Sermons

“Who’s in Charge Here?”

Rev. Julie Kain

Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola

Yesterday at the Long Range Planning workshop I was looking through some of the materials that have been compiled about this congregation and I stumbled upon an interesting statistic. In 2005 when this congregation embarked on the bold adventure to search for a full time minister who could be a good match to serve this community, a large survey was administered by the ministerial search committee and its purpose was to create a profile of what this particular congregation is like and to create a profile of what kind of minister it was seeking to meet its needs and expectations.

As a part of that survey, individuals were asked to identify their beliefs and their theological orientations. I was not particularly surprised to learn that the highest category of common response from this congregation at that time identified themselves as “Humanists” and I would suggest that percentage would be about the same today if we were to administer the survey again.

You see it is typical of our Unitarian Universalist communities across the country to have a significant number of folks who do not consider themselves religious in a traditional sense of the world or even for whom religious tradition and language offer little personal value in our quest for meaning in our lives.

So let’s start with a look at Humanism and then survey the human landscape of religious wisdom traditions as we explore the second question in my sermon series—“Questions of Faith”, the basic human question of “Who’s in charge here anyway?”

Humanism is an ethical philosophy that affirms the worth and dignity of all people. It holds the notion that as human beings we are capable of determining what is morally right and wrong because of universal human experiences and a rational approach to making sense of them. Humanism asserts every person’s right to conscience and self-determination, stressing the value of social responsibility while rejecting dependence on beliefs that are based in a supernatural or “other worldly” context. Humanism believes in a noble human aspiration of ethical action to relieve human suffering and to fulfill our human potential for establishing just social systems. Humanism believes that humans have individual and corporate power to change the world and that what we do makes all the difference.

Now as with most human traditions, within the broad category of humanism there are notable variations. Secular Humanism, which is considered by many traditionally religious people to be quite dangerous, is simply a stance toward life held by some people where the concept of a divine presence in this world is not apparent or useful to them personally. Folks who consider themselves “Atheists” simply do not find the God concept compatible with their experience of life. Those who are more comfortable with the term of describing themselves as “Agnostic” find that not knowing about a definitive concept of God is a stance that makes sense, and is quite adequate as they go about the business of finding purpose, meaning and ethical action in life.

Another broad category is Religious Humanism for which adherents either embrace religious language and traditions to affirm human agency and responsibility, or for whom some religious language and tradition has meaning, either in a cultural or personal way, but not necessarily as an exclusive system for personal salvation.

In general, Humanism supports a pragmatic approach to life that is based more in the direct experience of the scientific method, than in texts attributed to divine revelation, or in the trust of an external outside authority.

Do Humanists believe that humans are in charge here? Well, yes and no. Humanists believe that we have created the social systems and traditions that govern human life, but we also reside in a universe that is operating according to principles beyond the full grasp of human agency. We obviously do not control everything, even though we try, especially with the power we have harnessed through science and technology.

Even Humanists will admit that human beings are only one aspect of this material universe, and it does not in fact revolve solely around us. The knowledge and understanding that we can develop as human beings can enhance our quality of life and our ability for ethnical action.

We know from science that we live in a complex world with an Operating Manual we are continually trying to decipher, but we also know from simply being alive that the world is more directly infused with a meaning that is personal to each of us.

Some of us grew up with religious terms that accurately described our sense of “who’s in charge here”, while others of us have found a religious language later in our lives which helps us to do this.

Many people today are simply not comfortable considering themselves “religious” but prefer the term “spiritual”.

As each of us finds a personal meaning to the question of “who’s in charge here?”, there is a vast array of images and names we can reflect upon. There are some basic commonalities we can observe.

If we think of an outstretched human hand, we know that there are distinct differences to the world’s human wisdom traditions, as distinct as each finger of the hand is from one another, and yet the separate fingers are joined at the palm in the universality of human experience. This taps into an underground river of wisdom with many different wells along its course.

For those humans who have experienced the presence of the divine in this world, that presence is recognized with a multitude of names—Creator God, Mother, Father, and Holy Spirit. There are personal relationships in which we perceive with this presence. They vary — from our being a beloved child, to our being loved by a mystical partner, and to our being accompanied by the most faithful and loyal friend.

The divine qualities we as humans have identified carry great power in and of themselves, and are often enhanced by stories of real and mythical people. In addition to a Creator God being the Source of All that Is, many people recognize divine qualities in an Infinite Spirit, in Yearning, in Listening, in Beauty and Joy and Justice; in Nurturing, in Openness, in Hospitality and Forgiveness. Divine qualities include Grace, Creativity, Transformation, Wonder and Mystery. We can see the holy in Playfulness, in Silence and in a genuine and irrepressible Reverence for Life. We can see the quality of the holy in what we know as Love. We can experience a sense of the holy in the present moment and we can feel the power of simply being present.

The Jewish theologian Martin Buber relied on a Hasidic legend of a teacher who lived an unusually abundant life. After the death of the teacher one of his disciples was asked, “What was most important to your teacher?” The student replies—“Whatever he happened to be doing at that moment.”

Here’s another passage on this subject of the divine and simply being present. It is by Macrina Wiederkehr in a book called The Song of the Seed. She writes—“As the stars again become visible tonight, I am reminded of a feast of leisure from my childhood days. I remember, on summer evenings sitting outside on a quilt with Mama waiting for the stars to come out. Looking back at that moment with my adult eyes, I understand that God is someone who has taken the time to sit a on a quilt with me waiting for beauty. She is a mother of presence. I need only invite her into my moments of leisure. Her presence will empower my presence.”

“As I tried to bring a deeper quality of presence to all my works this day”, Macrina continues, “I found God moving through the day with me, like a mother, opening my eyes to beauty. Quietly, joyfully, gratefully without complaining, I welcomed all the beauty that crossed my path.”

Or how about this image of a mother in contrast, by Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners magazine?  “At times, I think that truest image of God today is a black inner-city grandmother in the U.S. or a mother of a disappeared in Argentina or the women who wake up early to make tortillas in refuge camps. They all weep for their children and in their compassionate tears arises the political action that changes the world. The mothers show us that it is the experience of touching the pain of others that is key to change.”

When we think about the first UU principle of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of each person, we can clearly see its similarity with the definition of Humanism I offered earlier. But it also ties closely with the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam with its emphasis that humans are made in the image of God. As the Quakers say “There is that of God in everyone.”

The Buddhists extend this idea of worth and dignity throughout creation in the concept of “interbeing”. Sentient beings pervade the entirety of our universe, even in what we consider to be inanimate objects. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about it his way—

“Whenever I touch a flower, I touch the sun and yet I do not get burned…The miracle is possible because of an insight into the nature of interbeing. If you really touch one flower deeply, you touch the whole cosmos. The cosmos is neither one nor many. Like Shakyamuni Buddha, you can be everywhere at the same time. Think of your child or your beloved touching you now. Look more deeply and you will see yourself as multitudes, penetrating everywhere, interbeing with everyone and everything.”

This passage is one of many that comes from a mystical tradition of the immanence of the sacred in all that is, a power to literally reach out and touch us in the present moment.

The Hindus identify this divine spirit as the basic Self in all humans and in all creation. As the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita reads, “I am the self that dwells in the heart of every mortal creature; I am the beginning, the life span, and the end of all…

I am the sustainer; my face is everywhere…I am the divine seed of all that lives. In this world nothing animate or inanimate exists without me.”

Unitarian and father of the American Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote about it like this – “I believe in omnipresence and find footsteps in grammar rules, in oyster shops, in church liturgies, in mathematics, and in solitude and in galaxies.”

Whether we believe in a divine presence that is embedded in this creation, or a transcendent being who set it in motion and resides in a realm beyond us. Or… whether we don’t, or simply don’t know, the fact remains that as far as we know, no one has fallen out of the universe and despite its Operating Manual being only partially revealed to us, we do know that each moment holds an unpredictable power to teach us more about life.

We are always asking these questions like “Who’s in Charge Here Anyway?” And we are always learning more possible answers…

Kind of like this brief note collected in a book called Children’s Letters to God:

“Dear God:

How do you feel about people who don’t believe in you?

Somebody else wants to know.

Signed… A friend.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we have come from a Christian tradition, and yet early on we recognized Jesus as a teacher and distinct from the creator God. We embraced the application of human reason to our religious pursuits in the age of this country’s birth and its influence of Unitarian and Universalist forebears. Our congregations today affirm a radically democratic process of self governance and affirm the rights of our members to their individual beliefs. Although some of us are Theists and use theistic language, most of us agree that humans are called to account for our choices and actions, and that we are all called to care for each other in a radical practice of love.

I’m not sure that we could come to an agreement on the question of “Who’s in Charge Here?” but I think we do agree on the power of love and in the open possibility of the present moment.

I close with words by Theologian Paul Tillich whose faith was challenged deeply by the Jewish Holocaust as so many Christians and Jews was, and which opened the Humanist tradition as both an ethical and religious faith alternative.

“The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your being, of your ultimate concern of what you take seriously – without any reservation. Tillich concludes- “Perhaps in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself.”

Amen

 

“The Road Not Taken”

Rev. Julie Kain

Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola

Have you ever traveled to a distant city or town and while finding your way to your destination, you stumble upon an area that looksso interesting that you just want to stop and check it out? Perhaps you are pressed for time and you remind yourself that you are expected and if you stop you might arrive late. You try to make a mental note to go back later, perhaps as you return home, but you knoweven as you do that it’s likely you will forget. Or simply decide that you don’t have the time to stop then either…

Life presents most of us with so many choices, at times it is hard to know what to choose. Which way to go?  How to pick the best way to get to where we’re trying to go? That is, if we are lucky enough to have choices!

It’s good sometimes for us to remind ourselves, as typical Unitarian Universalists who have a long personal history of marching to the beat of a different drummer, that not everyone has had the same opportunities that we have been blessed to recognize. You may think it is an outdated notion that people pick life’s course based on the expectations of their families, their community, their particular lot in life. Sure, they have choices, but sometimes the pressure to conform to what’s expected of them and the very real consequences of abandonment if they dared to stray from that path, made it seem as if really had no choice at all.

