Samhain Reflection

This morning we honor our beloved dead. In Latin America, particularly Mexico, this time is known as Dia de Muertos. In the Gaellic Pagan tradition, as we have been partaking, it’s Samhain.

These traditions invite us to imagine that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead lifts and our ancestors visit us. There is more going on here than mere superstition. These practices yield spiritual and psychological insights. A Mexican boy spending the night at his uncle’s grave, as is a custom of Dia de Muertos, will gain from that experience a connection across time with his forebears.

We might be connected through social media to every acquaintance we ever since high school, and connected through our phones at all times – and yet be cut off from the web of time. Traditional cultures, with their shamans and ghosts and reincarnations, have understood intuitively something we’ve repressed.

The dead don’t die. They live on in our memory, in our hearts, in ideas and habits that we today embody even long after the source is gone from conscious memory. Of course, we remember our dead. And if you’re looking for a movie to watch this afternoon, as part of reflecting on the beloved dead, I recommend the 2017 film, “Coco.” It’s a good one to watch and rewatch at this time of year.

Samhain and dia de Muertos also remind us that each of us will soon be among the dead – and this, too, is a wholesome, enlivening, and spiritual reflection. Our lives are but brief candles, so if we would celebrate the fullness of all of life, we will honor in gratitude – indeed, relief – that the separate identity that ego so ardently believes in does not have countless ages. What is ours to do is only this short span – our three score years and ten -- more or less – maybe fourscore or fivescore. That mortality reminded Housman, that really, we have only this moment – so he chose to walk about the woodlands, to be present to the beauty that is right now.
“Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.”
Remembering death, keeping it always in mind, makes us more present to life. “What a puzzle it is,” as Mary Oliver said, “that such brevity . . . makes the world so full, so good.”

Scottish novelist, Dame Muriel Spark, writes:
“If I had to live my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might was well live on the whites of eggs.”
German Philosopher Martin Heidegger said,
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself.”
And the 16th-century French essayist, Montaigne, said,
“Let us deprive death of its strangeness. Let us frequent it; let us get used to it; Let us have nothing more often in mind than death . . . We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere. To practice death is to practice freedom.”
In that freedom of awareness of death, we finally dissolve those boundaries we construct between self and “other” – and dwelling there we realize at last the jubilee world, or harmony among all peoples, among all animals, among all things.

Larry Rosenberg writes:
“We know in our heads that we will die. But we have to know it in our hearts. We have to let this fact penetrate our bones. Then we will know how to live. To do that, we need to be able to look at the fact of death with steadiness. We can’t just glance at it casually.”
And Judith Lief notes:
"The best preparation is working with our state of mind now rather than thinking about exotic things we might do later when we are looking death in the eyes. It is better to learn to relate to death now, when we still have the strength and ability. In that way, when we face difficult circumstances, or at the time of death, we can rely on what we already know.”
Louise Erdrich observes:
“Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart's position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid a thing for it, cherishing because you know you won't ever come by such a bargain again.”
Maybe the transporter beam called Time will reconstitute your pattern, very slightly changed, in the next moment, and maybe it won't. Either way, the being you experience as yourself this second is gone the next second.

Why wrap so much anxiety around whether or not a very-nearly-identical replica will supersede you? Why have any anxiety whatsoever about that? When that anxiety is cleared away, seen through, recognized as stemming from delusion and dropped, then, indeed, we will know how to live.



UU Minute #59

King's Chapel and James Freeman, part 1

Remember Thomas Emlyn? Emlyn was featured in episodes 42 and 43. He was the first British preacher to definitely describe himself with the word Unitarian. Years after his death, reprints of Emlyn’s book, “An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ” made their way to America’s shores where they aided and abetted the growing liberalism. In 1757, a group of New Hampshire churches, influenced by Emlyn’s arguments, revised their catechism to delete all references to the trinity.

Then an Episcopal Congregation – the oldest Episcopal Congregation in New England – went Unitarian. King’s Chapel in Boston had been established in 1686 as an Anglican Church. In 1782, facing a shortage of Anglican clergy after American Independence, the congregation reached out to James Freeman, a congregationalist and recent Harvard Graduate, and asked him to serve as reader – “with permission to omit the Athanasian Creed and to make such other changes in the services as he thought best.”

After a couple years, Freeman said he could not use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer because of its references to the Trinity doctrine. He offered to resign. Instead, the congregation asked him to preach a series of sermons about the Trinity. The sermons were evidently effective. The congregation endorsed Freeman’s views and revised their Book of Common Prayer to delete references to the Trinity. They adopted, in fact, the liturgy Theophilus Lindsey used at his Essex Street Chapel. Freeman had not been ordained, and the congregation wanted to have him ordained. The Anglican bishops refused. How the impasse was resolved, we’ll see in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: King's Chapel and James Freeman, part 2


Thank God for LGBTQ Folk, part 2

A couple hundred years ago it was widely understood that the purpose of sex was procreation.

It’s not that most 18th-century marriages were full-on arranged – but many of them “kind of” were. Parents had a role in the courtship process. Asking the father’s permission wasn’t entirely a quaint little ritual ceremony like it is today. And getting married for love was a little bit edgy.

Today, marriage and childbearing are avenues for enriching your life. For the earlier era, for the wealthy, childbearing was about preserving the estate, and for everyone else it was about survival. The family farm or small business needed young labor. If the married couple loved each other, that was nice, but it wasn’t essential.

And sex was for reproduction. If, for some couples, it was also a deeply fulfilling intimate bonding of two souls – again, that was nice, but it was extra.

So, connect the dots here: back when sex and marriage weren’t so much about love and affection, then expressions of love and affection weren’t so much about sex. Thus, it was a time when two people of the same sex might walk down a sidewalk with arms around each other, or hug, or hold hands, or kiss – and these expressions of mutual affection might or might not have gone along with sexual contact. The emotions that we today associate with being lovers in a sexual relationship were free to express themselves in intimate nonsexual friendships.

