Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Running Up Against the Hard Places

crashing on the hard rocks

Stunning plumes of spray happen when the ocean crashes up against a rocky shoreline. While coming to rest on a soft, sandy beach is a lot more pleasant, we are often at our most impressive when we run up against the hard places.

When has running up against a hard place brought out the best in you?

Since early adulthood, my mother has been fond of saying to me and to my younger brother and sister, that we can handle whatever comes because the worst that could have happened already has. Her oft-repeated platitude is what Southerners call “a hard truth”.

It was as if the four of us crashed up against a rocky shoreline when my dad, just 39 died of a major heart attack. He was suddenly gone from our lives the Saturday before Thanksgiving, my senior year of high school. My brother was 15. My sister 12. I was the one on whom the responsibility fell to tell them that our dad was dead. It was a hard truth to share, a harder one to live through. Before that day came along our lives had been normal, happy. Our life as a family was like waves landing softly on the beach.

Then it all crashed up against a rocky shore.

Luckily, we were very involved in our church community. They surrounded us with love when the unexpected sad, bad thing that would reshape the course of all our lives happened.

We coped. We all coped. The congregation was wonderfully supportive in many, many ways. I remember being in the cocoon of care they surrounded us with until they seemed to move on to the next hard thing some family had to deal with. I kept traveling through life…as we all do…seeking, and often finding, support and understanding and ways to deal with my “hard” truth.

Who I became was shaped by the event of my dad’s death, by my church community, by how my family and friends taught me to deal with it. By all the hard truths of my life. As are we all…

What you have had to deal with may be different from the next person’s. Figuring out how to take it in, how you will put whatever your tragedy is in perspective, how you will answer “how then shall I live” when “the worst” has happened is never something that one ought to be left alone to deal with.

Making sense of life is what families, and congregations and groups of friends are for.

We say ours is a “covenantal faith”, rather than a creedal one. What that means is we bring our hard truths, those circumstances that have been ours and let ourselves be shaped into who we may become as we partner each other.

We rely on the power of relationships. Relationships that evolve, that ebb and flow. People we love die. People who ought to love us and care for us betray us. People hurt us and leave us alone. Yet, still we create community, immerse ourselves in community, open ourselves to relationship, continually creating how we will be in this world.

This is a story for those times when you may have, or will feel overwhelmed with all the rocky places we humans must deal with. It is from Marc Gellman’s Does God Have a Big Toe?; Stories about Stories in the Bible.

Before there was anything, there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?” So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps of rocks will be planets, and some will be stars and some of these rocks will be…just rocks.” Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will be clouds, and some of this water will be…just water.” Then the angels said, “Well God, it’s neater now, but is it finished?” And God answered, “Nope!”

So, on some of the rocks God placed growing things, and creeping things, and things that only God knows what they are, and when God had done all this, the angels asked God, “Is the world finished now?” And God answered, “Nope!” God made a man and a woman from some of the water and stardust and said to them, “I’m tired now. Please finish up the world for me…really it’s almost done.”

But the man and woman said, “We can’t finish the world alone! You have the plans and we are too little.” “You are big enough,” God answered. “But I do agree to this. If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.” The man and the woman asked, “What is a partner?” and God answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners and we much not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.”

And they all agreed to that deal. Then the angels asked God, “Is the world finished yet?” And God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”

This year we are forming Chalice Circles, groups of 8-10 folks. They will be spaces where you can form and then deepen relationship with others in this congregation. The potential for “partners” who will hear of, listen to the hard places in your life, who will help you understand what platitudes-good and not so good—that may be sticking you in place, and anchoring you in the past, can be let go when it is time to move on …

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, notable author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and doctor, tells the story of a young man named Jeff whom she describes as the angriest patient she’s ever treated. Jeff was an avid athlete, popular, and handsome. Then he was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma. In order to save his life, doctors had to remove his leg. Jeff awoke from the surgery a different young man: angry, resentful and bitter. He believed his life was over now that his body was imperfect. Jeff fell into a depression. He began using drugs and drinking heavily. A concerned former coach referred him to Dr. Remen. In their first visit, Dr. Remen could tell Jeff harbored great anger at the doctors who saved his life, but had to amputate his leg. She asked him to draw a picture of his body. He angrily scribbled a vase with a large crack in it, tearing the paper as he finished the drawing.

Jeff continued seeing Dr. Remen, who kept the drawing of the vase in her desk drawer. Soon Jeff started asking about how other kids live with an amputation. He started coming out of his anger and Dr. Remen recommended he volunteer at a hospital, visiting young amputees like himself. One day, Jeff meets a 21 year–‐old woman recovering from a double mastectomy because of a horrible history of breast cancer. The young woman would barely look up from her hospital bed.

After several attempts Jeff looked down at his leg. He took off the prosthetic device and dramatically dropped it. He started hopping around until finally he heard the woman start laughing. She looked up, saying with a smile, “Fella, if you can dance, maybe I can sing.” Jeff continued visiting the young woman. Years later they got married. During Jeff’s last meeting with Dr. Remen, he beamed with a smile. As he walked into the room, Dr. Remen pulled out that drawing of the cracked vase that Jeff drew nearly two years earlier. Studying it, Jeff took the drawing and said, “You know, it’s not really done.”

Taking a yellow highlighter from Dr. Remen’s desk, Jeff drew vibrant yellow lines extending out of the crack in the vase. Dr. Remen gave Jeff a puzzled look. Smiling, Jeff replied, “This is where the light comes from.”

This is where the light comes from, the cracks, the fissures, and the imperfections, the hard knocks, the hard truths.

Let us be here for each other, not moving from tragedy to tragedy, but living real lives in community with each other holding hands…through the sad, bad times and the good.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Love Reaches Out

Purple Bletilla Flowers - Blurred Background Image
Perhaps individualism was liberating in the rigid cultures of the nineteenth century. Perhaps. Today individualism is not liberating; it separates us. It creates a prison of the self. We are relational creatures. Our very sense of self, ironically enough, emerges from our network of relationships. We become fully human in relationship: with one another, with our past, with our shared aspirations, with our vision of the holy.
    —Peter Morales, President, Unitarian Universalist                                                        Association

“Love reaches out” is the theme for this year’s General Assembly. If you don’t know already, this is the big annual gathering of UU’s from across the country. This year it will take place in Providence, RI. Some of our folks who are going have already left, with our banner!

If you have never gone before, you might consider making the trip next year. It is always the fourth week of June and next year it will be in Portland, Oregon.  This year the 5,000 or so folks who will gather for a long weekend of business, worship, fellowship, study, and public witness, will do it all around the theme of “love reaches out”.

