Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Minister’s Reflections
Religious Language

           To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens: If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then you had better be well-equipped to engage in conflict with points of persuasive argument and compelling criticisms, because if you are not, then the center of shared understanding will be occupied and defined without your helping to decide it, or determine what and where it is.  In this spirit we gathered for our Fireside Chat to discuss our experience of common worship on Sunday mornings.  We shared with one another what aspects of Sunday services we liked and those we found disagreeable.  The discussion revealed what previous congregational gatherings, surveys and questionnaires have disclosed.  Our congregation is religiously diverse with the majority of our church members identifying as theists and humanists, both groups evenly divided.  
           By and large, the majority expressed an appreciation for the balanced manner in which the Sunday services reflected the religious sensibilities of the congregation as a whole.  Notwithstanding, for some anti-theists any reference to God was experienced as personally disagreeable.  After many years of observing UU congregation’s attempts to address the challenge of religious language, specifically, “God-talk.” I have come to accept the fact that there are some people who are simply allergic to "God-talk," regardless of the concept of God being expressed.  There is for some no distinction to be drawn between a humanistic-naturalistic theology and that of a narrow-minded irrational fundamentalism.  I can appreciate how for some, who may have had the language of God pounded into them as a child in an authoritarian and dogmatic fashion, the reference to God carries disturbing memories of authoritarian religious abuse, spiritually, psychologically and intellectually.  Despite the great pains to which I go to distinguish our liberal theology, grounded in science and critical intellectual thought, the distinctions I draw are oftentimes unheard.  It has become my practice, when a member of the congregation complains about too many references to God in a sermon or worship service, to suggest a closer reading of the sermon text or the liturgy to reveal what references were actually made and the theological meaning of those that were expressed.  
          During the gathering one church member asked me, "What is more important to you?  What you have intended to say or what was heard?"  I responded both were equally important.  And for mutual accountability, what the text actually did say as well.  I shared the experience of being intimately familiar with the sermon I have written and delivered and frequently being confronted after the service with the "sermon" that a church member has "heard."  Very often they are quite different, especially with those who have an aversion or allergic reaction to any and all expressions of "God talk."
            My pastoral response to such a situation is to be sympathetic while at the same time being mindful that there may be a need for therapeutically unpacking the personal religious experience of the one who easily falls into a negative projection upon the minister and his or her use of the word God.  That is to say, the focus of change needs to shift, from a presumed need to make changes in the liturgy or sermon, to examining the undisclosed experience of a church member’s hearing the sermon that has given rise to negative projections and misperceptions.
           How we address this issue in our congregation is very important.  This conflict can be either a creative catalyst for a revitalization of our free church tradition with its staunch defense of freedom of religious conscience, or it can become a force that leads to the impoverishment of our religious reflection and communication, stripping it of powerful symbols and an expressed relation to the eternal – ground of being – ultimate reality.   
            A. Powell Davies, one of the great Unitarian preachers of our denomination in the 1950's and 60's, when confronted with the secularism of many of his parishioners, responded that to "jettison the language of religion was to cut oneself off from the world's literature of faith, the most urgent writings, the poetry, the music of the human race.  It is therefore to impoverish oneself."
           While in seminary, a professor of mine, a scholar in the study of the Old Testament, once remarked that in the religious community there were two kinds of fundamentalists.  Those who literalize biblical scripture and then adopt it as God's law, and the fundamentalists of the left, the liberal secular humanists who, in similar fashion, literalize scripture and religious language so that it can be summarily disregarded and discarded.  With pseudo-intellectual sleight-of-hand they reduce all religious communication to the least rational denominator and then discard it for its having been proven trite and meaningless.  The consequence of both of these fundamentalist positions is the impoverishment of our religious discourse with its use of symbol and metaphor.
          I have never forgotten the professor's comments, they deflated much of the hubris of my own narrow-minded religious skepticism.  The truth is we need both traditionalists and thoughtful iconoclasts in our church.  Those who embrace the heritage of our religious history sustain us in caring for the roots of our living tradition.  They help to bring a stability and continuity with our past, that past which has created us in our present and effects the direction of our future.   But we also need our iconoclasts to sustain our living tradition in its dialogue with the modern world.  They ask of us that our language be in keeping with modern times and its critical intellectual disciplines.  The iconoclast and the traditionalist are both welcomed in our church.  It is fundamentalism and dogmatism that we must guard against in all of its expressions.
         Our Unitarian Universalist faith is a living tradition.  It is both the living faith of the dead extending from time before memory and the living faith of the present extending to time beyond imagining.  Our task in sustaining our living tradition is twofold, requiring both the renewal of our tradition's religious language so that we do not sever ourselves from our heritage, and the creation of new words and images for those who no longer find themselves spoken to with the words of the past.