It’s great to have choices in life that help us feel the excitement of rewarding possibilities—and it’s awful when we feel that we have been subjected to a single destiny, especially when it’s a destiny that serves to limit who, and what we know we are capable of being.

When Robert Frost wrote The Road Not Taken to tease his writer friend and frequent walking companion for always wondering what they might be missing by not taking a particular path, he probably did not know that the poem would be championed by generations of those considered to be marching to a different drummer. The poem has come to herald the virtues of independent thinking and the practice of personal freedom.

Frost’s walking companion was always wondering what they were missing when choosing one path over another. Frost recognized the human tendency to not necessarily follow through on our impulsive curiosity with the line in the poem: “I doubted if I should ever come back.”

He even recognizes that although one path appears “less trod upon”, with fresher grass that “seems to be wanting wear”  –  it is more of a momentary perception than an actual difference, because both paths that morning in Frost’s poem “equally lay in leaves no step had trodden.”

What we remember most from Frost’s beloved poem is the ending that “the road less traveled by made all the difference.” It is a comforting and self-congratulatory statement that tells us in the end it pays to listen to our heart and sometimes choose what is not expected of us. Frost’s poem encourages those of us who dare to trust ourselves in life especially when what we choose goes against the grain of convention or the expectations of others.

Can you think of a time when you bravely chose a path that felt contrary to the expectations of others in your life—or challenged the norms of our society?

Perhaps it was a choice of who to be friends with in school, or maybe it was listening to a particular kind of music, or wearing a certain kind of clothes.

Or perhaps when everyone thought you should have a family—you chose to work or go to school instead. Perhaps you surprised people in your life by your choice of work or your choice in a partner or where you decided to live. There are so many ways in which we can feel we are going our own way and risking the stability we can get when others approve of our actions.

Another piece in Frost’s poem that recognizes a basic human condition is that although we can try other paths in life and occasionally ever alter our course—we can’t fundamentally change the past. We are left with the consequences of our choices always.

As I grow older I find myself reflecting on the ways I feel I have changed over the years and the ways in which I feel the same as I did when I was much younger. It’s funny how life and our choices and sometimes lack of choices can change us. And I think also of my own willingness to be changed. Sometimes I have welcomed the fresh perspective that a person or idea can introduce to my life—while many times I have expected or perhaps unconsciously wished that others would change to conform to my expectations for them. I recently asked myself—if I can so easily expect others to change in order to meet my personal standards, am I willing to consider the changes others may desire of me? Am I willing to change and be changed—even when it’s not the way I see it or feel it should be done?   Hmmm…

Sometimes I think about my own choices in life and the times that circumstances have seemed to have chosen me. I wonder how my life would be different if I’d gone that way instead of this one. I celebrate some beautiful surprises in my life—like the birth of my daughter, meeting my husband and even becoming a minister, while at times I wonder where I’d be now if I’d followed another path. Would I be in another career? Another town? Leading a totally different life?

Julia Cameron wrote some year ago a book that has known quite a bit of popularity called The Artist’s Way. In it, Cameron asserts that we are as humans by definition—creative beings and that creativity is a birthright that many of us have to struggle to reclaim and recover. Our individual creativity was often stifled when we were children for various reasons—to make us practical and socially acceptable, to keep us from precarious positions. I’m sure you can think of more reasons why.

Cameron’s book is filled with little activities to help us claim the creative impulse in our lives and to give ourselves permission and support for growing into the fullness of our being. One of the exercises has to do with envisioning the imaginary lives we could lead, if we could suddenly be transported to another place and time. If you could wave a magic wand—where would you love to live and what would you be doing there?

On my short list, I am a painter in France or a rancher in Wyoming.

It’s interesting to look for the unclaimed parts of ourselves in the lives we are living. For instance, instead of being a painter in France, I have an extensive postcard collection of art I have brought home with me from travels to other lands and museums and gift shops. Instead of being a rancher, I seek out wide open spaces for walks in the countryside or simply a place to sit and look out.

I enjoy remembering how multifaceted each of us is in our lives. How multidimensional our lives are. And that there is so much possibility available to us, if we dare to look for it.

It reminds me of a poem by the writer Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from German.

“I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world,

I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.

I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still do not know!

Am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?”

We all have dreams that we carry with us in life of aspirations – the things we would like to do before we die.

It’s unlikely when you are on your deathbed that you will say you wish you’d had more time…to work!

No, we have too many dreams in us not to think of the paths we haven’t been able to take and wonder where they might have led us. Sometimes we fail to notice that the projects that we devotedly commit ourselves to in the present carry the power of a dream or destination we hope to eventually realize for ourselves.

I recently saw a movie with a great story about this based in true life. The movie is called The World’s Fastest Indian and stars Anthony Hopkins as the man from New Zealand who holds the world record for speed on a motorcycle with a class of 1000cc.

This great story is about Burt Munro a guy who was born in 1899, who served in WWI, raised a family, and was a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast. For over 40 years Munro kept rebuilding his 1920 Indian motorcycle himself, trying to make it the fastest Indian in the world. His dream was to take his Indian motorcycle to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to see what fastest speed his bike could achieve.

In the movie he has figured out how to go from New Zealand to Long Beach, California on a sea freighter working off his passage. It isn’t until he is encouraged by friends that he mortgages his home, which is really a workshop shed, to have enough money to buy a car to take him from California to Utah.

Munro went to Utah in 1962 on a shoestring budget and with the kindness of strangers and a steady perseverance. He negotiated himself into the competition despite the fact that he hadn’t registered in advance, and his motorcycle lacked all the requisite safety requirements for high speed, like a parachute and flame retardant material. He didn’t even have brakes!

In a trial run, Munro amazingly broke speed records and so they let him into the competition. His lifelong dream was realized because of years of devotion to his craft of rebuilding the bike to make if faster and faster, and his sheer determination to find out exactly how fast it could go.

So here’s a man who had an avid hobby for years and in his sixties traveled halfway around the world to see if his particular dream could come true. Some of his personal determination is attributed to the fact that Munro lost a twin sibling in childhood and often reflected on the life he might have shared with them.

Munro set a world record in 1967 and it has yet to be broken. Anthony Hopkins did a delightful job of portraying this man and his exuberant spirit. The byline for the movie is  “It’s never too late for the ride of your life.”

Well we know that not all of us can lead such adventurous lives as this….

But we can allow our lives to take the shape of our long held dreams and find both personal inspiration and satisfaction choosing a path less traveled for ourselves that makes all the difference.

Another poem by Rilke comes to mind as I close—

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

May it be so for each of us.

 

“Questions of Faith”

Rev. Julie Kain

Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola

One thing you can say about Unitarian Universalist with confidence is—we do love our questions!

In some ways, I do believe, this quality unites us more than any other.

For example, if you get a group of UU’s together and start talking about our personal histories, it won’t take long to find out that starting out back in our individual childhoods—we were the ones who were daring to ask questions. In Sunday school, at home, or maybe just in the privacy of our own thoughts.

We were the ones who for some reason simply did not blankly accept what was told to us as true.

We were the ones who paused and pondered. We were the ones who felt a tug of resistance within ourselves and found a way to honor this subtle interior signal by giving ourselves permission to question things, even when that permission was withheld outside of us.

Does this sound familiar?

For those of us who resonate deeply with this quality of tenaciously needing to think and decide for ourselves, we cherish the principles of UU that support our natural proclivity with “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “acceptance of one another and encouragement in spiritual growth in our congregation.” We also love “the right of conscience.”

Our UU principles support the personal practice many of us brought with us to Unitarian Universalism. We love our questions and like the line in the beloved hymn “We laugh, We cry”, we can gratefully sing together that “to question truly is an answer.”

This quality of loving questions has another cousin quality that is often found in UU’s: that is a generally higher than average personal comfort level with complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty.

As natural explorers, we tend to move forward into unknown territories with a greater ease than many people can muster. And this is also why fundamentalism and fanaticism, which is so prevalent in our world today, not only mystifies us but also disturbs us deeply.

Simply said—we see too much to think that there are any easy, clear-cut answers that apply universally.

As UU’s, we are a courageous minority who agree to walk together on the uncertain path of continuing truth seeking, over the comfort of clearly defined beliefs that create a creedal bond with a vast majority.

Now in true UU fashion, I must pause here and ask the question—what is this vast majority?

Well, we know as Americans that we live in a predominantly Christian culture, although within that culture there is a great diversity among Christians.

We also know as Americans that there are millions of people who are not Christian. They may practice other faiths or practice no particular faith at all. So when we locate ourselves as UU’s, either within or outside of this Christian context, either way we are a minority but not really that small of one.

Quite the contrary I propose, the combined minorities who fall outside a hypothetical unified Christian majority represent a substantial amount of people, regular everyday people all around us, who are just like us in that they are trying to find their way in this world the best that they can.

This brings me to the second part of my message title for today which will begin a series of sermons over the coming months—“Questions of Faith.”

Now UU’s may be very comfortable with the word and concept of “questions” but you’re likely to get a much different read of UU’s with the word and concept of “faith.” This word is actually on the list of words that make a lot of UU’s squirm in their chairs and look for the door, almost as if the mere mention of the word was an attempt to sign you up for a New Year’s health club membership.

Faith is one of those words that remind us of the vast Christian majority and in an area like Pensacola can catch us off guard like the question after first meeting someone—“what church do you go to?”

We feel uncomfortable because we feel we’re being held against a generalized presumption that doesn’t fit for us and that the presumption also carries a moral measure with which we will be judged. We simply are not comfortable with the unambiguous question of—“are you in or are you out?”

We want to assert that faith is a personal matter and not one that is easily displayed on our shirt sleeve. Our human identities do not easily fit into the category of “I am a” fill in the blank.

We are so much more as human beings than any one or more of the categories with which we may identify.

Faith is a personal matter that is not like checking blocks with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a questionnaire but which emerges rather from the personal struggling each of us flounder through in the complexities of our own lives.

