2021-07-03

UU Minute #47

Joseph Priestley, part 1



The first Unitarian church in England, we have seen, was begun in 1774 – two hundred years after the first Unitarian churches had begun in Transylvania and in Poland. Theophilus Lindsey in London started the first one, and by 1790 there were two – the second in Birmingham, started by Joseph Priestley.

A few years later, 1794, Priestley sailed to Philadelphia. From there he moved on to settle in what was then the wilderness backwoods of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Before that move, while in Philadelphia, he gave a series of sermons. Twenty of Philadelphia’s intellectual leaders, inspired by those sermons, and directed and encouraged by Priestley, then formed the First Unitarian Society of Philadelphia in 1796 Jun 12 – the first congregation in the country to name itself Unitarian.

So Joseph Priestley was a founder of Unitarianism in both England and America. Who was he?

Priestley was a chemist, a natural philosopher, a theologian, grammarian, and political theorist who published over 150 works. He was quite the polymath – reminiscent of our earlier founding figure, Miguel Serveto. He
“stands as one of the outstanding embodiments of the Enlightenment, that cultural movement blending philosophy, science, and reason.”
At age 16, Priestley had become seriously ill and believed he was dying. Raised as a devout Calvinist, he believed a conversion experience was necessary for salvation, but doubted he had had one. This emotional distress led him to question his theological upbringing, to reject Calvin’s doctrine of election and to accept universal salvation. We could say he was a Universalist before he was a Unitarian.

More about the life of Joseph Priestley in our next thrilling episode.


NEXT:

2021-06-19

UU Minute #46

The Friendship of Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley



As we have seen, Unitarian history from its beginning has been the intertwining of its two fundamental principles: critique of the doctrine of the trinity, and support of religious toleration. We get our name from the first part, but it’s the second point that’s most central to who we are.

Theophilus Lindsey, took the critique of the Trinity a further step forward, declaring not only with Arius that Christ was not the equal of God, and, with Sozzini, that Christ not divine, but that Christ was not a proper object of worship.

Lindsey was also strong on the second point: the first Unitarian church in England, which Lindsey began in 1774, was remarkable for upholding freedom of belief.

Five years earlier, in 1769, Lindsey had begun a close friendship with Joseph Priestley. Lindsey was then age 46 and was an Anglican Priest serving as Vicar of Catterick; and Priestley was 36 and minister of Mill Hill Chapel, a dissenting congregation in Leeds, 75 kilometers south. Under each other’s influence, the two friends had become more anti-trinitarian, and more committed to religious toleration.

So when, five years later, Theophilus founded a church committed to not restricting its members’ beliefs, his friend Joseph hurried to his aid. When Lindsey’s new liturgy was criticized, Priestley wrote a pamphlet defending it. Priestley attended Lindsey's church regularly in the 1770s and occasionally preached there.

In 1780, Priestley moved to Birmingham, and before long, there were two Unitarian churches in England – Lindsey’s in London, and Priestley’s in Birmingham.

Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley belong among the great friendships of Unitarian history, along with Giorgio Biandrata and Ferenc David, and as we shall see later, Curtis Reese and John Dietrich – and Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon.


NEXT: Joseph Priestley, part 1

2021-06-13

Justice, part 2

So far, our exploration of justice has brought up giving people their due, but we haven’t seen how to determine what that is. Philosopher Tim Scanlon argues that we must be able to justify our conduct to others. It’s inherently relational. Doing right by other people, he says, means treating them in ways they cannot reasonably reject.

Of course, we know that people are often unreasonable – we know that we ourselves are often unreasonable. A person might reject the way you treat them even if they wouldn't reasonably reject -- or a person might not reject the way you treat them even if they reasonably would.

As often seems to be the case in philosophy, the answer to a question seems to raise another question which is only a re-phrasing of the original question. If we had been wondering how to decide what is due, are we not now wondering how to decide what is reasonable? And doesn’t that practically amount to the same thing?

But there is a method here that we didn’t have before. It says: imagine yourself in the other person’s position. This goes beyond the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you, because it recognizes that others aren’t you, and they might not want what you would want. So we imagine their situation, with their interests and wants as best we can – and it may take some work to do this in detail -- and then we imagine them as having a moment of the greatest reasonability we can imagine. In that moment, would they reject the way we are treating them? To be a just person, one must carefully assess this question – mindful that one’s own greed, the opposite of justice, is likely to distort our imaginings.

Conversing with the real person, rather than just the imagined version of them, is an important check. It’s true we are all often unreasonable, but we might discover in that conversation some quite reasonable objections that imagination had failed to reveal -- or perhaps the opposite: some quite reasonable justifications for treating them in a way you had imagined they would reject.

What we owe to each other is to treat others in ways they cannot reasonably reject, using a mix of imagination and interaction with the real person to assess the reasonability of any rejection.

Moving to the social level, and the justice of social institutions, what people reasonably reject is inequality. Social justice is about equality. Some inequalities are not a problem. If you can run faster than me, or write books that sell better than mine, or you have more friends than me, that’s not the issue. But we are all entitled to equal concern and respect from society. How is that to be accomplished?

Some have argued for equality of resources. Ronald Dworkin, for instance, argues that a just state would ensure that individuals have an equal claim equal claim to the resources needed to form and pursue their own plans and ambitions.

Others have emphasized equality of opportunity. This takes a number of forms. Richard Arneson argues that individuals are not be entitled to a particular level of welfare, but to equal opportunity to exercise choice and responsibility in their pursuit of welfare. Amartya Sen favors equality of opportunities to achieve particular kinds of valuable individual functionings or states. G.A. Cohen argues for equality of “access to advantage,” which combines elements of some of these other views.

That sounds like worthwhile conversation – somewhat removed from practical reality, as philosophy tends to be, yet orienting us to a way of looking at current reality while paving the way conceptually for what might someday become practical. Tim Scanlon, however, directs our attention to something rather different from all of this.

Scanlon notes that the concern with inequality is not some abstract interest in a particular kind of distributive pattern.
“We don’t just want to see equal distribution of some thing. We want to live together, on terms of equal recognition, in ways that avoid interpersonal domination, prevent the emergence of stigmatizing differences in status, allow people to retain the self-respect that comes with seeing themselves as equal to others, and preserve the kind of background equality that can be a precondition for fair competition in the political and economic domains.” (Martin O’Neill, “What We Owe Each Other: T.M Scanlon’s Egalitarian Philosophy” Boston Review, 2016 Jun 2)
Equality of stuff – or of access to stuff, or opportunity to pursue stuff – is one thing. Creating communities of belonging – places where everyone can feel a meaningful part of an interconnected web – which is itself a meaningful part of larger interconnected web – is something a bit different.

Addressing the inequality of stuff that, in this country, has ballooned terribly since 1980, is a necessary precondition. Current levels of stuff-inequality destroys the sense that we’re all in this together, undermining the chance for true community of belonging. To build the sort of equality that is most important, we probably do need to narrow the wealth gap -- and we probably don’t need to entirely eliminate it. Philosopher Debra Satz puts it this way:
“What we owe each other, what we owe our fellow citizens, isn’t cash to satisfy the strongest preferences people have no matter what they are. We owe them the social conditions they need to stand in relations of equality with us. That is not provided by cash in particular, but by allowing people the rights, institutions, social norms, public goods, and private resources they need to avoid oppression and to function as equals in a democratic society.”
Thus, “securing certain goods like education and health care,” should take priority “over other kinds of goods like surfing opportunities – even if some individuals would prefer surfing to schooling and to health care.”

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite for thinking about these matters. If you'd like a place to start – well, the place to start is Plato’s Republic – or you could go straight to Scanlon’s book, What We Owe to Each Other. If you finish that and would like some other suggestions, let me know.

“You have to give them hope,” said Harvey Milk. “Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow.” To give them hope is to create a context in which meaning may be made –
in which each person may construct a life of meaning, partly by their own personal definitions of meaning, and partly by shared meaings --
in which each may stand with all in a relation of equality –
in which people flourish as they come into their full belonging in a community that flourishes –
and in which the rainbow flag of celebrating our diversity flies in every heart.

Justice, part 1

“You have to give them hope -- hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow.”
--Harvey Milk
Hope, as I often say, and as most of you know well, is not about wishful thinking. Harvey Milk was not saying you have to fill them up with yearnings after fantasies. It might start with yearning and a creative fantasy, but it becomes hope only when there is engagement in a process of moving toward the desired outcome – and that engagement gives meaning to your life whether the desired outcome ever occurs or not. To give them hope is to create a context in which meaning may be made.