There might be a lot of touching – hand-holding, hugs, caresses – and the touching and the whispered words of devotion might even have had an erotic quality without there being an expectation, hope, or desire for genital contact.

Here’s a fairly typical example: in the early 18th-century, Susanna Anthony wrote a letter to her friend Sarah Osborne. She wrote:
“my bosom friend, I feel my love to you to be without dissimulation, therefore wish you the same strength and consolation, with my own soul.”
That’s how close friends talked in those days. It might have been erotically charged – or it might have included full-on sex, or the desire for it – but it might not have been any of those. Close friends today don’t write that sort of love letter unless they are in, or headed toward, a sexual relationship.

Or consider what the Marquis de Lafayette wrote to General George Washington in 1779:
“My Dear General, there never was a friend, my dear general, so much, so tenderly beloved, as I love and respect you: happy in our union, in the pleasure of living near to you, in the pleasing satisfaction of partaking every sentiment of your heart, every event of your life, I have taken such a habit of being inseparable from you, that I cannot now accustom myself to your absence, and I am more and more afflicted at the enormous distance which keeps me so far from my dearest friend.”
Were Washington and Lafayette sleeping together? (Of course, “sleeping together” is yet another term that doesn’t mean what it did – for in those days sharing a bed for a night was common and didn’t imply intimacy.)

The correspondence between the two men, lasted for decades. Washington was known as cool, detached, stand-offish, and his early letters to Lafayette were curt and business-like. But over time Washington, too, was writing “very long letters filled with unbridled affection.” Each man would refer to the other as “the man I love.” Historians generally tend to guess the relationship wasn’t sexual, but we don’t know. And the interpretation of their relationship seems to depend more on the interests of the interpreter than on the evidence. Still, we have to say it was a time when passionate expressions of love were common among Platonic friends.

In the time since then, as we moved further and further away from thinking of the purpose of sex as being reproduction – as sex has become more singularly an expression of love – then love, between two nonrelated adults, became more singularly expressed in sex – which made Platonic relationships more hesitant about expressing effusive affection.

Interestingly, though, our culture may be swinging back toward acceptance of the emotional intimacy and bondedness of same-sex Platonic friendship. Consider the recent phenomena of the bromance movie – a film depicting a relationship that’s like a romance, or IS a romance, between two bros – two men -- not sexually involved with each other.

This is different from the buddy film. The buddy film has been around about as long as film has been around – often in comedies: Laurel and Hardy, Abott and Costello, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, down to Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. For noncomedic buddy films, the paradigm is the 1969, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The buddy film situates the pair in some adventure, quest, or road trip scenario – which is then played for laughs if it’s a comedy, or played as an action movie if it’s not.

Buddy films about two women have been, for most of film history, less common, but ever since 1991’s “Thelma and Louise” have increased in popularity.

The bromance, however, is distinct from the buddy film. In the buddy films, the focus is on the adventure, the comedic or the action situations. In the bromance, the focus is the relationship itself – the affection and the homosocial bonding.

1989’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” was a comedic buddy film on the verge of making space for the Bromance. In that film, there’s a scene where Bill and Ted, in a moment of exuberant glee, hug each other – and then step back and call each other a slur for gay. American young men were nervous about expressing affection. The very act of comedically articulating that nervousness seems to have triggered other film-makers to begin asking, "Well, why can’t guys like each other and talk like they do?"

So 1991 brought us “The Fisher King.” The Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges relationship wasn’t called a bromance, but it was a turn toward films that "contemplated a masculinity that required sensitive relations between men." This was followed in 1994 by “The Shawshank Redemption,” in which the Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman relationship is nuanced and tender.

By 2009, we had the Paul Rudd, Jason Segel comedy, “I Love You, Man.” It was not great cinematic art, and one reviewer called it a “watered-down false bromance.” Still, “I Love You, Man” – with it’s subtitle, “Are you man enough to say it?” reflected a shift in the way we conceive masculinity.

It’s interesting in this regard that the female counterpart of the bromance – for which such names have been suggested as womance, sisterhood, or girlationship – is not as distinct from the Buddy film as it is for the men. That’s because female friendship has historically tended to express more emotional intimacy than male buddies have. They didn’t have to add a relationship focus because they always had it. “Thelma and Louise” and “Cagney and Lacey” paid more attention to the character’s feelings for each other than the Martin-and-Lewis or Newman-and-Redford buddy films. The bromance begins to close that gap.

The rise of the bromance both reflects and propels a shift in consciousness. Society’s growing acceptance of male romance that is sexual corresponds to a growing acceptance of male romance that isn’t sexual. In this new consciousness, as sociologist Peter Nardi says, "men are less afraid of being perceived as gay. It has become more acceptable for them to show some emotion."

The increased closeness goes beyond being mere friends, to a deep bond that has been characterized as capturing the conceptual edge of "is gay /is not gay." In some ways it’s a return to those passionate homosocial friendships of previous centuries. The context this time around is quite different. In the 18th-century passionate nonsexual affection between same-sex friends existed in a context of profound shame and persecution around any sex outside of marriage and particularly same-gender sexual relations. Today, however, it's occurring in the context of, and supported by, the easing of the stigma around same-gender sexual relationships. It’s a new construction this time around.

I need to acknowledge the great importance of films that actually depict LGBTQ relationships in all of their nonplatonic glory. Films such as 1992’s “The Crying Game,” 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” – and “Carol” in 2015, “Moonlight” in 2016, and “Call Me by Your Name” in 2017 – to name just a few -- are beautiful and powerful films that changed viewers and changed society.

