As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I have spent much of my career in active opposition to government, while at the same time appreciating a government that is founded on oneís right to be opposed to it. That is why I have never been completely comfortable acting as an agent of the state. I do this in one and only one area: when performing a marriage.
I have long thought that it ought to be un-constitutional for the state to decide who can officiate a marriage or get married. I have also thought that this idea, like so many I hold, would never, ever become widely accepted. On this topic, I may be wrong. Recently I have heard several scholars, politicians and advocates across the political spectrum, say it was time for the state to divest of its power over marriage.
The argument goes like this. The state does have a compelling interest in seeing that contracts between people are fulfilled, that children are protected, and so on. However, "marriage" is a religious rite or sacrament. The state should no more decide who can perform or take part in this rite than it decides who can take communion, be bar mitzvah'ed or lead our May Pole Dance.
I suggest rather that two people who wish to enter into a civil union may do so, provided they have the ability to enter into any kind of contract. People, who then wish to participate in the ritual of marriage, may do so, according to their religion or beliefs. I can perform same sex weddings. If some other clergy chooses not to, fine. I suspect many heterosexual couples would choose only the civil union, just as many today have civil marriages at a courthouse.
Could civil unions be expanded to more than two people? I donít know contract law well enough to comment, but I suspect there would be a way. Why not?
Many say that same sex marriage is now just a matter of time. Yet justice delayed is justice denied. While waiting for the younger generation's values to become dominant, or waiting for my logical and constitutional reform to be enacted, the New Jersey legislation is seemingly close to making same sex marriages legal. As I become aware of ways we can support this legislation, I will share them.
This threatens to become one of those issues where an intransigent few obstruct social just for the many; when the people have moved on while the law lags behind. Anything we can do as a congregation or as individuals to further this cause, we should do.
Somebody once said that Ralph Waldo Emerson was not an iconoclast, despite his many new beliefs, concepts and approaches to spirituality and religion. After, all, "iconoclast" literally means "breaking icons." Emerson did not break icons; he gently removed them from the altar.
This remains a good model for Unitarian Universalism. I have tried, if not always succeeded, not to do violence to the many icons of orthodoxy. Rather I have sought to find wider meaning in them, and, on occasion, to set new icons next to them. In the case of the many and long-suppressed images of female deities, I have tried to aid in the effort to restore them.
There is no idea that has taken on more iconic meaning of late than "change." It is the very nature of change that often separates ideologies. Reduced to the lowest common denominator, it seems to me that conservatives simply think that change is bad, and liberals think it is good. In either case, to use the current commentator's cliche, one thing is for certain: change is hard.
Another important aspect of change is how it is facilitated, especially when change of a very high order is hoped for. The traditional way of bringing on such change is war. The bigger the war, the bigger the change. Various fundamentalists believe that monumental change, and therefore monumental war, loom just over the horizon. One now hears that, according to some ancient calendar or another, the world will come to an end in 2012. While throughout history others have set dates and, obviously, been proven wrong, eventually somebody will get it right, though I personally believe that the human species will have long since evolved into something else before our planet is ready to cash in.
In the meantime, I intend to pursue the idea that profound change requires neither war nor devastating destruction. I continue to believe, with just enough evidence to keep me believing it, that humans will somehow find the common will to enable the planet and all life forms upon it, to live and continue to sustain life.
Passover, Easter, May Day, Opening Day and just plain Spring certainly help me with this belief. So does being part of a community of people who see the possibilities within us, not just the liabilities.
Change we can believe in. If this were only a political slogan to replace one group of politicians with another, it would not be worth repeating five minutes after election day. For me it means continuing to work for social justice, equality and ecological sustainability, knowing that this is not working for three things but for one thing. One very big thing.
Some of us may be familiar with Dr. Mindy Fullilove's book Root Shock. Its subtitle is "How tearing up city neighborhoods hurts America, and what we can do about it." It draws upon examples from around the country, including many from Essex County. As a part of the first class that attended desegregated public schools in Orange, she has experienced the best and worst of the urban experience.
From 7-8:30 PM on the Mondays of April, beginning April 6, I will be leading a book discussion of Root Shock in the Minister's Study. I have also offered this through the University of Orange, so we may also have folks from the larger community.
The book is available at Amazon.com. Please read the first two chapters before the first meeting.
For decades there has been some thought, both within and without our congregation, that staying in Orange has been a foolish, or quixotic thing to do. Yet, a fool persisting in his folly becomes wise. As one of the few, if not the only, Unitarian Universalist congregations in New Jersey within a truly urban environment, we have the opportunity to contribute not only to the revitalization of Orange, but also to helping Unitarian Universalism better understand and respond to its own avowed mission of social justice. Having some of us come together and learn from Mindy's fine work, and talk together about what we can do about it, will be a good step toward a wider and more skilful ministry, both for our congregation and our movement.
Ah, the news that spring training has begun! While we northeasterners shiver, deep within the bowels of winter, we are warmed with the knowledge that our baseball teams have begun to pull themselves together once again. Yes, we are assured, winter does not endure. Persephone will again dance upon the land.