It makes sense that this is the theme. It is time for us to become more outward facing. It is time for us to take this show on the road.  Reaching out is not just about creating and reciting an “elevator” speech, a 1-2 minute description of what UUism is. It is not about saving the none’s (those that choose “no religious affiliation” on forms we all have to fill out, all the time)  It is not about saving them from their Sunday golf games or beach outings and dragging them into a liberal religious institution and showing them how different we are.

Reaching out is about taking the power of love seriously, living our faith in a big courageous new way, taking what some have considered to be private and going public.

It is about spreading the love. It is about answering indifference and isolation and fear with the power of love.

I don’t need to tell you all the reasons why this ole world needs more love.

I can’t imagine you need convincing of that.

Perhaps you do need some convincing that it is time to make this faith more than about an hour or two on Sunday where you listen, or a minute or two when you answer your neighbor’s question about where you go to church, or why you bring your children here and not there. It is time to step into reaching out full time, and with love and power, not just saying who we are, but really being what the world needs us all to be.

I was talking with a friend the other day who is moving into that stage in a relationship with a potential significant other where the “new” has worn off and one is really starting to see the shadows sides of the other person. And they are seeing yours. The parts that are not attractive are starting to show themselves.  And so is the neediness that lies beneath those unattractive parts.

And now my friend is backing off, and so is the other person, because the neediness seems just too much.

Reaching out in love sounds good, until the “real” shows itself and we begin to wonder about what it might take to heal what is broken. It just seems too much, and too consuming.  We have enough to do just to heal ourselves.

Not very long ago this year, I went through a period in my comings and goings around here, when I was noticing how much “weeding” needed to be done. (At least, weeding I thought needed to be done.) Every time, at least in the day light when I got out off or back into my car; I thought “wow” there are so many weeds everywhere! Somebody needs to do something. There are so many and they making the grounds look unkempt and unattractive. I thought the weeds were obscuring the beauty of what was blooming and it was bothering me.

Sometimes, not very long ago this year when I found myself sitting at my desk too long, I would get up and go out there into the memorial garden, or on the other side past the foyer…. and I would have that thought again. Too many weeds!

In my head, I would think, “if I start pulling something up, it will lead to pulling more up and I just can’t take that project on right now. Let me see if I can recruit someone! It really needs doing!”

My friend is at that stage in her relationship. She’s gotten close enough with the person she is involved with to see what appears to be weeds. She is backing away and so is the other person. Both of them are saying; I don’t have time for “that”!

That’s a huge project, and I am a busy person. (They have considered finding a relationship counselor who perhaps they can employ to pull weeds!)

Then something changed! After a few weeks of my un-acted upon obsessive thoughts about the plentitude of weeds around here, I began to see again and again that almost every single thing I thought was a weed, and I was ready to pull up and cast out, bloom!

And “the weeds” didn’t just bloom once and then go back to being ugly weeds. There has been a succession of blooms, all colors and shapes and sizes. Just about everything I would have pulled up, given the time and the tools, or the volunteers, sprouted something delightful Around where I park my car, where I stroll when I am needing a change of scenery, all around these grounds, have been wave after wave of blossoms.

Now there are some weeds, maybe, but I know now that I have seen so much successive displays of beauty and color that I am way more hesitant to pull up anything.

Once my mind moved away from seeing weeds and into seeing the glory, I then spent weeks and weeks thinking about what was this transformational experience teaching me?

When my friend shared about the current state of her relationship and how the amount of neediness  was making both her and her potential partner consider backing away, calling it quits, or at least calling in the weeding consultants, I realized I had been “there” too.

And, I have also been in the place where, instead of backing away from me, or coming at me with a gardening hoe, I have experienced the kind of curious, confident love that wants to know what that ugly, needy place is in me.

Love reaching out is not about being so ready to manage the environment. It is about listening with the intent of caring, listening and seeing with the intent of learning to receive what comes toward us as a potential source of delight.

I know now, that most of the plants around here are not “volunteers”. Somebody planted them. Somebody who knew what they were doing. I have heard stories about the “master gardener”. What I thought were weeds; that have been springing into bloom, successively since very early spring all around this building; I now take as all the proof I need that someone had a plan! I am learning to trust that plan.

If I had eradicated what appeared to be a weed, I would have missed part of the plan meant for my delight, my enjoyment, my lesson in loving what is. I would have missed out on the opportunity to be transformed.

“Love reaching out.”

I don’t know exactly what those who are going to General Assembly are going to hear. I don’t know what messages are planned, what the theme talks will say, what the workshops will teach.

But I do know that love isn’t in trying to manage what appears to be out of order. Love understands that it is big enough to hear the whole story, to see beauty in all things at all stages of life.

To live interdependently is to move out of the private lives we have constructed for ourselves, and go public. There will be weeds. There will be needs. Sometimes it will be overwhelming. Too much to do, too much to fix and straighten out, too much to organize, too much hunger and need.

Perhaps we will begin to believe we are all part of a master plan; a plan that creates successive beauty. We have had our time in the temple of the self. It is time to move out and move on and into the garden of all that is. To see if this love we speak of, can stand with in the sun and see beauty in every being. To see if this love we speak of, can move past indifference and isolation, and love strangers on the street.

It is time for a big love that reaches out…

Love Reaches Out

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Trusting Authority

“Legitimate power is built on a series of paradoxes: that leaders have to wield power while knowing they are corrupted by it; that great leaders are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs…. These days many Americans seem incapable of thinking about these paradoxes. Those “Question Authority” bumper stickers no longer symbolize an attempt to distinguish just and unjust authority. They symbolize an attitude of opposing authority.” David Brooks, New York Times, June 11, 2012, “The Follower Problem”

After hundreds of years, a model of the perfect pastor has finally been articulated.

The perfect pastor preaches exactly 18 minutes and then sits down.

She condemns injustice, but never hurts anyone’s feelings.

She works from 8am to 10pm, in every type of duty, from preaching to custodial service.

He makes $60 a week, wears good clothes, regularly buys good books, has a nice family, drives a good car, and gives $30 a week to the church.

He also stands ready to contribute to every good cause that comes along.

She is 26 years old and has been preaching for 30 years, and is entertaining and politely challenging.

She is tall and short, thin and heavy set, handsome and beautiful.

He has one brown eye and one blue; with hair that is parted in the middle, left side dark and straight, the right brown and wavy.

He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all available time with older folks.

She smiles all the time with a straight face because s/he has a sense of humor that keeps one seriously dedicated to the work.

She makes 15 calls a day on church members, spends all spare time recruiting new members, and is never out of the office.

Well somebody appreciates paradoxes!

Of course, I found this description of the perfect pastor floating around on the internet! But as you may know, UU ministers rarely get called “pastors”! Maybe that is because UU congregants reject the insinuation that they are sheep. So, perhaps this articulation doesn’t describe how we might list the attributes of the perfect “minister”!

