Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Season of Peace

I look forward to Christmas partly because I get to hear Handel’s Messiah a lot; it’s one of my favorite pieces of classical music. In it we hear what is written in the Hebrew scriptures about the child that will be born; Jesus the Messiah is hailed by many titles: “wonderful, Counselor” and, in Isaiah ch 9:6: “…his name shall be called…The Prince of Peace.” And so we hear Christmas described as the season of peace – we aspire to this, rather than it being a reality…and maybe this Christmas season it seems further away than ever.

Congregational Study/Action Issues (CSAIs) are issues selected at our General Assembly by Unitarian Universalist member congregations for four years of study, reflection and action. The 2006-2010 Study/Action Issue for the Unitarian Universalist Association asked this question:
"Should the Unitarian Universalist Association reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war to resolve disputes between peoples and nations and adopt a principle of seeking just peace through nonviolent means?"

This Study/Action Issue was proposed as an effort to develop an alternative to both just war theory and pacifism. Unitarian Universalist ethicist Sharon Welch suggests that "a third way" exists that includes "joint efforts to prevent war, stop genocide, and repair the damage caused by armed conflict." She calls this third way peacemaking, and identifies 3 components:

Peacekeeping — early intervention to stop genocide and prevent large scale war.
Peacemaking —bringing hostile parties to agreement, negotiating equitable and sustainable peace agreements that include attention to the pressing need for post conflict restoration and reconciliation.
Peacebuilding – the creation of long term structures for redressing injustice and resolving ongoing conflict as well as addressing the root causes of armed conflict, economic exploitation, and political marginalization. (Rev. Lt. Seanan Holland, Gail Forsyth-Vail, Rev. Dr. Monica L. Cummings, The Military Ministry Toolkit for Congregations, UUA, 2014)

Just war means that waging war is justified in some instances, and in the Greco-Roman world Aristotle outlined acceptable categories of warfare. Early Christianity developed its own version of this theory, and we see in the time of the Crusades the divinely justified war with Christ as a warrior-hero. Pacifism is a political or religious stance rejecting all forms of violence against people, and we can also trace this back to early Christianity to theologians such as Origen.

At times during the history of this country, Unitarian and Universalist sentiment has supported just war, and also at times, has advocated for peace. Modern pacifism in this country dates back to the abolitionist movement, in which of course many Unitarians and Universalists played key roles.

Most Unitarians opposed the War of 1812. The Re. Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote the Christmas carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” as a peace hymn in response to the Mexican American War. But Unitarians overwhelmingly supported the Union cause during the Civil War, in which 30 ministers served as chaplains.  The poet Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic as an anthem for the Union Army.

A decade later, however, appalled by the slaughter of the Franco-Prussian War, she issued a proclamation calling to establish Mother’s Day in the name of peace: “Say firmly: Our husbands shall not come to us reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.” (MMT)

Many Unitarians supported World War I as making the world safe for democracy, and also World War II; as we know the UU Service Committee saved many people from Nazi persecution, and Unitarians collected war relief funds. The Church of the Larger Fellowship began during World War II, as a way for Unitarian Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines to stay connected to their faith while they were serving overseas. (David Pyle, http://uumm.blogspot.com/2007/01/what-does-it-mean-to-be-uu-who-serves.html)

The country split over the Vietnam War and so did UU congregations. Many clergy, as well as many people in the pews, strongly opposed the war on moral grounds and took public stances against the war. Some questioned the morality of war itself and moved toward or into a pacifist position. Others in the pews did not agree, believing that the Vietnam War was a justified use of United States military; many of them simply left Unitarian Universalism. (MMT)

Within the recent past, three Unitarian Universalists have served as U.S. secretary of defense—Elliott Richardson in the Nixon administration, and William J. Perry and William S. Cohen in the Clinton years. (MMT)

And most recently, attitudes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been more nuanced. Religious leaders and people in the pews expressed support, opposition, or ambivalence about them, while expressing agreement on all sides that we must support those who are serving in the military and fighting in the wars. (MMT)

What is more, our understanding of the intersection of culture and experience, class and privilege, gender, race and ethnicity has problematized wholesale condemnation of those who fight our wars. During the Civil War, men with money could pay a substitute to fight for them. During the Vietnam War, those with connections could avoid combat by securing positions in the National Guard, or, like Dick Cheney, avoid service altogether with college and graduate school deferments. (MMT)

In 1973 the military became an all-volunteer force, and that began a change in the kinds of people who joined and why they joined. Why do people choose to enlist? Besides family history with the military, and one’s personal opinions about it, other factors might be race and ethnicity, age, gender, and class. Just this week all combat jobs have been opened to women, so will that mean that more females will enlist? The GI Bill made military service worth it for those who wanted to go into higher education and get a degree. And many people join because they can get out of the disadvantaged environments they come from, they can improve their lives.