This June, this Pride Month, we are remembering Harvey Milk, what he lived for and died for, and what the rainbow flag he designed means to us. Also our theme of the month for June is Justice. All of that we are weaving together today.

Let’s plunge into Justice, explore what that means, and at the end curl back to see how that fits with Harvey, and hope, and rainbows. This morning, the invitation is to think like philosophers on the subject of justice.

I should note that in my years as a philosopher, I came to see, to experience, the good of philosophy, if it has any, much less in any particular conclusions one may reach and much more in the way of life, the way of community and conversation, that is embodied when two people engage a philosophical question at some length. Debaters – whether academic debate teams or politicians or opposing lawyers – are always addressing, seeking to win over to their side, a third party: the judge, or the voters, or the jury. Philosophers, however, truly address each other – seeking to win the other over to their side while – and this is crucial -- seriously considering whether to join the other’s side. Debaters can’t do that. Philosophers do, and it opens, I found, a possibility for a depth of relationship like nothing else. Thus I was moved by words of Allan Bloom, with whom I disagreed on many things, describing true friendship: “The true friends,” he said, are
“as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good. They were absolutely one soul as they looked at the problem.”
In our time this morning, I can only gesture in the direction of an invitation to that sort of relationship. When we ask a philosophical question like, “What is Justice?” we are, of course, trying to understand ourselves – trying to better grasp one of the concepts with which we assess our lives and experiences.

One thing that comes to mind when someone says “Justice” is what is called our “Justice System:” the system of police and courts that – ideally – enforces the rules in a way that is just – that is equitable, and fair. And then there's social justice, which has to do with whether society itself is just, equitable and fair in the way its structures and institutions afford to members wealth, opportunities, privileges and rights.

Let’s look first, however, at the sort of Justice that is neither of these: Justice as a virtue, a character trait of individuals. What does it mean to be a just person? What does it mean for you to act justly in your day-to-day life?

Justice has to do with distribution: who gets what. Whether it’s a judicial system distributing penalties to accused criminals and tortfeasors, or a social system through which income and wealth are distributed and maintained, or an individual, it’s about who gets what and who should get what.

Not all wrongs fit under this category. As cowardice is a failure to be courageous, and lying is a failure to be honest, and an indecorous outburst or an overindulgence is a failure of temperance, stealing from people, or not giving them what one owes them, are failures to be just. Cowardice, lying, or intemperance might also effect how something is distributed, though they often don’t – and, if they do, they might thereby also be a failure to be just. It is also unjust if you are called upon to distribute something – whether something good or something burdensome – among members of a group, and you use an arbitrary or unjustified basis for making the distribution. Thus Justinian in the 6th century said justice is giving each person their due.

When Aristotle addressed justice as a virtue, he characterized it as he did virtue generally, as a mean between excess and deficit. Thus each virtue has two opposites: too much and too little. As courage is the mean between being too reckless and being too timid, justice is the mean between giving more than is due and giving less.

For much of his treatment of justice, however, there is but one pertinent opposite of justice, and that is greed, where greed is understood as “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.” Seeing greed as the opposite of justice – greed as what is generally behind injustice – may shed light on a number of levels.

What is due, says Aristotle, is what is lawful and fair, and fairness involves equitable distribution, and correction of what is inequitable. Aristotle recognized that being equitable wasn’t the same as a blanket equality that gave exactly the same to everyone. A doctor, for instance, who gives equitable treatment to every patient, does not give exactly the same treatment to the patient with a broken leg that she would give to a patient with indigestion. Rather, her treatment is equitable to the extent that it represents an equal concern and respect for each patient – however different the treatments called for might be.

Also going back to Aristotle is the maxim, “treat like cases alike” – and treat different cases differently. Of course, every case is different, so when we say “like cases” we mean relevantly similar, or similar examples of the principles that apply. This principle bridges us into the sort of Justice for which our Justice system is named – the system of courts and trials and judges which, ideally, hands out similar penalties for similar crimes or harms.

So we have these two maxims of justice: “Give to each their due,” and “treat like cases alike.” Neither maxim tells us much. Exactly what is it that is due to somebody – and exactly what is relevant when assessing whether two cases are relevantly alike – those are often quite difficult questions, and the maxims offer no guidance. The maxims don’t mean anything, in and of themselves. They merely function as a reminder for us, in a particular situation, to take up the difficult questions of deciding what, in that situation, they ought to mean.

Giving people their due – treating them equitably, whatever equity might require in a given case – these are the aspirations of justice as a virtue. Justice, then, is primarily about what we owe to each other. What We Owe to Each Other, is, in fact, the title of a 1998 book by philosopher Tim Scanlon.

In part 2, we shall take a glance at Scanlon's contribution to this question, and move from justice as virtue of individuals to justice as a virtue of social institutions.

2021-06-05

UU Minute #45

Theophilus Lindsey Takes the Next Antitrinitarian Step



Theophilus Lindsey, was ordained a deacon at age 23, and an Anglican priest at age 24. He served as domestic chaplain to the Duke of Somerset, then tutor to the Duke’s grandson, then Parish priest in Yorkshire, and then Dorset. At age 37, he married Hannah Elsworth, and at age 40 began serving the Church of St Anne in Catterick. Theophilus founded a Sunday school; Hannah ran a dispensary and encouraged inoculation.

So far, so good, for the Lindseys. But then antiTrinitarian ideas, which the couple might have been exposed to from books by Fausto Sozzini, or John Biddle, or Thomas Emlyn, or any number of others, began to trouble them. At age 50, Theophilus resigned as vicar of the Church of England, surrendering a comfortable living. Theophilus and Hannah moved to London with hardly more than the clothes on their back, with backing from some friends, rented a hall, and opened the first avowedly Unitarian church in England on April 17, 1774. Theophilus served that congregation for almost 20 years, until retiring at age 70.

Antitrinitarianism comes in slightly varying flavors, and, before Theophilus Lindsey, any of those flavors was apt to be called Unitarian. Arianism, named for Arius, said Christ was divine, but not equal with God. Socinianism, named for Fausto Sozzini, said Christ was not divine, but could still be worshipped. Theophilus Lindsey took antitrinitarianism the next step: Jesus was not the equal of God, not divine, and was not to be worshiped. A Unitarian, said Lindsey, held “that religious worship is to be addressed only to the One True God, the Father.” Worship of Christ is sheer idolatry. With Lindsey, Unitarianism became distinct from its forebears, Arianism and Socinianism.


NEXT: The Friendship of Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley

2021-05-29

UU Minute #44

Britain's First Unitarian Church



Benjamin Franklin was 68 years old. It was the year 1774, and Franklin was in London. America had not declared its independence, and Franklin was in England in what we now know was the vain hope of influencing England to be more considerate of the needs of its settler-colonialists. While he was there, Franklin heard about a new church that was forming, the first of its kind, called Unitarian. The church’s opening had not been advertised, but word of mouth reached the American visitor, and when he showed up for the service on April 17, 1774, some 200 people were also in attendance – dissatisfied members of the Church of England (a.k.a. Anglican Church).

So it was that Benjamin Franklin was there for the first worship of the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in England – 200 years after Unitarian churches had been established in Transylvania and Poland.

Early Unitarianism in Britain is less a stream than “a series of unconnected whirlpools,” but it seems here to have at last found its footing. Theophilus and Hannah Lindsey and a few friends had rented an auction hall on Essex Street, fitted it as a chapel. Theophilus, then age 51, had just left the Anglican ministry, and he led the service using an unconventional liturgy and without wearing the customary clerical vestment. He preached about the need for a harmonious spirit in religion – which seems to be a particular concern of those who have recently split off.
“The congregation prospered from the start. Within three years they purchased and remodeled the Essex Street property to provide a large chapel above and living quarters below. The time, it seems, was ripe for just such an innovative institutional expression of Christian faith.” (Charles Howe, For Faith and Freedom)


NEXT: Theophilus Lindsey Takes the Next Antitrinitarian Step

2021-05-22

UU Minute #43

Thomas Emlyn



Thomas Emlyn was the first British preacher definitely to describe himself with the word "Unitarian" – though he didn’t at first. At age 28, he began serving Wood Street Presbyterian Church in Dublin, but he had doubts about the Trinity.

