Thursday, July 11, 2013

What Does It Mean To Be Free

When I was a young boy, on hot summer days like this one we would go to a beach club in the Bronx, It was They had numerous sports facilities, handball was big back then, basketball, volleyball, etc.  and of course various pools throughout  the complex. My parents always wanted me to play in the shallow pool, so I would be safe,  but as soon as their heads were turned, I would head to the center of the complex where the deepest pool was, and in the center of that pool was this rectangular Platform with diving boards, that rose high into the air.  I remember the first time I had the courage to climb up the platform to jump. Even as a child, I was a risk taker.
It is one thing to dive from the edge of the pool into water, you can control the speed, and where you are jumping.  But even then I wanted to experience what I did not know.  But it is different looking up at the platform from below vs. Looking down at the water from high above. Not only climbing to the top of the platform, but standing there and waiting my turn, made me even more conscious of how high up in the air I was and then of course when I was up there I tried to start calculating how fast I would be moving and the depth of the water and wondering if this was how my young life would all end. 
In truth the only thing that finally got me to finally jump was knowing there was someone behind me who was waiting, so when it came to my turn, I just didn’t think about it and jumped.  And as I hurtled through the air, you would have thought I was shot out of a cannon, it was exhilarating as if I was flying and I held my breath for as long as I could as I sunk deep into the waters underneath, never touching bottom, it was that deep (or I was that short)  Everything of course seems bigger of course when you are a child.  Which is another message how we experience things when we are young, is not always the same as when we look back at that same experiences as we are older and are better able to understand.  Slowly I rose up from the bottomless pool, my arms and feet working hard to reach the surface.  No breath ever felt so good as the air I breathed when I broke the surface of the water, once again realizing I would live for another jump.  And then I realized the real danger as I looked skyward and saw the body of next jumper hurdling straight towards me from the sky.   
This story has served me well as I think back on my life.  It is a good metaphor for our lives, our religious lives, our Congregational lives our lives as participants in this grand experiment called Democracy that we celebrated this July 4th.  We can wallow in the shallow water playing it safe, or we can dare to go into the deep end, into the unknown, not knowing how far we can go, only to challenged by physical and mental limitations some real, some which we create for ourselves and even after succeeding, still have others challenge us.  But only by going into the deep end of the pool, can we come to know our own abilities and potential. Only by risking the comfort of what is known, can we become aware of the possible.  And the more we do this, the deeper we go, the easier it gets each time, but you have to have the courage to jump. And then after you catch your breath, you need to look back up and see what’s still  coming, what worked, what didn’t work.
The founders of our country, almost 225 years ago, ratified the Constitution of the United States. Its preamble as many of you know goes:
“We the People of the United State, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” 
In its writing they speak about the future, their posterity, and that one day people will look back at it with the understanding of years of experience, 
And people will realize that its wording was not how we experienced the our nation in its infancy, but how we have adapted it to fit our evolving situation.  For that was the greatest act of the founders of our country, in that they created a mechanism that allows the Constitution to be changed as our culture changes. But it requires the people to be engaged deeply in the process. If we put our heads down, if we don’t look up to see whats coming, it can be corrupted and we will be damaged as individuals and as a nation.   From its very inception the founders were prescient enough to know that the words merely represented their dreams for America.
           It starts, “We the people”, even though the Constitution was originally written by and for White Land Owners, in these words were the future aspirations of its writers.  It was an aspiration of a government as Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker in 1850  (and I point out that this was 13 years before Gettysburg when Parker spoke these words) Parker called it the American idea.  He stated,
This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness' sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.”
What does it mean to be free as a country.  Is the government free to spy on us?  Not according to the fourth amendment to the Constitution. Would it make a difference if that spying saved us from multiple terrorist attacks.  Was Edward Snowden who leaked this information free to break the confidentiality agreement?  Are the people in Egypt more or less free today then they were under the democratically elected government controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood?  For each person here there might be a different answer.
What do we mean by freedom.  Of course freedom is a relative term, We are not totally free to do anything we please in the world.   Or I should say we are not free to do anything in the world without consequences.  We as a society or even as a Congregation, make rules all the time limiting our freedom.   Am I free to drive 50 miles an hour down Harrison street past 35th st where I have received two photo speeding tickets (something about 4th amendment here as well),  Are you free steal from someone, Are you free to murder someone.  That last question is playing out in a courtroom in Florida this week in the George Zimmerman Trial for killing Trayvon Martin.  Was he free to chase down Trayvon even after the police told him not to.  Was Trayvon free to defend himself from Zimmerman who he saw tracking him down. Was Zimmerman free to shoot Martin. All of these questions have had and continue to have life and death consequences.  Just because you are free to do something, doesn’t mean you should do it. 
I think it raises a bigger question about freedom, which is are we free to be ignorant.  We may be free to be ignorant, but ignorance has its consequences as well. Because many of these events in Florida were all perpetuated by ignorance.  And ignorance can lead to fear and fear often leads to a limiting life, or as it did in this case leads to tradgedy.  Clearly Zimmerman had a picture in his mind of who Trayvon Martin was,  from the taped 911 call he calls Martin a suspicious guy, up to no good, on drugs, a punk, all this judgment just by seeing him at a distance. Trayvon Martin as well, recognizing he is being followed, purportedly said, he was being followed by a creepy ass cracker.