Faith, like religion, confronts each person with the most critical options that life presents to us. The death of a loved one, the birth of a child, the choice of a life’s work or a committed relationship, the trials of health crises or financial hardships. The call of faith is to confront reality and discern our way forward. The call of faith is to face the depths within ourselves and to determine all the resources of our being.

A Catholic archbishop in Zaire, Bakole wa Ilunga, tells us “Faith is not a momentary feeling but a struggle against the discouragement that threatens us every time we meet with resistance.”

This is not only the resistance we feel when encountering the difficulty that life presents us but also the resistance we may meet when unexpected good fortune befalls us, as well. We crave for a sense of security, for a safe place in which we can trust.

Questions of faith emerge at each of the critical structures of our lives. Throughout the thrills of falling deeply in love and in the precious moments of impending death.

Matters of faith come down to what each of us feels that we know in the core of our being and simultaneously how we are present with all that we simply do not know.

To paraphrase Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox priest, “Faith is a touching of a mystery. It is to perceive another dimension to absolutely everything in the world. In faith, the mysterious meaning of life comes through. To speak in the simplest possible terms”, he says, “Faith sees, knows, senses the presence of (something greater) in the world.”

Each of us arrives at what we know and what we don’t know by navigating a complex web of questions, obstacles, doubts and even contradictions and paradox. How do we make sense of it all? Much of the time, we don’t and yet…we still try to.

Jewish theologian Martin Buber writes: “Real faith means holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life which cannot be compressed in any formula.”

In the coming months, I will bring before this congregation to explore several big questions of faith. Together we will look at the questions that are involved in what is known as systematic theology: What is the nature of reality, of creation, God and what has saving power? What is the nature of humanity, of evil, of time and human destiny?

I will ask you to consider your own beliefs. We will encourage questions but we will also invite our own personal answers. I think it’s too easy for many of us UU’s to continually hide behind the questions themselves and to shrink from taking a stand of our own, even it is qualified as being temporary and in process.

Great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Fahs reminded us that it matters what we believe. What we believe shapes the course of our lives and the qualities of all our relationships. What we believe about life and ourselves creates the foundation on which we place our personal commitments. These are the priorities that serve as a compass through our daily activities.

“In good times or in tempests, may I not forget that to which my life is committed…Keep fresh before me the moments of my high resolve.”

As we explore together questions of faith, we will look at what the world’s wisdom traditions offer in terms of philosophical perspectives as well. Beloved educator of world religions Huston Smith includes secular and ethical teachings in the world’s wisdom traditions.

He notes that despite distinctive differences that the traditions hold, there are three main common themes to be found, beyond the usual ethical guidelines.

One is that the world and its infinite parts are more integrated than we normally see. Second is that despite the challenges, sufferings, and contradictions, the world offers more possibility for human growth than we normally see. And finally the third theme throughout the world’s wisdom tradition is the presence of mystery. We know there is much that we simply do not know.

We are constantly discovering that there are more dimensions to life than what is often obvious to us. Our struggling with faith helps us to live with the obstacles, doubt and paradox that we find in the world. May we continue to faithfully embrace the deep questions of life and living while as Martin Buber said “holding ourselves open to the unconditional mystery we encounter.”

Amen and Blessed Be.

 

“The Promises We Make”

Rev. Julie Kain

This afternoon, after our service today, and the Religious Education Committee meeting, and a lunch with the co-chairs of Social Action here at church, I will be embarking on a personal pilgrimage.

This afternoon I will get into my car and head north. I have a sacred destination before me. No, I am not returning to my Yankee homeland. I’m not going nearly that far north but I am returning to the state that was my chosen home for thirteen years. I am going back to North Carolina. The Mountain is welcoming me back home.

No, this is not Dr. King’s mountain and it is not even Little Scaly mountain. The mountain that I long to see, the mountain in whose presence I long to be, is the UU retreat and learning center called The Mountain, just outside of Highlands, North Carolina.

From Monday to Thursday of this coming week, I will be attending the South East UU Minister’s Association (SEUUMA) fall meeting at the Mountain. Although the date has been looming on my calendar since our arrival from California in mid-August, it’s just been these last several days that I have begun reflecting on what it’s like for me to be returning to a place I love after my first visit in 1997 and my last visit six years ago.

I was invited to go to the Mountain in the summer of 1997 by my home church, my first UU church, Eno River Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina. I’d been a member there for six years and had gotten progressively more involved in a variety of activities, ranging from sound room attendant, occasional guest musician, workshop and class participant, and even office volunteer. But it was my service on the worship committee for four years that eventually led me to becoming chair of that committee in 1997 and it was time for me to be sent to the Mountain for Leadership School.

Now I really had no idea what to expect of UU Leadership School. As a young person I had been to Girl Scout camps and even church camps, and I had wonderful experiences there but it had been over twenty years since I had done anything like that!

When I got to the Mountain I discovered more than fifty other people who had also been sent there from all over the southeastern region of our country. Usually one or two people each from congregations of all sizes and kinds and locations, from rural to small town to big city. This week was very well planned out for us participants by an eclectic and devoted faculty which was comprised of a nice mix of outstanding UU district leaders and a few ministers, as well. Our curriculum ranged from UU Heritage and Values to Worship Arts to Group Leadership Teams and Credo Groups. A good portion of the day was scheduled with presentations and group activities, but there was also a morning and evening worship service, and time for socializing, too. We got just a little bit of “down” time.

The setting is beautiful. Once you leave the little highway that takes you there, you drive up a curvy paved road into the woods. You pass some playing fields, an obstacle course, and various outbuildings. You keep going and then you see a rustic parking lot and signs showing the way to various lodges, cabins and of course – the mess hall.

I’m not sure if it’s still scheduled this way but when I was at Leadership School it used to coincide with the Youth Camp. That was really great. While there were sixty of us adults clustered around one lodge there were over seventy-five teens from all over the southeast clustered around the other main lodge. We enjoyed some meals together and one amazing worship service.

It’s a fantastic setting of hiking trails and grand vistas provided at lodge decks, overlooks, and the fire tower.

A lot of things happened for me at the Mountain that first year, but most significant was the love and commitment that had grown within me for my home church over the six years of being a member, was now expanded to a burgeoning love and commitment to our wider UU movement. Now even though we have these nice bright blue bumper stickers advertising Unitarian Universalism as the “Uncommon Denomination”, technically we are not a denomination but a free association of congregations, united by our common principles. We are really a religious movement rather than a centralized denomination.

And while we’re on the subject, you sometimes may hear of the time we became Unitarian Universalism in 1961 when the two denominations joined together as a “consolidation”, but really it is more accurately called the “merger”. This acknowledges the distinct strains of our Unitarian and Universalist histories, and the distinctive characteristics of their congregational personalities.

Leave it to UU’s to be enthusiastically specific about our non-creedal approach to religion!

The love and commitment I had for my own home church was very easily expanded to this great group assembled at the Mountain, representing the wider UU community throughout the southeast.

After a wonderfully fulfilling experience as a student at Leadership school, I was understandably delighted to be invited to return and serve on the Leadership School faculty for the following three years, my first three out of four years in seminary.

It hadn’t been until I went to Leadership School that I discovered my home church was one of the flagships of the region due to its size and accelerated rate of growth. From the time I joined in 1991 to the time I left for seminary in 1998, Eno River grew from 300 members to nearly 800. I didn’t really know any different, until I was at the Mountain and realized this was an unusual success story.

Now…finally…in 2006 I am returning to the beloved Mountain, and this time to join my ministerial and district colleagues from all over the southeast.

Now…after eight years, four years of seminary and five years serving three different congregations in northern and southern California, I am back home and back home to stay as your newly called minister here in Pensacola. It’s been quite a journey and as this Thanksgiving approaches I have more blessings to count in my life than I’ve ever had before!

It’s been quite a journey, with its share of trials and tribulations, and treasured moments.  I will be thinking about the journey that has brought me to Pensacola quite a bit over the next few days as I drive toward and re-experience my time at the Mountain.

You know, when one becomes a minister a question you tend to hear a lot is – “why did you decide to become a minister?” or it’s more traditional variation, “how were you called into the ministry?” Well, in my case at least, there was no red phone and no historic phone call from on high.

My genuine interest and devotion to Unitarian Universalism grew steadily over many years. And once the opportunity to become a minister was apparent, the deciding factor for me became very simple. I compared the decision to a prior major decision I had made in my life.

Out of all my childhood and high school friends, believe me, I was the most unlikely to marry and have a child at a young age. But you know as it was happening I had this deeper knowing. It went against all common sense and the expectations of most people who knew me, including my family – that this was the thing for me to do, the path that was mine to take, laid out before despite all my internal resistance. There was a deeper knowing that even though I didn’t understand how this could possibly work out

I needed to trust that it would.

And there was something else beyond that. Not only was I being asked to surrender to the unfolding of my life in an unusual direction, I felt the need to commit myself to it. And for me that meant that even though I felt I knew nothing about motherhood, I made the decision that I would try my best, one day at a time, for the sake of my daughter. Her life was worth everything I could find in myself to give for her.

I was scared. I was resistant. But there was something much more important at stake and I just had to try my best.

By the time I was considering the ministry my daughter was fifteen years old. We’d seen lots of good years and a few very tough times mixed in them. My devotion to her had kept me in Chapel Hill, North Caroline for thirteen years so she could have what I hadn’t as a child – one place in which to grow up. The continuity of school, friends and larger community that I hadn’t known, having attended nine schools in three different states.

As I was considering the ministry the big surprise was that my daughter Caroline was the most encouraging. She was and has continued to be my “number one fan”, with my husband Rudy having now joined her as my second “number one fan”.

It’s really nice to be loved and to have the full confidence of another person. I know it helps me to push beyond my personal limitations and keep trying all the time to reach my best.

I was able to surrender myself to pursuing a path of Unitarian Universalist ministry once I had realized I had no idea of where it might take me but I was willing to commit myself to showing up each day and trying my best.