At age 34, he wrote to a friend,
"I cannot hope to continue here in my present post when I have once professed [my views]."
Wishing to avoid both insincerity and controversy, he simply avoided mentioning the trinity. Finally, at age 39, he was confronted why, in eleven years of preaching, he had never mentioned the Trinity.

Emlyn acknowledged himself to be an Arian Unitarian and offered to resign. The congregation said: “Take a leave of absence instead.” But critics of his theology attacked him fiercely. In response, Emlyn wrote, “An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ,” published later that same year, 1702.

That book would be a great influence on Unitarian development. Its most immediate effect, however, was to get Emlyn expelled from the Dublin Presbytery, and then arrested and convicted for blasphemy. He was fined a thousand pounds.

Unable to pay the fine, he was jailed for two years until the fine was lowered. The first British preacher to call himself "unitarian" was also the last person jailed in Britain for denial of the Trinity.

In 1705, at age 42, released from jail, and with no established church willing to take him, he moved to London, gathered a small congregation, and frequently guest preached at London’s nonconforming congregations until the end of his days.

Fifty years after his death, extracts from his “Humble Inquiry” were published in America, where they helped spark our emerging Unitarian movement.


NEXT: Britain's First Unitarian Church

2021-05-17

Repairing, part 2


Your Journey Group packet for May, on our theme, “Healing,” includes this one:
"Exercise #4: Wrestle with the Call of Reparations. Does racial healing require reparations? Or is it unrealistic? Or both? Whatever your opinion, should we not at least make space for the discussion? Doesn’t refusing that space drive us farther from healing? The reparations debate challenges us with hard questions: What does apology without accountability mean? How can personal reconciliation occur without structural repair? How much of our comfort are we will to sacrifice to heal others’ pain? Are you willing to look honestly at the casualties of your comfort and success? Can we disagree about the efficacy of reparations and still consider each other allies? This exercise invites you to explore the diverse articles below not simply with the question of 'What’s my opinion?' but also 'Where is my resistance coming from?' 'What scares me about this topic?' and 'How is the conversation itself trying to help me heal?' Come to your group ready to share what the below articles taught you about yourself."
What follows provides links to 13 articles, 10 of them from 2019 or 2020. Many of them are 2 or 3 page newspaper columns. One of them pointed out that,
“As of 2016, the average white household had more than 10 times the median wealth of a black household....On average, black households with a head who holds a college degree have two-thirds of the wealth of White households with a head who never finished high school.”
The only long-form journalism on the list is the aforementioned 2014 article by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates particularly focuses on housing policy in the post-war period – because this is a huge part of the story behind that wealth gap. Home ownership is “the greatest mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in American history.” And through the 1950s and 60s, blacks faced tremendous obstacles in home ownership. As Coates explains:
“The FHA had adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability. On the maps, green areas, rated 'A' indicated 'in demand' neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked ‘a single foreigner or Negro.’ The neighborhoods were considered excellent prospects for insurance. Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated 'D' and were considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red. Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered. Black people were viewed as a contagion.”
With banks unwilling to loan – in part because the FHA wouldn’t insure the loan – blacks seeking to buy a house turned to buying on contract. The seller keeps the deed, the buyer accrues zero equity until the final payment, and if one payment is missed, they’re evicted, with no equity, no deed, nothing. It’s like renting only worse, because if the water heater blows, or the roof leaks, the resident has full responsibility for fixing it.

So we’re not talking about the injustices of the 1860s, but of the 1960s. And of the 21st-century. Banks have continued to steer black clients to subprime, predatory loans.
“In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. In 2011, Bank of America agreed to pay $355 million to settle charges of discrimination against its Countrywide unit. The following year, Wells Fargo settled its discrimination suit for more than $175 million. But the damage had been done. In 2009, half the properties in Baltimore whose ownders had been grated loans by Wells Fargo between 2005 and 2008 were vacant; 71 percent of these properties were in predominantly black neighborhoods.”
Racism is not our fault, but it is our responsibility. No one alive today started the inculcation of our thought patterns, assumptions, and implicit biases with the idea of white supremacy – yet all of us, black or white or indigenous or of color -- picked up that influence. That we have that is not our fault. What we do now, is our responsibility.

We’ve been carrying around a wound our whole lives – a color line cutting through our hearts. Those of us with more privilege, may crouch within privilege and try not to think about our wound. We can be forgiven for trying not to think about it -- though that's not the most helpful response. Mindfulness Based Pain Management programs now in some hospitals coach patients with pain NOT to try to distract themselves, but to actually bring attention to the pain. Really focus on it, observe it, get to know it. The result is that less drugging ourselves to mask the pain is necessary.

With reparations we have a way to actually heal – to take real steps toward repairing. That prospect is the most inspiring, hopeful uplifting message I have ever received or could hope to impart. A new country. Full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences. Finally seeing ourselves squarely, and able to face each other squarely. Oh, man, that would be great – and it’s imaginable in ways I’ve never seen. A national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

It’s been a long toilsome slog – imposed upon the bodies our black, indigenous, and people of color neighbors, but it has also oppressed the oppressors. Fear, and constriction – narrow minds and small hearts adopted as counterproductive defensive strategies have diminished the lives of those who have all the ostensive privileges.

It's been a long, toilsome slog, but I feel like real healing – respite and repair – is at last reachable. Certainly not inevitable, but more possible than it has ever been. It makes my eyes tear, and my heart soar. This generation can do some real repairing of the centuries-long wounds.

We can support H.R. 40, the bill that John Conyers has been introducing every year for many years, in Democratic and Republican administrations. It would set up a commission to study reparations. It wouldn't pay out anything to anyone -- just set up a commission to study the questions. And that very mild proposal hasn't yet made it out of committee.

There are also possibilities for local action. There are ways that we can contribute ourselves to repairing. Our UU congregation in Tulsa joined with other Tulsa congregations to collect money for reparations for the 1921 Tulsa massacre. As UU World reported:
"The $28,048 collected by March was all disbursed to survivors. The plan is to make distributions quarterly if donations on hand total at least $100 per survivor."
I preach this good news today: repairing is possible.

May it be so. Amen.



2021-05-16

Repairing, part 1




Shavuot, which begins at sundown today, marks the end of a seven-week period called the Omer, or Counting of the Omer, which began at Passover. The first day of Passover commemorates the escape from Egypt. The last day of Passover, a week later, commemorates the crossing of the Red Sea, and Shavuot commemorates the receiving of the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai.

On this Shavuot, we look at repairing, and draw on the Jewish concept Tikkun Olam, to repair the world. In Jewish social thought, Tikkun Olam has come to mean we share a partnership with God to improve the world and help others.

The Torah -- consisting of the five books Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – has enslavement at the center of the story. The Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt, and became free. That’s something for which to be grateful. One might be grateful for that in the sort of way that one is grateful for antibiotics: we use to be subject to a lot of diseases that now we aren’t, thank goodness. But the Torah makes clear that this episode of enslavement isn’t just a horrible thing in the past which we can be grateful is over. It’s an ongoing instruction in how to live now.

For instance, because of that past experience in Egypt, there’s a requirement of care for immigrants. Leviticus 19 commands:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Also based on that experience in Egypt, there’s an injunction about slavery. Deuteronomy 15 commands:
“If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. And when you send him out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today.”
This is in the section of Deuteronomy known as the Deuteronomic Code. It is presented as sermons by Moses. Scholars say it was probably composed around the time of King Josiah, near the end of the 7th century BCE – so, about 2700 years ago. It is “essentially the work not of a jurist or statesman, but of a prophet” – which is to say, its primary impetus is to call out and correct injustice.

The Deutoronomic Code provides protections for women, children, widows, foreigners, and the poor. It methodically provides legal compensation for those victimized by the inequities and brutalities that may otherwise inhere in the social system.

Healing is our theme for May. Healing and wholeness come from the same root. In law, a tort remedy’s purpose is to make an injured party whole. That’s the legal term: “make whole” -- make whole – heal – repair the injury, the wound. The Deuteronomic Code from 2700 years ago was about making whole the victim’s of that society’s inequities and brutalities.

The wholeness sought was not just for the victim, but for the society. If I do something that hurts you, there is not one injury, but two. It hurts you, and it also rends our relationship – and there’s a need for repair at both those levels. I, the perpetrator, also need to heal from the wound it does to me to know that I have done harm – and from the wound it does me that I have done harm even if I don’t know it. If I go blundering about oblivious to the damage I’m causing, that damage nevertheless cuts me off from the possibility of flourishing relationships and from the fulness for which human life yearns. It constricts me in ways of which I might not be consciously aware.