The demographics from 2011 show us that almost one third of active duty members identity themselves as a minority; the majority (over 80%) of officers have a Batchelor’s degree or higher. Just over 5% of enlisted members have a Batchelors degree. Nearly one-half of Active Duty enlisted personnel are 25 years old or younger.  Georgia has one of the highest active duty populations, and of course we know that Ft Gordon is growing in numbers. (MMT) And that brings me to ask:

If we were to have a discussion about military service and our congregation, how would it go? How does our congregation approach and welcome military personnel and veterans?

Although I believe that our congregation is one that does welcome our military, the lived experience of UU families in some of our congregations suggests that we are falling short of being welcoming places for all. In particular, families have reported treatment that seems to be unfairly based on stereotypes of people in the military and their families.

There are also other issues for the military families that we don’t think about. Most active duty personnel return home without serious injury, but at least 15% of those who have spent time in war zones have post traumatic stress disorder (MMT). Most of us are never confronted with having to shoot or be shot at, kill or be killed.

Such an experience is bound to have repercussions in one's spiritual life, understanding of oneself, and the limits of what one can endure. Ironically, in fact, that makes UUs who have served in a war zone much more likely to have given much more thought and reflection on deep issues of faith than some of our members who have never come face to face with imminent death or serious injury.

An active duty member who attended a UU Leadership School a couple of years ago casually mentioned during a conversation with one member that he was a Marine. She then introduced him as a Marine the whole day until he felt he had to tell everyone later that night. He asked people not to think of him as a Marine during the week, but only as Greg. Later during social time, a gay man told him that it was fascinating that as a military person, Greg had to "come out," and deal with other people's responses, whereas the gay man was fully accepted without question. (Welcoming Veterans and Military Families in Our Congregations and Communities, http://www.uua.org/international/action/conflict/iraq/32678.shtml)

Despite the Principles we affirm that we respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and that we promote freedom of conscience, “Members of the military have sometimes felt they must hide a crucial piece of their identity and life experience for fear that it will not be well received or accepted by Unitarian Universalists. “ (MMT) Maybe we should be seeking to learn from the experience of these military veteran UUs in our congregations, while at the same time realizing that many of these veterans still carry spiritual and physical wounds from their time in military service. To me the challenge is to learn to better minister to these veterans as part of our mission to build the Beloved Community. (Pyle, http://uumm.blogspot.com/2007/01/what-does-it-mean-to-be-uu-who-serves.html)

Going back to Sharon Welch’s Third Way, can we view military action through a ‘peacemaking lens’? Let me offer two quotes from the UUA Statement of Conscience document that came out of that CSAI issue “Creating Peace”.

The first quote is this:
For Unitarian Universalists, the exercise of individual conscience is holy work. Conscientious discernment leads us to engage in the creation of peace in different ways. We affirm a range of individual choices, including military service and conscientious objection (whether to all wars or particular wars), as fully compatible with Unitarian Universalism. For those among us who make a formal commitment to military service, we will honor their commitment,  welcome them home, and offer pastoral support. For those among us who make a formal commitment as conscientious objectors, we will… honor their commitment, and offer pastoral support. (MMT)

This even-handed respect for individual choice was also important to those who founded our congregation back in the 1950s; they were mostly people who worked as nuclear engineers at the Savannah River Plant. They went through the period of American history when Ban the Bomb demonstrators were opposing the work of the nuclear industry, with the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 fresh in the country’s memory.

Don Hostetler told me that he used to think a lot about his choice of career as a nuclear engineer. He remembers a time back in 1982, at a UU meeting in Charlotte, when he was enjoying the home hospitality of local church members. When they found that he worked at the Bomb Plant someone asked, How do you justify that?

It made him think so much, that later in the year he gave a sermon entitled: “How Do You Justify That?” By a strange coincidence, present in the congregation were some Buddhist peace marchers who were joining groups picketing outside the fence at the Savannah River Plant.

So during the week he said, he was inside the fence.
On Sunday, he was with many who were gathering outside the fence.

Don says, “I learned something interesting. Those inside the fence loved their children and believed what they are doing is in their children’s best interest. Those outside the fence loved their children and believed what they are doing is in their children’s best interest.”

And the second quote from the Statement of Conscience:
Our faith calls us to create peace, yet we confess that we have not done all we could to prevent the spread of armed conflict throughout the world. At times we have lacked the courage to speak and act against violence and injustice; at times we have lacked the creativity to speak and act in constructive ways; at times we have condemned the violence of others without acknowledging our own complicity in violence… This Statement of Conscience challenges individual Unitarian Universalists, as well as our congregations and Association, to engage with more depth, persistence, and creativity in the complex task of creating peace.          (MMT) 

I draw your attention to the sentence: “…at times we have condemned the violence of others without acknowledging our own complicity in violence”. It’s been pointed out to me that (interview with a minister, name withheld)
If anyone in America goes to globalrichlist.com and enters their household income, they'll realize they're among the global 1%.  No escaping it.  That inequity we enjoy, which affords us historically unprecedented safety, comfort, and wealth, is held in place by violence, of many kinds, at all levels.