How and why did they come to these judgments just by looking at each other.   We are conditioned in this way, sometimes through experiences, often by the media.  How often do we make judgments or assumptions about people based on how they look.  When we see someone walk in here with a tattoo, or piercings, or dressed in ragged jeans, what assumptions do we make? Do they feel welcomed here, or even someone walking in dressed to the tees wearing fancy clothes,  or a suit and a tie, do they feel welcomed here. What assumptions do we make about them. Just because we are free to do something doesn’t mean we should do it.  How much different would it have been if George Zimmerman was curious instead of suspicious.
            How might it have changed his actions.  Why did he assume a young black man was a thief? Imagine if George Zimmerman were more interested in getting to know Trayvon Martin, how his actions, even his posture, maybe just waving and saying hello might have changed the events of that day. I have always done that all the time wherever I live.   I often just say hello to everyone I meet.  It just totally throws some people off their guard, but then they usually smile. They don’t attack me.  Its no different here.  When we have visitors and they come downstairs for coffee and bagels, do we look on from afar suspiciously, making judgements and keep our distance, Or do we sit down with them curious about who they are, and seeing them as a unique individual, a fellow religious seeker in search of truth and meaning.  You are of course free to do both, but I encourage you to be curious and welcoming.  The only way to break our assumptions is to break our conditioning.  I believe we as a religion, with our concept of free religious thought, can lead the way. I believe this is what the founders of our country were trying to create, a place where all people could live together peaceably.
            The first  line of the first amendment in the Bill of Rights reads. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”  
The founders had seen the devastation that state religions had wrought in Europe. They felt people should have the free expression of their religious beliefs.  Due to oppression from Governments who opposed their religion, Puritans came to America.  But many of these Puritans came here with the goal of setting up their own state religions. And as fizzures occurred, those who differed were forced out.  The founders understood this and particularly Jefferson and Madison fought hard for separation of church and state, invoking the first amendment with their goal to  protect religious minorities.  We evolved as a country and adapted. But it required the people to come together and sacrifice to make it happen.
With the separation of church and state our Country has the most diverse and most active religious life of any western country.  And what is it that makes Unitarian Universalism unique among the many religions of this world.  One thing that is unique is our being theologically non-creedal.  But the the opposite of creedal religion, is not nihilism, the opposite of creedal  is a free religion, that requires us to find a deep ceded belief in the need to find meaning in our lives and in the world.  The opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is indifference. We all have faith in something. Our religion, this congregation helps you find what that something is, and how we find that is the other uniqueness of our religion.
Our sources of truth do not come from some traditional authority, or some ecclesiastical or presbytery board  Our sources of belief and truth come from within, from our experiences in the world, from nature, from various world religion, The evidence of all this is then tested in community and how we act in community and the world. Yes tested in community, I think that is an important part of this.  When we find things that don’t work, we change them, we adapt to our current circumstances, whether it be the Constitution of the United States, ending slavery and giving women the right to vote,  or the Unitarian Universalist Association recently reducing the number of trustees on the Board as a way to become more dynamic, or to our Congregation, recognizing our form of Governance was not helping us reach our vision and mission, and so a few years ago adopted bylaws by a democratic vote that is now ushering in an experiment with policy based governance. 
When we know what we have isn’t working, if we keep doing things the same way and getting the same results, then we need to try a new way together.  We need to choose, are we going to do things alone, or are we going to do them together. This is true in our governance as well in our religious and spiritual lives.  We can do things on our own, we can do solitary spiritual practices, and those are important.  It is important for us to work on our personal spiritual lives, but also to share such practices with others.  And if they are meaningful to others, tested in community it will be become part of the community.  I know there are people gathering this summer to see how we can expand our offerings of spiritual practices in the Congregation. 
I think that is important, because if spiritual practices just leads us to improve ourselves, without moving us to improve the world, without changing our actions to improve others experiences in the world,  then I think we will have failed.   The child in school who hasn’t eaten in two days and comes to school, needs a meal.  Is that child free to learn if they are starving, If a young adult with mental differences cant get mental health care in the Quad Cities, are they free to reach their full potential, If the veteran who comes home from serving our country, doesn’t get adequate medical care or job opportunities are they free to pursue their dreams to live in the land of the free.
If the young non violent felon having served their time comes out of jail and is not rehabilitated, and does not have the vote,  are they free to be productive citizens in our great experiment of a country. No one is free until all of us are free.
Theologian,  Karen Armstrong said, "Religion is not something you just read about, its something you do, like swimming. Articles on swimming don't mean anything until you get in the water."  So jump in the deep end of the pool. Freedom doesn’t equate with easy.  Freedom means responsibility.  Responsibility for our religious lives, responsibility for our Congregation and responsibility for Unitarian Universalism, a religion that champions free religion thought. 
A religion without whose forerunners, we would not be sitting here today.  Let us think about our posterity, what will we do to ensure that freedom, religious freedom, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience shall continue to grow and evolve and adapt throughout the world.  What will you do? I invite you to invite yourselves, your families, your friends, your neighbors into a deeper conversation, into deeper action, as we head to that freedom land.  Let us uncage our spirit,  I’m on my way, and if you want to join me, you can rise in body or spirit and start by singing loudly hymn #116   I’m on my way.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Coming Home Again