I know, I know, there are some of you who are thinking there is no perfect minister!

Perhaps, my point is made!

And that point would be, that we look for “perfect”, rather than learning how to be in relationship. Perhaps trusting those who are in leadership has to with trusting that there is an area for growth that goes beyond rejecting what is not perfect, neither perfectly good, nor perfectly bad…

The David Brooks article I quoted earlier appeared in the New York Times on Father’s Day a few years ago.  In that article Brooks was lifting up that it appears we are living in a time when most Americans are having a difficult time trusting authority.

There are good reasons for that! Examples of the abuse of power by leaders both in government and in the church world abound.

But Brooks does not spend time analyzing the misuse of authority by those leaders. Rather he is interested in what is going on with those who distrust leaders.

Maybe the lack of trust is because we have become so accustomed to “assign[ing] moral status to victims …rather than to those who wield power.” The underdog is always, in our collective minds, more worthy of respect, than the authorities.

I agree that it is difficult for liberals to respect anyone we perceive has authority primarily because they have benefited from the privileges afforded by an unjust system.

Brooks also suggests that perhaps we don’t trust authority because of “our fervent devotion to equality”, which makes it hard for us to lift any one out of the crowd as superior to anyone else!

We are all so equally worthy that no one is better than anyone else, right? (Or maybe, what is really going on is that many of us feel, I am better than everyone else, so I only really trust myself!)

But none of these are the reason we fail to trust authority. In Brooks’ analysis the “fail” is more likely with the dis-ease we have being followers. It is not about leadership “fail”. It is a follower problem!

Who has that dis-ease more than us?

He concludes that we-the-followers have an “inability to think properly about how power should be (can be) used to bind and build.”

For Brooks, “thinking properly” would mean moving past the simplistic belief that everyone in power is corrupt, or at the very least, suspect, and thus all authority is to be rejected out of hand.

Brooks points out that like leadership, “followership is also built on a series of paradoxes. “Yes, in this society (and in this church)] …we choose our leaders but we also have to defer to them and trust their discretion.” We may be proud and independent individuals, but we also need to understand that we only thrive in a well-organized group, led by a just authority.

This, in my opinion, is the essence of “covenantal behavior”. We each have worth and dignity, but we are not all in equal in positions of authority. Some are leaders, more are followers. And all positions are informed by the nuances of paradox.

A recent UU Commission on Appraisal study entitled; “Who’s in Charge Here” focused on ministerial authority, power and oppression in our UU systems.

My colleague the Rev. Thomas Schade in a recent blog post detailed what happened during the 20th century that reduced the authority of the office of minister within liberal religion.

He points out that humanism and atheism greatly altered any thought that the minister knew something “special” about or had a direct line to ultimate reality. The expansion of university level education made many lay members equally or better educated than their ministers. The Unitarian growth strategy in the 50’s led to what came to be known as the “fellowship mentality”, the belief that congregations can function just fine without ministers.

Add to those factors that liberal religion stopped being any sort of authority on sexual morality. We entered a period of no questions asked. No shame. No guilt. It was almost as if there was an unspoken bargain struck between ministers and congregants. We silently agreed not to judge each other’s sexual lives. “Of course, [that] …was going to end badly as …. sexual misconduct proliferated.” It was ministerial authority that took the hit, when the ministers behaved like everyone else.

At the same time came all sorts of anti-oppression movements. The minister in the closed system of congregational life became “the Man”. Question Authority, meant oppose the authority.

Then you sprinkle more women in the ministry, who were cheaper, and perhaps more compliant in their leadership. Many new female ministers who were Baby Boomers entered churches with pre-boomer mentalities. The new female ministers were expected to conform to the cultural styles of the male ministers of a generation before. A congregational review became comments on hair, makeup, shoes, wardrobe, “warmth”….

Then came the first wave of the aggressive conservative movement, starting in the 70’s and powerful by the 80’s, which attacked all forms of liberal religion saying they were “morally relativistic, ethically slack, sexually libertine, “touchy-feely”, politically correct (thus really a left wing of the democratic party) and in all ways, ridiculous as a religion.

Is it any wonder that liberal self-doubt took hold? ….affecting both leaders and their potential followers?

There is little left of what my colleague Tom Schade calls “positional” authority, the power that has do with being in the role of ministerial leader. Rather, than the kind of authority that comes from holding a certain “office”, ministers have had to rely on personal persuasion, the kind of authority that comes from individual talents and interpersonal skills. Don’t like this one, exchange him or her for another one, with a different set of personality traits…

It has been interesting to be in the Forward Together Moral Monday movement and be in the presence of the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, President of the NC NAACP, and a Disciples of Christ pastor. His is a very powerful presence. He exudes leadership. His focus, of course, is on justice for those who have been and are being left out. The paradox is, in the amazingly broad fusion of people and organizations, among those who would not normally come together, he stands out.  It is clear, very clear that his authority may at times be questioned, but it is followed, followed by those who are leaders in their own right. He rises and he leads.

He makes room for all sorts of voices, encouraging others to be provocative and prophetic, but he leads…

Brooks concludes by saying “to have good leaders you have to have good followers, able to recognize authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.”

Tom Schade says “Stronger UU ministers are the key to a stronger UU movement.”

I will end with his words:

“The UU ministers I know are itching to empower and equip church members to go out and live our values in the world. UU ministers want to inspire deeper spiritual growth, and greater public witness, and a more profound service. UU ministers are ready to be inspirational voices in the public square for reverence and solidarity and openness and justice. Instead of trying to limit their authority inside the congregation, every UU should be trying to build their minister’s authority in the community. As our ministers grow stronger, we all grow stronger.”

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

There is More Love Somewhere

The following was written by the British poet, Richard Aldington, who as a young man served in the military during WWI.

“We pass and leave you lying. No need for rhetoric, for funeral music, for melancholy bugle-calls. No need for tears now, no need for regret. We took our risk with you; you died and we live. We take your noble gift, salute for the last time those lines of pitiable crosses, those solitary mounds, those unknown graves, and turn to live our lives out as we may. Which of us were fortunate — who can tell? For you there is silence and cold twilight drooping in awful desolation over those motionless lands. For us sunlight and the sound of women’s voices, song and hope and laughter, despair, gaiety, love — life. Lost terrible silent comrades, we, who might have died, salute you.”

Tomorrow is the day set aside for all to salute the noble gift of every soldier who went off to war and never returned.

Once known as Decoration Day, we have been reminded on our Facebook feeds, by the television, perhaps by our association with family or friends… that tomorrow is about more than outdoor grilling. Real people have been affected by the kind of loss that war inevitably brings. The sacrifices of life and limb that comes with military service deserves to be acknowledged, remembered.