If we're going to live in unjust excess, we need to be honest about how it's sustained—for example, how African countries are kept poor and robbed by the IMF.  All institutions are complicit in this violation, including universities, funded to research how to maintain empire (whether it's called economics or business studies).

But as part of sustaining the injustice we enjoy, we ask some people to more explicitly commit violence in our name--soldiers and cops. So, whether or not we believe they're "defending our freedom" or upholding empire, they serve, kill, and die in our name. We fail to see how our lives are complicit with the violence of empire, any more than most white people see their white privilege, or men theirs.”

Those who protest against the military-industrial complex might be surprised to know that many active service members and veterans are also against the way it has perpetuated a society where politicians make bad legislation and skew our domestic spending on ‘pork-barrel’ projects that even the military leaders have not asked for!

Dave Thut, writing in Quest for Meaning, says,
         “There is not a strong Unitarian Universalist military tradition to be sure.  But we do have a strong tradition of—and faith in—the democratic process.  In this country, we need people to carry out orders.  We must have no illusion about the fact that those orders are, in fact, ours. We should not allow ourselves to hide behind a  “not in my name” ethos that assumes that we are individually without culpability in what the society we live in asks of its military. While the soldier’s duty is to follow our orders (and they will do so), our job is…to “build a land where sisters and brothers anointed by God create peace.” …and one way to do this is to elect leaders who make war rare.

We can aspire to that but we still are dealing with military members who are deployed to, and who return from, war. It’s worth hearing what UU Military Chaplain Rev. Cynthia Kane says:

“Returning from… war are people—especially young people—with a crisis of faith, hurting and wounded to the core. For many of the service members, all they thought they believed about God and goodness is destroyed; they are looking for a way to make sense of their experiences and their lives.
The question for UU congregations is this: will we be the communities that can open our arms to these hurting people? Can we model how to move beyond assumptions about military members and their reasons for serving, and reach out to souls searching for another way of thinking, another way of being in the world?”
Then she answers her own question: “I believe we can. I believe we have the sensitivity and open-mindedness – especially to people with differing views and practices. After all, is this not the essence  of Unitarian Universalism? Freedom, reason, and tolerance…I believe we have the awareness of our own struggles and our own biases.”

“Most of all,” she concludes, “I believe we have the understanding that we who have made the choice to serve in the military have done so for our own particular reasons. Though initially my call to Navy chaplaincy did not make sense to me, it does now. Since conflict and fighting have been a part of human history since the beginning of time, then for me to do the work of peace is more than just practicing peace, I must understand the making of war.”

Whatever we decide about our personal attitudes toward war and peace, as Unitarian Universalists we can be guided by our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and in the need for compassion in human relations. Marya Mannes writes, “All wars derive from lack of empathy: the incapacity of one to understand and accept the likeness or difference of another”. Those Unitarian Universalists who disagree on issues of war and peace should at least agree that our faith supports all of those who serve, who have served, and their families, otherwise they too are displaying the very lack of empathy that causes war and all forms of violence.

Paul Rasor, one of the theologians who put forward supporting arguments for the Third Way, warned against political correctness, saying “The ostracism suffered by those who held minority positions during World War I and the Vietnam War reflects an unfortunate streak of illiberal self-righteousness that runs deep”.

He hoped that by drawing on the commonalities between the just war and pacifist traditions and by emphasizing our Unitarian Universalist theological principles, he might show that it is possible to formulate a position that can be endorsed by pacifists and just war advocates alike, but he admitted, “a question that haunts me is whether our members who serve in the military would feel less welcome if my proposal were adopted as a denominational stance. I truly hope not.”

COURTNEY E. MARTIN, reflecting in her column for On Being this week on the Planned Parenthood shooting in her hometown of a Colorado Springs, writes: “What horror we manifest when we cloak ourselves in abstract morality. What cruelty. My home has taught me many things, but first and foremost, I think, it’s this: there is grave danger in becoming invested in a simple moral story about anything or anyone. The next step is dehumanization. And the step after that is, in fact, a full stop — violence.”

What simple moral stories have we been telling ourselves about other people, other peoples, in order to justify violence? What work do each of us need to do to open our hearts, really open our hearts, to our first principle, and respect the worth and dignity of each person, no matter who they are, what their job is, what their skin color is, what their faith tradition is?