The principle applies to nations as well as to people. When, in the years after World War II, Germany considered reparations for the Jewish people, at first only 29 percent of West Germans believed that Jews were owed restitution from the German people. Forty percent thought that only people ‘who really committed something’ were responsible and should pay. Twenty-one percent thought that the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what had happened. Over the next year, Germany’s intentional process of reckoning with itself shifted those numbers, and Germany ultimately paid to Israel more than $7 billion in today’s dollars. On top of that, Germany paid individual reparations claims. By 1961, reparations money had paid for two-thirds of the Israeli merchant fleet, and reparations money funded about a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system, which tripled its capacity, and nearly half the total investment in railways.

Nothing, of course, could make up for the Nazi murders, but reparations “did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.” Germany didn’t just repair Israel. Germany repaired Germany.

It took a little longer after World War II for the US to reckon with Japanese internment camps, but in 1988, Congress authorized payments of $20,000 in reparations to most living internees. Sam and Sumi Koide, long-time vibrant members of this congregation, both of whom died this year, were active in the campaign to make that happen. Was it enough? Probably not. But it was significant repair – of those harmed, and of the nation’s wounds that it recognized, at last, it had, in fact, inflicted upon itself.

The possibility of repairing damage done by centuries of white supremacy is alive today in ways that it has not been for 156 years – not since Lincoln’s assassination was followed by the Andrew Johnson administration which overturned Special Field Order Number 15 – a.k.a., General Sherman’s “40 acres and a mule” plan.

Of course we have questions about reparations. How would it work? Should the money go to individuals or into community investments and programs? How do we trace lineage? Are we talking about Black people, or all people color, or indigenous peoples? Would reparations bankrupt the Federal Government? Or the questions that sprang to David Brooks’ mind:
“What about the recent African immigrants? What about the poor whites who have nothing of what you would call privilege? Do we pay Oprah and LeBron?”
I don’t know the answer to those questions. I don’t think we need to know the answer right now. All we need to know right now is that these questions are not unanswerable. There are various proposals for how to answer them. Put all proposals on the table and let’s work out something.

We might start with Boris Bittker’s proposal (cited in a Jonathan Rauch's article) that we offer reparations for official school segregation.
“A program to compensate children who were required to go to segregated schools would not raise any conceptual difficulties in identifying the beneficiaries. Entitlement would depend exclusively on the fact that the student was assigned to a black school, regardless of his actual racial origin.”
As Jonathan Rauch adds:
“They are easy to identify. Many of them are very much alive. It cannot be seriously disputed that they were wronged, not only educationally but morally, by being forced into separate and hardly equal schools. Moreover, the perpetrator of the injustice is not a race, a “society,” or slave owner who are all long dead. The perpetrator, like the victims is identifiable and very much alive: government.”
That would be at least a start – clear and do-able.

The reparations conversation was significantly revived by a long article in Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2014. Coates concluded:
“And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely....What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

2021-05-15

UU Minute #42

Glorious Revolution



A nation coming apart at the seams. Shared reality that held a people together despite differences -- no longer shared. Widespread distrust of the basic institutions of society. Heretofore reliable truth rejected. That was 17th-century England. The Civil War that produced the execution of King Charles the First in 1649 was as much about forms of worship as it was forms of government – as much about the polity of the church as the polity of the state.

After 11 years of Commonwealth, the monarchy was restored. Charles the Second was succeeded by James the Second, England’s last Catholic monarch. The general anxiety about his Catholicism, combined with outrage when James prosecuted seven bishops for seditious libel, destroyed his political authority.

The glorious revolution of 1688 ousted James and brought the reign of William and Mary. The Toleration Act of 1689 extended toleration to various nonconformists with the Church of England – Presbyterians, Baptists, Independents -- but not to Catholics or Unitarians. The law required rejection of transubstantiation and required acceptance of the trinity.

Still, Unitarian thought, in both Arian and Socinian variations, spread. Isaac Newton wrote that scripture support of the Doctrine of the Trinity was too corrupt to be relied upon. John Locke, in 1695, published a theological work that was essentially Socinian.

Thomas Emlyn, a popular and beloved Presbyterian minister in Dublin, was a closet Unitarian. For eleven years he served his congregation and avoided controversy until one day a congregant observed that in eleven years of preaching, he’d never made any reference to the Trinity. Emlyn acknowledged his Arian Unitarian views and offered to resign.

What happened, will be in our next thrilling episode.


NEXT: Thomas Emlyn

2021-05-10

What Do I Need? part 2


Self-compassion is really simply compassion, and exercising compassion strengthens it. The experience of receiving caring primes circuits in your brain to give care. As Kristin Neff says,
"The more we are able to keep our hearts open to ourselves, the more we have available to give to others."
That so many Americans don’t have much available for others is a problem – and it seems to be a growing problem. Along with the disintegration of trust in each other and the institutions through which we build the collective good, has come a diminution of public compassion. We see this in resistance to masks, and vaccine hesitancy. I want to share with you the beginning of David Brooks’ column from two days ago. (He does use a mild swear word, which I will leave in.)
“Could today’s version of America have been able to win World War II? It hardly seems possible. That victory required national cohesion, voluntary sacrifice for the common good and trust in institutions and each other. America’s response to Covid-19 suggests that we no longer have sufficient quantities of any of those things. In 2020 Americans failed to socially distance and test for the coronavirus and suffered among the highest infection and death rates in the developed world. Millions decided that wearing a mask infringed their individual liberty. Experts now believe that America will not achieve herd immunity anytime soon. Instead of being largely beaten, this disease could linger, as a more manageable threat, for generations. A major reason is that about 30 percent of the U.S. population is reluctant to get vaccinated. We’re not asking you to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima; we’re asking you to walk into a damn CVS.”
Between World War II and today we became a country that no longer, by and large, understood “what do I need” to be the same as “what does the greater good need?”

In The Atlantic last week, staff writer Derek Thompson wrote that he contacted people who were refusing to get a Covid-19 vaccine. They said things like: "I’m not especially vulnerable." "I may have already gotten the virus." "If I get it in the future, it won’t be that bad." "The risk from an experimental vaccine seems greater than the risk from the disease." Even if all of that were true, which it isn’t, they are thinking only about what’s right for them as individuals. They aren't thinking about anyone but themselves.

Thompson wrote:
“I made this case to several no-vaxxers: Your grandparents, elderly neighbors, and immunocompromised friends will be safer if you’re vaccinated, even if you’ve already been infected....This argument gave several no-vaxxers a bit of pause.”
It apparently hadn’t occurred to them that they might have any responsibilities to the nation and the most vulnerable people in it. A lot of Americans of all races and genders are not accustomed to thinking in terms of compassion – for themselves or for others. They do guard their individual interests, but not in a self-compassionate way – more in a defensive, self-protective way – a way that sees the self’s interest as separate from, and sometimes competing with, other interests instead of seeing that, truly, the self IS others, and there is no separation between others’ interests and one’s own.

Amit Sood, MD, is author of “The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness.” Writing on the Mayo Clinic website, Dr. Sood says:
“Compassion can make you happier and healthier. Compassion is your ability to experience others' feelings — from joy to sorrow — with a desire to help. The pursuit of compassion may make you happier than the pursuit of happiness. Giving or receiving compassion can: Boost your bond with others; Make you healthier (the reason: the happier you are, the easier it is to commit to healthy habits); Improve your mental health by decreasing your stress levels; Temporarily shift your attention away from your own challenges and put things into perspective; Enhance your spiritual well-being.”
Dr. Sood concludes:
“The joy you'll feel after committing a random act of kindness will give you a sense of elation that money just can't buy.”
You may ask: What about compassion fatigue? Compassion fatigue is an issue among caregivers and can include emotional, physical, and spiritual distress in those providing care to another. This is the flip side of the separation coin. If your concept of self and other is that they are separate, and you focus only on self’s needs, that’s a problem. But if you assume there is separation and focus only on other’s needs, that’s also a problem. Compassion toward all beings includes you – you are not separate.

With self-compassion and authentic, sustainable self-care daily, there is no compassion fatigue. There may still be plain, ordinary fatigue. Issues of overwork might remain, and I know the pandemic has made for a lot of very overworked caregivers, and I sure hope they get some easing of their workloads soon – just as I do for every overworked person.

