Monday, May 21, 2012

The Arts

        At our last religious services committee meeting we had a discussion surrounding the word worship.  The question we discerned was what are we worshipping.  For me the question is not so much what we are worshipping, but to define worship as a verb that describes what and how we do what we do when we are assembled. Now certainly for the larger culture, the word worship has a connotation surrounding a supernatural being.  But the etymology of the word Worship is from the word worth.  So I ask myself, is what we do worthy.  Does it lead us to look towards our highest and best selves. Do we act with reverence in all our actions. Soemtimes we just incorporate culturally accepted meanings but sometimes we need to go back to a word’s intended meaning
        In much the same way we questioned the word worship, I look at the question of our Unitarian Universalist sources. When we think about the sources, and I am sure you think about them often, we think of the sources themselves.   But we tend to not notice the preamble.  The bylaws of the UUA states "The living tradition which we share draws from many sources: and lists our six sources.  What exactly does the phrase living tradition mean to you. The two words seem to be contradictory.   Tradition is a word that many of us have mixed emotions about. 
        On the one hand there is a certain romanticism surrounding traditions. They tug at us emotionally, whether it be lighting a candle or singing certain songs our long history of religious freedom.  Many of us come here from other religious traditions, that we felt were too rigid, that we didn’t agree with,  or that rejected us. So we came seeking to find a new religion, a religion that could help us grow, a religion that could add meaning to our lives, a religion that is alive, a religion that is worthy. So we have the juxtaposition of something that is new and something that is old. A balance, the ying and the yang.  A religion that is ever changing, a religion that is respectful of the past, but reflective on how wisdom of the past is put into the context of our lives.  The living tradition is an ongoing creative process that incorporates new learnings with old learnings to help us on our religious journey.  In recognition of this, our UUA bylaws require the Association at least every 15 years to review the Principles and Sources so that we are intentional about discerning who we are and what we say we stand for. 
        Back in 1961 when the Unitarians and the Universalists combined there was a fierce debate about the principles mostly around the Christo-centric wording put forth by the Universalists which was rejected for a more pluralistic wording.  In 1985 upon re-examination  the sources were added/broken out from our principles and in 1995 the sources were amended to add the sixth source the Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions.
        In 2008 as required by our bylaws, Section C-15.1(c)(4) (we are nothing if not thourough and process oriented) the Unitarian Universalist Association reviewed the Principles and Sources, to discern whether they needed to be changed.  One of the drafts included adding to our Sources that “we are informed by the Arts.” indicating that  "Wisdom and beauty may be expressed in many forms: in poetry and prose, in story and song, in metaphor and myth, in drama and dance, in fabric and painting, in scripture and music, in drawing and sculpture, in public ritual and solitary practice, in prophetic speech and courageous deed."  All good words
        So I think it is poignant and interesting that we included scriptures as Art.  And I do think scriptures are a work of art.  They were written as a way to explain and to guide the people at the time they were written as to how view and live in the world that they lived in.  We today, some 2,000-2,500 years later have to reinterpret those writings so they can have meaning to the context of which we live today.  but that is another sermon for next year, but I do think that brings up a  very interesting point often debated, as to whether art should be interpreted based on what the artist meant it to be or should it be interpreted by what the viewer experiences from it.  So I do not think that these are mutually exclusive, as often the artist does have a particular point to make,  but we each view things from our own perspective, from our own particular set of circumstances and experiences, and thus each piece of art can have different meaning and different levels of meaning for different people. If you agree with the Quantum physics observer prinicple that the observer affects what is observed, then in some part the observer is part of the artistic process as well.
          Although we as an Association voted not to change the Principles and Sources in 2008 I believe the Arts are an important Source that helps us better understand and teach us about the human condition and helps us perceive a vision for our future beyond our current circumstances.  The Arts can give us a view into the world of others that we would never understand from our own experiences. The Arts can inspire us, can make us delve deep into our souls and question the world around us and even more importantly I think the Arts can evoke within us an emotional response that can hlp us learn empathy for others
         I was very fortunate as a youngster in that I was able to experience a full range of artistic culture growing up in New York City.  From walking around street art shows, various art museums,to the Metropolitan Opera, to Leonard Bernstein's Philharmonic concerts for the young. My parent would bring me to the theatre both Broadway musicals and Off Off Broadway avant-garde shows.  But my experiences were that of growing up in an urban environment. There are many people who I grew up with who never even travelled from the Bronx into Manhattan. 