Yet, it has not been routine for me, and perhaps not for many of us who call or would call ourselves UU, to pay much more than passing tribute to Memorial Day. Perhaps, it is time to really ponder what it means to salute those who serve.

It seems to me that those of us of a certain age and of a certain political persuasion have been in a kind of stupor when it comes to whether or not, or how, to honor military service. It is as if we all metaphorically chose to move to Canada to escape the need to deal with it!

For years, I have walked around, rather than through, this opportunity to look at the sacrifice of those who choose military service, to think of those who willingly risk dying as noble.

Charleston children 1865Perhaps that is why the photo on the front of your order of service caught the attention of peace-loving-liberals, like me. Perhaps we wish to be like hopeful children…

Too often we adults pretend to be immune to the cost of our privileges, all those freedoms that we all enjoy, be it in varying degrees.

Maybe, for some of us it is just too much of a puzzle to figure out why women and gay men and UU’s choose to serve what in our minds we still think of as “the killing machine”? Not being able to figure that out, we distance ourselves…

It is a choice we think we would never make… never understand… never respect.

Yet, here is a picture and a story that many of us find appealing…

Perhaps it can cause our eyes to tell our hearts to tell our brains to think again, to reconsider…

That photo was taken less than a month after the Civil War ended. It is of school children in Charleston. Maybe if you saw it on Facebook, you read the claim that this is the depiction of the first Memorial Day. That may or may not be quite true, as this occasion may have not been the first and certainly wasn’t the only commemoration of war dead. Nor was it likely the one that led to a declaration that called a national Memorial Day into being.

Nevertheless, this is a real photo (not a photo-shopped one) depicting three thousand Afro-American children. As the Charleston newspaper reported at the time, a group of just 27 Afro-American men from a local church, had re-buried some 257 Union soldiers, all who had been heaped together in mass graves. During the course of 2 weeks those 27 men, created a proper gravesite for the Union soldiers. After they finished their task, a day of remembrance was called for. These three thousand children began the procession to the new gravesite, followed by three hundred black women, then all the men of the black Benevolent Society, then many of both the black and white ordinary citizens of Charleston, all coming to gather at nine o’clock in the morning on May 1, 1865 to hear speeches and to cover the new graves in flowers.

The Charleston newspaper detailed how: “when all had left, the holy mounds — the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them — were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond … there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy.”

The meaning of the ceremony; known in the tears of joy.

Perhaps they knew that a dream fulfilled meant there had to be those willing to risk not returning home.

That their very being, meant there were those who saw a wrong and were read to right that wrong.

The children in the photo are said to have been those who had just entered the Freedom Schools, set up for their education by abolitionists, Afro-American churches, by Unitarian and Universalists, too.

We know now that the dreams for a much better life, that they must have had that day, would not all be fulfilled in their lifetimes. That it would take more struggle, more pain, more sacrifice…and although significant change came and keeps coming, we also in so many ways continue to plod forward to a dream not yet realized.

But oh what a day that must have been! When the air was so sweet with flowers!

We are all heirs to that sweet smell of pure hope. The sweet smell of hope still lives in this universe…

It still beckons us…

It is not only those willing to sacrifice returning home that brings transformation, but those who cover the dead with a carpet of flowers…move past grief and live their lives with dignity.

Sometimes we get caught up in longing for the good ole days when war and sacrifice meant the battle between good and evil had been waged and good won.

We know now, it is not so simple any more. (If it ever was.)

The world is way more complex than it used to be.

I can’t afford to continue to be stuck in a state of puzzlement about why good women and gay people and UU’s would choose to be in the military.

Good doesn’t line up over here, and bad over there. I know now that is a child’s way of thinking.

Sacrifice is not a choice we make. It is part of life, as is suffering and loss, death and hope.

We can’t escape by moving to Canada or anywhere else that offers gets fixed in the mind or heart as a place to escape. The complex interconnectedness of all that is, we need to learn to live within, if we are to live and continue to make this world the place of home for all.

It is na├»ve to think that we can escape what is inside a Pollyanna-minded bubble of privilege…

Let this faith go everywhere… may its light shine.

Some of you may also know from Facebook that one of our UU ministers, Jake Morrill from the UU Church in Oak Ridge, TN, is just beginning his military service as a chaplain. He’s blogging about his experiences. This is what he posted last:
Today at Army Chaplain School, we were released after morning training. I went out to lunch with a Burmese man, who’s an American Baptist; an African-American woman from New Jersey who’s a Pentecostal; a Filipino woman from Hawaii who’s Anglican; a Japanese-American man from Southern California who’s Russian Orthodox. And me, a European-American man from East Tennessee who’s a Unitarian Universalist. The South Korean man who’s a Presbyterian bowed out at the last minute.(And, of course, we ate at a Greek restaurant) I’ve heard that a multi-cultural organization is one with less than 80% of any single racial/ethnic/cultural group. So far, every Army setting I’ve seen meets that standard easily. It was another minister who first told me that military ministry was really multi-generational, multi-cultural ministry. And it is. At lunch today, for my cultural contribution, I told everyone about the Dolly Parton diet and then about my recent visit to Dollywood. I said, where I’m from, we all pretty much worship Dolly. Only later did I realize that I probably confused them even further about Unitarian Universalism.

Jake always has a sense of humor, a kind of standing on the outside looking in way of perceiving the irony of the situation. Yet, at the very same time, he’s in. He’s present. He’s warm and he’s curious and he is able to bring this wide – eyed faith that we call Unitarian Universalism into places many of us don’t routinely go.

I don’t know that much about military life, but I do know about the Dolly Diet. Her approach is to give oneself no restrictions, to taste everything. Order it all. Go to the buffet and take some of everything. Chew it, savor it! The trick is to only swallow very small amounts!

Taste it all! Yet be in control of who you are. Know yourself and know who you want to be and be that person. Let yourself be in sweet relationship with the entire buffet, but don’t swallow everything!

Let the image of UUs in places you never imagined we would be change your heart and then your mind.

We can live fully in this new world. We are, if we let ourselves, able to salute those who risked not going home, on our journeys to be at home in this new world, where all are at the table.

Enjoy the picnic.

There is More Love Somewhere

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Our Need To Give

The culture we live in encourages us to always be thinking about what we need more of. More clothes, more cars, more food, more vacations, more groceries, more education, more money for education, more income, more… On and on it goes.

Church leaders often get caught up in this, too. We need more volunteers. We need more kids. We need more teachers. We need more people. We need more space. We need more money. The church needs more!

Influenced by the world around us, the annual pledge campaign becomes a few people telling the rest that the church needs more … the church needs more of our time, of our talent, and especially more and more of our treasures. It is exhausting!

Let me ask you? Have you ever heard of a church saying, “we have plenty?”