In this season of peace we must not allow the continuation of war, and the all-too-common acts of violence in our cities, numb our passion for peace, or make us cynical about humankind. Remember Margaret Mead’s famous quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing declared that “peace without can come only with peace within”. And that is what I wish for each and every one of us here today…to go in peace, believe in peace, create peace.

Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz

Monday, November 30, 2015

Why Music Matters

Many of you will no doubt be stalking the aisles of local stores in the coming weeks, willing Christmas shoppers or not, and you should pay attention to what the soundscape around you is trying to do to you. Music matters because it is fundamental to our brains, and marketing experts know that; they try to tap our ‘purchasing instincts’ with music as we shop.

And you may be frazzled after an hour – or 5 minutes – in the mall, and then get into the car, turn on the engine, and crank up the radio…a little bit of Mozart or Metallica – to each her own! – may soothe your nerves and help refresh you in mind and body.

Music matters; Ralph Waldo Emerson knew that; he said,
“Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle out wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto.” (http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/136523-music-takes-us-out-of-the-actual-and-whispers-to)

Many ancient philosophers and theologians also knew that music matters:

“Qui bene cantat bis orat” (They who sing pray twice.)—St. Augustine

“Without music life would be a mistake.—Friedrich Nietzsche

“I write the songs that make the whole world sing” - Barry Manilow (Yeah, he’s pretty ancient!)

But music matters because it can evoke strong emotions, and we can remember lyrics and chords from music, and indeed musical experiences, that affected us a long time ago. I remember the first time as a teenager I heard “Hey, Jude”; it was bedtime and I had the radio on and the DJ announced the first play of the brand new Beatles song.

I remember kneeling down next to the table and holding my speakers to the sides of my head so I could hear every little note and every last sound of it. I’m sure that you have those kinds of memories too.

Music matters because we can express ourselves through singing, in the shower sometimes, or with instruments, and when we do it together it can be wonderful. I took part in a pulpit exchange last Sunday with the Rev Kevin Tarsa, and after the service in the Beaufort church one of its members came up to me and said, we’re a church that sings; and I almost replied, well the Augusta church is a church that sings, as if there can only be one UU congregation to make that claim!

But there is no doubt that this is a congregation that sings, and a big part of that is because of who is leading the music and shaping our love of music. Joe has such a wonderful gift of artistry, and if left to itself, that talent could produce a musician who is very precious about that gift.

This week’s On Being with Krista Tippett had a feature on the Indigo Girls, called “Music and Finding God in Church and Smoky Bars” – what a perfect way to define Joe Patchen’s life! The musicians are quoted as seeing “music as a continuum of human existence, intertwined with spiritual life in a way that can’t be pinned down”. We are indeed fortunate to have someone who personifies this description, and who wants to share his love of music with others; Joe is generous with people who want to dip their toes in the music scene of UUCA.

When I began coming to this church 10 years ago, I think I could only stand it for 3 Sundays before I approached him to ask if I could join the choir… and he was very gracious and accepting, even though he didn’t know me or even if I could carry a tune. He has composed music and recorded cds, which are for sale online, and Jerry and Paula Goldman helped a few years ago to get some of his work published; he teaches piano, and he plays with other local musicians all over the CSRA… you could say that music is Joe’s life.

So when he was commissioned to compose a piece of music to commemorate the 25th anniversary of being our music director, he came up with such an interesting idea: he put together the 19th century words of American Unitarian and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson with his own creation, a tune that evokes American gospel music. This Thanksgiving holiday we have been acutely aware of the legacy of this nation, which is built on the search for freedom and the reality of diversity, and to me this new composition exemplifies this.

Since I’ve already told you about the legend that is Joe Patchen, let me tell you a little bit about the legend that is Emerson who, biographer Lawrence Buell writes, was always ready "to stray from paths of common wisdom into trains of thought that seem offbeat, bizarre, and sometimes downright scandalous." (Emerson By Lawrence Buell, p.5)

As a young man entering the ministry, Emerson did so partly due to that career being one open to intellectuals of his time.

But in 1832, at the age of twenty-nine and grieving the death of his young wife Ellen, he gave a sermon announcing that he could no longer in conscience administer Holy Communion, because he did not believe Jesus meant for this to be an ongoing practice. This effectively ended his career in the church, but allowed him to take on another role to which intellectuals gravitated, and that was public speaking.

A good thing too, because in 1837 he gave another shocking performance, this time a Phi Beta Kappa address at his alma mater, Harvard.