There is a beautiful saying from Estonia that says “The work will teach you how to do it.” And that’s really how it is in life.

Our hearts lead us into situations where we take on things beyond our knowledge or everyday confidence level. We find a way to get past our insecurities and anxieties, and we commit ourselves to some unknown path because even though we can’t explain why – it just seems to be the thing that’s good for us to do.

Surprise, Surprise!

In a few weeks from now, there will be an historic event taking place in the life of this congregation. The members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola will ceremonially install me as your first settled full time minister. I thought that I had to wait a long time to have a church of my own, but this community has had to wait nearly fifty years for someone like me to come along!

I am privileged and honored to receive your trust and I hope to fulfill the promise of a long and fruitful ministry among you.

When we make promises in our lives to other people or to the principles we hold most dear, we are entrusting ourselves to the fulfillment of our ideals. We are making a statement of faith in things yet to be seen, with a trust that our commitments will keep us steady in the times we are rocked by uncertainty or disappointment.

A promise is a pledge to stay for the long haul and a willingness to weather all that’s intertwined into our journey of life.

We know the heartbreak that comes when promises are not kept. There are good reasons for which promises should not be entered lightly. The vulnerability that we expose ourselves to is real and the stakes are high.

We need to be intentional about those relationships and principles to which we entrust both the best, and the worst of ourselves. Whether it is parenthood, or committed partnership, or even a genuine friendship that is hoped will endure the changing of the years. Whether it is a profession, or an avocation, or the choice to become a member of a religious community, we are wise to consider all the practical realities involved, and lucky to be foolish enough to take a chance on something great coming out of it.

We need to be careful not to let our insecurities and anxieties hold us back from growing into more of what we’re essentially meant to be – joyful in our uniqueness and accepting of our human frailties.

The promises we make are an affirmation that we commit ourselves to the best we have to give, and to receive. Our promises not only hold our ideals, but they hold us in account. They are a measure of what we say is most important in life.

In a few weeks we will be celebrating the promises we are making, I to you as your minister and you as a community that shares the ministry with me. We will be beginning a journey of our own and we can anticipate that all kinds of adventures lay before us. I look forward to our discovering this place to be as sacred as a mountain.

May we find it to be a place of community and hope, love and commitment, grand vistas and treasured moments.

May it be so.

“We Remember Them”

Rev. Julie Kain

Once a year in Mexico, death is celebrated in the midst of life.

Each autumn, the living invite their dead to join them in the festival of the Days of the Dead, Los Dias de Los Muertos.

Starting late in the afternoon on November 1st, families converge on the cemeteries to sit and wait for their arrival in the night. Candles are lit for their souls, marigold petals have been laid out to show the way, treasured belongings, food and drink are offered to welcome them back.

Strolling musicians play familiar and favorite tunes as families and friends alternately socialize and reflect upon the memories of their dearly departed. Families have already cleaned and repaired the grave sites in anticipation of their arrival. Decoration with paint and flowers have been added.

By midnight, the cemetery is filled with candles flickering in the windy autumn night. The beloved dead are invited to return home again.

People since ancient timese have made a ceremony of tending graves.

Can we make time in our busy modern lives to make a ceremony and a solemn commitment to tend our memories…to tend and clear and clean…the memories of those we love, our own beloved dead?

 

In the short time that I have been serving as your minister among you, I have seen that you are a loving people, a loving community of both memory and hope, and I see this in part by how you honor the lives of your loved ones who have died.

In the past year this community has known not a small number of deaths. We also occasionally suffer another kind of loss; we lose members, precious parts of our community, at times to their relocations to other places. We will know more of this loss in coming months.

Today though, as Unitarian Universalists, we celebrate the fullness of our community and the fullness of our individual lives by recognizing all of those who have helped to shape our lives and are no longer with us. As Unitarian Universalists, we recognize the interdependent web of all life which holds us and which holds all whom we love.

I know that I have been changed by the loss of loved ones in my life. I know that not only have I been changed by this loss, but my life and its course have been dramatically touched and shaped by loss.

As it should be.

We all know that our time on this earth is relatively short in the larger scheme of things. But, wouldn’t you agree, that it isn’t until we are in a time of impending death or in a time of having just lost someone close to us that we become intensely aware of the preciousness of life?

It puts things into a different perspective, doesn’t it?  We are given the opportunity to notice just how much we take for granted in this life.

I feel strongly that one very important role our UU congregations have is to provide a place where we can be together with our questions and our experiences of death. Our culture makes it so difficult to grieve openly. So at the times when we most need the loving presence of others in our lives, we often find ourselves quite isolated.

Even though we have broken through the taboo in our culture about talking about sex, it seems talk of death and dying is still nearly as taboo a subject as talking about money.

Despite the fact that my own life has been dramatically altered by the death of loved ones, I rarely talk about it. Frankly, the depth of their impact on my life is sometimes hard to consciously recognize at all. It has become a part of my internal landscape which has been altered by the events of time and somehow I have adapted.

It doesn’t cease to amaze me, just how resilient we humans can be. Not all the time, but as a general rule – we figure out how to go on even in situations in which we feel with every cell of our being that we just might not make it through.

Sometimes I think about the toll that war has taken on our lives, especially because like death on the whole, it can be an invisible presence in our lives, nonetheless affecting everything.

We have had generations of people whose lives were dramatically altered by the presence of war and yet most of those histories remain unspoken. The presence of current wars is difficult to even acknowledge. We almost never give people a chance to talk about how war affects them personally.

Since the time of my surrogate grandfather’s death in 1991, the death that was my first deep loss and which led me through the doors of my first Unitarian Universalist church, I have had other deaths that have touched me deeply.

The death of my father in 1997 to cancer gave me a big opportunity to address much unfinished business in my life. The strength and personal insight I gained through that difficult process eventually led me to one of the biggest decisions of my life, the risk and privilege of entering the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

Three years ago my sister-in-law Karen also died from cancer. To see a young person valiantly fight against a terminal disease also changed me. This year I am the age she was when she died. When my life seems weighted down by worries and responsibilities, I remember that she is no longer with us and I am grateful simply to be alive. I try to be grateful for the richness of the struggles I know, along with the simple pleasures of life; the crisp air today, the smiles and hugs when I come to church, the beauty of the changing seasons.

Another death that pushed me to my limits was the violent suicide of my former partner’s best friend, just a month after my sister in law had passed.

When I had done my pastoral counseling residence in seminary at a regional trauma center, the most difficult situation I found myself in was being with the family and friends of a young person who had attempted suicide and who did not survive the attempt, after spending several grueling days in the hospital.

And when my former partner was traumatized by the death of his best friend since childhood, I was pulled closer into a most painful process of soul searching, of trying to make sense of a situation that simply felt impossible to accept.

There are times, my friends, when the fabric of our lives is torn irreparably. Although some of us are fortunate to experience a gradual healing, the scars on our psyches are always there, always sensitive to the touch, always present in us with a painful longing for what has been lost.

Today in this room I doubt that there are many who have not experienced a deep loss in their life of someone close to them.

Although it can be painful to remember the difficult times, sometimes not making a space for that in our memories can actually lead to forgetting the good times, the precious moments, the deep connections we have shared with others.

For those of us who have walked the lonely road through our grief, eventually the pain subsides and what we continue to carry with us are the precious memories of our loved one.

I now invite each of you to bring to your mind’s eye and into the presence of your heart, the memory of a loved one who has helped to shape your life and who is no longer with us. Let us hold their names and at the end of the reading I’m about to share written by UU minister Kathleen McTigue – you will be asked to name them aloud.

 

 

#721 They Are With Us Still

 

In the struggles we choose for ourselves, in the ways we move forward in our lives and bring our world forward with us,

It is right to remember the names of those who gave us strength in this choice of living. It is right to name the power of hard lives well lives.

We share a history with those lives.

We belong to the same motion.

They too were strengthened by what had gone before. They too were drawn on by the vision of what might come to be.

Those who lived before us, who struggles for justice and suffered injustice before us, have not melted into the dust, and have not disappeared.

They are with us still.

The lives they lived hold us steady.

Their words remind us and call us back to ourselves. Their courage and love evoke our won.

We, the living, carry them with us: we are their voices, their hands and their hearts.

We take them with us, and with them choose the deeper path of living.

(Let us name those who l end strength in our lives.)

 

Amen and Blessed Be.

 

“Another Look at Forgiveness”

Rev. Julie Kain

Whether you locate yourself somewhere within one of our world’s religious traditions or not, let’s face it, forgiveness is a touchy topic. And I do believe there is a universal reason why this is so – if we’re truly being honest with ourselves, it’s not easy to forgive.

The nature of forgiveness is challenging. Forgiving ourselves and forgiving others just doesn’t come easy. It has a lot to do with the fact that when we get hurt in life, we find it hard somehow to let go of that hurt. At times, it takes on a life, an energy, of its own. It preoccupies us. It colors our perceptions of other parts of our lives. All of this in a process of coming to terms with our own painful experiences and of either figuring a way through them or being held captive by them.

We all do this at sometime or another, sometimes when we least expect it or aren’t even aware of how vulnerable we have become, we find that we’ve opened ourselves, opened our hearts, to just the degree that the actions of another person or a particular event simply unhinges us.

And then we’re thrown into a circular pattern of thinking. I was right – they were wrong, or…I was so wrong to do that – they were right about me all along. We go round and round, just looking for a sense of resolution which continues to elude us. We hang onto the hurt. We hang onto the past.

Beginning last Sunday evening at sundown, this year’s Jewish High Holy Days came to a close with the celebration of its most sacred holy day, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Each year beginning with Rosh Hashanah and for the following ten days, practicing Jews enter a period of spiritual renewal and repentance that marks the beginning of a religious new year. The 10 day period is also known as the Days of Awe and they are marked with a series of rituals that are tied closely to communal participation in the synagogue.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a day of confession, repentance and prayers for the forgiveness of sins committed since the last day of judgment a year ago and looking forward to the next year with positive intentionality.