I think a lot of people are tired of the messages that really say the church “needs to receive”, especially when that message is concentrated on a Sunday or two, or a month or two during the annual pledge drive.

Let’s give that kind of campaign message a breather!

This year, maybe for years to come, it is not about what the church needs to receive. Whatever your pledge is will be graciously welcomed with a glad heart. Your leaders will put together whatever we all collectively pledge, figure out how to best, with wisdom and effectiveness and joy, spend whatever amount of money you promise to give. They will make promises based on your promises. There will, like there always has been, a budget for UUCG members to say “yay” or “nay” to, later this spring during the annual meeting. It will be based on what you have promised, whatever that promise is. And it will be fine. It will be just fine.

Let’s not spend our energy worrying about what the church needs to receive.

Instead, let’s talk about our need to give.

When I first got here, you had a practice of sharing half of the monies put in the plate on certain Sundays. Not every Sunday, but certain Sundays. It seemed like a good and generous gesture to me. But it didn’t feel like a practice that was helping to change how you see yourself. Too many church people go around feeling, not as good as they could.

So, I asked that we begin to Share Half every Sunday, thinking maybe that would help.

Now, every Sunday half of what goes in the collection plates goes out the door to a growing list of organizations doing good works in this community. You were giving before. Now you are practicing generosity every Sunday. More money is going out in the community and more “feel good” about who we are is coming in.

I have not heard anyone yet say; “I would rather not feel so good about being generous.”

We are the people who enjoy giving and giving generously because giving makes a difference in our lives and positively impacts the lives of others. Our tonic for what the world needs, what we need, is to move within the circle of generosity…

The “feel good” isn’t limited to us. We are the people who get phone calls, e-mails, visits from young adults who want to know can we support the social change agency that they are working for that is trying to do good in Greensboro? Just a little change from our collection plate is changing our reputation. We have moved into the circle of generosity and it shows.

We are the people who give away money every Sunday… helping to heal a hurting, bruised, broken world.

There are those who are motivated to give because they believe that living is just as much about receiving as it is about giving.

Too often, when our concern is for the church’s need to receive, we forget to listen for what motivates people to give.

There are at least 3 kinds of motivations…

When a pledge campaign lumps everyone together as if we all care about how much the budget needs to increase, or how lovely a pie chart looks, we are not listening for what makes people want to give.

One motivation, and it might be yours, is the need to live within the circle of generosity. They are people, many of whom are UU’s, who are full of trust in the benevolent universe. Grateful for being alive and aware of their blessings no matter what kind of life they live, they choose to be in the world in a way that acknowledges that giving is part of living. As a matter of course, they give back because they have been given to. It is essential to their very being. It is not a matter of obligation, but like breathing, an “of course”. They might call it paying it forward. They might call it a “tithe”.

Whatever it is called, people motivated by a trust in the benevolence of the universe, give because they are alive.

These folks, and you may be one, don’t need a pledge campaign to convince them to give. They already do. What they might need is a good reason, a compelling reason to give here. They want to know how lives have been changed, how the world is going to change, because we exist. They want to know what this church gives away, how generous are we?

Before I arrived here, as I was reading over your materials, I clearly heard, that you are a church that is proud of the way you care for each other. You are a people who love having fun together.

Building community is important here. The attention you give to compassionate communication is part of showing what kind of people you are and want to be. You sing and hold hands….and you are OK with being connected in passionate ways with each other.

There is a motivation that causes people to give that comes from the need to belong. You might this kind of a giver, you want to be part of a group who knows who they are and why they come together. You want to and often do trust your leaders to take you to places you want to go.

You give because you are excited about being part of this team. This group is so much fun, you want to go to be on board. You give because you know that is what is expected, what it takes to be counted as “in”. All you ever want to know is what does it take to be part of the gang?

The standard here is that members pledge…. Time, talent, and especially treasure….the more active you are, the more you will give all three. And the more active you are the more willing you are to make sure that everyone who wants to be “in” can be.

You give just a little more, just to make sure those who, for whatever reason can’t give of their treasure right now, are “in”, too.

This year there actually is no requirement for a specific dollar amount, or even a percentage of income. This year, just pledge and you are in. And if you cannot give any at all, and want to be counted in, ask for a waiver, somebody has made sure you have a pass.

All those who are motivated by wanting to belong want to know what is expected of them! Telling them what they church needs to receive, just isn’t answering the “right” question!

Then there are those who, and you might be one, that are not so motivated by living within the circle of generosity, or being a member of the community created and constantly re-created here. For them giving has to do with their integrity as an individual. It is about honor.

You might be motivated by honor, if look over the budget in great detail and you take out your calculator. What you are looking for is your fair price. What does- what you use- cost?

This group doesn’t get the respect they deserve. They are actually eager to pay for what they have consumed. For them giving is a matter of equal exchange, of a fair price. They are very motivated to erase a debt they owe, to bring it all back to equity as often as possible. They simply want a way to assign value to a service they have or they expect to receive. These kinds of givers want to know what the part of congregational life that they participate in costs so they can pay their fair share. They appreciate knowing the details. What they have gotten and what they will get is important and they want to know what a fair exchange is.

What the church needs to receive doesn’t help them know what their fair exchange rate is. If you are this kind of give, I can help you figure it out! Meet me in my office, we’ll enjoy the calculations!

What moves you to give?

Do you understand your pledge as a tithe that says who you are?

Do you give to be for a group with a cause, to be part of the team that’s going where you want to go?

Do you make a contribution equal to the measure of what you have and will get?

We are probably all motivated in one degree or another by all of these reasons, be it our internal sense of who we are or our desire to join in, to go with and where our team is going, or as an equal exchange for the good services that we have received.

These various motivations reveal the diversity in our reasons for giving. You may be most motivated by one reason or another, or by some combination of two, or even three. The point is we don’t all possess the same motivation, or the same combination of motivations for giving.

If you discover that you are motivated by a deep sense of giving back because of having received, you may want to consider adjusting the parts that make up what you give away to worthy causes. In other words, this cause may have become more worthy!

If you feel moved to be part of the gang going where this gang is going all you have to do is make a pledge. Everyone gives, that is the standard price of belonging! This year, all that is being asked of you. Pledge and fulfill that pledge to the best of your ability and you are in.

Every board member has already pledged. Your leaders are can really be trusted to lead!

If you are among those motivated by a sense of honor, and it is not so much about you and the “universe”, nor so much about you and the “gang”, but about you and your sense of integrity…you are both willing and able to make a fair exchange for what you consume, or you wouldn’t consume it.