It’s known as "The American Scholar" speech, and he used it to trash intellectuals for their “reliance on tradition, Europe, books, formalities, and secondhand ideas instead of on creative intelligence operating upon the actual world of nature and society. Man’s thinking must not be subdued by his instruments. Books are for the scholar's idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings."  (Harold Fromm, http://www.rwe.org/articles/373-overcoming-the-oversoul-emersons-evolutionary-existentialism.html)

And that was Emerson just getting warmed up; even greater upheaval followed in 1838 when he gave an address to the Harvard Divinity School. This time he criticized ministers for their use of scripture, church traditions, their adherence to dead customs, and he accused them of making “historical Christianity into a rigid myth of preposterous supernaturalisms.”

He said, "Men have come to speak of… revelation as [something] long ago given and done, as if God were dead." But revelation, he believed, was not a one-off but a “permanent aspect of human consciousness.”

Now some of us may recall the ‘God is dead’ controversy of the late 1960s, and we may think of Episcopalian Bishop John Spong as more recently championing revisionist theology… Spong with writings such as his essay "Christ and the Body of Christ: Is There a Future for the Christian Church?” He lists a few points that define that future, such as

“1. Theism, as a way of defining God is dead. God can no longer be understood with credibility as Being supernatural in power, dwelling above the sky and prepared to invade human history periodically to enforce the divine will. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless unless we find a new way to speak of God.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
3. The Biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.”

And so on, until the twelfth and final point about bigotry and prejudice concluding that “All human beings …must be respected for what each person is."

Hearing this list, many of us will say “there is not much new here that we hadn’t heard from Emerson one hundred fifty years before.” (Fromm, http://www.rwe.org/articles/373-overcoming-the-oversoul-emersons-evolutionary-existentialism.html)

After burning his bridges with academe and church by telling them what they should not think or believe, in 1841 Emerson wrote his essay on the Oversoul, which gives a real insight into what he does believe. Along with a rejection of dead traditions, as he saw them, he was drawn to ideas from European and Asian thinkers that get away from traditional theism.
Emerson describes  "a power / That works its will on age and hour": this power he calls the "Over-Soul," a “force that he feels is in every animate and inanimate object in the universe — namely, the presence of God.” (http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/e/emersons-essays/summary-and-analysis-of-the-oversoul/about-the-oversoul)

Is he espousing some sort of pantheism? It’s worth exploring what this could possibly mean, and here is how Emerson describes it:

“We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. . . .

All goes to show that the soul in man is . . . the background of our being… an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all. A man is the facade of a temple wherein all wisdom and all good abide. . . . When it breathes through his intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection, it is love. . . .”

What this means then is that the Oversoul “is the source of life itself. [Craig Pearson says that] This inner field of life has been given many names throughout the centuries.
For Laozi it is the Tao. For Plato it is the Good and the Beautiful. Aristotle calls it Being, Plotinus the Infinite, Jesus the kingdom of Heaven within. In Judaism it is known as Ein Sof, “the endless one”. (Craig Pearson, Ph.D., http://www.tm.org/blog/enlightenment/ralph-waldo-emerson/)

But while it differs in name “it is the same universal, unbounded field of consciousness that rests within each of us… and [that] which gives rise to nature itself.” (Pearson) Just as Emerson says, there is “no ceiling between our heads and the heavens above us”…

In other words, Emerson saw human beings as completely woven into the material web of the universe. He was already excited by the “open-endedness of scientific discovery” that “coordinated well with his sense of evolving life, that reality was ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. His visit in 1833 to the Museum of Natural History in Paris was a powerful moment molding his theology and spirituality, and he recorded his thoughts in his notebook.

There he saw specimens of insects, birds, and animals artfully arranged to reveal their evolutionary history, which was in his words "an occult relation between the very scorpions and man." It seems that he sensed "the organizing idea which had created them." (Fromm, http://www.rwe.org/articles/373-overcoming-the-oversoul-emersons-evolutionary-existentialism.html)

And so in a lecture from 1858 we hear him expressing his appreciation of evolution and his rejection of separating the spirit from the flesh:

“If there be but one substance or reality, and that is body, and it has the quality of creating the sublime astronomy, of converting itself into brain, and geometry, and reason; if it can reason in Newton, and sing in Homer and Shakespeare, and love and serve as saints and angels, then I have no objection to transfer to body all my wonder and allegiance.”

Today Emerson might use the term Oversoul to mean everything human that comes from the biochemical stuff of which we’ve been made throughout our evolutionary history. In the words of Harold Fromm, “Nothing comes simply from "outside" because consciousness mediates all experience - and consciousness has evolved along with everything else. Nurture is not outside. Everything experienced by a subject is ultimately immanent.”

And so Joe has taken the magic of Emerson’s idea of the Oversoul – “the soul of the whole” where there is no separation between us and God – and he’s made it completely new through a context of Gospel music. Gospel means ‘good news’, and that genre of music, while having a direct and vital link to Africa, is distinctly American music.

Much of popular music today can be traced easily to gospel music, thanks to Thomas A. Dorsey, a former blues musician from Georgia.