           It is in the spirit of gathering the words of faith together, both the old and the new, and then, following Emerson's admonition, to sift them through the fire of our own lives, we can begin to deepen and enrich our religious communication.  Let this be a celebration and affirmation of the integrity and unity present in our differences.  In this way we will renew our worship on Sunday mornings while authentically proclaiming the gospel (the good news) of the Free Church, where we harbor no form of expression of religious dogmatism, bigotry and intolerance.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Work of Christmas Begins
The beautiful music and the spell binding words spoken during our Christmas Eve Service are still singing in my imagination.  Howard Thurman’s Life Is Saved by the Singing of Angels rings true; “There must be always remaining in everyone’s life some place for the singing of angels – some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful and by an inherent prerogative, throwing all the rest of life into a new and creative relatedness.” 
Thank you to everyone who contributed: most especially Dan Franklin and Terry Yokota who did the layout and design for our incredibly beautiful order of service; also our choir and director Joel Knapp, along with accompanist Earl Naylor; the readers this year who were excellent, the Hunter family, T.J., Catherine and Daniel at 4:00 and the Grimm-Howell family, George, Betsy, Owen and Meredith at 6:00.  And also the other priestly looking fellow wearing the long dark academic robe, John Knoll as worship assistant, Chair of our Worship Arts Committee.
I love our Christmas Eve service in the way it stands apart from our usual Sunday services, unabashedly immersed in the poetic images of the Christmas story.  When I reflect on the significance of that story and religious language in general, I imagine religion as a magical mirror in which is reflected that which we love most, our own essence, what Paul Tillich described as one’s own sense of ultimate reality 
What Christmas affirms is the divinity of human beings, the sacred character of their values, the perfection of their bodies, the goodness of living - to eat - to hear - to smell - to see.  What happens at Christmas is that in dreams we see real things in the magic splendor of imagination and fantasy, instead of the simple daylight of reality and necessity.  Christmas does not reveal a sacred world from the other side of reality, Christmas is a revelation and transfiguration of what exists on this side. 
Christmas celebrates the Christian mystery of the incarnation of the divine and most surprisingly, the deepest paradoxical secret of Christmas, is atheism.  In the Christmas Eve reading, The Word Became Flesh, Rebecca Parker writes “You have to know your body as the home of God.  And this is the purpose of Christmas . . . This is the key to the mystery, The Word became Flesh.  We are the dwelling place.  Now:  How will you live?”
Christmas is a magic mirror and we shall only be able to recognize ourselves, in the image in the mirror, if we know that, in truth, there is actually no one within it.  We shall only be able to recognize ourselves in our ideas of God if we know there is no such God at all.  That we are each the only absolute and central point around which all meaning constellates.  We are ourselves the dwelling place of the divine imagination.
The meaning of Christmas and the Christian faith is hidden from those believers who persist in naively dreaming in religious illusions, “not woke” they do not understand their dream.  And thus, for them, religion is preserved as a dream. But for those of us who understand, “The Word Became Flesh – We are the dwelling place,” God disappears: heaven becomes earth, what was up there re-appears out there ahead, as the future.  And the images that religion took to be portraits of the most beautiful and most perfect being are instead seen as constituting a horizon of hope on which people spread their desires, the utopia of society in which the present is magically and miraculously metamorphosed by the person who breaks the chains to pluck the flower, not because of pressures from the outside, but in response to the dreams that come from inside.  And behind the myth and rituals, the carols and scripture, we can perceive the contours, tenuous though they be, of those who await a new world, a new body.  And their religious dreams are transformed into utopian pieces of a new world order to be built.

                                                  The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins.
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the brothers and sisters,
to make music in the heart.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Christmas is the holiday that reminds us of the supreme importance of love between people.  It is a season in which we show our feelings in tangible ways, by exchanging gifts and expressing sentiments of affection.  One of the great truths at the core of Christmas and the symbolic point of all the literature, art and music is that there is a persistent need to love.  We need each other.  We need the love of other people to console us and nourish us, for without it we are nothing.  It is as though humankind were a huge picture puzzle - in which each person is incomplete and unfulfilled until interrelated to others.
I am sometimes prone to a somewhat gloomy and unflattering characterization of the human species.  But against all the reasons that can be given to show how cruel and violent is our species, how destructive we are and how much carnage we wreak; against all that, it is still so that there has always been more of love and affection than of hate.  If this were not so our species would not have survived.  Throughout history there has needed to be mutuality.  We could not have lasted through all the evil and senseless slaughter we have wreaked upon one another except by the harmony to which we are prone.  Simple self interest has shown people the need to work together, to help each other and sacrifice personal gain for the greater good.
Even my hero during my youth, Bertrand Russell, who was mostly a cynic about religion, wrote:
“Nothing can penetrate the loneliness of the human heart except the highest intensity of the sort of love the religious teachers have preached.  Whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful and at best useless . . . the unmystical rationalistic view of life seems to omit all that is most important and most beautiful.”
Christmas reminds us of our mutual bonds.  We learn that the more interrelated a people become the happier the community. As we work, eat, share our grief, sing hymns, pray and meditate and generally strive together in the great cause of our religious faith, we find something good is added to our lives.
The circumstances of Jesus’ birth remind us of the importance of love.  It was the central message of his life.  He worked, taught, lived and died that we might learn more deeply the meaning of that small word love – that means so much.  Love is that doorway through which we pass from solitude to kinship with all humankind.  But the message is found in all religions.  From the sayings of the Buddha:  “Gifts are great, the founding of temples is meritorious, meditations and religious exercises pacify the heart, comprehension of the truth leads to nirvana: but greater than all is loving kindness.  As the light of the moon is sixteen times stronger that the light of all the stars, so is loving kindness sixteen times more efficacious in liberating the heart, the realization of love is more important than all other religious accomplishments taken together.”
At Christmas especially does the summons to love call us.  Let us open ourselves to it so that in part, through our fidelity to love, the world might move steadily forward toward the ancient good of which generation after generation has dreamed.
Merry Christmas – Love,