You want an answer for the question; “What is a fair price for a worship service that includes great music and singing, a message that moves you, heat and lights and hymnals, and cushioned seats and childcare? What is a fair price for a place to park, a bathroom, someone who listens to you, visits when you aren’t well, a minister who can officiate your next wedding, one who will lift up your legacy when your time comes? What is a fair price for the amount of time you enjoy a safe building with professional staff?”

Whatever your motivation for giving, I am asking you to consider making your pledge based on what it means to you. I am trusting that you will look deeper into your motivations for giving, so that together we can make promises grounded by our diverse values, stay in good relationship with the universe, each other, and our selves..

Seeing with more clarity who we are, where we are going, and what we have received…how we already give, the price of being with who we want to be with, what we owe, knowing whatever is our way to come into better alignment with what we most need.

May we all live the good life, fully in the circle of generosity, the circle created by this community, full of people with integrity and honor, who have fun and feel good together..

This liberal faith asks nothing more and nothing less than for you to be in living relationship with what good you value, to make promises that reflect what good you value, and to the best of your ability make good on your promises.

We are the people who… connect, grow, heal, …and give.

You are invited to support the presence of liberal religion in the Greater Greensboro area with your generous gift to the UU Church. When you give you become part of …

….the people who Connect in Community

We are the people who celebrate life!

… the people who Help Heal the World

We are the people who practice generosity by donating half of our undesignated offering every Sunday to a local community organization that is doing work to heal the world around us. We are the people who support others. We often take risks, engaging in public advocacy for those who are without power or voice in our society. We are the people who are committed to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger and promote peace. We are the people committed to the ways of compassionate communication.

We are the people who are moving past the past and into the future.

We are the people growing in numbers… we have widened our perspective about who it is we serve. We are the people growing in our sense of commitment. Every member and many friends make a pledge, a promise of what they will with a glad heart contribute financially to this church. Your promise is that this church will not will not talk about what it needs to receive

What do you need to give?

- Rev. Ann Marie Alderman

Our Need To Give

Monday, January 27, 2014

Our Interfaith Future

The Pew Research Center has been tracking religious hostilities around the world since 2007. They have just published a report that found that a third of the 198 countries and territories that were studied in 2012 had a high or very high level of social hostilities related to religion.  That is the highest share in the six years that they have been looking into hostile acts that are the result of religious belief.  Their conclusion? The incidence of violence based on religion whether carried out by private individuals, organizations or groups has increased in every major region of the world except the Americas.

….Except the Americas. 

Maybe, just maybe the interfaith relations work that some have been doing in this country, in every major metropolitan area, and in many middle size and small communities since 9/11 is paying off.  In just over a decade, maybe, just maybe, small groups of people intentionally trying to make a difference in lots and lots of places, have…

Eboo Patel talks in his book Sacred Ground about how in the not so distant past interfaith work was led by and the passion of an older generation. 

Who leads interfaith work and how it is led is changing.  Patel and many others are telling us it is all about creating relationships.  A younger generation is eager for relationships, rather than debate.  They are more and more comfortable with diversity and with friends, loved ones, colleagues who are multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and bring along to their circles of community a rich variety of religious experiences and exposures.

We keep hearing that the “nones”, those who express no affiliation with or loyalty to a particular religious institutions as did the generations before them…think of themselves as no less “spiritual”.   They are not particularly interested in building churches, but they are very interested in spiritually themed conversations.  And they are not satisfied in monolithic or one world-view answers… 

The future is interfaith.

Seven years ago or so, when I first began having conversations that would eventually lead to my becoming the minister at the last church I served some there told me in no uncertain terms that I must be involved in interfaith work.  What those same folks did not know is that UU ministers, at the time, were also hearing strong suggestions that we should all be involved in interfaith work. 

The first week I arrived I called the coordinator of the Interfaith Alliance of Eastern Carolina and offered to help do whatever she needed.  Secretly reluctant, openly humanist, yet a person who finds value in doing some things she is told to do, I helped with management type details that needed to be done in the background.  I sat, once a month, with people who were liberals from a variety of Christian denominations, people who were Hindu, Muslim, Sufi, Baha’i, Quaker and Jewish.  I listened to them quote or pray from the resources supplied by their faith traditions; scriptures, prayerbooks, etc.  It was like a cacophony to me, a tower of babel, prayers and quotes, and sometimes songs…all shared to bring peace, to plead for peace, to tell us that peace would come because it was pre-ordained, that peace would come because our energies merged, that peace would come because we petitioned God, or because it was mandated by the prophet…  I listened, often ill at ease, sometimes bored.  I rarely said very much.

This interfaith group had begun as a response to 9/11.  The monthly gathering, held somewhere, often arranged by me, every month except November was called Prayers for Peace.  Other than the yearly Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, that is all we did together.  And it was always in a Quaker style format.  There was a lot of silence.    

It wasn’t enough for me.  It wasn’t enough for the new rabbi in town either.  Shortly after we had both arrived in this new place for us, we asked to add a ‘learning about each other” conversation to follow the time for prayer.
We proposed that one faith community representative each month share the details of their tradition, followed by questions.  It was within these gatherings over time where I learned that these people wanted not only to share about who they were, what they held to as most worthy in their faith traditions, sharing what they most trusted in life, but they wanted to know the same sorts of things about me. I was thrilled that when I began to tell them, them seemed to really welcome what I had to say…

This group, I had been told to be a part of, became a place that made a difference in my life, in my spiritual life and in my profession life.

Learning and growing in relationship with each other, we all began to think about who was not present.  We invited indigenous (native) Americans to join us, and neo-pagans, even a few agnostics…

By the end of the 5+ years I was with them, our annual Thanksgiving Day services had gotten better and better and even more diverse, led by those of us who knew each other and now cared a lot that all had a place at the table.  The monthly Prayers for Peace still happened, but was always followed by themed sharing where relationships were created and nurtured. 

This morning I want you to consider that the future is interfaith.  And I don’t necessarily mean that you have to get involved with the organized interfaith efforts in this community.  Although that is good thing to do.  Yet, what I most mean is that conversations about the age old themes: grace, forgiveness, suffering, peace, salvation, justice will move out of church buildings…and into the streets, into living rooms and the cyber social gathering places.  Perhaps more importantly these conversations will be among groups of would-be friends that don’t all look the same or speak the same, or dress the same, or like the same food…

And acts of faith will be less about maintaining an institution and more about using whatever vehicle facilitates the sort of conversations that create and sustain understanding, appreciation, relationship and finds commonality amidst diversity.

And I will be bold enough to also say to you that what we think of now as faith tradition, in our case often termed “our living tradition”, will become more be a kind of “street” knowledge, a body of wisdom that anyone anywhere can tap into and live by. 

This every day spiritual wisdom will be what will be known to “work” to make life richer, less lonely, less isolating, less hostile and more peaceful and it won’t belong only to this or that group.  It will be “common” knowledge among a diversity of people the world over.