After World War II, Dorsey, the son of a preacher, turned his talents to writing religious music, but his aim was to disassociate his modern style of black religious music from the days of slavery. He wrote “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “Peace in the Valley”.

Of course the Transcendentalists of Emerson’s time would be, at the very least, startled by this mode of expression for his Oversoul message, but as Joe told me,

The musical form allows us to take the inspirational - but perhaps abstract and worn - words of Emerson, and place them in a context where they are heard for what they are - very good news indeed for Transcendentalists, if not all UUs.  Old-fashioned gospel is very much, in attitude and delivery, good news, and the placement of Emerson's concepts in that musical form is meant to inspire and uplift, without denying the dignity of Emerson or of traditional gospel music.”

Ironically perhaps, for someone who popularized the idea of transcendence, Emerson came to believe that everything experienced by a person is ultimately immanent: and he eloquently describes the lack of any barrier between our consciousness and that of the source of life itself: “when it breaks through our intellect it is genius, when it breathes through our will it is virtue, when it breaks through our affections it is love.”

Music matters right here this morning, bringing us - through the skill of our music director - the beauty of these words of Emerson. They tell us that because all human experience is mediated through “the universal, unbounded field of consciousness”, “an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed”, “the background of our being” from which we can directly access the transcendent nature of reality.

There is no bar, no wall, no ceiling to keep us from experiencing what we feel and name as Divine, the Holy, the Endless One. This is good news, set to music that shares Emerson’s heartfelt message that “From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.”

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Beaufort
Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz
November 22 2015

May the door to this church be wide enough
to receive all who hunger for love, all who are  lonely for fellowship.
May it welcome all who have cares to unburden,
thanks to express, hopes to nurture.
May the door of this church be narrow enough
to shut out pettiness and pride, envy and enmity.
May its threshold be no stumbling block
to young or straying feet.
May it be too high to admit complacency, 
selfishness and harshness.
May this church be, for all who enter,
the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.
Come, let us worship together.

“May this synagogue be, for all who enter,
the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life…”
- from the Mishkan T’Filah

Our opening words this morning are adapted from a prayer from a Reformed Jewish prayer book, and they are sentiments that we all have in our hearts as we gather together in worship. After all, what would we be here for, if not to do as our 3rd principle asks, to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations?
The last 3 words there - in our congregations - are important, because anyone could follow their own spiritual path. One of the blessings of membership is taking on the responsibility of encouraging our members to grow spiritually alongside each other.
 And as members we covenant with one another. Covenants began in the ancient world as a way of contracting between rulers and their people, and they are important in Judeo-Christian history and theology.
 When our religious forebears settled in this country, they kept the free church tradition alive by creating covenants such as the Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline, which was written by the New England Puritans in 1648 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is a covenant of mutual promise.
Forrest Church paraphrased the Puritans' covenant like this:
We pledge to walk together
In the ways of truth and affection,
As best we know them now
Or may learn them in the days to come,
That we and our children may be fulfilled
And that we may speak to the world
In words and actions
Of peace and goodwill.

When we UUs read our covenants I wonder if we reflect on the obligation that we are asked to assume. After all, a covenant is a promise, and it’s a tool that helps us to reconcile ourselves within the community when we fall out of covenant.

Assuming good intentions is hard for a lot of people; we automatically think the worst when we hear things – usually from someone else – that a person has done. When we don’t agree with what we’re hearing, we begin to think negative or even awful things; we form assumptions that, if we were to voice out loud to that person, would quickly prove to be false assumptions. The covenant gives us a measuring stick; we can ask ourselves: when I am feeling this way, is it going against what I promised to do? Can I give this person a break, and stop assuming they are acting against my best interests or the church’s best interests?

So in our congregations, when we have a problem, when we don’t like what someone says (or what we’ve heard that they’ve said), instead of fuming silently, or expressing our anger to someone else in the parking lot, we are urged to approach the person with whom we differ directly – assuming good intentions – to ask them to speak with us about what is concerning us. Using ‘I’ statements, not interrupting people when they are trying to answer your question, not judging others by what they say…these are familiar parts of a behavioral covenant, heard in meetings of a committee or the board of trustees, and many of us feel these guidelines are vital to ensuring respectful communication in congregational life.

Wouldn’t it be grand if everyone everywhere lived more intentionally by a covenant of right relationship? I am not saying that all UUs abide fully by the covenants they affirm…but we at least have the ability to be called back to our best selves, because a covenant exists, for us, as a living document, as part of what makes us UU.