        By experiencing the arts, I was able to spark my imagination, I was able to imagine myself traveling to exotic locales, such as Morocco as in the movie Casablanca or even California which seemed exoctic in those days.  Realistically when growing up the midwest was not featured as an exotic locale in many movies. In truth until my older brother attended college at Knox college,in Galesburg Il,  I do not believe I even knew anyone who lived west of the Hudson River in New York.  But going into the movie theatre, and we had a beautiful one in the Bronx called the Paradise Theatre. It was garishly ornate. When you walked it there were two grand staircases, and in the giant theatre, there were cutouts in the ceilings with shining stars in them giving you the impression when the lights went out that you were in space.  And being in that theatre, that atmosphere transported me to another place and time within my mind.  It allowed me to see another world different than the one I existed in.  It allowed me to imagine a life with a different trajectory than was laid out for me by others.  It gave me hope of a world with a better future. But that is just the beginning
         Good art can let you see what others experiences are, that are beyond the scope of our own experiences.  People who did not grow up in the Bronx, can never truly know what it was like. In fact each person who grew up in The Bronx experienced it differently as I am sure it is the same here. But if someone wanted to know what it was like to grow up in The Bronx, I could tell them to watch a movie like "A guide to recognizing your Saints" or “A Bronx Tale”  The same way that I could never truly know what it was like to grow up on a farm.  But I could get a feel for what it was like by watching a movie such as one called Country with Jessica Lange.  Of course we have to be careful not to create caricatures and not to confuse art with history, as we know that art has be used for propaganda as well.  But art can give us a view into other cultures and can sensitize us to other perspectives the world. 
          But more than that, Good art forces your mind to go to places it has never gone before.    I remember distinctly one time when this happenned for me. I went to see the opening of Sam Sheppards pulitzer prize winning play “Buried Child” Towards the end of the play a character starts throwing and smashing bottles against the wall.  Now I had no idea what heck the meaning of that was when I saw it. I have to admit that at that age probably my late teens, my cognitive skills had not yet really kicked in yet. But I knew there was more meaning to it than I could understand. 
           And being the curious person that I was,  I explored, I studied and gained a a deeper understanding.  I learned about subtext, and context,  and I applied those skills to all parts of my life. Through art we can gain a deeper understanding of our own lives, our religious beliefs, our motivations, our own unconcious movements.  And as we grow, as our experiences in the world increase, we see the same art with different eyes, and what was once meaningful is now passe, and what was once obtuse is now meaningful. Even the artist changes over time.  Just yesterday I read an article in the New York Times about how playwright Arthur Miller evolved in how he interpreted his own character Willy Loman in his play Death of a Salesman.  Life is an ongoing evolution and the arts help us reflect upon our life and world around us and help lead us on our religious journey
         Lastly I think the arts have the power to move us emotionally.  It is sometimes unexplainable. I can remember the first time time I saw a particular painting that inexplicably they moved me, I could not stop staring at them. I remember watching the movie Old Yeller and it was probably the first time I cried at a movie,  when the young boy had to shoot his dog because the dog had rabies. A lesson about the hard choices we have to make in life.  I remember the movie ET, after we thought he was dead and he wakes up, I felt such joy.  That is a better resurrection story than I have read elsewhere.  And as well the Greek tradegies, which were created to allow the audience to experience a catharthis that helped them learn how to deal with their own grief.
          Now there is a difference between the arts and entertainment. It is why I asked the choir to change the words to the song that they sang today and I want to thank them for their creativity in how they adapted it. There is a time for entertainment, an escape from the day to day worries that invade our lives, but art should help us transcend not escape our day to day worries, to see a world is and yet still could be, to give us a vision of who we are yet still could be. The movie that is listed as number one on my top ten movie list which can be found on my notes in Facebook is the “The Razors Edge”, an adaptation of the Somerset Maughman novel about a man’s global search for relgious truth. Our 2nd principle is the free and responsible search for truth so you can see why I love this movie.
         My number two favorite movie is “Field of Dreams. “ It is based in Iowa and even indicates Iowa might be heaven, a place where dreams come true. Personally I am convinced of that for myself and it has become my exotic locale. It is a movie that asks us to follow our dreams, to trust our intuition and to be aware of and live in the present moment as oppossed to waiting for some non existent always elusive future. If these are not religious concepts I do not know what is.  All art can be sacred if treat it with reverence.  All art can have worth if we engage it with an open mind and heart and look for ways to allow it change us and lead us towards our best selves.  May it be so.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Standing Up For Justice