What I would like to share with you as well… is that what I am talking about already exists, and has existed within every major world religion since the dawn of time.  The collections of “street” or “common” knowledge that are known as wisdom sayings, or what scholars and those who study world religions call “wisdom literature” is in every major body of “scripture”.  Around for ages, there is already a broad collection of all the practical stuff that works to make life go better embedded in scripture the world over. 

What qualifies as wisdom?   The 17th Century poet and linguist Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said; "Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom."    

The dictionary defines “wisdom” what gives one the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting.  It is insight.  Wisdom is common sense and good judgment.  Henry David Thoreau said "It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things"   It is the sum of learning through the ages.  It is the wise teaching of the ancient sages. 

Maya Angelou points out that this body of knowledge is often oral, passed down from grandmothers and fathers to children again and again as short and often pithy sayings.  She says; "In those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations" 

The thing about interfaith conversations that is so wonderful is that while learning about a person or a group of person who are different from you, you can see or hear things that they may be so immersed in they can’t see as clearly as you might.   It is like, how fish are probably not aware of the water they swim in. 

In the Book of Acts, we are told that "Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds." (Acts vii. 22.)  

Did he go to interfaith dialogues!   At least he studied the water, the culture he was in, even though he was not Egyptian, he learned from the wisdom they knew, soaking up what was valuable and constructive from their collective common sense.  It caused him to be mighty in words and deeds! 

Sometimes it is the “stranger” the one not native to a particular place, who can best hear or see the wisdom of a place, of a people, of a culture. 

Wisdom is, as my grandmother liked to say, more than “book learning”.  Being wise means one has the ability to combine knowledge with practical application. 

It has been shown in survey after survey that we UU’s are among the most knowledgeable (meaning book learned) group of church folk in America.  But are we also wise?  Could someone come into our midst and learn all they need to know to live peaceful, relational lives?  …to be mighty in word and deed?

Our third source says that our living tradition draws from the wisdom of the world's religions to inspire us in our ethical and spiritual lives.  How familiar are you with the wisdom literature from the world’s religions?  I know that some of us have immersed ourselves in learning/practicing Buddhism, and/or different forms of Paganism. Some of you are attracted to Hinduism, or know a lot about Quakers, or Judaism.

A long time ago, I became fascinated with wisdom literature. At first what made it so interesting to me, was how you could find various world religions personifying wisdom as the feminine aspect of God.  Sophia was the wise woman who was understood to be the consort, and the necessary compliment, to the father god.  Perhaps the archetype is often female because wisdom is almost always related to the practical and heartfelt aspects of life, and not so much the removed or esoteric.  Wisdom literature as well is concerned with the day to day, and not so much with the dramatic course of history. 

In Proverbs, what goes on in the family, in the kinship system and in society is the topic, again and again.  Proverbs is concerned with day to day practicalities.  It is focused on the ordering of routine life, on how a life can be made good and living prosperous.  Do this and you will have a good life.  Do this and we will all get along.  A stitch in time saves nine. 

The wisdom writings in the Bible, (Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job) are not unlike more secular types of conventional wisdom, (like the wisdom saying that Benjamin Franklin was so fond of).  The Wisdom literature in the Bible is not interested in telling Israel’s story.  It is not concerned with the covenants or promises made between God and man, nor does it have any thing to say about a God who acts to direct the course of history.  Wisdom literature does not claim to be a product of divine revelation.  It is grounded instead in the observation of and reflection upon human experience.  Wisdom literature whether in the Bible or found in other world religions is always the result of insight based on experience.  Its aim is always a self-evident universal truth, that which we often call common sense.

Sometimes wisdom literature is composed of short sayings, like those found in the Tao-te-ching.  Sometimes it is written as if it is one person’s insight into a particular human problem, such as the story of the unjust suffering found in the Book of Job.  Whatever form it takes, it is always, as Marcus Borg says in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, “crystallized experience - compact insights about how to live generated by long experience of the world.”  All wisdom literature says ‘this is what life is like, and take it from me, this message will help you on your journey’.
My purpose in bringing this up at all, is to offer wisdom literature as a touch point for learning about the sacred writings of other religions, for appreciating what makes the person who seems so different from you tick.  What others consider to be sacred writings or sources are not all fantastical mystery and tales of miracles.    

Have you read Ecclesiastes lately?

It is a cynic’s delight focused on the shortness of life and how random what befalls us is.  Life live to the fullest, my friend, cause you don’t get long. Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be.  What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” …so let’s keep dancing… 

The collections of common sense sayings from the body of the world’s religions, all of them, not just the cynical ones, have an ingredient that is often missing from secular wisdom.  You can’t read wisdom from the world’s religions without recognizing that they all say in one way or another that life isn’t is as simple as knowing the right things to do and simply doing them.  This wisdom says that life is much more complex than that. 

Religious wisdom does not offer a collection of answers to be followed by the uninitiated.  It is rather it is a collection, a compendium of the world’s “ah ha’s”.  What worked for some community and what might point the way to what might work for others.

All of the wisdom literature from the world’s religions ultimately says that it isn’t just about following wise sayings, we must open ourselves and be vulnerable to the engagement with life. 
Becoming wise is not just finding the answer to "what should I do in a given situation", it is rather a raising the question of "what kind of person should I be?"

Huston Smith in his book The World’s Religions, tells this story about the Buddha.

"In his later years, when India was afire with the Buddha's message and kings themselves were bowing before him, people came to him even as they were to come to Jesus asking what he was. (Not many people provoke this question - not 'who are you' with respect to name, origin or ancestry, but 'what are you?')

When the people carried their puzzlement to the Buddha himself, the answer he gave provided a clue to his understanding of wisdom.  ‘Are you a God? they asked. An angel? A Saint? No. Then what are you?’ The Buddha answered,  "I am awake."

Being awake, alive, fully interconnected with all is the essence of religious wisdom. At the moment we awaken to others who are in this world with us as human beings of worth and dignity we awaken to ourselves – to our human, finite, vulnerable, imperfect selves interconnected with all that is and ever has been.  

Everything we need to know and our children need to know, and the generations that come after us need to live peaceful and good and prosperous lives is not found in one monolithic world view.  Learn from being in relationship with all that is and all who are, as did Moses, and you and your children and your children’s children will become mighty in word and in deed.
Amen.  Blessed be.
Assay - let the people make it so.
Namaste - the light in me salutes the light in you.