What the bromance shows us is just how profound that change – a long time coming well before it was expressed in these films -- has been for straight people and LGBTQ people alike. We – all of us – live in a world with more freedom about who and how to love. Just one part of what that means is that friendship, even romance, even somewhat erotically charged romance, need not be, or have any interest in becoming sexual. That’s one reason I say “Thank God for Queer folk.”

Because there have been those among us who were on the edges, all of us can now express a fuller level of love, a fuller level of our humanity. It was the queer folk who, from the beginning, showed the world that sex didn’t have to be about procreation. They got a lot of very harsh reactivity for that – but the idea gradually got through.

Sex is about love – that's our current moral understanding. Even when it may happen to be also about procreation, it has to be about love. The emergence of that understanding led, first, to a dampening down of emotional expressiveness within same-sex friendships. Once sex came to be about love (rather than reproduction), then love came to be about sex. Expressions of love came to be largely limited to sexual or courtship relationships -- so nonsexual friendship went through a long period of shying away from expressions of love. And it was the queer folk who also helped the world see that passionate same-sex affection is acceptable – and from there we began to rediscover that affection in nonsexual relationships.

The LGBTQ movement is making not just sex, but love, freer, more open, deeper – and a greater fulfillment of our humanity. Thank God for Queer Folk.



Thank God for LGBTQ Folk, part 1

Today we’re going to look at LGBTQ History Month, how it began and its purpose, and we’ll name the 31 LGBTQ folk whose contributions are particularly being recognized for the 2021 LGBTQ History Month. Then we’ll turn to the deeper matter of queerness itself has changed history and changed all of us. I believe that we are here to love. So how we express love – with whom, when, and how – are central to who we are. Through history, LGBTQ folks have revealed to all of us truths about what love is – and therefore truths about what it means to be a human being.

There’s a lot to be said about the ways Western Society became so persecution-oriented, about the horrible ways same-gender sexual contact has been suppressed, repressed, shamed, stigmatized, and severely punished – and about why persecuting people who engaged in that behavior -- seemed so important for so many centuries. I acknowledge that. Today, however, we’ll be looking at the changing nature of affectional relationships – which might or might not have included sexual contact. A couple centuries ago, friendships could be passionate, even romantic, even maybe include a certain erotic quality, and not involve or desire sexual contact. We’ll see how that changed – and how the phenomena of film and TV called the bromance signals yet another new shift. It’s a story about a growth of freedom, a growth of our humanity, and it’s one for which all of us can be thankful for the queer folk that have been among us and are the crucial drivers of that story.

To begin: October is LGBTQ History month. June is LGBTQ Pride month. History, as we all know, is not the same thing as pride – and it’s good to have and honor both. Pride month was inspired by the Stonewall Uprising in June of 1969, 52 years ago. It’s for recognizing the contributions LGBTQ folk have had on local, national, and international society.

LGBTQ History month is a little bit newer. The first march on Washington for LGBTQ rights was October 11, 1979. Nine years after that, in 1988, the anniversary of that march began being recognized as National Coming Out Day, every October 11. National Coming Out Day expresses the recognition that homophobia depends on ignorance and ignorance depends on silence. So it was a day for coming out – for breaking silence – for letting family or friends, who might not know it, that they do, in fact, have loved ones who are lesbian or gay – or, as began being stressed a bit later, are transgender, bisexual, or some form of queer. If more people know more people identified as LGBTQ, then oppressive attitudes toward LGBTQ will wane.

National Coming Out Day is grounded in the perception that the personal is political, and the most basic form of activism is coming out to family, friends and colleagues, and living life as openly LGBTQ. It’s important to keep in mind that coming out isn’t always safe. Our job, I believe, whether we are ourselves LGBTQ or not, is to be supportive of those who do come out – and of those who see the danger as just too great.

Six years after the beginning of National Coming Out Day, in 1994, a Missouri History teacher named Rodney Wilson founded LGBTQ History Month. It’s in October so it can include National Coming Out Day. Since it began, other October events have arisen that fold into LGBTQ History month.

Ally week. In October 2005, a national youth-led effort encouraged students to be allies with the LGBTQ folk in their community in standing against bullying, harassment and name-calling. That was called Ally week, and it is usually observed in September or October, taking place in K-12 schools and colleges and often, but not always, coinciding with National Coming Out Day. During Ally Week people are encouraged to sign an ally pledge "taking a stand for a safe and harassment-free school for all students", that they will not use anti-LGBTQ slurs, and will intervene to stop bullying and harassment. Ally Week lets our LGBTQ friends know that peer support for them is stronger than they might think.

Then in 2010, Canadian teenager Brittany McMillan started Spirit Day on the third Thursday in October – it was October 21 this year. Spirit day was created in response to bullying-related suicides of gay school students in 2010. Observers of the day wear the color purple as a visible sign of support for LGBTQ youth and against bullying.

Also in October – on October 12 – is the anniversary of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.

All of that is folded into LGBTQ History Month. If you didn’t know, now you know. We have this month to highlight and celebrate the history and achievements of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and any form of queer.

Equality Forum – an LGBT civil rights organization with an educational focus -- coordinates LGBT History Month and produces documentary films. For LGBTQ History Month each year Equality Forum selects 31 historically significant people. In the spirit of “say their name,” here are the 2021 LGBT history month icons:
Susan B. Anthony
W.H. Auden
Frank Bruni
Frédéric Chopin
David Cicilline
Mart Crowley
Ashley Diamond
Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Carlos Elizondo
Althea Garrison
R.C. Gorman
LZ Granderson
Bob Hattoy
Jerry Herman
Janis Ian
Karine Jean-Pierre
Janis Joplin
Claude McKay
Stacey Milbern
Shannon Minter
Janelle Monáe
Javier Morgado
Henry Muñoz III
Johnnie Phelps
Little Richard
Swe Zin Htet
| Mark Takano
Ritchie Torres
Mary Trump
Darren Walker
The contributions of LGBTQ people need to be honored.