So when social justice comes up, when there is talk about the suffering of people oppressed and treated unfairly, traumatized, exploited – not merely dehumanized, but de-animalized – objectified – utterly excluded from concern and respect -- do you think, “Ugh, this just makes me feel bad. I don’t like feeling guilty. I want my congregation’s worship to be spiritually satisfying to me -- to give me uplift and inspiration. That’s what I need.”

OK. I believe that that is what you need. There is nothing more uplifting and inspiring, nothing that satisfies the spirit, more than compassion: the active wish that a being not suffer, and a feeling of sympathetic concern – empathy with a desire to help. With compassion, we want to know where the pain is. We want to know the details of it – where it came from, how it manifests, how widespread it is – so that we can more skillfully respond.

On this mother’s day as we think about and honor mothers and mothering, please call to mind the image of a compassionate, skillful mother. I hope that you had one, or have one, though I recognize that not everyone did. This mother finds a wonderful joy in mothering. Maybe it is mothering under challenging conditions – like Imani Perry, in this year’s Common Read, Breathe, when she writes:
“But no matter how many say so, my sons, you are not a problem. Mothering you is not a problem. It is a gift. A vast one. A breathtaking one, beautiful.”
Call to mind your image of a compassionate, skillful mother. When she hears that one of her children is hurting, she does not say, “I don’t want to hear about that. That’s a downer.”

She knows that sometimes children experimentally complain – just probing to see what response they might get – but she also knows that a complaint that is persistent, consistent, and insistent indicates a real issue. When there is a real issue, she wants to know all about it: How did this happen? How bad does it hurt? She wants to hear about it, learn about it, so she can best respond. I’m not talking about some extraordinary, almost superhuman mother – this is just ordinary, everyday parenting. And if she herself, it turns out, has been doing something that causes or worsens the problem, she wants to know all about that, too, so she can see what to change.

The call to social justice is like that. It is the call to compassion, and there is nothing that brings greater joy, or is more inspiring and uplifting, or is more spiritually healing.

We ask, “What do I need?” Compassion, I believe, is what we all need.

May our need be met. Amen.



2021-05-09

What Do I Need, part 1




What do I need? It’s not a bad question to ask ourselves. What are my needs? Are they being met? Good questions, from time to time. It's good to check in with ourselves and tend to our own well-being.

And then there’s this other question: What do others need? What do other people need – people of other cultures and races? What do people of other gender – or transgender or no gender -- need? What will our grandchildren’s grandchildren need? What do other species need – other mammals, other warm-blooded beings, other vertebrates, other animals, other living beings? What do ecosystems need? What does the planet need?

In some cases, the answer might be leave them alone and they’ll take care of their own needs. Still, there is something we owe to each other. “What We Owe to Each Other” is the title of a 1998 book by philosopher Tim Scanlon. The book was inspiration for, and mentioned by name in, the TV series, “The Good Place.”

So, here are these two questions: What do I need? What do I owe myself? And what do others need? What do I owe to others?

One very common and perhaps intuitive approach to these questions is to say: we try to balance them. They pull in opposite directions, there’s a tension between what I owe myself and what I owe others, and the best a person can do is try to find the right balance between competing pulls, giving the appropriate amount of attention and concern to each side. I don’t think the balance approach is the most helpful here – the truest to what your own and others’ needs actually call for.

For some of life’s questions, this balance approach is right on – but not this one. For instance, when it comes to work vs. family-leisure-recreation, those competing pulls do require finding a right balance. Finding that balance may not always be easy, but trying to find it is the right approach there.

But the question of what I owe myself and what I owe others calls for a different approach. On this Mother’s Day, let us turn to the wisdom of mothering. There is some balancing involved – particularly that work-family balance. But the general calling of mothering isn’t about balancing, but a combination of serving the collective need and tending to the individual need that’s greatest at that moment. ("A mother is only as happy as her least happy child," according to the saying.)

There’s the paradoxical reality that on the one hand, others must be respected as distinct beings with their own preferences and life plans that might not even make sense to you, while on the other hand, there are no others – all of reality is you. Walt Whitman expressed this awareness in “Song of Myself.” He identifies with every being and every object, for he understands that a self is all selves. He recognizes the suffering of others as his very own:
“Embody all presences outlaw’d or suffering,
See myself in prison shaped like another man,
And feel the dull unintermitted pain.
For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch,
It is I let out in the morning and barr’d at night.
Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side,
(I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.)
Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go up too, and am tried and sentenced.
Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp but I also lie at the last gasp,
My face is ash-color’d, my sinews gnarl, away from me people retreat.
Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them,
I project my hat, sit shame-faced, and beg.”
What do I owe myself? What do I owe others? The two questions are really one question, and the answer is compassion – compassion for all that is, including that skin-bag walking around answering to the name printed on your ID card. The general answer to “What do I need?” is compassion. On this Mother’s Day, we look to the quintessence of what mothering is: compassion.

Compassion is an active wish that a being not suffer, and a feeling of sympathetic concern. If a mother’s child falls and hurts himself, she wants him to be out of pain. If you hear that a friend is in the hospital, or out of work, or going through a divorce, you feel for her and hope that everything will be all right. Compassion is our nature: it's an important part of the neural and psychological systems we evolved to nurture children, bond with mates, and hold together "the village it takes to raise a child."

Let’s look at self-compassion – because one thing we all need is self-compassion – self-mothering. Self-compassion is not self-pity. It’s simply recognizing, "this is tough, this hurts," and bringing the same warmhearted wish for suffering to lessen or end that you would bring to any dear friend grappling with the same pain, upset, or challenge as you.

Take a moment to acknowledge your difficulties: your challenges and suffering. Bring to mind the feeling of being with someone you know cares about you: Your mother – or, if that won’t work for you, another family member, or a dear friend, or a spirit, or God, or a pet. Let yourself feel that you matter to this being, who wants you to feel good and do well in life. Bring to mind your difficulties, and imagine that this being who cares about you is feeling and expressing compassion for you. Imagine zir facial expression, gestures, stance, and attitude toward you. Let yourself receive this compassion, taking in its warmth, concern, and goodwill. Open to feeling more understood and nurtured, more peaceful and settled.

Imagine someone you naturally feel compassion for: perhaps a child, or a family member. Imagine how you would feel toward that person if he or she were dealing with whatever is hard for you. Let feelings of compassion fill your mind and body. Extend them toward that person, perhaps visualized as a kind of light radiating from your heart. Notice what it's like to be compassionate. Then, extend the same sense of compassion toward yourself.

Say to yourself: “May this pain pass. May things improve for me. May I feel less upset over time.”

You may recognize that this is prayer – understanding that the point of prayer is not to get some super-being to grant your wish, but rather it is the orientation you give yourself by merely expressing the wish. Have warmth for yourself. Acknowledge your difficulties and pain. Feel compassion sinking in to you, becoming a part of you, soothing and strengthening you.

People have studied self-compassion, and the studies find that having compassion for yourself reduces self-criticism, reduces stress hormones, facilitates resilience, and helps heal the deficits of care that go back to childhood.

When you ask yourself, “What do I need?” and you answer, compassion for all beings including myself, the question then becomes what does compassion look like right now, right here? We’ve looked at the “including myself” part. We’ll look at the “all beings” part in Part 2.

2021-05-08

UU Minute #41

Come the Restoration (1660)



From the early Christian church and the Council of Nicea of 325, European Church history focused on doctrine. Europeans spilled a lot of ink, and a lot of blood, on the finer details of what statements one ought to affirm. Even today the notion that one’s religion is defined by the affirmation of statements is still widespread.

The social function of religion is group cohesion. Who’s with you? Who can you trust? Europeans used doctrine as a litmus test for who was “us” and who was “them.”

But in 17th-century England, the “us-them” litmus test shifted. It was less about doctrine than church governance. Episcopal polity ( rule by the bishops), and Presbyterian polity (rule by groups of elders called presbyters) squared off. Along with polity differences were differences in form of worship: free worship or liturgical worship, prescribed prayer or voluntary prayer, clerical vestments, different elements in the worship services. Doctrinal matters, though, were largely ignored.