This process is a thoughtful variation from what many of us practice at the first of our calendar year, the practice of making New Year’s resolutions. Instead of making a list of ways we can or should improve ourselves or setting goals to increase our personal status, the Yom Kippur reflections ask us to look deeper into our own character and behavior for the ways we have fallen short on the promises of faith we aspire to keep as good people.

It’s a time to look both at how we have interacted with others in our life and at the relationship we have with ourselves, the ways in which we have not lived up to our own expectations and the ways we give ourselves a hard time about that.

Although the forgiveness of sins or some process of accountability, judgment and reconciliation appears in some form among all religions, it may be useful to revisit its meaning in Judaism, the first of the Abrahamic religions which include Christianity and Islam. In Jewish anthropology, human nature is not depraved but reflects the divine image as part of our incredible handiwork of creation. Jews have never questioned their human freedom. A sinful human nature is not preordained. But there is a strong recognition of evil and sinfulness in the world by Jews and it is attributed to human weaknesses and failures. The word sin comes from a root meaning “to miss the mark” and we know people repeatedly do. This is an unavoidable consequence of being endowed with freely chosen decisions, the basis of human agency. But to live religiously we are encouraged always towards some sort of righteousness. In the Hebrew Bible, known both as the Torah, and by Christianity as the Old Testament, we hear in the book of Deuteronomy “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”

Yes, to live religiously, to keep our promises of faith we are asked to use our gifts and bless the world.

For Jews the repentance of sins requires a periodic tuning up of our spiritual selves in order to get back on course when we have missed the mark. The practices of their holy days encourage them in this important work. In Judaism, evil in this world is overcome by confessing our human frailties and embracing our potential to reflect divine goodness in the form of compassion, healing, and of course – justice.

Despite its limitations and shortcomings, the social conscience which has been the hallmark of Western civilization, we inherited from our Jewish forbears. The Hebrew prophets, a line with which both Jesus and Mohammad were identified, were a reforming political force which history has never surpassed, and perhaps has never again equalled. The main principle of the prophets is this: The prerequisite of political stability is social justice, for it is in the nature of things that injustice will not endure. Or stated in religious terms: God has high standards for us humans and divinity will not accept eternal exploitation, corruption or complacency.

Because the Jewish people recognize themselves located in Time, where events have significant meaning and there is an essential human accountability, a ritual year of reflection and atonement makes sense. This reflection of the events of Time and their meaning also gives Jewish people an understanding of a redemptive quality to suffering in our world.

Huston Smith, in his book The World’s Religions, puts it in this way, “stated abstractly, the deepest meaning the Jews found in their Exile was that of vicarious suffering: (the) meaning that enters the lives of those that are willing to endure pain that others might be spared”.

We know there is a deepening of human compassion when we move through processes of reflection, accountability and atonement. But we also know, too well in this world, the immutable presence of deeply entrenched conflict and estrangement. Unfortunately we experience in the human family, irreconcilable differences, that are the source of incredible pain and suffering, oppressions of every kind and its extreme forms of human cruelty in global poverty and war.

The world over people are struggling to make sense of our place in the larger scheme of things and even if there is the presence of some God who can help, the Jews have had their own crises of faith with the Holocaust and the unfortunate, ongoing deliberations over the creation of a state for Israel.

In our human struggles to figure out who is right and who is wrong, we are capable of such callousness and self-righteous acts of devastation and violence. If we are concerned about the destructive violence we humans are capable of in this world, we must turn our minds and hearts at times to the powerful emotions that fuel such acts. As humans, we must come to terms with and learn to master through understanding and maturity, the painful states of anger, fear, grief, disappointment and guilt. These are emotions that can take over our lives and the time-honored religious antidote, my friends, is some sort of forgiveness. Forgiveness, whose essential nature, as I said at the beginning, is downright challenging.

The process of forgiveness demands courage. As Goethe said “our friends show us what we can do; our enemies show us what we must do”.

The process of forgiveness challenges us because it takes us to the edge of what we can accept and tries to push us even farther still.

The substantive human struggle toward forgiveness of others and oneself is eloquently told in the story of one girl’s life who has run away from her father’s home after the death of her mother in the novel by Sue Monk Kidd called The Secret Life of Bees. Perhaps some of you are familiar with the book. Our protagonist’s exile from the home of her family of origin leads her to another home with a substitute family who help her uncover the past and heal some deep wounds of estrangement.

We get an intimate glimpse into that challenging process through hearing the voice of our protagonist.

“After August and I went through the hatbox (with my mother’s belongings), I drew into myself and stayed there for a while. August and Zach tended to the bees and the honey, but I spent most of my time down by the river, alone. I just wanted to keep to myself.

The month of August had turned into a griddle where the days just lay there and sizzled…everything about me was stunned and stupefied by the heat, everything except my heart. It sat like an ice sculpture in the center of my chest. Nothing could touch it.

People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard. If God said in plain language, “I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,” a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.

When I woke up in the morning, my first thought was the hatbox. It was almost like my mother herself was hiding under the bed. One night I had to get up and move it to the other side of the room.

I gave myself pep talks. Don’t think about her. It is over and done. The next minute, I swear to God I would be picturing her.

In a weird way I must have loved my little collection of hurts and wounds. They provided me with some real nice sympathy; with the feeling I was exceptional. I was the girl abandoned by her mother. I was the girl who kneeled on grits. What a special case I was.

It is a peculiar nature of the world to go on spinning no matter what sort of heartbreak is happening.

I knew August must have explained everything to Zach, and June, too, because they tiptoed around me like I was a psychiatric case. Maybe I was.

August had said (to me), I guess you need to grieve a little while. So go ahead and do it. But now that I was doing it, I couldn’t seem to stop.”

We do have occasions in our lives when the conflicts we have with others or within ourselves can exhaust us and seem to offer no course to relief. This is where some sort of practice of forgiveness comes in.

In a book that the African American writer Alice Walker calls a “gift of peace to the world”, Sharon Salzburg offers Buddhist-centered meditation practices, including one on forgiveness. The book is called Loving-Kindness, The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and the practice of forgiveness goes something like this: In a place of quiet and privacy, one repeats this phrase and allows the particular situations of one’s life to come to their observing awareness. “If I have hurt or harmed anyone, knowingly or unknowingly, I ask your forgiveness”. The next piece is harder. It requires a deep letting go that takes time. “If anyone has hurt or harmed me, knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive them”.

Now it’s imperative here to state that forgiving does not condone harmful action and does not deny the despair of injustice or suffering. Forgiveness is never a passive relinquishing to abuse or violation. Forgiveness is a gradual letting go of the impact of being hurt on the entirety of ourselves. A letting go that allows us to move out of living in the past and expands the potential for psychological and spiritual well-being in the present.

We do not forgive for the sake of others; we forgive for the sake and health of ourselves.

The last piece of the practice turns the act of forgiveness towards ourselves and is not dramatically unlike the Jewish practice of atonement. We say to ourselves “For all the ways I have hurt or harmed myself, knowingly or unknowingly, I offer myself forgiveness”. Sometimes this may include our inability to forgive others or to admit our own misguided actions.

In this life where we can be held captive by the painful experiences of our past, it is good to be able to let go and begin again. May it be so, eventually, for all of us.

 

“Living in Beloved Community”

Rev. Julie Kain

I know that my perspective to the world was shaped in part by the portion of my childhood spent living just outside of Washington D.C., in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. I mentioned last week how I would spend hours listening to the radio and there was indeed, in retrospect, a cultural musical explosion that happened during that era. But we also know it wasn’t just the music scene that was exploding with creativity. A new kind of interracial creativity moved through the whole of our American culture, which was in the throes of upheaval and transformation.

So there I was as a little girl with my best friend watching the TV during the Woodstock festival to see if we could find her parents somewhere in that mass of young people. I don’t remember a lot about her parents except that they worked in the inner city with a black youth community project and they had one of those huge strike posters of a clenched fist on their window in our suburban apartment complex.

In contrast my mother, who was several years older than her parents, worked in Washington DC at the Sheraton Hotel booking national conventions. She happened to be working the same hotel where my paternal grandfather Paul Kain had directed his jazz orchestra for many years in their ballroom, through the late 40’s and into the 50’s.

As a child growing up outside of Washington in the 60’s, I was vaguely aware of the social tensions of that time. Between the young people and their elders, between whites and blacks, and than also there was the oppressive concern about the Vietnam War. All of these were palpable social tensions that even as a young person I was impacted by.

And so perhaps when I was a little older I grabbed onto the notion of a better society that might be a possibility for us.

It was back in the day when musicals seemed to be much more popular than they are now. I happened to see the movie “Lost Horizon” a re-make based on the James Hilton book of the same name.

A small group of international travelers endure a plane crash in the Himalayan Mountains and stumble upon a sophisticated and peaceful society called Shangri-La. This is both a magical and mystical place which has also been known as Shambala in other stories. Each of the guests is warmly welcomed and each go through their own personal wrestling with the contrast between their modern, urban motivations and the simple way of life in community that they experience in Shangri-La.

I do believe this movie may have sparked my life long interest in the creative possibilities of community, in utopian societies and even in science fiction like the multi-generational series Star Trek, where our imaginations are encouraged to envision future human possibilities.

And so it was while I was in college, at a Quaker institution, and read the works of Martin Luther King Jr., I was deeply struck by the powerful notion of Beloved Community.

The term had actually been coined in the early 20th century by philosopher and theologian Josiah Royce who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. But of course today we know that the concept of Beloved Community was at the core of Dr. King’s message for our times. For King, the Beloved Community was not some sort of utopian vision but a realistic, attainable goal which he truly believed a critical mass of people could manifest with the proper background in nonviolent social change methods.

Inspired by the life of Gandhi, King asserted that because we surely live in an inescapable web of mutuality, we must learn to befriend our adversaries through nonviolent means, and that the natural aftermath of peaceful resolution is the creation of Beloved Community among us.

So this concept of Beloved Community is an awareness of our total relatedness in the solidarity of the human family, and that for us to live in peace with the diversity that we are, there must be a dedication to justice for everyone everywhere.