I want to think about the history beyond the famous contributors to society. The thousands of queer folk who never got famous, whose names will never be intoned beyond immediate family. Just by being who they were, they shifted and enriched our understanding of the possibilities of being human.

Attitudes about relationships and about sex have undergone profound change in the last couple hundred years in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democracies) society. We’ll look into that in part 2.


UU Minute #58

Charles Chauncy, Universalist, and Jonathan Mayhew, Unitarian

Charles Chauncy rejected such Calvinist doctrines as total depravity and predestination. Chauncy was also a universalist. Chauncy completed his major theological work, The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, in 1765, but for 20 years could not bring himself to publish it. Finally, late in life, anonymously, he published his book: 400 pages of biblical support for universal salvation, that God wills and ensures the salvation of all humanity.

Charles Chauncy is understood by most scholars to have had an Arian Christology.

Quick review of Christology.

In the first three centuries after Jesus’ death, Christian churches understood Jesus in a variety of ways. In particular, there was a split between those who said he was the equal of God and those who didn’t. At the Council of Nicea in 325 Arius and his supporters were outvoted, and Trinitarianism was established as Orthodoxy – though the Arian form of Christianity continued for a few more hundred years among some of the European peoples that succeeded the Roman Empire.

Fausto Sozzini went a step further than Arius, arguing that Jesus was not the equal of God, AND was not divine – though he was worthy of worship.

English Unitarian Theophilus Lindsey went further still, taking the position that only God Yahweh was worthy of worship.

Among the Congregationalist Churches around the Boston area in the 18th century, this sequence seemed to be repeating. Jonathan Mayhew, minister to Boston’s West Church, and 15 years younger than Charles Chauncy, went a step further than Chauncy had. Mayhew was clear and outspoken in rejecting the Trinity and upholding the strict unity of God.

Mayhew also opposed all creeds, arguing that there can be no greater authority than private judgment in religion.

NEXT: King's Chapel and James Freeman, part 1


A Covenantal People, part 2

Our greatest 20th century Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, understood “God” to be “community forming power.” That power which brings and holds community together – that’s God, said James Luther Adams. So Adams did a great deal of thinking and writing about Voluntary Associations – about the Covenants that are the community-forming power.

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal issues a report every four years, and their 2021 report was called, “Unlocking the Power of Covenant.” If you tuned in to the service three months ago, on July 18, or watched it on Youtube, then you heard me talk about that report. The Commission observes that:
“We are the promises we make and the vows we break.”
A Covenant, it says,
“is a mutual sacred promise between individuals or groups, to stay in relationship, care about each other, and work together in good faith.
They go on to say:
“No single concept is more central to our faith understanding than being in covenant. It is at the core of our identity. It is how we try to build and sustain the Beloved Community. It is the foundation of our governance structures at all levels.”
For congregations, covenants come in two main forms: aspirational covenants and behavioral covenants. Behavioral covenants define the behaviors we promise to follow or avoid. Because behavior is publicly observable, we can notice when someone has broken covenant, and encourage zir back in to the right relationship that our covenant says we promise to uphold.

It’s a reality of being a people of covenant that we sometimes do break covenant. And that reality means that being a people of covenant also entails being a people of forgiveness, recognizing that we stray and calling each back, over and over, every time we do. The life of covenant turns out to be less about staying and more returning – over and over and over again.

Aspirational covenants are the promises that aren’t behaviorally defined, so we can’t judge whether someone else is out of covenant. Certain behaviors might cause us to inquire gently whether the person is keeping the aspiration in mind, but, ultimately, only you can decide if you are keeping the aspirational covenant – and only you can assess how well or poorly you are living out the aspiration.

Behavioral covenants generally pertain to smaller groups, such as boards, committees, classes, and study groups – though some congregations have adopted a congregation wide behavioral covenant.

An example of a covenant – largely behavioral, but with some aspirational aspect is on the wall down in room 43, where the 2nd and 3rd grade class used to meet a couple years ago. The class covenant is posted – handwritten with a red marker on newsprint sheets. Our Saturday morning Zen group gathers in that room, so I have a chance to see that covenant every week – to sit in silence in the presence of its strictures. It says:
Covenant for 2nd & 3rd Graders, 2019-2020.
One: listen and don’t speak when someone is holding the speaking stone.
Two: Be kind to others even when they are not your friend. [That one’s got to be my favorite.]
Three: Pick up after each other and ourselves – don’t litter. [Notice it doesn’t just say pick up after ourselves, but pick up after each other.]
Four: Treat each other as you want to be treated and/or how they want to be treated.
Five: Listen to others.
Six: Raise your hand when you say something.
Seven: Safely move around with as little distraction for others.
Eight: Don’t play with anything that is off limits – not supposed to.
Nine: Be respectful to others. [I like how respectful was originally written an extra “T” which was then scratched out. At first, it had said “rest pectful” -- which conjures an image of respect as a place of rest. I like that.]
Ten: Let’s use the back on track clap to get our focus back on track. Clap-clap; clap-clap-clap.
And finally, eleven: Come together with a calm and open mind.
It’s a good covenant – for 2nd and 3rd graders, as well as for the adults who practice Zen in that room. It’s a largely behavioral covenant, though there are some aspects of aspirational covenant – like “come together with a calm and open mind” – which doesn’t have a behavioral definition, and for elementary schoolers, as for all of us, is sometimes more an aspiration than a reality.

An example of an aspirational covenant is our congregation’s mission. It says:
We covenant to nurture each other in our spiritual journeys;
foster compassion and understanding within and beyond our community; and
engage in service to transform ourselves and our world.
That’s our aspiration. It doesn’t mean it’s JUST an aspiration – that we aren’t actually doing it. We ARE actually doing those things – we really do, as we have for some time, nurture each other in our spiritual journeys, foster compassion, and engage in transformative service.