Monday, October 30, 2017

Minister Muse -- November 2017

Minister’s Muse

As a preface to the scheduled Fireside Chat on November 19th at 9:15 and 11:30,before and after the worship service, I offer you my own reflections on the importance of doubt, argument and debate as central to the practices of the free church and liberal religion.

As one of my favorite journalists, the late Christopher Hitchens, has written, “If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then you had better be well-equipped with points of argument and combativity, because if you are not, then the “center” will be occupied and defined without your helping to decide it, or determine what and where it is.”

The concept of the dialectic as the dynamic of human progress may have been discredited by its Marxist advocates promoting their version of class struggle, but that does not mean it is without merit and to be abandoned. There must be confrontation and opposition in order that sparks may be kindled and insight and progress achieved.

We claim to be building at First Unitarian Church a free church, where we liberate an emancipating spirit from the existing order within society and history so as to create the beloved community here on Earth. This – building the free church – to liberate the spirit – to create the beloved community is our mission.

You can be assured that my understanding of the meaning of this statement is not an aspiration to any hazy, narcotic Nirvana, where our critical faculties would be of no use to us. I have always found the image of a vague spiritual harmony as our goal in life, as found in much of popular spirituality, to be a world of little value or effectiveness, leading to nothing more than an anesthetized conformism. This kind of religion and  spirituality is, as Marx described, an opiate for the masses.

My understanding of the beloved community is not a state of bliss and perpetual happiness, which is in truth a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability. True  happiness, such as that asserted in our Declaration of Independence, in the phrase “the pursuit of happiness,” is the consequence of struggle, often bitter struggle.

But let’s get back to the question: How does all of this apply to our democratic religious community?

I recently shared the following reflection on “good leadership in the church” as opening words for the monthly Council meeting. I wrote this statement for my Ministerial    Record a few years ago, the document potential candidates submit to a congregation’s Search Committee when they wish to be considered for a settled or transitional ministry.

“Building trust is absolutely essential because having learned to trust one another we will no longer be afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to our success as a vital and dynamic congregation. We should never     hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.”

Conflict is not to be shunned; it is a sign of life and not something to be managed or resolved. Conflict usually exists because people care deeply about something in their community. By using a framework that would allow us to engage conflict, in Board meetings, Council meetings, committee meetings, congregational gatherings and Fireside Chats, wherever important issues are being discussed, there will be much more creative energy that can be constructively utilized in the life of this congregation.  

Passionate and unfiltered debate, respectfully engaging one another’s different opinions, is what protects and sustains the free church. This kind of dynamic engagement is the beating heart of the free church, sustaining the integrity of all its programs and  nurturing their creative possibilities. I, as your minister, and the elected church leadership should be collaboratively facilitating this kind of respectful but robust dialogue.

By respectfully engaging in unfiltered conflict we are able to achieve a high level of collaboration and mutual commitment even when Board members or committee members initially disagree on an issue. This is because by doing so we insure that all opinions and ideas are put on the table and considered, giving confidence that no concern has been left unaddressed. Out of conflict may come the most creative and productive efforts. When we address critical issues like our worship program, or how we allocate money in this church – our budget priorities, or the priorities of our children’s          religious education programs, this kind of creative-conflict- leadership is essential to our achieving alignment and a clearly understood, shared commitment to the final   decision.

We need to trust one another more and embrace a disciplined practice of facilitating passionate dialogue about any and all matters of concern. By doing so we will strengthen the commitment of all of us to the broader mission of the church. This kind of dynamic and energizing practice, which requires strong leadership if it is to be    successfully facilitated, will actually encourage church members to set aside their individual needs and agendas and focus on what is best for the church. When this kind of passionate dialogue is achieved, there is less temptation to place one’s own ego needs or pet projects ahead of the collective needs of the congregation. Most people just want to have their ideas heard, understood, considered, and explained within the context of the ultimate decision.” I look forward to seeing you at the Fireside Chat on November 19th.