I remember my father and his brothers discussing at this time of year, what seeds would be planted in the fields they cultivated in common, a mutual inheritance. One year, corn; another, soybeans. I always rooted for corn, since its tall stalks made meandering through the fields a far more mysterious adventure than the beans, which never made it above one's knees.
I was taught at an early age it would not be wise to plant corn every year. And so it is with our lives. I never thought of Groundhog Day as a religious holiday until I saw the movie of that name, when I realized that the little animal's shadow was all we had left of the glorious Imbolc pagan holiday, also called St. Brigit's feast day.
As the movie showed so well, if you want to get different results: do things differently! You want something more nourishing to your soil this year than corn, then you must not plant corn! So obvious, yet so hard to apply in our own lives, and in the lives of our organizations, political, social, or, of course, religious.
We are just beginning a process of looking at membership issues in our congregation: how we can better serve our members and reach out to others. Unlike Bill Murray's character in the movie, we are not afforded endless opportunities. Rather like our baseball teams, this is an excellent season to plan, inventory our resources, and encourage each other. Come the fall, again like the teams and my family's fields, we will see how wise the planting, how faithful the cultivation, how bountiful the harvest.
Last year I wrote "Could a Unitarian Universalist be Elected President?" I concluded in the negative, as I assumed the electorate would insist on an orthodox believer, if not a fundamentalist. As Mark Twain said more or less: "It's not what you donít know; it's what you know for certain that turns out to be mistaken."
If Unitarian Universalists are going to claim Thomas Jefferson, Ted Sorenson and Kurt Vonnegut, they might as well claim Barack Obama. In the first chapter of Dreams from My Father he writes about his grandfather in 1960:
In the back of his mind he had come to consider himself as something of a freethinker Ė bohemian, even. He wrote poetry on occasion, listened to jazz, counted a number of Jews he'd met in the furniture business as his closest friends. In his only skirmish into organized religion, he would enroll the family in the local Unitarian Universalist congregation; he liked the idea that Unitarians drew on the scriptures of all the great religions.
He goes on to say that his grandmother, who died the day before the election, was more skeptical and stubbornly independent, insisting on thinking everything through for herself. She sounds like she would have been more at home as a Universalist!
In any case, his grandparents were among the very few who would have accepted, even in Hawaii, their daughter dating, and having a son with, a very Black African man. In years to come they were on several occasions Obama's primary care givers. One can safely surmise that the local congregation was one of the few supportive institutions for them, even if they never became more than marginal members.
By the longstanding rules of the South, one drop of blood makes you Black. Then by the same rule I claim Barack Obama as a Unitarian Universalist! That he later chose membership in a liberal Christian church with a strong social justice ministry is exactly what we encourage our children to do: develop their own minds and spirits, and channel them into institutions that make a difference.
That's what Unitarian Universalist churches do: support people like Obamaís grandparents: people who seek to be progressive, lead lives and raise children with expansive spirits and compassion minds. And thatís why it is so important for every UU church to be welcoming and let their local community know where they are and what they stand for. You never know when some freethinking bohemian poet might need our help raising a grandchild!
I've been giving Christmas sermons and writing holiday newsletters for over thirty years. Of course, "hope" has often been the theme. For those among us who relate well to our Judeo-Christian traditions, clearly hope is a primary part of the holiday. For those given to more secular expressions, the coming of the light is a great metaphor of the longing for justice and equality. The pagans have a big party and invite everyone!
Never in my life have I seen this season so linked with real peoples' real day-to-day hopes for their own future. This presidential election has released years, generations, of hope from across all lines of difference. This is all the more reason that those of us given to reflection and examination keep looking deeply at what is happening and what lies ahead.
The hope I have held for the world during my life heretofore has arisen from the ashes of disappointment and loss. I have hoped as an element of my personal belief, not from any expectation I have for the world. Hope was abstract, distant, an intellectualized concept to be contemplated, or a fragile emotion to be nurtured, not a reality to be experienced.
Now everything has changed. Or has it? What has changed is the opportunities that appear before us. What has not changed is how we need to respond to events. We ought to face our future using a blend of reason and revelation, just as those first Unitarian heretics did in New England during the early years of our nation.
Reason will help us direct our energies in useful ways. Revelation will keep the fires of those energies burning. Our approach to religion not only gives us the means, but in fact requires of us, to be at the same time both faithful and thoughtful. This year brings a different approach to the holidays. The rituals will be the same, the decorations just as shiny, but the hope is a lot more down to earth.
Following worship on Sunday, November 9, I will lead a meeting for those interested in becoming Worship Associates. This is a fairly new concept within Unitarian Universalism, and, as with many such concepts, we are free to adapt whatever process fits our congregation.
A Worship Associate is a member who is well-versed in creating and conducting worship, from setting up altars and chalices, developing orders of worship, finding readings and music, to creating and delivering sermons.
Many of our members have experience in these areas, but there has been no systematic way that we can invite people to acquire them, nor support and guide their efforts. Worship Associates attempts to change this: creating a safe place to learn worship arts.
This is a natural component of shared ministry. Worship is still the center of the UU experience, so a congregation cannot truly share ministry if they do not share worship, including the pulpit.