To say this is an aspirational covenant means three things:

(1) It means that every time any of us gathers – for a committee meeting, or Journey Group, or social justice team, or RE class, we are aspiring to do these things better than we have before – ever more thoroughly, ever more whole-heartedly, and ever more skillfully and effectively.

(2) It also means there’s not a behavioral definition specifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for what nurturing spirituality, fostering compassion, or engaging in service looks like. And third,

(3) it means you haven’t broken the covenant unless you’ve stopped trying, stopped aspiring to so nurture, foster, and engage.

Our seven -- or eight -- Unitarian Universalist principles are also an aspirational covenant.
We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote
- the inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- justice, equity, and compassion;
- acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth;
- a free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- democracy;
- world community;
- respect for the interdependent web;
- dismantling racism.
Those aren’t our beliefs. They are what we promise to aspire to.

Covenants make us. They spell out who we are. When I don’t know who “us” is, then I don’t know who “me” is. By becoming more conscious of our covenants – spoken and unspoken – we can live into them more fully, and become who we are with greater awareness and greater intentionality.

Our Committee on Ministry has been studying the Commission on Appraisal’s report on Covenant, and I have been discussing that report with them over the last three months. The Committee on Ministry will be doing some investigating this year into the ways covenant works, or fails to, here at Community UU. Our Committee on Ministry is like our own congregational commission on appraisal, and this year part of what they’ll report on is the status and functioning of CUUC’s covenants. So do stay tuned for opportunities to participate in that process as they are announced.

Marcia Pally’s 2016 book, Commonwealth and Covenant, recognizes that we need both situatedness and separability.

We need to be situated — embedded in functional and caring families, and thick communities that define our values and our selves: villages of ordinariness in which you can be your plain old ordinary self without the constant expectation to prove yourself.

We also need separability. We need to have the freedom and the support “to go off and create and explore and experiment with new ways of thinking and living.”

What creates situatedness, notes Pally, is covenant. A contract protects interests, she says, but a covenant protects relationships.
“A covenant exists between people who understand they are part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love.”
Contracts stipulate an exchange of goods or services, but people in a covenant delight in offering their gifts.

We are here to offer each other what gifts we can – to hold open the space of grace. It’s not that we are like-minded, as Rev. Worsnop said for today’s invocation. It’s about “people who value compassion, justice, love and truth, though they have different opinions about all sorts of things" (Worsnop). It’s about seeing the goodness and dignity, and the failings and foibles or one another, and still loving each other. It’s about giving of ourselves, and being called together into a different way of being in the world.

I am so grateful to be held together with you, to be connected with you, in covenant. It is such a wonder. Thank you so much.



A Covenantal People, part 1

In our UU Minute #53 and UU Minute #54, we learned about the Puritans who founded the Plymouth colony in 1620 and the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1630, and about the Cambridge Platform they adopted in 1648. These Puritans didn’t have a strong political tradition other than the sense of being bound in covenant. They felt need for neither a creed nor a specific structure of church governance – after all, they were God’s people bound together by covenant, and that was enough.

We don’t agree with those Puritans on much. But we are their descendants. Two hundred years after the Plymouth landing – or, invasion – the Unitarian denomination formed consisting of New England congregations that split from their Congregationalist Puritan past. We’ve left behind the focus on sin, the doctrine of total depravity, and of predestination. We’ve sought – and still seek – to correct the way covenant was used to dismiss, disrespect, and oppress people, such as indigenous peoples, deemed not to be in the covenant.

One thing that we’ve kept from our Puritan forebears is this sense of being a people of Covenant. We are not bound together by creed. Unitarians today aren’t even bound together, as the Puritans were, by a common scripture: the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. We are bound by covenant – by our promise to each other to walk together on this long, strange journey called life, to have each other’s backs – to care for one another.

Covenant. We are a people of covenant. By 1648, a generation after the Plymouth colony began, the Puritans decided that, after all, they did need to have a polity – an articulation of the principles by which their churches would be run. The Presbyterians had been criticizing them for not having a polity, so they decided to form one. Back home in England, the Church of England had Episcopal polity – rule by the bishops. The dissenting churches – that dissented, that is, from the Church of England – had Presbyterian polity – governance by groups of elders called Presbyters. The Puritans would also have been aware of the Catholic church’s structure of governance, but that was definitely out of the question for them.

They decided, in 1648, to create a polity that was none of the above. It would be a new polity, one based on covenant. They called it Congregational polity, and The Cambridge Platform of 1648 spelled out what this “Congregational Polity” meant.

They laid out a basic form for congregations to have: a role for pastors, for teachers, and for ruling elders who oversaw church administration. They authorized a few ways that congregations had responsibilities to each other. They were to:
  • Take thought for each other's welfare;
  • consult and advise each other;
  • admonish congregations that erred;
  • allow members of one church to receive communion in other churches;
  • send letters of recommendation when a member goes to a new church; and
  • financially assist poor churches.
Beyond these, each congregation was autonomous.

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 is the foundational document of Congregational Polity – the polity we still follow today. As Kim pointed out when she introduced the offering today: We stand under no rule of bishops or denominational hierarchy. Along with our free search for truth and meaning comes free self-governance. We make our own bylaws, elect our own board, hire our own staff, call our own minister, buy and own and maintain our own building and grounds. It is up to us alone to fund the maintenance of our home, the programs, the ministry, through which we nurture our spirits and help heal our world. Thus, truly the offering is indeed a sacrament of Free Congregations.

Here at this congregation, we’ve been using those words, about once a quarter ever since I got here, as a recurrent reminder of our heritage of congregational polity that goes back to 1648 and the Cambridge Platform. There is no higher authority than us: the members of this congregation. We have denominational headquarters in Boston, and each of the five regions of the US have regional staff but all they can do is make recommendations and advice as to what they have determined is best practices. They have no authority to compel a congregation to do anything. They give assistance and advice only to congregations that ask for it.