In the 1640s, the English Parliament made Presbyterianism the polity and worship form of the Church of England, but this was not much enforced. 1660 brought the restoration of the throne under Charles II. The Presbyterians, who tended to be royalists, had high hopes, but Charles soon declared “Presbyterianism is no religion for a gentleman,” and returned the Church of England to Episcopal polity and forms.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, doctrinal innovations were spreading. People were, more or less in secret, reading and circulating books by Fausto Sozzini and John Biddle. In 1687, 25 years after John Biddle’s death, one Stephen Nye published, A Brief History of the Unitarians Called Also Socinians. It launched the Unitarian Controversy that raged through the Church of England bringing attention again to doctrinal means of distinguishing “us” from “them.”


NEXT: Glorious Revolution
APPENDIX
Bibliography of the More Significant Books, Pamphlets, and Tracts published in "The Unitarian Controversy" -- a.k.a. "The Socinian Controversy" and "The Trinitarian Controversy" -- in England, 1687-1697.
  1. Stephen Nye [Unitarian], A Brief History of the Unitarians, Called also Socinians, 1687.
  2. Thomas Firmin [Unitarian], Brief Notes on the Creed of St. Athanasius, 1689.
  3. Arthur Bury [Latitudinarian], The Naked Gospel, 1690. 
  4. Thomas Firmin [Unitarian], ed., The Faith of One God: Asserted and Defended, 1691. [anthology of Unitarian essays]
  5. William Nicholls [Trinitarian], An Answer to an Heretical Book called 'The Naked Gospel,' with a Short History of Socinianism, 1691. [Reply to #3]
  6. Thomas Long [Trinitarian], An Answer to a Socinian Treatise called 'The Naked Gospel', 1691. [Reply to #3]
  7. William Sherlock [Trinitarian], A Vindication of the Doctrine of the Holy and Ever Blessed Trinity, and the Incarnation of the Son of God: Occasioned by the Brief Notes on the Creed of St. Athanasius, and the Brief History of the Unitarians, or Socinians, and Containing an Answer to Both, 1690.
  8. John Wallis [Trinitarian Presbyterian], The Doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, Briefly Explained in a Letter to a Friend, 1690.
  9. Daniel Whitby [Latitudinarian], Tractatus de Vera Christi Deitate Adversus Arii et Socini Hæreses, 1691.
  10. William Freke [Arian Unitarian], The Arian's Vindication of Himself, 1691.
  11. John Wallis [Trinitarian Presbyterian], A Fourth Letter Concerning the Sacred Trinity, 1691. [Reply to #10]]
  12. Robert South [Socinian Unitarian], Tritheism Charged upon Dr. Sherlock's New Notion of the Trinity and the Charge Made Good in an Answer to the Defense of the Said Notion Against Animadversions on Dr Sherlock's Book, entitled a Vindication of the Holy and Ever Blessed Trinity &c, 1693. [Reply to #7]
  13. Stephen Nye [Unitarian],  Considerations on the Explications of the Doctrine of the Trinity, By Dr. Wallis, Dr. Sherlock, Dr. South, Dr. Cudworth, and Mr. Hooker; as also on the Account given by those that say, the Trinity is an Unconceivable and Inexplicable Mystery, 1693.
  14. Edward Fowler [Latitudinarian], Twenty-eight Propositions, by which the Doctrine of the Trinity is Endeavoured to be Explained, and Subsequent Defences, 1693.
  15. Jonathan Edwards [Calvinist, 1629-1712], A Preservative Against Socinianism, 1693.
  16. Francis Fulwood [Trinitarian], The Socinian Controversie, 1693.
  17. George Bull [Athanasian Trinitarian], Judicium Ecclesiae Catholicae, 1694.
  18. Matthew Tindal [Deist], Reflections on the Twenty-Eight Propostions, 1695. [Reply to #14]
  19. Charles Leslie [Church of Ireland], The Charge of Socinianism against Dr. Tillotson Considered, 1695.
  20. Jonathan Edwards [Calvinist, 1629-1712], Remarks upon a Book Lately Published by Dr. William Sherlock, 1695. [Reply to #7]
  21. John Smith [Unitarian], A Designed End to the Socinian Controversy: or a rational and plain Discourse that no other person but the Father of Christ is God Most High, 1695.
  22. Gilbert Clerke [Socinian Unitarian] and Samuel Crellius [Arian Unitarian], Tractatus Tres, 1695. [Reply to #17]
  23. Francis Gregory [Trinitarian], A divine antidote against a devilish poyson, or, A scriptural answer to an anti-scriptural and heretical pamphlet entituled 'A Designed End to the Socinian Controversy,' written by John Smith, 1695. [Reply to #21]
  24. John Locke [Socinian Unitarian], The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in Scripture, 1695.
  25. Jonathan Edwards [Calvinist], Socinianism Unmask'd, followed by The Socinian Creed, 1696.
  26. John Locke [Socinian Unitarian], Vindication of his Essay of the Reasonableness of Christianity, 1697. [Reply to #25]
  27. Samuel Bold [Socinian Unitarian], Discourse on the true Knowledge of Christ Jesus, 1697. [Reply to #25]
CODA:
Thomas Emlyn [Arian Unitarian], An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ, 1702.

2021-05-03

Healing, part 2


To get to healing – to the transcendence of suffering -- requires moving beyond blaming. The impulse to blame can be a powerful one. It comes from the old self, trying to hold onto itself, like a caterpillar trying to stay a caterpillar. If blame can be fixed, I don’t have to change.

When social change is afoot, there’s anxiety, which may produce a witch-hunt to find someone or something to blame. In the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there’s a scene of a literal witch-hunt. A mob wants to burn some poor woman that they accuse of being a witch. We don’t literally burn people anymore. When we did, it was a community’s dysfunctional way of coping with its anxiety that somehow their lives weren’t going as they thought they should. In the movie, the mob comes before the local knight.

“We have found a witch. May we burn her?”
The knight asks, “What makes you think she’s a witch?”
One member of the crowd says, “Well, she turned me into a newt.”
The knight stares at the man, incredulous. “A newt?”
The man shuffles sheepishly and says, “I got better.”

In the midst of change, it probably doesn’t feel like you’re becoming a beautiful, glorious butterfly. Maybe it feels like you’ve somehow been made into a newt – into something unpleasant. Actually, a sleek, perhaps colorful amphibian might be a better bet than an insect butterfly – but the point, of course, is that it’s a metaphor for something you don’t want to be. You want to “get better” – get back to normal, back to the story of your life that you have been accustomed to telling yourself – a story that cannot be maintained in the face of being this newt-ish thing it feels like you’ve become.

You might have some anger in the process – and want to burn whatever witch it was that made this happen to you. If we can blame someone, we get to hold on to our old story of ourselves a little longer.

If we can blame China for the coronavirus, we can delay coming to terms with what this really means. If this is all the fault of Asians, we don’t have to wear masks, or social distance – just punish anyone who happens to be Asian. More broadly, we don’t have to change the way we live. We don’t have to stop degrading the environment, or take any note of the connection between the planet’s loss of species diversity, is directly connected to pandemic outbreaks.

Last October, a UNESCO report established the links between biodiversity loss and the increase in pandemic risk factors.
“The report warns that future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19 unless there is a transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases, from reaction to prevention....We must transform the way we live on Earth together with other species of the living world, and establish a new pact.”
Healing is about transformation – not getting back to what you were, but becoming something new. t’s not about solving a problem, but becoming new in response to a new reality.

As Pema Chodron writes:
“We think the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
Earlier we heard Kim, Lisa, Georgiana, and Terri beautifully sing Cynthia Gray’s adaptation of a sonnet by Amy Lowell, titled “Listening” – published in 1912.
“’T is you that are the music, not your song.
The song is but a door which, opening wide,
Lets forth the pent-up melody inside,
Your spirit’s harmony, which clear and strong
Sing but of you. Throughout your whole life long
Your songs, your thoughts, your doings, each divide
This perfect beauty; waves within a tide,
Or single notes amid a glorious throng.
The song of earth has many different chords;
Ocean has many moods and many tones
Yet always ocean. In the damp Spring woods
The painted trillium smiles, while crisp pine cones
Autumn alone can ripen. So is this
One music with a thousand cadences.”
You are the music. You may have been thinking it was your song – your thoughts, your doings – that was the music. Nope. It's you yourself: the being behind the doing.

And then one day you get sick, or seriously injured – or your life in any of a thousand ways becomes broken: loss of a partner, loss of a job, loss of a home. It always appears first as loss. That old song just won’t sing any more.