King’s stature is based not just as social reformer on the issue of race, but as a religious revolutionary championing the worth and dignity of the whole human family. We see this in his latter career when he was speaking out against war and against economic inequity. His, of course, was a global vision with a dream of sharing the wealth of the earth among all its peoples.

Now I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing the King Center in Atlanta for myself but they do have a beautiful website. And there you can find these important six principles of nonviolence which is the continuing work of Dr. King’s legacy for us.

The first principle is that nonviolent action is a way of life for courageous people. It seeks to win friendship and understanding, defeating not people but injustice everywhere. The next principle tells us that we need to be educated and transformed by the presence of human suffering, and then, that we should choose love always over the option to hate. And lastly – the sixth principle of nonviolence is that the universe itself is on the side of justice.

Did you know that Dr. King’s phrase “the moral arc of the universe is long but its bends towards justice” was adapted from the words of an 18th century Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker? Although a friend of Emerson and the Transcendentalists, Parker was ostracized by his fellow Unitarian ministers in Boston for his theology which transcended the Bible and for his fervent stand against war and slavery.

What Parker actually said was “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one and from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

And so it is that Dr. King’s central concept of Beloved Community not only, in part, arises from our history as Unitarian Universalists, but that the creation of a Beloved Community is in its very essence at the core of our Unitarian Universalist faith. In the small volume called The Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide, the first chapter on “Our Faith” is written by William Schulz, formally the executive director for Amnesty International, and a past president of our Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations.

In it he affirms that we have no creeds to determine membership in our faith but we do have covenants, the promises we make to and with each other. Despite our diversity of individual beliefs, we hold some faith affirmations, with which he says “a vast majority of us would be comfortable”.

They are: the notion that although we do not necessarily agree on what we think is holy, creation itself is.

We affirm that Life’s gifts are available to everyone not just the chosen or saved.

We also believe that the beauty and blessings of Life’s creation are not manifest in only the miraculous, or otherworldliness, but in the simple everyday.

We believe as Unitarian Universalist that human beings are responsible for the planet and its future. Therefore our participation in social justice making is a religious imperative and obligation.

We believe that we are all held in Creation’s hand with all its burdens and radiant joys and therefore we need not be strangers or enemies with each other. Our only true enemies, he says, are “violence, poverty, injustice and oppression”.

We agree that though death confronts us all, we love Life even more, even though we eventually lose it. We believe an honorable and impassioned life extends beyond its death.

Although I was a devoted college student to the works of Dr. King, it wasn’t until I was in seminary that I learned his work was also inspired and influenced by yet another Unitarian, the philosopher of religion, Henry Nelson Wieman, long associated with the University of Chicago Divinity School. Wieman’s theology was informed by the mathematician Alfred North Whitehead and originator of what is called Process philosophy. Whitehead’s very elaborate metaphysical system was adapted by Christian theologians, including Henry Nelson Wieman, despite the fact that we are uncertain if Northhead actually believed in God. What he did believe in is the irrepressible creative impulse at work in our universe, constantly manifesting itself through innovation, change and transformation. This is where the term “process” comes in. The universe is in constant process and we are part of the universe.

King’s doctoral dissertation compared the conceptions of God in the thinking of Henry Nelson Wieman and Paul Tillich. It was through his influence from Wieman that King incorporated the notion that our direct experience in life, also known as Empiricism, informs both our experiences as religious beings and offers the vehicle for divine expression in the world. King believed along the lines of Wieman that our human creativity, also known as “creative interchange” in the language of Wieman, is the central force of God’s justice making activity in the universe.

Wieman and King agreed that creative interchange happens only in the context of community. And so we come now to our lives as Unitarian Universalists. Like King’s lofty six principles of nonviolence, we have our own Principles and Purposes we aspire to live by. Through our continuing efforts, we live in a context of Beloved Community, not only the dream of King but of so many of us.

Have we created the Beloved Community once and for all and for all of us? Surely not as we know all too well. But our daily commitments truly help the critical mass that’s needed to build it.

Our UU congregations are here to challenge us into the daily expressions of our faith. They’re here to support us in our personal transformations and crises, as well as to support us in our work and living in the world.

This weekend on Friday night and yesterday, the accurate prediction of my church newsletter column came to pass… We didindeed enjoy a fantastic New Minister Workshop with the delightful facilitation of our Mid-South District Executive, the dear Eunice Benton.

Around the room this morning you will see the notes we generated to document our community conversation of where we’ve been in the past and where we’d like to be heading in our future together.

The workshop and the beautiful memorial service for Victor Musial were both celebrations of ‘Living in Beloved Community’. We have so much for which to be grateful!

In closing, I’d like to share with you a statement written by the late Process theologian Bernard Loomer, a one-time dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School. It was written upon his joining the UU church in Berkeley in his retirement, along with his wife, Jeanne. I was honored to have Jeanne Loomer and Huston Smith’s wife, Kendra, also a member of the Berkeley Church where I served my parish internship, together, light the chalice at my ordination ceremony. Our UU world is a small one at times – Kendra Smith happens also to be the daughter of Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman, who I spoke of earlier.

This passage is found in the last chapter of another small volume called Our Chosen Faith.

Unitarian Universalist church is … “a living testimony that we live in the context of a mystery that far transcends our reason.

We are born in mystery and we die in mystery. A sense of value without sensitivity to mystery is one way of reducing the meaning of life for us. It is for enabling us to seek and to find some ultimate source of value and meaning.

Our trust in this source outruns out knowledge. This reality is to be worshiped for its own sake, because it is worthy of our trust.

In this relationship of truth and worship, the church (or fellowship) is a reminder that we live in terms of covenant and not in terms of a contract. It is for seeking as well as speaking the truth in love. It is for increase of stature, the enlargement of the spirit, and the greater freedom of the self.

Freedom is not an end in itself; it exists in order to enrich our communal life. {Our joining a free church congregation encourages us} to actualize our most creative possibilities.

It is the critic of our limitations and our pretensions. It is for understanding and being understood. It is for confessions, for repentance, and for the compassion of mutual forgiveness.

It is for reminding us that we are all members of the web of life, that no one is an island, and that no one person is an individual outside the context of that web.  The web includes more than the present; it includes the past.

Church is an important agency by which great traditions become living presences within the community. It is the communal celebration of our elemental joys and sorrows, of our gains and losses, of great meanings. The church is for taking these elemental qualities and values of everyday life and of weaving them into the vary litany of the community.

I am grateful for this kind of church. I am proud to be included in its membership.”

I hope that you too can feel proud of our living in a Beloved Community.

May it be so.

“Original Blessing”

Rev. Julie Kain

We sometimes hear Unitarian Universalism referred to as “our chosen faith” because so many of us have found ourselves here after having been in other traditions that didn’t entirely suit us. Many of us have been drawn to Unitarian Universalism because it affirms our right of conscience. We are encouraged to pursue a path in the discernment of truth that relies heavily on the faculties of our own minds and hearts. Our own direct experience in this world is actually considered to be one of the sources from which our Living tradition of Unitarian Universalism draws. In our stated Principles and Purposes, it is articulated this way: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life”. I think that is really beautifully said.

One of the things I’m looking forward to most in my being a part of this community at UUCP is the opportunity that we have to share with each other our own faith journeys through life, our own stories.

I have been asked several times to talk about my own theological orientation, to define it, so to speak. But really we are all operating out of our own theological orientations, whether we are aware of it or not, and each of our theological experiences have been formed throughout the course of our own unique lives.

Unfortunately, many people come to Unitarian Universalism after having very difficult experiences in other traditions. As a minister, I can’t tell you how painful it has been to hear some of the stories that are shared. Stories of harsh judgment, stories of denied viewpoints, stories of abandonment and rejection.

Unitarian Universalist communities are not perfect, by any means. Whenever we are wounded within the trusted boundaries of our faith community, we are vulnerable to a deep inner pain.

Things happen that are hard to get past, and yet a part of us continues to try, in search of healing, in search of some peace.

I consider myself fortunate to have had a very positive experience in my previous faith tradition, actively participating in a Presbyterian church during my youth. The departure I made was an intellectual and spiritual one, not an emotionally difficult one, as many of our fellow UU’s have endured. I do also believe that I had the advantage of growing up in an era where my secular education allowed me the privilege of critical and independent thought, so that the natural questioning I did as a youth was not discouraged, not in my school or my church or my home.

I like to tell the story of how I became a Unitarian Universalist at the age of eleven in my Presbyterian confirmation class. It was there that I questioned that Jesus was the only way to salvation for all people and it was there that I discovered on the library shelves the book The Religions of Man by Huston Smith. A doorway to the other religious traditions of the world was opened for me.

Once I had read The Religions of Man, which is now called The World’s Religions, I went on to read one of the sacred texts recommended in the chapter on Hinduism, considered the world’s oldest religion. I read the Upanishads, which are a compilation of texts written from 800 to 400 BCE to the fifteenth century. They are older than the Bhagavad Gita but not quite as old as the Vedas.

The Upanishads are distinct in that their composers who were thinkers and poets were reacting against the external religion founded in the Vedas. They articulate a broad philosophy that underlies the cultural expressions of Hinduism, much as Taoism is a broad philosophy that underlies the cultural expressions of Buddhism.

The philosophy of the Upanishads, known as Vedanta, was brought eventually to the West and had a place at the first Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It met with a warm reception by Unitarians, even Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists were influenced by these Eastern works and their embedded- ness in the natural world and our direct experience of it.

I want to share with you one of the passages that I feel introduced me to Unitarian Universalism.“There is a spirit that is mind and life, light and truth and vast spaces. It contains all works and desires and all perfumes and tastes. It enfolds the whole universe, and in silence is loving to all.”

When I actually found Unitarian Universalism in 1991 at the age of 29, I knew I had found a people who believed that Jesus was not the only way. I was impressed by its openness to other religious traditions and by both its spiritual and intellectual depth.