Critics of congregational polity call it a type of religious anarchism – and there’s some truth to that. The United Church of Christ – formerly known as the Congregationalist Church – also descends from those New England Puritan churches – namely, the ones that didn’t break away to become Unitarian. They also have congregational polity. Baptists and various forms of nondominational Christianity have congregational polity, as do Quakers, Disciples of Christ, most Jewish synagogues, many Sikh Gurdwaras, and most Islamic mosques in the US. Some of these are also officially creedless, though they all have a shared scripture.

Unitarian Universalists are, to the best of my knowledge, alone in being held together neither by the authority of a creed, nor by the authority of a common scripture, nor under the authority of a bishop, synod, diocese, presbytery, or conciliarity. Which raises the question: What does hold us together?

Sometimes, sadly, the answer is: nothing, and we come apart. Congregations acrimoniously split, or dissolve.

When we are held together, the name for our sticking by each other is covenant. The other covenant that’s most familiar to most of us is the marriage covenant. That’s also a promise to stick together, to share each other’s lives and provide mutual support. The words of the vow can be highly variable, but at base it comes down to promising to stick together, to share each other’s lives and provide mutual support.

It is a committing of our lives that is ultimately beyond what any set of words can capture, whether those words are the vows spoken at a marriage ceremony or the words of a congregation’s covenant. Yes, you can make a promise without signing a piece of paper – whether that paper is a marriage certificate or our membership book. You don’t have to sign anything to make a promise. It’s just that signing makes the promise public, makes the relationship public. Signing that paper tells the world that you have entered into a sacred relationship – with a spouse, in one case -- with a congregation, in the other.

Ultimately the covenant is beyond language, beyond what words can say. It is the embodied commitment to keep on being together in love. Yet giving it some words, inevitably imperfect and regularly revised, to express and articulate our commitment to each other can helpfully provide guidance about how we shall be together.

Toward this end, congregations need two kinds of language: There is the language of aspirational covenant, and the language of behavioral covenant. That's what we'll look into in part 2.


UU Minute #57

Charles Chauncy

Charles Chauncy served the prominent First Church of Boston for 60 years: 35 as assistant minister and another 25 as senior minister.

His support of the American Revolution in sermons and pamphlets led him to be called "theologian of the American Revolution".

Born into the elite Puritan merchant class that ruled Boston, Chauncy came to oppose the Great Awakening and spoke out against religious enthusiasm stirred up by revival preachers.

1. Despite his Puritan heritage, Chauncy rejected Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity, and argued that human beings have God-given "natural powers" that were meant to be nurtured toward "an actual likeness to God in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness".

2. Chauncy and other more-liberal Congregationalists emphasized reason, though not exclusively. They advocated a "supernatural rationalism" that affirmed both reason and divine revelation as contained in the Bible.

3. Chauncy’s Christology was kenotic – from the Greek word kenosis – meaning the act of emptying. In Christian theology, kenosis is the "self-emptying" of Jesus' own will, becoming entirely receptive to God's divine will.

One key question is: when did the self-emptying happen? If Jesus’ will was emptied out from the beginning of time, then kenosis doesn’t contradict standard trinitarianism. Unitarians such as Joseph Priestley had argued that the kenosis happened in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus did not resist arrest. That’s when his own will emptied and Jesus became the embodiment of complete receptivity to divine will.

Charles Chauncy wasn’t clear on when he thought the kenosis happened, so, while most scholars interpret Chauncy as having an Arian Christology, there are some scholars who take him to have remained a Trinitarian. Nevertheless, he was a leader of clergy in the Boston area that were edging toward Unitarianism.

NEXT: Charles Chauncy, Universalist, and Jonathan Mayhew, Unitarian


UU Minute #56

Reaction to the Great Awakening: Beginnings of American Liberal Religion

In the 1730s, the Great Awakening revivalist movement swept through the colonies, with itinerant preachers going town to town whipping up religious enthusiasm, emotional excess and fervor, and promoting a reactionary dogmatism. The Great Awakening produced a permanent division between its supporters who saw in the revival the hand of God, and its critics who saw only madness and raw emotion.

Against the Great Awakening, the liberal clergy increasingly united in defining reason and tolerance as the basis of religion, increasingly turned to liberal books and colleagues for support, and thus, became increasingly liberal.

Liberalization in New England churches occurred gradually. Rather than explicitly renounce doctrines with which they disagreed, preachers stopped emphasizing them, then stopped mentioning them at all, and only eventually came to consciously abandon them. Because of Congregational Polity, control of the church was in the hands of the local congregation – and if a congregation liked their minister, there was no higher authority to enforce orthodoxy.

So, some of the clergy began drifting leftward, bringing their congregations along. One of these was Charles Chauncy. In 1727, at age 22, Chauncy was ordained as an assistant minister of Boston's First Church, one of the most important in churches in New England. In 1762, at age 57, Chauncy became that congregation’s senior pastor. He served First Church in that capacity for 25 years more – in all, a 60-year career at First Church, until his death at age 82.

Charles Chauncy never called himself a Unitarian, but his ideas paved the way for those did, so we’ll learn more about Charles Chauncy in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Charles Chauncy


Wonder, part 2

Wonder – the type of wonder I’m talking about -- is a kind of falling in love: with our world, with ourselves, with the experience of being alive. Wonder is typically expressed in the form of a question, which might fool us into thinking an explanatory answer is being sought. It is not. The point of love is to love, not to explain it, figure it out, or solve it. The point of wonder is likewise not to get an explanation, solution, or answer. The point of wonder is to wonder – to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe -- bounded by humility, by gratitude, and by joy.

One of the questions for you this month for taking up in your Journey Groups is: "What is your number 1 source of wonder?" Is it a starry sky? A mountain top view? A wide expanse of trees at the peak of autumn foliage?