It would be flippant of me say, “sing a new one.” It’s not that easy. Even if you know and believe everything I’ve been saying today – even if you understand that your task at such a time is to learn a new song – it’s going to take a while, and it’s not going to be fun. Perhaps it will be your swan song – as you enter into the last loss, the loss of your own life.

If it seems easy, it isn’t genuine – isn’t real transformation. There’s no transcendence of suffering without the suffering. Amy Lowell titled her poem “Listening” – because we don’t so much write our new song as listen – listen for the song that finds itself emerging.

Healing is no picnic, dear friends, but it is worth it. May it be so. Amen.



2021-05-02

Healing, part 1




Healing is our theme for May. The May issue of On the Journey: Healing is out now. Please give that a read. You’ll have a chance to explore it with your Journey Group later this month.

Healing. Well, you may ask, what is the wound? Let’s start today with an obvious, literal physical injury. If you happen not to have one right now, then let me ask you to remember one, for a minute. A literal, physical wound. A scraped knee, perhaps – or a broken bone. And it got better. The cells of your body knew what to do. You probably helped them in their work: you washed the scrape so as to give your cells an easier time of it as they went about the work of repair. Or you went to a doctor to have the bone set properly, and appropriately immobilized, so the bone cells could grow back together in peace. You helped out, and your body took it from there. You got the award for actor in a supporting role – your body takes the award for leading actor.

And the show was a hit with critics and audiences alike. Healing happened. It was the sequel to “The Wounding,” which had opened to much more mixed reviews. The critics had appreciated its dramatic tension, but audiences didn’t like “The Wounding.” Then there were more sequels: a continuous flow of sequels. Like a series perpetually renewed, the healing never stops.

At first, you thought that what you were healing from was simply some mishap that shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and you just wanted to get back to – to what? Back to “normal”? Turns out normal isn’t what you’re here for.

Some people say God has a plan for you. I might go with that as a kind of metaphor. Some people say you make your own meaning and plan. But that could only be another metaphor – maybe, actually, the same metaphor. If it’s your own idea, OK, but where did it come from? You didn’t have the idea before you had it. Even a unique idea is composed of parts that came from somewhere and fit themselves together in a unique way.

Where your purpose came from is a mystery – as mysterious as where the universe came from, where the big bang came from. You can name that mystery God if you like, and then you have a name for it. You haven’t solved it, or clarified it, or reduced its mysteriousness in any way. You’ve only named it – though with that particular name you’ve associated the purpose of your existence with the creative force of the universe itself, with creativity. And that might be helpful. Wherever your purpose came from, I’m pretty sure you do have one. And getting back to normal isn’t it.

You are here to love, to give what you are, and to grow. Like all living things – like amoebas, grass, salamanders, cats, fungus, daffodils, octopuses, wood thrushes, slime mold, larch trees, beagles, yellow-naped Amazon parrots – like all that is alive -- you and I are here to grow – to change, to transform. For humans and the more social animals, at least, growth doesn’t happen without wounding. We don’t grow into wisdom without some pain.

As Naomi Shihab Nye's beautiful poem, "Kindness," says:
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”
There’s a piece in your Journey Group materials this month by Thomas Egnew from a study he did interviewing doctors about what they learned about healing from their careers as healers. They spoke of wholeness – “making whole again,” or “becoming whole again” or “finding wholeness.” It’s not getting back to normal, but finding one’s personhood within a new normal.

Illness, one doctor said, “denies most conceptions of what it means to be yourself” – because “you can’t do the things you used to do.” You might or might not get better – healing doesn’t always mean being cured or fixed. It does mean finding wholeness in your situation.

The doctors also spoke of narrative – the patient’s story about themselves, about their disease. Healing involves a reinterpretation, a re-drafting of the life narrative. The narrative, most fundamentally, is about relationships: patient with other patients, with family, with medical providers.

Finding yourself, your wholeness, is always finding your place within a web of relationships. One doctor said, “to be whole is to be whole in the presence of others.” You are the author of your life narrative, but it takes a whole network of co-authors working it out with you, editing your drafts. Healing entails a narrative of healing.

Thus healing is a matter not simply of the body, but of the spirit – what one doctor described as the “ineffable quality that we have that propels us forward,” and another characterized as harmony that exists “when what you know, and what you say, and what you feel are in balance.” Healing isn’t “getting back to” something. Healing is transformation.

The healing cocoon doesn’t get you back to being the caterpillar you were, but makes you into a butterfly. And then makes the butterfly into the next thing, and then the next thing. One doctor said, “almost universally, illness awakened them to a meaning of what’s important in life.”

Disease and injury is a suffering, and the suffering is not simply the body’s pain, discomfort, dis-ease. Rather, the crux of the matter is no longer being the person you thought of yourself as – the forced re-writing of your narrative.As Egnew writes, “Not being the persons they have known themselves to be, they suffer.” Healing then, is the transcendence of that suffering. Not the end of suffering, but the transcending of it – the understanding of it within a new context of meaning, a new narrative, a new harmony, a new wholeness.

2021-05-01

UU Minute #40

What Unitarians Really Care About



John Biddle could go to the mat against anyone when it came to debating Christian doctrine. But what he really cared about was living a good life and being a good person.

Unitarians throughout our history could argue about the Trinity at great length -- and we did – but our driving passion – the flame that burned in the chalice of our hearts – was for a religion that supported us in being good and doing good.

John Calvin’s doctrine, “total depravity,” said every person is born enslaved to sin, depraved by nature, entirely unable to choose by themselves to follow God or refrain from evil. We cannot save ourselves, said Calvin, but God decides, by grace, to save some of us, though none of us deserve it. Thus Calvin was led to his doctrine of predestination – God made some people wicked and some people saints, and no one could do anything about it. You can’t make yourself good – only God can do that – and God decided before you were born whether or not you would be one of the good ones.

For us Unitarians, that has never made sense. We are not depraved by nature – instead, all of us have “inherent worth and dignity” – and together we can help each other flourish and choose to be kind. That’s what we’re all about today – and it’s what we’ve been all about from our beginnings.
“Despite all his written discourses concerning the Doctrine of the Trinity and the Deity of Jesus, Biddle’s real concern had been for a moral and holy life. Perhaps it was this concern for piety that explains the obvious hold he had over his faithful followers. It may also explain why, with Biddle removed from the scene, his followers soon dispersed, leaving no permanent institutional legacy.” (David Bumbaugh)

NEXT: Come the Restoration (1660)

2021-04-26

More Hope, Vigor, and Strength, part 2


Our faith has never been about individual spiritual growth. Salvation, we know, having heard it in Unitarian Universalist theology and having learned it from each other, is collective, not individual. Ain’t nobody saved until we all saved. Ain’t nobody free until we all free. ‘Cause there ain’t nobody – apart from everybody.

One example of what Unitarian Universalist faith accomplishes in this world was last year’s nationwide effort among Unitarian Universalists called “UU the Vote.” We built voter engagement, voter registration, voter turnout. It was more than our denomination had ever tackled before. And it was massive, and it was awesome. Folks were ready to give generously of their time and resources because our values of justice, compassion, and democratic process – and people’s lives – were on the line and on the ballot. We UUs invested dozens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of hours and over a million dollars to vote love over division in last November’s election. The campaign reached over 3 million potential voters. We UUs were likely the largest, most organized faith-based pro-democracy effort in 2020.

One example from here at Community UU is our Hope Kitchen project. We continue, week after week, to bring the power of imagination, generosity, commitment, and collective action to meet a vital need.

Receiving inspiration and spiritual sustenance and giving of our energies for justice and compassion for others are not two different things. Those who think of spirituality as individual, as distinct from embodying compassion and justice for others will never have the inspiration, the spiritual sustenance, the joy from tending to where there is hurt.

Spirituality without actively caring for others is thin and wan. Caring for others that isn’t caring for all others is a constrained and limited joy. Caring for all others that isn’t actively engaged in building the structures of equality, respect, and fairness fails to be spiritually satisfying.

Spirituality without activism isn’t spirituality, but only a self-centered embryo of what it could grow into. Activism without spirituality isn’t activism, but only noise and ego projection.

To build peace within, build justice without. To build justice without, build peace within. It’s another positive feedback loop – or, essentially, the same positive feedback loop as gratitude and generosity.