Unfortunately, today I am speaking to the topic of ‘when people don’t like what you say’ because we as Unitarian Universalists need to reflect on what we say and what we do, and how we deal with feelings that are evoked in people who disagree with us. People who feel threatened by our tolerance, our inclusivity, our liberal religious and creed-less faith tradition. Those who, in contrast to our opening words, do not value our invitation to all who enter our church to see it as “the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life”. They may see our congregation, instead, as a pathway to godlessness, to immorality, to false prophets, and of course, to damnation and hell. You may well know people who think that about us; some of you may have family members who think that, and this surely weighs heavily upon your hearts this morning.

On a Sunday morning in mid-July last year, “something pretty scary happened at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.  

Members of Operation Save America, a fundamentalist anti-choice organization that is known for descending upon abortion clinics and making life a living hell for anyone coming or going”, showed up as if to attend the church service. During the service they began to verbally harass the worshippers and to try to push anti-abortion pamphlets into their hands. Imagine being in the sacred, silent space of meditation just as many of us do every Sunday following Joys and Sorrows, and suddenly hearing shouts of “Abomination!” “You are going to hell!” (http://www.latimes.com/local/abcarian/la-me-ra-antiabortion-fanatics-invade-a-church-service-20140723-column.html#page=1)

What happened next was probably not what they expected to happen, because that Sunday the church was commissioning youth leaders of the UU College of Social Justice. These young people immediately circled around the protesters and began singing. The minister asked the protesters to respect the worship space and take their protest outside, and at that church leaders began guiding them out of the sanctuary. The police were called, and they arrived ready to intervene should things turn violent.
The director of religious education made sure the children were safe; unfortunately the protesters had surrounded the church and had identified the RE rooms. They pressed graphic pictures against the windows, so the children were moved to an inner room. A note was left on the classroom doors for parents so they would be aware of where the children had been taken.

The minister was able to continue with the service, preaching “about how fundamentalism offers only one path of truth, whereas liberal religion recognizes a diversity of paths, and that this offers us a significant way to engage the challenges of our world.” Once the service finished, Planned Parenthood members came to escort congregants safely back to their cars.