But one thing about Unitarian Universalism that took longer for me to appreciate, perhaps because of its subtler implications, is the absence of Original Sin at the core of its philosophy. Actually is wasn’t until I had a number of people come up to me after the child dedications and memorial services I have led, to tell me just how refreshing it is to simply celebrate the dignity and integrity of a person’s life, whether young or old, without imposing a lot of guilt and need for salvation upon these particular people.

Some of you here today may recognize the title Original Blessing as a book written by Matthew Fox. For those of you who are not familiar with him, Matthew Fox falls, no pun intended, into a category that he shares with John Shelby Spong. Both men come from years of affiliation with their “traditional” traditions and both have been criticized and rejected due to their supposedly radical interpretations of the Bible.

For example, Matthew Fox wrote this in his book titled Original Blessing, “Let us take a closer look at this pivotal doctrine of original sin. The concept is not a Jewish one. Even though the Jewish people knew Genesis for a thousand years before Christianity, they do not read original sin into it. As the twentieth century Jewish prophet Elie Wiesel points out, Fox quotes “The concept of original sin is alien to Jewish tradition. This is strong language,” he writes, “to call a doctrine ‘alien’ that Christians believe they found in Jewish scriptures.”

Fox goes on to say, “But today biblical scholars who are themselves Christian agree that original sin is not found in the Bible.”

By the way, we know there is such a thing as Jewish guilt,… but evidently it does not originate with the Bible!

But Matthew Fox was a Dominican priest for 34 years before he was forced out of his order in 1991. The institutes he establishes in Chicago and Oakland were criticized because they encouraged the full exploration of spirituality in all cultures, honoring the world’s indigenous religious traditions, right along with the traditional Christian mystics. Fox was ousted because of his rejection of the notion of original sin and his embrace of Original Blessing as its natural corollary. Despite the fact he has written 28 books and his Institute of Creation Spirituality continues to expand, now enjoying an alliance with the Buddhist Naropa Institute, Fox was rejected by his own church for being a feminist theologian.

Likewise, John Shelby Spong is criticized by his conservative peers; Spong put forth these three New Year’s resolutions for the church not long ago –

  1. The church should move away from fear of maturity and stop encouraging the childlike dependence of its worshipers
  2. The church should cease from its concentration on evil and begin to see the beauty in life. Spong asserts that a vision of Original Goodness needs to balance the church’s concentration on original sin
  3. The church should give up its idolatrous claims to be the sole possessors of God’s ultimate truth. Beyond that the church should surrender the claim that its leaders are infallible and the sacred text is literally true.

Matthew Fox in his book Original Blessing proposes that not only do blessings permeate the story of Israel; it permeates creation from the very beginning. Fox says “original blessing underlies all being, all creation, all time, all space, all unfolding and evolving of what is.” He quotes Rabbi Heschel in saying “Just to be is a blessing, just to live is holy”.

This week the Jewish High Holy days have begun with Rosh Hashanah. With the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn, Jewish people are called to reflect upon the blessing of all creation.

In a universe that is around 20 billion years old, at least it’s only been in the last 4 billion years that we’ve projected the possibility of human sin screwing it up for everyone and everything!

Of course, there is human frailty, limitations and, yes, even the capacity for evil behavior, but the brokenness that we know as humans will never fully contradict the many gifts we have to offer.

The fact that we are part of nature and every single thing in nature is entirely unique in both its properties and its perspectives, it is nothing short of a miracle, on a literally, universal magnitude.

This means that in the big picture of all creation, we – you and I, my friends, have our own part to play.

The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said it this way – “There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”

Sometime the expression of our particular gifts and passions has to overcome a lot of internalized resistance. There are all these voices inside us that want to tell us why we can’t do what is genuinely in our heart to do. They say we are not good enough. They say we are not ready, or we’re being selfish. They say we shouldn’t draw too much attention to ourselves, or grow too big for our own shoes.

Whether it’s the cumulative impact of the notion of original sin or a whole host of other reasons, it can be hard indeed to claim our birthright of Original Blessing in this life.

When I was a little girl, I would spend hours listening and singing along with the radio, learning all the words to the songs. So when I was asked to sing in school and in church, it felt as natural as breathing to me. But some folks are not so lucky. I knew a young man who worked in the restaurant I managed. He refused to sing along when we did “Happy Birthday” for a fellow employee but when we would be cleaning up at the end of his shift and he thought everyone else was gone, he’d sing joyfully at the top of his lungs to the country music station on the radio.

We all have our songs to sing, whether or not they happen to be in any key!

I’ve learned that the troubles of this world are best met with a regular practice of pursuing our own individual passions and gifts, whatever they may be…Call it a spiritual practice, if you will. It may be digging in the garden, putting on a play with the kids, solving a mathematical problem, or taking a walk in the woods. Our gifts and passions are calling out to us all the time, if we but stop a moment to listen. And then heed their pervasive call…

As Rabbi Heschel said, “Just to be is a blessing, just too live is holy.”

 

“A Glimpse into the Heart of Terror”

Rev. Julie Kain

As Unitarian Universalists, we are a community of memory… and we are a community of hope.

In our world of great uncertainty, still there are relatively few events that become distinct markers in our psyche. Some are singular personal transformations such as the death of a loved one or the birth of a child – others are events of such social magnitude that they become markers in our collective psyche.

Those of us who are familiar with the various impacts of grief in our personal lives will instantly recognize the phenomenon of anniversaries. It’s almost as if we have a subconscious internal calendar at times. We’re going about our lives and little things happen that start to remind us. It could be as simple as hearing a song or seeing a particular flower. We are reminded of a loss and a period of grief that we’ve experienced in our lives. It can be bittersweet.

There is this psychic marker but it’s hard to pin down in one place – kind of like how when something traumatic is happening and a lot is going on in a short amount of time but to us it feels like slow motion. I had that experience when I was in a car accident on a freeway in the metropolitan San Francisco bay area of California. I don’t remember the exact date but it was the first Sunday in March. It was during my parish internship year at the UU Church of Berkeley and I had just finished working a couple of months of straight Sundays and finally got to take one off.

I was on my way to Muir Woods when I found myself in a tangle with three other cars on the relatively empty freeway – it being Sunday morning and all.

The accident totaled my car and led to a year of intense sciatic pain in the following year but really it was a near miss. I was incredibly fortunate to have walked away from it with only a gouge under my chin and a cut lip. And although my car was totaled, it was strange that afterwards I felt like my whole life had suddenly changed and had shaken me to the very core of my being but there were no external signs to express the depth of the event’s impact on me.

Grief is like that. An intensity of feeling that is difficult to pin down in one time or place or thing. Somehow we still need that – a remembering site, and so anniversaries are important and so are grave sites. We need a place to go to remember and be present again with our grief and loss. It’s a part of healing, a part of coming to terms with our lives and with the impact of loss on us.

In a world of great uncertainty, still there are relatively few events that become distinct markers in our psyche.

If I were to ask each of you – where were you and what were you doing when the news came about the World Trade Center towers, I bet you could tell me without hesitation. September 11th will be for many, many years to come one such marker in our collective psyche.

I got a phone call from my mother as I was about to walk out the door in my first week of that parish internship in Berkeley. I knew as soon as I heard her voice on the phone that something must be wrong because she wouldn’t ordinarily call me at this time from the other side of the country. In my efforts to prepare myself for my new position I had not had the TV or radio on yet in the day.

I went on to the church and then later had a meeting at my seminary. Every person I encountered was dazed and distraught. We didn’t know what to do and could not bring ourselves to do the things that were planned for the day.

We were drawn magnetically to the TV sets and radio stations. I will never forget walking into my school to find a crowded fireside room with students, faculty and school employees huddled around the TV. And there, front and center, were the president of the school, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker and the then president of our Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations, Rev. John Buehrens. The two of them, among the most brilliant and articulate of our denomination, sat speechless next to the rest of us.

So it is five years later now and frankly it’s still hard to know just what to say about September 11.

Yes – there is a deeply uncomfortable silence that accompanies our grief and the shock that is still present to this day. It’s painful to remember. It’s painful and overwhelming still to recall, but we need to.

How can we forget, though we may unconsciously try?  When the fabric of our universe is torn, it cannot be undone. If there ever is to be a healing, it is from the knitting back together of what was once torn apart and we, my friends, are still on the mend.

Five years ago on September 11, on the morning when I was just starting my parish internship at the UU Church of Berkeley, my daughter was just starting her first year in college. I was pleased and relieved that even though she had moved out from living with me (my baby!) she was just across the bay from Berkeley in San Francisco. After my meeting at the school I returned to the Berkeley Church.

I kept looking across the bay at the beautiful San Francisco skyline and I was thinking for the first time what a great target it would be. Major city, major port, contained on a slim peninsula. I felt a terror rising within me for the city before my eyes and my daughter there. I felt panicked to get back to the TV to find out what had happened next.

The fact that not one but two towers were impacted left this incredible sensation – what’s next?

It’s a fear we still have on a variety of levels and one that has fueled a fevered preoccupation with terrorism, not unlike our major preoccupation with countering the stated evil of communism in recent decades past.

“The enemy is out there and they want to get us. They will stop at nothing to destroy us – our way of life, our homes, and our families. “

The heart of terror is a very dark place filled with fear. Although I have never lived in New York City, I can imagine how strange it must still be for its residents to see the altered city skyline and the very real space of emptiness and debris left behind from a single day’s events. A space of tragic loss and utter insecurity. It is painful to remember and yet…how can we forget?

As Unitarian Universalists, we are a community of memory… and a community of hope.

Well what does that mean exactly?

Let me tell you.

For one, it means that this community, years after the tragic death of one of  its members at a local women’s health clinic, continues to faithfully provide escorts and move forward in hope for women’s rights. We are a community of memory and we are a community of hope.

I am proud to serve you as your newly settled minister. You inspire me with your dedication to each other and to the larger community of which we are part, including the global community.

Every Sunday when we say the names of the fallen young people who are serving our country, and as we remember the lives – military and civilian –  of men, women and children – who have died in Iraq, we are remembering. And we are keeping hope alive for an end to this ill-fated encounter.