     A couple of weeks ago I put up on Facebook a picture of three fish. One larger than the other each getting  ready to eat the smaller fish.  The smallest fish said “there is not justice in world”  The middle size fish said there is some justice in the world, the largest fish said the world is just.   And that is often the way it is in the world.  The big fish eat the smaller fish, or in our modern world profit off of them.  When I was a teenager, one of my friends had a fish tank, and he would feed his fish guppies.  When we fed them guppies I always wondered.  There are so many more guppies.  If they only banded together they could defeat the other fish.  Instead the guppies all swam in different directions just looking for a place to hide and they were picked off one by one. 
        Now it may seem strange to us now, but Unitarian and Universalists were once the big fish in this Country.  Our members were Presidents, Senators and Supreme Court Justices of the United States.  3 of the first six presidents of this country, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, were Unitarians.  Other Unitarian Presidents include Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft.  We were at the time of the founding of this country the power elite.  
       And there also is a long history within our religion of working for justice in our society, and to help people improve the conditions of their lives. Universalist Benjamin Rush signor of the Declaration of Independence, opened the first hospital in this country to treat the mentally ill. Unitarian Horace Mann, was the developer of the public school system in this country, Unitarian Clara Barton was founder of the American Red Cross.  Susan B Anthony was a leader in the Women’s Suffrage movement, and I particularly love her quote, “I pray every day, not on my knees by with my work. And Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized and helped write the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention which was an early and influential woman’s rights convention.  We showed our courage when we responded to the call of Martin Luther King to March in Selma Alabama for Voting Rights, we had the courage to print the Pentagon Papers in 1971 which showed proof of US government deception about  the Vietnam War.  We did this when no one else would and at the actualized risk of retribution by the Government that almost bankrupted the Unitarian Universalist Association. They risked all for justice. So I ask you, what are we willing to risk for the greater good of our society?
      I could go on and on with lists of historical accomplishments by Unitarian Universalists. But when I look back at our history critically as with all things I see an unevenness. As an example, we as an association were leaders in the temperance movement in this country in the late 19th and early 20th  Centuries.  We felt this was a major social justice issue, as our theology led us to believe that alcohol limited humanity’s ability to reach its highest potential. I think this is probably true, although my doctor has told me a little red wine is good for my heart. I think we have seen the devastation alcoholism has had on individuals, families and society. However I think after prohibition, we better understand the law of unintended consequences of trying to regulate personal behavior and I would say Unitarian Universalist has moved a 180 degrees on this issue.  In 1970 we actually passed a general resolution for the legalization of Marijuana.  I think this shows that sometimes, we have to reassess, we have to learn from our experiences, that solutions we think may work to solve society’s ills, may prove to be ineffective and so we must adapt. 
     Another area of unevenness in justice is in regard to slavery. Although many Unitarians and Universalists were strongly involved in the  abolitionist movement in the mid 19th century. it was two Senators John C. Calhoun a Universalist and Daniel Webster a Unitarian who spearheaded the Fugitive Slave Law. A law which required all runaway slaves to be returned to their Slaveholders in the South.  It was a Unitarian President Millard Fillmore who signed that bill into law.  Many of our Southern congregations were in favor of slavery, and many of our ministers in our northern congregations were pressured into not speaking out about it for fear of losing their parishes.
     Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke out often about anti-slavery, but mostly after he left parish ministry. Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker, was an outspoken abolitionist, and took action.  It is said he kept a gun in his pulpit to defend his parishioners many of whom were escaped slaves.  Parker was also a financier of John Brown, to help fund slave uprisings in the South.  Parkers actions spoke directly to his values about humanity and his principles of freedom.  His risked everything, gave everything, committed everything, for what he thought was right and just.   In looking back, we can see clearly what the right, the just action was. But it was difficult for so many in that time to see that.  For one many were profiting off the suffering of others. Many accepted it as the status quo, many accepted it as a necessary compromise.  It makes me think of our situation in our own time.  How some take extremist positions, positions frankly that I believe are intended to cut needed benefits for those in our society who are most vulnerable, who want to cut education funding that will limit future opportunities for today’s children.  Yet those defending the poor, the helpless, are willing to compromise.  They are not willing to fight for what they believe in, what they know is right in their hearts. What they know is needed to make a more fair and equitable society.
     Sometimes you have to draw a line and say enough is enough.   Looking back on the compromises our country tried to make to avoid the conflict of dealing with the slavery issue, should be a reminder to us today to look outside of our own particular needs, our own particular desires, our own particular culture, and see a thing for what it truly is and to see what is right for all within society. The lesson we need to learn is to  see an unjust activity as wrong  and not accept it. We must resist injustice, to work against injustice to stand up against injustice.  
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, 