There are contexts we can place ourselves in that encourage wonder. And then sometimes wonder descends upon us in the midst of the perfectly ordinary. Thomas Merton wrote about an amazing experience of wonder he had in 1958 on a street corner in Louisville.

Merton, then age 43, was a Trappist monk who had spent most of the previous 17 years at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky – most of that in silence. On a rare trip to Louisville, about an hour’s drive from the Abbey, he had a sudden and stunning experience of wonder. He described it in his journal:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness,...The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.... This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: ‘Thank God, thank God that I am like other men, that I am only a man among others.’ It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes:... A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. They are not ‘they’ but my own self. There are no strangers! Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed ... I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”
That’s a powerful wonder. How did that happen to Thomas Merton? I raised the question earlier: Why do we have experiences like that? What practical function could they serve? Why would natural selection favor a capacity for such experience? We might also ask the opposite question: Why doesn’t it happen to more of us more often? Why isn’t wonder a constant, or at least greater proportion, of life? Why do we not “pass through the world open-mouthed with amazement and joy”? (Tallis.)

We are surrounded by, submerged within, wonders of sight, and sound, and smell, the wonder of every single thing, and of all things together – of what Philip Larkin called “the million-petalled flower of being.” Is not our proper state of mind one of “metaphysical intoxication”? So many wonders and yet so little wondering. We perish for want of wonder, thought Chesterton, though we are surrounded continuously by wonders. Whatever the mysterious process by which we became the sorts of beings with the capacity for wonder, why aren’t we exercising that capacity ALL. THE. TIME?

Daily life presents barriers to wonder. The barriers to wonder include distress – hunger, pain, illness, bereavement – and stress – busy-ness, tension, anxiety. As Raymond Tallis writes:
“No one chasing after a bus has the time to be astonished at the intricate coordination of everyday life that ensures that buses run to timetables and that we can act in accordance with goals that are at once singular and abstract.”
A focus on caring for others, doing good in the world, requires solving the problems that need solving, focusing on the practical needs. This reduces the world around you to two categories. Everything is either an instrument that will be helpful for your purpose or an obstacle that threatens to thwart your purpose.

It is a noble thing to have goals, purposes, to pursue accomplishment – at least, it is when those goals and accomplishments involve making the world better, easing suffering, improving the overall quality of life of the inhabitants of this planet. We need, and we take, breaks from our work – and that’s where we can cultivate a wonder that might even linger when we return to work, coloring our tasks with an abiding background radiation of peace and delight.

Unfortunately, modern life encourages us to make our leisure as busy as our work. We line up our diversions and then make our free time as rushed as our work time. There’s hiking, kayaking, bicycling, tennis or some fun form of exercising. There are things to see: a play, a concert, an art exhibit, movies. There are novels to read and whole seasons of intriguing television shows to binge watch.
“Even the most elevated pleasures, designed to open us up to the world in such a way that we might wonder at it, may be assimilated into the flow of unthinking dailiness.” (Tallis)
We work frenetically and then play frenetically because if we don’t we might be . . . bored. Ah, boredom. These, then, are the three main barriers to wonder:
(1) the purposive focus of work;
(2) a similarly purposive focus on our diversions, and, when neither of those is happening,
(3) allowing ourselves to be bored.

Boredom says that
“indifference is the appropriate response to things around us. The ordinary is indeed ordinary. To take it for granted is precisely the way to take it. There is the uneasy sense that, though we urge it on ourselves and on others, wonder is somehow insincere, fake, sentimental. After all, a state you can enter only when it’s convenient, and which is convenient only when there’s nothing serious or important going on, must itself seem nonserious or unimportant.” (Tallis)
We speak appreciatively of child-like wonder, but most of us would rather be known as a serious adult: productive, on the one hand, and erudite, on the other. Boredom is for serious people, who expect or want or need life to give them serious work and serious play. Boredom makes that demand and signals that it is not being met.

But boredom precludes wonder – just as wonder precludes boredom. We can’t make ourselves have experiences like Thomas Merton had in Louisville at the corner of 4th and Walnut. We can only cultivate – nurture the slow growth of the wonder plant, not knowing what shape it may take as it grows, facilitating a power that, though we nurture, we do not control.

The way to cultivate wonder is with a spiritual practice. Indeed, what makes a practice a spiritual practice is that it cultivates wonder. Continual mindfulness of death, Raymond Tallis points out, is conducive to wondering at life.

Over many centuries – as the development of human civilization afforded the leisure to pursue wonder, that wonder led us to create art, as a way of expressing our wonder. Wonder led us create religion, as way to tell a story about awesome creation, and to have rituals to reinforce the wonder. Wonder led us at last to create science – the exploration of nature’s wonders.

Writes Jesse Prinz:
“For the mature mind, wondrous experience can be used to inspire a painting, a myth, or a scientific hypothesis. These things take patience, and an audience equally eager to move beyond the initial state of bewilderment....“Art, science, and religion, are inventions for feeding the appetite that wonder excites in us. They also become sources of wonder in their own right, generating epicycles of boundless creativity and enduring inquiry.”
That’s a long way from a Chimp staring at a waterfall with no way to describe it. From time to time we all need to reconnect with that original experience, the seed from which art, religion, and science all grow – and just sit at the foot of a waterfall. Just sit and gaze.

May we all find or take time to do so.



Wonder, part 1

Happy October! I love this season – the cooler air, the exuberance of spring and summer giving way to the quieter brilliance – the poignant beauty of the ebbing of life. It’s a month of wonder – and a perfect month for us to reflect on wonder and allow wonder to fill our breasts.

So wonder is our theme of the month, and the subject of the October issue of On the Journey. Of course, any season in which you can slow down a little, and appreciate beauty – and, really, everything is beautiful if your are in a mind to see its beauty – is a time of wonder. So, come, friends: let us wonder together; let us wonder about wonder.