Shalom.  A Salaam Aleichem.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jesus for UU's

Jesus for UU’s , Rev. Ann Marie Alderman, 1/19/2014

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies. (from "Loving Your Enemies")”

― Martin Luther King Jr., A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

How many of you are familiar with the painting of Jesus in a white robe, with shoulder length brown wavy hair? In the painting I am referring to he has pale skin, a neatly trimmed beard, a sharp nose, thin lips, high cheek bones… He is looking out and up at something in the distance…

500 million copies of this portrait of Jesus are estimated to be in circulation. It has been said that it is the most common religious image in the world. For decades, especially in this country, this portrait was everywhere. It hung in nearly every Christian church, nearly every Christian child’s bedroom…and in living rooms. It was in the pockets of soldiers going off to war... in was in hospitals and offices, It hung in many school rooms, even in sandwich shops….everywhere!

According to Stephen Prothero who wrote American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, the image meant to depict Jesus became Jesus…at least in the minds of many, many Americans. …in the minds of women, men, children, no matter what color they were… they knew what Jesus looked like.

The portrait and the person it represents, became one and the same. When that happened Jesus was no longer “belonged” to the institutional church founded upon his legacy. He no longer belonged to this or that worshiping congregation. Rather, the Jesus (the man we really “know” only a tiny amount of information about) became someone familiar and instantly recognizable to anyone and everyone. The man, the Son of God, the Savior, the Christ, previously known primarily through the interpretive lens of the various Christian faith traditions, became everyone’s always available superhero.

The portrait meant to make us think about the person known to us through the books of the New Testament, became the hero one need not study the bible to know…and know well.

The image created by an illustrator for a marketing campaign became an icon…and helped further what some call the “Jesus-only-religion”. Individuals with no relationship with a faith community could love, adore, feel good about their relationship with, appeal to, ask favors of, claim to know this Jesus. Our Unitarian forebears played a part in the creation of this distinctly American phenomena: Jesus standing alone, separate from God, separate from the church, separate from the history of doctrine and dogma…. This Jesus, Jesus as icon, as an always available superhero, could take on whatever form the dominant American popular culture needed him to.

Even as the golden haired, savior with the Northern European features started to be replaced by a diversity of images that reflected the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society that began to come forth as early as the 1960’s, little to nothing about those images had anything to do with the “real” Jesus.

So he looked like what we needed him to.

Yet if he was so mutable, so able to change his features to suit what we needed him to be…was there any “truth” there?

You could find a black Jesus, a muscular Jesus, a hippie, Jesus with a creepy “come-hither” look, and on and on. There is even a famous painting of a black “female” Jesus.

It was still rare for any of the newer images of Jesus to have much or anything to do with who or what he might have looked like or any of the many understandings of who he was for his first century followers….

Skeptics wondered if there was any truth to be found. Is it all made up? If it is, is it alright for any of us who care to, to just pick out what we need to be true?

How could some UU's in the light of this sort of skepticism call themselves Christian?  Why would some UU’s secretly or even boldly…if they dared…claim to be UU and Christian?

Aren’t we the reasonable people who search for the truth?

(You know these days, it just didn't happen if there is no video evidence!

Look on the cover of your order of service!

Not very long very forensic anthropologists decided to find “the truth”. They gathered data from skeletal remains from Jesus’ time frame and where he was raised. Then they used computer graphics and all the latest technology to create an image that is the best we can “accurately” show what Jesus and the people of his time and situation looked like.

What do you think?

How do you feel about this guy?

Is this a Jesus you could admire?

I am guessing this image might be shocking for some of you. Or maybe it isn’t because you stopped thinking about Jesus a long time ago. You never believed so much of what seemed so unbelievable about the guy…and any relationship with him is in the distant past. Or you never had a relationship with him in the first place.

But maybe you wonder if there is something there. …especially when you admire people like Martin Luther King, Jr.. who found something immensely powerful in the example of this guy…. And how he lived.

No matter how we might feel ….Jesus won’t go away…

In the pamphlet “The Faith of a UU Christian” the Rev. Stephen Kendrick says; “Nothing has ever been simple about Jesus. He confounded and confused people in his own time, and so it is no wonder UU’s today are still wrestling with him, his message, and the tradition that claims him as a God.”

He goes on to say; “…I believe that people who are attracted to a place of free faith, spiritual seeking, and non-dogmatic religion have much to gain by grappling with the legacy of this teacher whose power and charisma seem undimmed from two thousand years ago.”

I’m sharing this image of Jesus to try to shake you up. If I can get some kind of reaction out of you….maybe, just maybe …we can move together into a space where we can get some distance from our assumptions…about what we have been taught in the past or what we vaguely assume we know…

Some space in which to move away from where we have been, to stand in the in-between…

It is this space….where you may be able to give your religious imagination some freedom…freedom to move…..

To get there you’ve got to smash some idols…

For, even though they can and do serve great purposes….they can also obscure our perception of the “real thing”…

Icons, created by humans to point to the sacred, can become the sacred. It is like mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon.

We come from a religious tradition that guards against that. Those Unitarians that had a hand in creating Jesus as the American Icon, meant well by cutting and pasting the gospels…taking out all the unbelievable miracles, removing all the inconsistencies…removing what couldn’t be true according to their understanding of reality. They were smashing idols.

We have some of our own to destroy…

Many of us of a certain background or of a particular generation did that with Christianity. It couldn’t be the faith for us, because too much was unbelievable…didn’t ring true.

Jesus may be making a comeback.

Jesus may be making a comeback among UU’s.

This forensic anthropologist rendering you have in your hand depicts a simple, working class man.

This rendering you have in your hand may be quite nearly accurate…

If it is, or if it might be…does that make a difference for you?

Nothing has ever been simple about Jesus. There is very, very little “proof”, other than accounts written by those who believed in him, that he even existed.

What he might mean to you, or to the person sitting next to you is and probably always will be a matter of faith. The holy work we ought to be doing is not precluding what our faith journeys might move us to believe. What we ought to be doing is freeing ourselves from whatever keeps us stuck in place. Sometimes, we get stuck in the business of rejecting what doesn’t sound right or feel logical. Searching for what feels right and what brings love and justice is important spiritual work. UU’s have for too long gotten stuck in the place of rejecting the unbelievable miracles of Christianity. We have for too long gotten stuck in the place of rejecting the unreasonable doctrines and dogmas of Christianity.

The work that we ought to be doing is not just freeing ourselves, but also moving into a place where once freed we then can creatively imagine what new symbols or not yet seen images might better channel our spiritual yearnings.

Martin Luther King, Junior was a good-looking man.  He was a fabulous preacher.  But adoring him is like mistaking the finger for the moon.

What if Jesus looked like a common, rough working man? What if his hair was unwashed, his skin ruddy from too much sun. What if his nose and his brow were thick?

Would you adore him? Want to hear what he has to say?

What if this man in this picture said to you: “Did you feed the hungry? Visit the widows? Go see the prisoners?”

Would you find a way not to listen? …not to see? …not to do what is asked of you?