“There are certain things in our society and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted to, and which I hope all people of good-will will be maladjusted to until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to adjust myself to racial discrimination. I never intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. And Leave millions of children smothered in a cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” 

Hearing these words which were spoken almost 50 years ago, it can be daunting to think of how far we still have to go.  Yet I cannot imagine how daunting it must have been for him to say them and do what he did.  It is daunting to imagine where we would be as a country if he did not have the courage to take the actions he took.  As well, it must have been daunting for Theodore Parker to speak against slavery knowing it would alienate him from other Unitarians and his Unitarian colleagues.  And it must be daunting for us sometimes, to be willing to risk all for what we think is right. 

            Yet the most important thing our religion has taught me, and I repeat it often is to have our values to shape our actions.   Part of what we struggle with as we look to the past, is not knowing with certainty what the right decision is, or what the right tactics are once we agree on a decision.  But as I said earlier, we can learn from our experiences.  There will be some, even here in this room who will not agree that we should get involved.  That we might alienate some people by taking positions.  I accept that.  We may alienate some people.   Not everybody is going to agree.  So we will listen, we will hear you, we will incorporate your thoughts into the mix.

            We are all imperfect and we can all learn from each other.  As the John Mellencamp song goes, You’ve got to stand for something, or your going fall for anything. Let us stand for something. Let us stand up together for justice. Let us act and learn from our experiences or we will create inertia.  Inertia in our lives, inertia in our congregation and inertia in the world   And I think about Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail when other clergy wrote him among other things that “his actions were untimely” and to give the Birmingham government more time to act”  King replied, “we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily”  Now is the time, because now is the only time we have. As Bob Dylan said, we can get busy living or we can get busy dying.  So lets get busy living and changing the world to be a more just place for all people. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, you can participate.

          As an Association we may not be the big fish anymore with power in society, but we have learned to work with others to create effective change both in our congregations and the larger society.  Most recently our Association has been a leader in justice issues particularly in regard to gay and lesbian rights and immigration issues.  In 1970  we had a General Assembly Resolution to end discrimination against lesbians, homosexuals and bisexuals in hiring and to assist in the settlement of lesbian, gay, and bisexual religious leaders.and in 1973 we Created a Denominational Office which is now called the Office of Bisexual, Gay, lesbian and Transgender Concerns. In 1989 General Assembly Voted to initiate the Welcoming Congregation Program to encourage congregations to take intentional steps to become more welcoming and inclusive of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

As of last year 63% of our congregations are recognized formally as Welcoming Congregations, including ours. Ours is a religion and a congregation where all people have inherent worth and dignity,  where All Souls are welcome, and that is lived out in our ongoing commitment to BGLQT rights and I am proud that our Social Justice Ministry Team and Welcome Team are sponsors of the Quad Cities Pridefest Celebration this coming June.  Also in June this year our Unitarian Universalist general assembly will be meeting in Phoenix and it will be exclusively focused on being a social justice general assembly with a focus on immigration. If you can attend it I promise you it will be a transforming experience.

            Social Justice has always been a large part of my ministry and calling. Soon after I arrived in the Quad Cities last summer, I held social justice discernment classes to find out what members were interested in pursuing as part of our congregational social justice program. From those discernment sessions we created the Social Justice Ministry Team.    Our Congregation’s Social Justice Ministry has worked hard this past year doing some deep discernment, research and planning.  If you were in forum this morning you heard the process we went through to choose our congregational social justice topics that will be engaged in in the upcoming year. I use the word engaged very specifically. 

            I think it is important that the work we do actually engages the participants.  It is through direct engagement with social justice that we cannot only transform the Quad Cities, but we ourselves will be transformed.  The three projects the Social Justice Ministry chose to work on are At Risk Youth, Immigration, specifically in the area of ESL and paths to citizenship, and Green Sanctuary.  Look for tables downstairs at coffee hour today to sign up for opportunities to be involved, and to obtain more information about the projects.  We can make a difference in the Quad Cities.  Stand with each other, stand with our community partners, Stand up for justice. Stand up for our vision and mission and values in all our actions.  It can be amazing what we can do if we are committed. Let all the fish swim in the tank together without fear and with justice for all.  May it be so.