Yes, it is painful to remember and even to keep hope, but we must as people of faith.

Today and tomorrow – as we join with people all over the country and around the world to remember the lives lost on September 11, we form a community of memory.

But beyond our remembering, beyond the grief and despair and the sense of vulnerability and powerlessness, many of us feel today – how do we form a community of hope? How do we transform the fear we have seen in the heart of terror into something with promise?

Today and in the coming weeks as the holy seasons of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah approach, may we join with people of all faiths around the world to affirm our birthright desire of safety and self-determination for our families and our communities. May we affirm in every way we can the inherent worth and dignity of religious, cultural and political expression by all peoples of good will.

By affirming our common humanity, as Americans we can extend a hand of fellowship, of human sympathy and common understanding around the world to all peoples who experience the fear of life-threatening circumstance, the insecurity of terrorism and the uncertainty of social instabilities of all kinds.

We can build a new community of hope as Americans, by resisting the political, economic and cultural arrogance with which we frequently present to our world neighbors. We can support the vital work of the United Nations and many other non- governmental organizations who promote conflict resolution and the development of human rights in all countries. We can focus on a spirit of generosity rather than individual entitlement and work toward an equitable standard of living for all people, which is the essence of the democratic ideal. We don’t necessarily need to impose our own political and economic agendas in other parts of the world that we view as a threat.

We can build a community of hope by acknowledging our common humanity, despite the terrors committed by extremists, and despite real differences in religious, political and cultural ways of being. We are, after all, fellow humans on the planet, cherishing the safety of our families and communities and “caught in an inescapable web of mutuality”, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently pointed out.

Let us be a strong community of memory and hope as we stand with people of faith and good will around the world to remember September 11.

Please join with me, if you will, in a closing prayer.

 

# 470  Affirmation

We affirm the unfailing renewal of life.

Rising from the earth, and reaching for the sun, all living creatures shall fulfill themselves.

We affirm the steady growth of human companionship.

Rising from ancient cradles and reaching for the stars, people the world over shall seek the ways of understanding.

We affirm a continuing hope.

That out of every tragedy the spirits of individuals shall rise to build a better world.

Leonard Mason

 

“The Hidden Face of the Divine Feminine”

Rev. Julie Kain

Let’s face it, people everywhere just love a good story. We are drawn in by a story line being played out with an unfolding plot and through the interactions of characters we can identify and identify with. We just can’t help ourselves – it’s human nature! On one level we are entertained and at a deeper level the stories in our lives that we engage with help us to process our own stories, our own relationship and life journeys. We are always growing and stretching to come to terms with the meaning and directions of our lives.

I typically am “out of the loop” when it comes to what’s popular and timely.

I must admit I don’t really keep track of the New York Times bestseller list. But occasionally I do join in on a widespread phenomenon.

Summer before last I broke down and read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. I enjoyed it and was happy to see that a page-turning mystery novel was incorporating elements of art and religion. I couldn’t help but be drawn in.

Now I know at least some of you here today have read the novel and I’m also sure some of you haven’t. I’m not actually going to work with the story line or even with any of it’s controversial propositions, though that might be fun. Instead I am going to share with you some of the surprising connections to my own life that I made as the story in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code unfolded.

Okay, so we have to set the scene here a little. The story begins with a mysterious death that happens within the famous Louvre museum in Paris and the protagonist Robert Langdon is brought in to help solve the mystery because of his shared interest with the murder victim in symbolism in art.

The strange layout and circumstance around the death in the Louvre left a series of intentional clues by the murder victim to be discovered, and as the reader turns the page we vicariously join the revelations revealed.

The protagonist Robert Langdon is about to release the manuscript of his most recent book when he is pulled into the murder scene. The book is titled “Symbols of the Lost Sacred Feminine” and its author Langdon was nervous about the response it would provoke due to some very unconventional interpretations he had made of established religious iconography.

Beginning with the first clue that presents itself in trying to solve the mystery of the death in the Louvre, Langdon finds himself in familiar intellectual territory. As a professor he had lectured many years on the symbols left as clues.

The first clue is a symbol the victim had drawn himself on his stomach with his own blood from a gunshot wound. It is five straight lines that form a five pointed star, otherwise known as a “pentacle”.

The French detective with Langdon immediately associated the star with devil worship, but Langdon knows from his field of study that the ancient pagan sign is part of  pre-Christian nature worship. Our early ancestors saw the natural world with both masculine and feminine energies at work to form a balance of harmony. But when the energies are unbalanced we experience chaos. Langdon tells the French detective that the pentacle represents the female half of all things – what religious historians refer to as the “sacred feminine” or the “divine feminine”.

Langdon goes on to say that the early Roman Catholic Church systematically countered ancient symbology with escalating smear campaigns; eventually replacing the original meanings with demonized misconceptions – hence the association of the pentacle with devil worship.

A little later in the book, a previously invisible circle is revealed around the outstretched corpse. The victim has drawn it himself with a black light pen often used in museums today to identify with wall marks the paintings in need of restorative work.

The combination of the pentacle within the circle reveals a new dimension to the set of clues left behind by the murder victim.

Langdon immediately recognized the reference to Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous drawing of The Vitruvian Man. It is considered the most anatomically correct drawing of a nude male in its day and the drawing can be seen on posters and t-shirts as a modern-day icon, as well.

The circle around the pentacle, according to Langdon, represents the harmony of both female and male energies combined.

Before too long in the novel another clue is added into the mix. A numeric sequence and once it was recognized as a significant code, I, in turn, made a fascinating discovery. This numeric code was beginning to sound familiar to me. I’d heard about it before. It’s also called the Divine Proportion or the Fibonacci sequence. I’d heard about it before but it wasn’t in school and it wasn’t from some public television show I’d seen. No….I recalled as I was reading the book that I’d heard about this from – my daughter!

And even more surprising than that was that she had told me about the Fibonacci sequence in reference to …of all things…her new tattoo!

Now some of you, I bet, had already forgotten that I have a daughter. And here I am in the pulpit talking about her tattoos but just stay with me on this…okay?

Next week my daughter is starting her last year at San Francisco State University working on her Bachelors of Science degree, Pre-Med. She has been a self-identified “science geek” since high school when she had an excellent biology teacher and an unusual magnet school class bringing together environmental science and photography. But from a young age my daughter was not just a “science geek”, she’s been a fashionable one. In addition to being an excellent photographer herself, she is particularly photogenic and has done a limited amount of modeling for several years now.

I remember how she used to ask my permission for one after another crazy hair color or style when she was in junior high school and how when she get to high school – it was her desire to get a tattoo. I held her off on almost every request until she convinced me otherwise and strangely enough – almost every one of her decisions worked for her at the time.

Her first tattoos are small stars, or pentacles, on her ankles. And the latest one when I read the Da Vinci Code, summer before last, was what I knew as the nautilus spiral on her upper arm.

As I read the book I recalled how my daughter Caroline had explained that her new tattoo symbolized her love of science. It was a single picture of the Golden Mean, the Divine Proportion also known as the Fibonacci sequence. Her spiral indicated the building block of nature discovered in the most beautiful number in the universe. The number called Phi 1.618. The number that shows the proportionally balanced ratios found everywhere in nature from the seashell to the honeycomb and sunflower, to the human body itself. It is recognized as a formula for beauty and so has been embraced by artists for centuries, including Leonardo.

The sequence of numbers is such that it is equal to the sum of the first two preceding terms. This is the divine recipe for life itself and the basic pattern of growth within all natural things.

The surprising discovery that I made about my own life in the course of reading Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was connected to the precious presence of my daughter in my life story and an appreciation for her spiritual path of growth. The stars on her ankles reflect the earth-centered spiritually she had shared with her junior high girlfriends. The nautilus shell on her shoulder reflected her love of nature’s beautiful design on this earth turned toward the noble pursuit of scientific knowledge, another kind of spiritual path of practice and devotion.

Beyond my commitment to model for her the possibilities available to her as young women located within the United Stated in the 21st century, my daughter Caroline is finding her own way in life and continuing to be a teacher for me.

I consider myself fortunate and blessed to be among the women clergy of our country and among the majority of clergy within the Unitarian Universalism as a woman in the pulpit.

I am indebted to the women and men who came before me – some of whom are in this room right now – who have made it possible for me to be serving in the ministry as a woman, while we know other denominations and faiths are not places where this is possible today.

As Unitarian Universalists, we benefit from the successful work of our  denomination’s Women’s Federation who established the norms of gender inclusive language in our congregations and in our hymnals. The same group facilitated the denomination-wide effort to articulate what we know as our Principles and Purposes – and this was accomplished just within the last twenty years of our movement’s history.

Regardless of whether or not there was a goddess centered culture that preceded the patriarchy of the last 2000 years, we doknow that women, and the earth itself, have been and continue to be subjugated. And at the same time the sacred feminine, the divine goddess, what is identified as female energy is present, ever present, in our world and has been through all the ages.

A reading in our hymnal by Starhawk says it’s this way – “Earth mother, star mother, you who are called by a thousand names, may we remember we are cells in your body and dance together”.

Whether it’s Mother Mary or the Magdalene, or even the Buddhist Kwan Yin whose variety of faces grace the cultures of the east, we are as humans drawn into a good story and the female figures hold a powerful place in our psyche, even when they are hidden from plain view.

Whether or not, Mary Magdalene sat at Jesus’ side in the painting of The Last Supper or not, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code has challenged millions of readers to think in new ways about the relationship that Jesus may have had with the women of his life. It has challenged many readers world-wide to consider the historical and religious figure of Jesus in new ways – as an extraordinary man, but still as a man. This book has also brought to light the many political forces at work behind the doctrines of the established church.

For those whose religious sensibilities are not insulted by the concepts presented in the book, there may be a wider space that has been created to explore the many questions provoked. And we, as Unitarian Universalists, welcome the asking of such questions,

We welcome the multiple views, and the voice that has been silenced. We welcome the application of both imagination andreason in the interpretation and application of religious thought.

We are a people that love a good story.