As we know, especially from being in the Bible Belt, the radicalized anti-choice movement is supported substantially by right-wing politicians, and it feels empowered to threaten women’s reproductive rights through legislation as well as public protest. Many of us UUs are members of Planned Parenthood; some have been present to demonstrate on behalf of women’s reproductive rights. We should all know that Planned Parenthood is in the front line of protecting women’s rights and are publicly vilified for doing so.
 The Supreme Court has ruled against safe boundaries of protest, so that anti-choice protesters can engage in intimidating behavior without buffer zones, inciting violence against abortion providers and those women who choose to use their services as they are entitled to do under the law.
 The LA Times reported that eight months ago, “the man in charge of the group that invaded the Unitarian church in New Orleans, a fundamentalist Christian minister named Philip “Flip” Benham, was convicted of stalking a North Carolina abortion doctor, even passing out “wanted” posters of the physician. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation and ordered to stop the harassment. Benham’s group, Operation Save America, has blockaded clinic entrances, violated the privacy of doctors and abortion clinic workers, and harassed women seeking abortions.”
But in spreading their message of hate wider, in New Orleans they violated the sacred space of sanctuary… “or as Benham described it on his website, “presented the truth of the Gospel in this synagogue of Satan.”” (LA Times)
 As a writer for UU World, Krista Taves, says, “This protest was a violation of our sacred space, and when I say “our” I mean it.  We Unitarian Universalists are in sacred covenantal relationships of mutuality.  When one congregation is violated in this way, we are all violated.”
 Not only that, but the deep religious vein that runs through American civic life as a whole respects the sanctity of the church sanctuary; I believe that Operation Save America did itself and its cause no favors by invading a worship space, because many Americans will be appalled at this display of disrespect for religious freedom of worship.
 After all, we reject the idea of Taliban fundamentalists enacting radical control of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even trying to stifle the right to women’s right to education by nearly killing the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzi.
 The minister who led the service and kept her head was Deanna Vandiver; she calls the protesters ‘religious terrorists’ who have made us targets in the process of trying to achieve their goals by violent means. At least the confrontation in the New Orleans church that morning did not turn violent, due in large part to the non-anxious reaction of those UUs present for the service. There was no yelling or pushing back, but there was an affirmation through the actions and the voices of the young people lifted up in song. There was a naming of what was going on by the minister from the pulpit and a request to behave appropriately. Then there was action to protect the children, secure the building, and call for help.
 Now, none of us wants to think that our congregations need to be prepared for something like the sanctuary invasion in New Orleans, but there are practical things we can take away from that morning’s disruption.
 The clergy of the New Orleans churches were interviewed on the VUU, not the ABC show with Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell, but the web broadcast of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which you can find on You Tube; that VUU episode is entitled ‘Defending Sanctuary.’ In that interview it was noted that there was a strategy employed in that sanctuary that morning that we need to be ready to use should any type of disruption occur in ours.
 First, we need to name what is happening. No matter who is in the pulpit, your Worship coordinators also need to able to give clarity to the moment: the New Orleans minister said, “What is happening at this moment is that someone is trying to disrupt our service; please respect the sacred space of this sanctuary.” Rev. Vandiver herself did not at first comprehend what was happening, and before she heard the words they were using she thought the shouting was from someone who didn’t understand the congregation’s tradition of silence during meditation.
 So telling others clearly from the pulpit also relieves the anxiety of those who cannot understand what is happening, but this could be used at other times when there is a disruption in the sanctuary.
 The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Minneapolis has a script under the podium with several paragraphs for the worship leader to read in case someone is having a medical emergency or there is violence erupting. But with a violent disruption it is vital to be vocal about who we are; we do not tolerate violence or disrespect of our sanctuary and our congregants.
 The second thing is to have a protocol kicking in, for the church leaders – greeters or board members, who know they are responsible for physically removing the people who are disturbing the service; third is to make sure everyone is safe and secure. An important lesson is the easy access to the RE classrooms – what is needed to secure the building in an emergency?
 And the final step is a debrief after all the activity is over. This helps to see what can be learned from the experience, but also what we can do to respond what has happened. In the case of the New Orleans disruption, they embarked on a media outreach campaign that used “this awful experience as a tool to continue changing the hearts of this nation” (Taves).
 You might have seen Rev Vandiver on the MSNBC Rachel Maddow program soon after the sanctuary invasion. The message the New Orleans UUs decided they want to pass on is “that religious people have diverse ways of being pro-child and pro-family, and that religious liberalism might just be where we can find the clearest embodiment of what it means to be…pro-life in its truest sense.” (Taves)
 New Orleans UUs have said that this incident has not created a bunker mentality where they are afraid of being under attack, but instead they feel it has driven them out even more into the wider community. Their social justice committee is called the community ministry team, and that name is proving to be quite accurate. They said on the VUU that they are being seen as people of faith because of their social justice stand, and that instead of ‘defending sanctuary’ they are now focused on ‘expanding sanctuary’ to the disenfranchised and marginalized elements of the wider community.
 About the invasion itself, there was no outcry from conservative Christian groups, who usually are very sensitive to restrictions on their religious freedom of expression…and you might have heard that the Democratic mayor, Mitch Landrieu, had issued a proclamation praising Operation Save American for its ‘outstanding service to the city of New Orleans, before the mayor’s office backtracked and said that this had been done in error!
 As members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the South, where sometimes we may feel isolated, we do have support even though it may seem quite lonely at times. We have a cluster of UU congregations, here in the eastern coastal area, one of them of course being your sister congregation in Augusta. And the spirit of the Cambridge Platform still lives on in the relationship that we can continue to grow between our members. The relationship that we have with other area communities of faith, is also a source of support. And we are of course a source of support to them: in a meeting with the Interfaith Fellowship of Augusta last fall, I heard the Imam of the Islamic Center talk about recent threats phoned in to their center threatening on the eve of 9/11 to burn copies of the Koran. We agreed that continuing our efforts together to educate the community about faiths other than Christianity is the important work we need to do.
Our support for religious freedom is crucial to our identity as Unitarian Universalists. The price we pay for our dedication to our faith has always been the threat of violence – from the early days when Michael Servetus and Francis David paid with their lives, Joseph Priestley being burned out of his home, Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo martyred during the civil rights struggle.
 We know, in the history of Unitarian Universalism in the South, that liberal religion poses a threat to prejudice and intolerance. We know that standing on the side of love with the LGBT community was not easy in our communities, but that the celebration was sweet this summer when the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality. Now we need to keep standing on the side of love as we work for anti-discrimination measures in our cities and states.
 And we know the pushback, even among members of our own congregations, against those who dare to say that Black Lives Matter. We know that at certain times on human history lives of one segment of our population have not mattered, and we feel the need to lift up our systemic bias, our ignorance and prejudice when it allows violence with impugnity to go unchecked. And just this week we see legislators, who should know better, or at least should know the US Constitution better, attempting to bar Syrian refugees from coming to ‘our back yard’. Maybe they need to remember as Thanksgiving approaches, as one person put it on Facebook this week, that “just because white political refugees came to a new country and massacred the natives doesn’t mean all political refugees will.”
What else can we do but circle round for freedom? Lindasusan Ulrich says that we need to bring our whole selves to the work of liberation. Our task is to “relentlessly widen the circle for others, including those who would shut us out.” 

We began this morning with the words of Edward Frost, “It would be far worse for us if, in our fear, we doused the fire and ran, alone, into the dark.” Let us pledge today to circle around the light of freedom, inclusion, compassion, and love that our chosen faith provides for us. 

May it be so, Blessed Be, Amen.