual adversaries, some of which have ironically sprung from the roots of the same religious tradition – namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Of course, we know that there are other factors beyond purely religious ones that will always affect our notion of humanity’s future. We can’t overlook the significance of economic and political perspectives when informing the religious perspective, to say nothing yet of scientific advances.
When we think of the two major categories of predictions for the future of humanity—environmental disaster and escalated human conflict—where do we as Unitarian Universalists fit into the picture? How do we attempt to answer the question—“What Lies Ahead?”
Well, first of all, despite our Jewish and Christian roots, we do not anticipate, on religious principles, some kind of final conflict between good and evil necessarily, but rather place our faith and our hope in the capacity for human agency and morality. Despite the reality of human frailties and limitations, as UU’s we do not believe in original sin. We believe instead in an essential goodness within humanity which we like to call inherent worth and dignity.
Rather than polarized forces of good and evil, we prefer the notion of an interdependent web of life that calls us to be in right relationships with both our fellow human beings, and the whole circle of life itself, as it is expressed on this precious planet of ours called Earth.
If indeed, any speculation on the future of humanity is a leap of faith – than our speculation as Unitarian Universalist is an optimistic one. A future built on the hope of human resiliency and an instinctual appreciation for life itself. Ours is a leap of faith into the possibility of human justice and of the possibility of humans learning to live in harmony with the Earth that sustains us rather than exploiting it to the point of our own extinction.
Today when we began the service by singing “Woyaya”, we celebrated the UU belief that even though we do not yet fully know how to achieve human justice and harmony in living upon the Earth, we believe it is possible in the future of what lies ahead for humanity.
On Palm Sunday, instead of recalling the procession of a particular human savior, we celebrated the procession of our children, of humanity’s children as they proceed into the future of us all.
On this Palm Sunday as we kick off this church’s Annual Budget Drive with a written testimonial by Bob Ortiz in the Order of Service, we celebrate this congregation’s leap of faith to call a full time settled minister a year and a half ago, believing that ministerial leadership could help secure this congregation’s presence of Unitarian Universalist values in the city of Pensacola’s future. As UU’s we know it is largely up to us what we create in our future together, and so I want to take a moment to encourage everyone again to participate in our Long Range Planning process, to cast a vision of what we hope to achieve as a community over the next five years.
This year we are also reminding longtime members of this church, and informing our new members and newcomers that even as we strive to build a larger church program for music and for the religious education of our children, we are still reaching financially to firmly establish the presence of a full time minister in this congregation’s annual budget. We also want to make the most of the limited resources we have to work with, for example—increasing the use of our building by outside groups to generate operating income for us.
Even though our congregation represents only a small corner of this huge universe, we believe that what we do together in the practicing of basic UU values—celebrating diversity, practicing compassion in human relationships, and building justice in both our human and Earth communities makes a difference. We believe that our message of universal love is a saving message and that investing in our UU values today is our best bet on building a brighter future for the humanity of tomorrow.
In a book entitled “Prayers for a Thousand Years”, Sister Mary Goergen wrote this –
“We are about to enter the 15th million millennium of the universe.
We are about to enter the 4.5 millionth millennium of the Earth.
We are about to enter the 4 million millennium of life.
We are about to enter the 2,600 millennium of humans.
We have entered the 3rd millennium of the Common Era.”
She continues – “We are who we are today because of all that has existed before us. We carry in our bodies and spirits the struggles and changes, joys and sorrows, loves and hates that have occurred throughout all time.”
As we anticipate what lies ahead in the future of humanity, may we walk gently upon our precious planet Earth and reach out to the whole of humanity despite our differences—religious, economic and political.
Let us recognize our common humanity in the treasured hopes we have for all of humanity’s children, and heed the spirit of these words of Albert Einstein – “There lies before us, if we choose, continued progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom. Shall we instead choose death because we can’t forget our quarrels? We appeal, as human beings, to human beings! Remember our common humanity and forget the rest.”