At this first meeting we will outline the basic elements of worship, and how they are put together in a cohesive whole to best serve our worship needs. Though there are as many ways to create worship as there are preachers, I will share some of what has proven useful to me. I will also be available to coach anyone who wishes to develop these skills.
Unitarian Universalist congregations contain so many interesting stories, experiences and points of view. Worship Associates attempts to bring this richness to worship in new and exciting ways.
In my last sermon, I spoke briefly about John Newton, who wrote 'Amazing Grace.' He was a slave trader. I have heard it said that he had a vision, and then turned his ship around and quit trading slaves. He did not. He did survive a terrible storm at sea, and, determining that he was saved only by the grace of God, thereafter decided to treat his slaves much more kindly. But he continued in the trade while advocating better treatment for slaves. He and others like him, though to us it seems they moved with glacial slowness, did enable the next generation to take further steps, leading to the abolition of slavery in England in 1833.
How could he continue in the slave trade? It seems horrifying that a person could take such tepid action against such monumental injustice. What grace history grants the present! It enables us to see clearly what those at the time could not. It allows us to think well about ourselves. Surely, if we had lived then, we would have been bolder.
But we live today. The demands of justice are as great as at any other point in history. How will history judge us?
There is an election coming. While I have serious questions with the way the United States chooses its candidates, conducts its elections and governs, I believe that who wins elections matters. If our Unitarian Universalist faith means anything, it means that every one of us has time to give and work to do. Now.
A quick web search finds that there is some disagreement as to the exact percentage of life that is "showing up." It seems to vary between a simple majority and as much as 90 percent. One thing is for certain: Woody Allen is among those who believe it is a very large percentage.
Eschewing the question for now as to what exactly is that ten or twenty percent of life that is not showing up, let us move ahead to what showing up is, its relationship to life, and why we ought to do it.
Showing up requires not pre-judging your performance or anyone else's. Expecting yourself to be at your best before showing up is a prescription for either judging yourself too easily, or simply not showing up very often. None of us is at our best very often, or it wouldn't be our best. What we show up with most of the time, is not our best, it's our ordinary. One must accept the reality of our own ordinariness if we are to show up very much at all.
Nobody we meet is at his or her best all the time, either. That doesn't excuse any of us for being wretched on a regular basis, but it does make a good argument for striving toward an agreeable consistency.
All of which is a way of saying what Unitarian Universalists, even ministers, have a difficult time saying: "Come to church."
Toward the end of last spring's worship year, I was asked what could we do to increase church growth. I said, "Come to church." Attend worship regularly. Attend our special events and social gatherings. That is the single most important act that any church member does.
Many of our members show up very frequently, but others of us are less so. Sometimes this is what feels best. Sometimes one would like to attend more, but it just doesn't happen. For a congregation our size, frequent attendance is extremely important.
In only one year as your minister, I have been impressed and touched by many of our worship services and events. They are among the most meaningful and joyous that I have experienced. At least part of what makes them so is that we had a critical mass participating. Any visitors wishing to join us should see us at our best, with as many of us present as possible.
Regardless of how important showing up may be in life, it is essential for a small congregation. I don't claim to have many answers, but I have the answer to "What can I do to help our church grow?" Show up.
As many of you know, I'm a big baseball fan. My team is the Detroit Tigers. It is a way of keeping my mid-western roots nourished without actually having to live there. It is a good symbolic exercise. Life in that rustbelt, automobile graveyard is often disappointing. So is rooting for the Tigers.
In the off-season, the team made several high-profile deals, the sum of which caused no small number of prognosticators to conclude that the MoTown nine would not merely excel, but prevail.
As I write this, the Tigers are in last place. Rooting for the Tigers requires decades of stoic devotion, which, thus far in my lifetime, has yielded exactly two World Series championships, the last in 1984.
Being a Tiger fan is not as woeful as rooting for the Cubs, who have not had a championship in a century, or the Mariners, who have done very little of note in their entire, if limited, existence. It is, however, similar to rooting for liberalism to triumph in politics.
Even when liberalism acquires a few heavy hitters, it seldom results in a winning team.
But it's a long season. There is still time to turn this around, get everybody on the same page, and fulfill the potential everybody saw back before the games began.
I'm not counting on it. I've seen defeat snatched from the jaws of victory too often.
There is, of course, a key difference between baseball and politics.
Baseball really matters.
Politics, on the other hand, is a shadow show, a diversion from the real issues and their solutions.
Fortunately, the Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations are not political organizations. They are religious. We are not, in reality, an extension of the left wing of the Democratic Party. We do not bar Republicans from membership. Really, we don't.
Therefore, as the long election season draws out to what shows every sign today of disappointing, even enraging, the vast majority of citizens no matter who is the last candidate standing, it is our calling as Unitarian Universalists to continue to work for peace and justice. Equally important, perhaps more, is our task to provide consolation, and inspire the will to move forward in a world where hopes and dreams are subverted by political processes, which change leaders frequently without changing much about how power is distributed or used.
But remember, every few decades, even the Tigers win it all.