That’s the Unitarian theology that brings joy and healing to ourselves and to our world. That’s the Unitarian Universalist vibrancy – the hope, the vigor, and the strength – that grows our souls and that our world so needs. As we find ourselves loved into being, we must work together to love our world into the fullness of its being.

Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, recounts a conversation she had with the scholar Gary Michael Tartakov. “This is a civilization searching for its humanity,” Tartakov told Wilkerson. “It dehumanized others to build its civilization. Now it needs to find its own.” How do we do that? How do we, as a civilization, come into our humanity? How does a whole country come into the fullness of its being?

Love.

As you and I are loved into being by love around us, a nation may be loved into being by love within it. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke often of love, meaning not a fond sentimentality or romantic attachment – nothing precious or maudlin or fey.

Love, he said,
“means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies.”
Dr. King told us
"Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
And again he said:
"At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.”
And he said:
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
He believed, he said,
“that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
He said,
“This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”
And thus he saw and reminded us:
“Life's most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
There is no joy in retreating from reality, withdrawing, turning away from the systems that do harm. At the founding and foundation of our country are forces of domination, forces that said people identified as black, as indigenous, as people of color didn’t matter. It was and is a system of double exclusion, for the people identified as white have also been excluded – excluded from responsibility and accountability, which are as necessary to beloved community as respect and justice are.

There is no joy in blithe aloofness from reality. We fool ourselves when we think paying attention will only make us feel bad – just as we fool ourselves when we think keeping five dollars will make us happier than spending it on someone else. All the joy there is comes through compassion – from orienting toward the hurt and engaging in the healing.

This Unitarian Universalist congregation isn’t the only community with this power – this power that loves you into being and helps heal our world. I don’t claim that ours is the only beloved community, only that it is ours. This – this building that we long to gather in again, this place of music and song, friendship and support, inspiration and encouragement – happens to be our place. It's not a static place, but a path -- the path we walk together, stepping where we could not step alone: stepping into more hope, vigor, and strength.

Unitarian Universalist president Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray said in a message she had for us this week:
“When we give – boldly, generously, audaciously -- of our financial resources as we are able, we make our values and our ministry manifest in the world. When we give generously of our hearts and our care, and our love, to our children and families, elders and adults, young adults, and youth, we change lives. We save lives. And when we dream big – as leaders and staff – about the impact we are called to make in the wider world, lives are changed. The material conditions of our communities can chage. And we are changed” --
-- progressively loved, and loving, into being.

May it be so, and Amen.



2021-04-25

More Hope, Vigor, and Strength, part 1




Gaudeamus Hodie (let us rejoice today) – for we are alive, and we are together, and we are embodying the good life. The good life.

In the 320-year history of Yale University, no class has been as popular as Psych 157: Psychology and the Good Life, taught by Professor Laurie Santos. It was offered in 2018, and 1,200 students enrolled for the lecture course. That’s a large class. As a former professor myself, my first thought was: that’s a lot of papers to grade. Fortunately, Dr. Santos had 24 Teaching Assistants for the class.

That 2018 class was the only time it was offered in-person. Coursera made a 10-week version of the course available to the public, attracting 100s of thousands of on-line learners. Then came the lockdown of March 2020, and enrollment really took off. So far, says Coursera, 3.3 million people have enrolled for the class. The class “asks students to, among other things: track their sleep patterns, keep a gratitude journal, perform random acts of kindness, and take note of whether, over time, these behaviors correlate with a positive change in their general mood” (NYT).

In her class lectures, Dr. Santos mentions a study in which 632 Americans were asked to predict how happy they would be if they were given $5 to spend on themselves versus getting $5 and being told they must spend it on someone else. In the study, people predicted that they would be happier if they were allowed to keep the money. But participants consistently reported afterward that they had in fact derived more satisfaction from spending money on someone.

I was surprised. I was surprised that people predicted they would be happier keeping the money. I think most of you probably understand yourselves better than that – you have a better grasp on what’s conducive to joy – and the fact that giving to others makes you feel good is well-known for you. One student, inspired by the class, decided to try a practical experiment. Instead of keeping an expensive dress she had bought, she gave it to her sister. “I’m still feeling that happiness months later,” she said. No surprise there.

Generosity. Gratitude. And sleep. Yale undergraduates – and maybe many of the 3.3 million who took the online class -- benefitted from being disabused of the notion that high grades, prestigious internships, and good-paying jobs – or making law review -- had any relationship to happiness. But most of you, I expect, know those things have little correlation with well-being.

Sleep. Help others. Gratitude. There you have it: a full life, a life of well-being, a life that lets joy in. Congregational life provides the framework for developing gratitude, and generously helping others. It may also ease anxieties so you can get more sleep at night, but I don’t know about that one so much.

We help each other become more generous people – which enhances and deepens our happiness and well-being. The generous spirit that pervades many congregations, including this one, gives us much to be grateful for, fueling a positive feedback loop of generosity, to gratitude, to more generosity, to more gratitude. We yearn for beloved community that will love us into the fullness of our being – a community that will show us how, and provide opportunities, to love others into their being.

“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston.

Unitarian Universalist congregations have loved me into being – from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Auburn, Alabama when I was in 2nd and 3rd grade, to the UU Congregation of Atlanta from 4th-grade through high school, to the UU Fellowship of Waco, Texas when I was a young adult graduate student, and the congregation that is now called Unitarian Universalists of Charlottesville, Virginia – and then the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee. These places shined a light straight into me that dispelled a little boy’s nihilism and despair, and then a teenager’s, and then a young adult’s, then an adult’s.

Over and over – because dark nights of the soul have a way of recurring, moments when it all seems meaningless have a way of recurring, for beings like us – composed, as W.H. Auden put it: “of eros and of dust, beleaguered by the same negation and despair.”

I came to these places – Unitarian Universalist congregations – for two opposite reasons: the comfort of people like me, and the delight of people not like me. Through and with those like me – which, really, has been everybody – and those not like me – which, really, has been everybody – I have loved and been loved into being, into my voice, into my place in this world.

My guess is: you have stories like this -- stories of how the values, the theology, you found here -- the music, the work, the camaraderie and friendship – maybe even helped along by some of the preaching you found here -- changed you. Grew your heart. Helped your soul crawl out from its hiding place.

Then I began serving our congregations in a professional capacity. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Clarksville, Tennessee, the Unitarian Universalist Community of El Paso, the Unitarian Church of Midland, Texas, the UU Fellowship of Gainesville, Florida – and for the last 8 years, Community Unitarian Universalist Congregation at White Plains, where I’ve spent more Sunday mornings now than at any of those other places.

You are such wonderful people. I am so glad to be among you – a people, rich and multi-layered -- people of action – at our best, unstoppable – guided by our heart’s desire to serve others.


2021-04-24

UU Minute #39

John Biddle



What happened in Britain in 1615? John Biddle was born, known as the father of English Unitarianism.

Queen Elizabeth’s 45-year reign had ended a dozen years before. She was succeeded by King James. The ground for Unitarianism had been laid by four key influences.

1. The Bible – in English translation. 230 years before Biddle’s birth John Wycliffe produced the first English translation of the Bible. The slow, seeping influence of English translation Bibles bolstered the idea that the only authoritative reliable guide to doctrine was the Bible itself – and thus that doctrinal matters not specifically dictated in the Bible – such as the Trinity, the precise nature of the communion bread and wine, infant versus adult Baptism – ought not to be subject to persecution, but rather, diverse persuasion should be tolerated.

2. Influx of Anabaptists and other Protestants. 80 years before Biddle’s birth, Henry VIII made himself head of the Church of England – a break from Papal authority that led to this influx.

3. The Stranger Churches. Begun 65 years before Biddle’s birth, Stranger Churches grew to 5,000 members with branches in eleven towns, propagating ideas of Italian Humanists.

4. Socinian books and tracts, despite attempts to ban them, had been circulating underground urging reason in religion and tolerance of diversity.

Into this context, John Biddle was born, grew up, became a scholar convinced through his study of scripture that the Doctrine of the Trinity was not supported. For this heresy he was repeatedly imprisoned, and when he wasn’t, spent years under house arrest, during which he worked on his theological manuscripts and English translations of Fausto Sozzini works.

Imprisoned again in 1652, then released by the Oliver Cromwell government, Biddle and his adherents began to meet for Sunday worship. They were sometimes called Biddellians, sometimes Socinians, and sometimes Unitarians.


NEXT: What Unitarians Really Care About