Rev. Julie Kain
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola
Every person in this room today and every person outside of this room has experienced early in our lives what I am going to refer to as “an original wounding.” This means that somewhere and sometime when we were young, every one of us was presented with one particular situation that caused us to feel deeply hurt. Some particular situation in our early life caused some kind of original wounding in the very heart of our psyche or being.
It could have arisen from a variety of situations, but most often this original wounding happens in the context of our family dynamics. That is, some kind of difficult and challenging habit of interaction into which we were born by destiny of fate. You know some people say –“we don’t pick our parents in life.” But a few other people say that “even though we don’t pick our parents in life, there is something within each of us where our greatest learning in life comes from the challenge we are presented by some part of our relationship with our parents, or whoever was our primary caregiver in,what we can refer to as, our family of origin.
This “original wounding” has such a distinctive impact on the fabric of our personal being, that we often and most unknowingly will frame subsequent difficulties and challenges we encounter in our lives through a perceptual lens that is tainted, you might say, with the original wounding.
For example, perhaps when you were young your mother was compelled by circumstance to be unavailable to you. Perhaps she had to work outside of the home for instance, or maybe it was a relationship in her life that demanded primary attention from her, and left you with a mother who was not involved primarily with you. She was perhaps both physically and emotionally distant from you at a time in your life when she was one of your primary relationships.
And so to continue with this example, if your particular “original wounding” in life came from this kind of being hurt, what you might call a sense of abandonment or even rejection in your relationship with your mother, later in your life whenever you get close to someone, perhaps a good friend or maybe your first love relationship, if something difficult happens in that later relationship, you are likely to experience it in a similar way to this original wounding with your mother. The outside circumstances may be totally different but your internal perception of them will be filtered through the lens of your experience with abandonment or rejection. You will perceive this other person as behaving in a way which is familiar to you because you feel this sense of being hurt. This particular kind of loss. You may even unconsciously anticipate being hurt like this in your next closest relationship and have what we often hear called “trust issues.” That is you are hesitant to trust another person for fear of being hurt, like you were hurt before.
This is an example of “original wounding” and somehow until we are able to work through consciously how we came to cope with this original situation, we tend to find it as a repeating pattern in our lives. That is we will see it occurring in other relationships and situations. We may see it happening actually even in situations where it may not be warranted. For example, your first best friend disappoints you by choosing to do something with someone else rather than going to a movie with you. You respond by feeling that your best friend is going to leave you or abandon your friendship, or that they are, with this one simple action, somehow rejecting you. You take it perhaps too personally that they are going to do something with someone else. You make it mean something big about you when your best friend may simply be making a small decision that actually has no bearing on their feelings of affection and appreciation of you.
We naturally and unconsciously tend to re-experience an earlier painful situation, in our attempts to come to terms with it, to understand or figure out why this happened. Was the pain you felt caused by something you did wrong or some bad quality in you that somehow deserves this rejection or abandonment?
It is incredibly common, especially in young people, that we tend to make sense of something that has happened by internalizing the responsibility for it. “It was my fault that this happened”, we tell ourselves. Does this sound familiar to you? Can you recall a situation in your life when you were young when you felt you had somehow caused a mishap and it turned out that it didn’t even have to do with you really?
And so one of the major ways we have found to overcome the challenges we carry in ourselves as a result of an original wounding, is to bring our conscious awareness to the pattern as it manifests in our lives. At some point along the way, the child whose mother had to work, or whose mother was preoccupied with a daunting and problematic relationship in her life, that child comes to realize that her behavior had more to do with these other circumstances than it had to do with him or her. What we thought and experienced as abandonment and rejection was not intended by the mother. It happened but it was not her intention to abandon or reject.