Wonder is itself a wonder. What an amazing thing that we should be beings who get amazed, a wondrous thing that these animal bodies – yours and mine – should be built to experience wonder. Where does that come from? It’s a wonder. The capacity for wonder is not unique to humans. The chimpanzees – whose branch on the evolutionary tree split off about 6 or 7 million years ago from the branch that eventually led to homo sapiens – also seem to experience wonder.Jane Goodall noticed the wonder that chimps seemed to feel in the presence of a waterfall. Here, let’s let Jane herself explain:

What are these chimps doing in this video? What are we doing when we stand in wonder before a waterfall, or a grand vista? There doesn’t seem to be any utilitarian purpose for this. It doesn’t seem to confer any reproductive advantage, so how did natural selection select for the capacity for wonder? For these chimps it looks actually risky. They could slip on the rocks. Chimps can’t swim, so the risk of falling in could be life-threatening.

We heard Goodall say that
“The chimpanzee's brain is similar to ours. They have emotions that are clearly similar to those that we call happiness and sadness and fear and despair and so forth. So why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind of spirituality? Which is, really, being amazed at things outside yourself.”
She goes on to say:
“I think chimpanzees are as spiritual as we are, but they can’t analyze it, they don’t talk about it; they can’t describe what they feel.”
Hmm. Being amazed at things outside yourself is part of spirituality -- as is, for that matter, being amazed at things inside yourself. The larger part of spirituality, it seems to me, is the making meaning of things, of life, of this existence.

So describing the feelings of wonder – which is how we place those feelings in a context of meaning – is itself a big component of spirituality. If the chimps can’t describe what they feel, then I’d say they have a seed of spirituality, but that seed hasn’t sprouted into spirituality. That seed is wonder, and it does seem that the chimps are experiencing wonder.

It’s true we don’t know what’s happening in a rain-dancing chimp’s mind. Let’s remember, we don’t know what’s happening in a rain-dancing human’s mind. We don’t know what’d going on in each other’s minds – or even in our own mind. We are mysteries to ourselves.

It turns out various loud stimuli – machinery, boisterous people, or waterfalls -- can elicit chimpanzee displays. But what about that sitting quietly and staring at the waterfall afterwards? That’s just what I – and most people – would do at the foot of a waterfall: quietly gaze.

Philosopher Jesse Prinz identifies three components of wonder. There’s the sensory. “Wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes.” That part, we have in common with chimps, and some other animals.

Then there’s the cognitive. Wondrous things are beyond what we can cognitively comprehend. There’s something perplexing about them. Whether the chimps experience this component is less clear.

Finally, there’s the spiritual. “We look upwards in veneration;” our heart swells.

Wonder is what we experience when we confront mystery. Some kinds of mysteries are solvable by figuring it out, or looking up the answer. Those aren’t the kinds we’re interested in today. Rather, wonder is what we experience when we confront irresolvable mystery. This kind of mystery, you don’t solve. You live the mystery.

Who am I? Who is asking that question? What is this world? What is matter? The more we attend to the details of what the physicists say about it, the weirder and more mysterious it gets. (For instance, they say that matter is whatever occupies space and has mass. That's handy for scientific purposes, but from a wider standpoint, it simply replaces one mystery with two: space and mass.)

Why is there me? Why is there anything? Why is there something rather than nothing? Where am I – what is the meaning of this geographic location, or this stage in the arc of my life? These are the questions that admit of no settled answer. You might have provisional partial answers, but it might be better to not even have that much. Just be in the mystery, without grasping after an answer.

What sort of place is the universe? What is life, and how does it happen? What is consciousness, and how does it happen? Scientists seem to have a lot to say about these, so maybe they are in the category of things to figure out. On the other hand, the scientist's stories leaves us with just as much mystery as ever. When the physicists say that, you see, there are 11 dimensions, and billions of parallel universes made possible by different pathways taken by photons – or when biologists tell us about the chemical equations of the reactions inside a cell, reactions which, they say, constitute and define life – or when neurologists say that consciousness is an emergent property of 100 billion neurons firing across 100 trillion synapses – one may reasonably feel that such steps toward solving the mystery don’t really clear up any of the mysteriousness we must live.

Knowing the science merely gives us a particular sort of language for expressing what is, at bottom, the same wonder. Before the science, there were elaborate theologies. Knowing the theology, likewise, merely gives us a particular sort of language for expressing what is, at bottom, the same wonder.


UU Minute #55

The Great Awakening

Almost 300 hundred years ago, the Great Awakening swept through the English colonies in America. It was a religious revival movement in the 1730s. Traveling preachers went from town to town holding revival meetings drawing large outdoor crowds for highly emotional experiences.

When you remember that the first colleges in the colonies – Harvard, William and Mary, Yale -- were founded with the main purpose of training clergy, and that the local minister was typically the only person in town with higher education, and that Sunday morning was the preacher’s platform for demonstrating his sophisticated training, then you get a picture of religion in the hands of the experts. Everyone else was supposed to quietly follow the expert’s instructions as best they could – as presented in sermons that were long, closely-reasoned, dry theological arguments read from manuscript.

The Great Awakening, however, encouraged ordinary people to make a personal connection with God instead of relying on a minister. At a time when religion in America was steadily declining, the Great Awakening reinvigorated interest in religion, and offered many people intense, emotionally consuming religious experience.

Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” exemplified the preaching of the Great Awakening. The implicit message was that a deity who was ruled by emotion demanded emotional worship.

The Great Awakening produced a reaction against its over-emotionalism and a renewed case for a rational approach. There were no known Unitarians in the colonies at this time, but the intellectual forebears of Unitarianism emerged out of this reaction to the emotionalism of the Great Awakening.

NEXT: Reaction to the Great Awakening: Beginnings of American Liberal Religion