It’s good to find a way to reflect on the original woundings in our lives. We are presented with a painful and difficult situation early in our loves and we find ways to cope with that. These coping mechanisms work in our loves to manage the difficult parts, but when we keep using them even in other kinds of situations that don’t warrant them, we fall into a cycle which limits us. We can end up defining ourselves by this original sorrow and overusing the ways we found to cope with it. We can fall into a destructive cycle that repeats itself in different areas of our lives. In our attempts to protect ourselves from being hurt again, we cut ourselves off from other people and even from parts of ourselves. The cycle is a destructive one because it limits who we are and our interactions with other people. We inadvertently set ourselves up to actually be hurt in the same kinds of ways again and again like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A few years ago the accomplished actor Denzel Washington made his directorial debut with a film based on a true story calledAntwone Fisher. The story is about a young man who is in the Navy. He keeps getting into altercations with his fellow seamen and so is disciplined by being required to see a psychiatrist, who is played by Denzel Washington. The young man, Antwone, is resistant to talking with the psychiatrist and actually sits through several of his initial sessions in silence. Eventually and slowly, the psychiatrist is able to draw Antwone out of his silent self-protection.
At one point Antwone asks Denzel Washington’s character if he thought it was possible for people with lots of problems to have a regular life. You see, Antwone had told the psychiatrist that he had no parents. His father was killed just before he was born and his mother was in jail when he was born. He was raised in foster care and sent to a reform school as a young teenager when he no longer allowed the abuse he suffered in his foster home.
When Antwone asked the psychiatrist if people with lots of problems could lead a regular life, he was wondering if he should pursue a relationship with a young woman who was also serving in the Navy. He was wondering if he would be able to have a healthy relationship with her and he was wondering, despite how damaged he felt he was, if she could possibly accept and love him. At this point in the story Antwone had not yet fully disclosed the abuse he suffered while in foster care.
The psychiatrist encourages Antwone to be open to the relationship with the young woman and starts to become a supportive father figure for Antwone. But when the psychiatrist tells Antwone that his disciplinary requirement had been filled and that he would make the medical recommendation that Antwone had come to terms with his anger issues and could proceed in his Naval assignment, Antwone feltbetrayed.
Denzel’s character had been the only person he had ever really talked to about his life. Just when he had started to trust the psychiatrist, to even need him for that fatherly support, he was told that he was “fine” and no longer needed to see the psychiatrist.
Antwone was rejected and abandoned again. The process of opening up to the psychiatrist and then being turned loose left Antwone alone with the unleashed feelings over his past and a painful anger from losing this new relationship of trust that he had established with the psychiatrist.
Denzel’s character had not only affirmed this young man’s desire to be emotionally healthy, he had withstood the disclosure of Antwone’s secret pains of the past. In time, the psychiatrist realized that Antwone had opened himself to him and that his vulnerability required more of his professional time. The psychiatrist also came to recognize that Antwone’s process of emotional recovery echoed his own journey of personal healing. And so the relationship continued.
Wayne Muller in his book Legacy of the Heart, the Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood writes—
“When we are hurt as children, we can quickly learn to see ourselves as broken, handicapped, or defective in some essential way.” Muller brings his background as a therapist and a Harvard Divinity school graduate to his writing. He continues in the introduction of his book by saying “you are not broken; childhood suffering is not a mortal wound, and it did not irrevocably shape your destiny. You need not remove, destroy or tear anything out of yourself in order to build something new. Your challenge is not to keep trying to repair what was damaged; your practice instead is to reawaken what is already wise, strong and whole within you, to cultivate those qualities of heart and spirit that are available to you in this very moment.”
Whether the original wounding in our lives left us with invisible patterns such as the inability to easily trust another person, or with the more visible patterns of physical or substance abuse, we are all capable of growing beyond these difficult limitations.
In the same way that our individual sorrow and suffering is a universal human experience, we all have access to tools for healing old wounds. There is a love in our lives that will not let us go.
May we each have the courage to look honestly at our lives and to take the steps that loosen us from the limiting patters we have inherited from the past. May we cultivate compassionate patience with the other people who have touched our lives. May we learn that the scars of our past have the power to teach us great strength and true wisdom. May we maintain our sense of worth and dignity even in the face of thoughtless and pain-provoking behavior on the part of others.
May we break through the chains of our past to embrace the fullness of this moment and the bright possibility of tomorrow.
Amen and Blessed Be.