When I was a teenager, and would be out at night, I often had to walk long ways to get home.  I remember the comforting feeling the closer I got to home.  Just knowing that I was coming home, out of the cold, away from potential danger, into the warmth, into safety, was comforting. I read somewhere selling and buying a home are in the top ten stressful events of one’s lifetime. I can understand that. I am doing both right now, and I am working at being calm and not getting attached to outcomes.  I know that I am blessed to be even able to have a home, when so many are homeless, and when so many cannot afford a down payment for a home.  I have lived long enough now to experience two housing bubbles and the bursting of those bubbles.  Housing markets can be fickle. One lesson I have learned is to be sure you enjoy living where you live. Houses have a history, and we create history in our houses. But as society has become more transient, as jobs are less secure and as housing markets ebb and flow I have learned not to become too attached to a house, but to the people within it and the memories we make in the house. The house I owned in Florida was the longest I had ever lived in one house, other than my parent’s house which I grew up in.  We experienced my children’s adolescence, and to some degree their independence within its walls. I have very fond memories of this house.  Sitting by the pool, barbequing, (I have to admit it is harder to barbeque tofu and salmon then hamburgers and ribs, but it works and my cholesterol is the better for it.) watching my children and then later my granddaughter play in the pool.  Our house always tended to be the house where all my children’s friends would congregate.  I was happy with this because then I knew where my children were. (my parents never knew where I was.) I wrote many a seminary paper sitting at my kitchen table with earplugs in my ears to help me concentrate with all the activity going on in the house.  As with houses, relationships and Congregations, as the book of Ecclesiastes says “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven”. So it is time to move on from the house in Florida both mentally and physically.   Although I have been here for two years, and completely present to my ministry, I have to admit that it has been a hardship being separated from my family.  I am happy to announce that we received an offer on our Florida house (we still need to close – I will accept prayers and crossed fingers) and my wife Jan (and maybe even my younger son Kyle) will be moving to Iowa this summer.  She will visiting in July as we look for a new home to start making new memories in.  It feels like yet another new beginning for me.  It feels like coming home again.  

Wednesday, July 03, 2013


In 1977 there was a survey done by the Unitarian Unversalist Association to try to determine the religious values of Unitarian Universalists. One of the lowest values of the items listed was salvation.  Not only did salvation fall at the end of the list of things being valued, the survey was constructed so that people could paste labels with their top and less important values in a top to bottom listing. Salvation not only often came last, but some people felt the need to paste it upside down or along the margins of the page added hand written notes with various negative comments. We just cant help ourselves sometimes. And of course there is the old joke that sums up Unitarian Universalist salvation theology.  Universalists were so sure of God’s goodness that they felt all would be saved and Unitarians were so sure of their own goodness that they didn’t need to be saved. 
            As always, I believe as always there is a translation issue at work.  So I don’t know about you, but there are times in my life that I needed to be saved. Why just Friday, when I hit my ball in the sand trap or technically called bunker at the golf course. Bunker is the proper term in golf etiquette, but sand trap is more descriptive of the actual situation.  Hitting it safely out of the trap is considered a sand save.  Now I don’t think that’s what theologians had in mind when they talk about Salvation. But as a metaphor it works for me.  If we in life are stuck in a bad situation (and trust me the sand trap is a bad situation for me on the golf course) Do we just sit there and stop playing the game.  No we try to get out of our trouble  in order to be saved.  When I do hit it out, usually the ball goes in unintended weird directions, so even though out of trouble, I have to find a different path to my goal than the one I originally had.  Trouble changes the directions we are headed.  Do I stop playing the game, just because it didn’t go as I planned.  No of course not.  I continue on until I have completed the hole. And yes everyone once in a while, as it did on Friday, and as another apt metaphor, having lost my own sand wedge club. There is a special club when you are in trouble.  (When you are in trouble, what special things, maybe spiritual practices do you do, what special people do you call when you need help) I had to borrow someone’s club, and I hit it out of the sand trap to 2 ft from the pin.  A message that sometimes we need help from others to be saved and even a message that miracles actually are possible!!   
But what about being saved in a literal sense. I certainly needed saved literally on the streets of the Bronx.  Sometimes I learned how to save myself, but often, I was literally saved by someone helping me. And In a figurative sense, I needed to be saved when at times I lost my way searching for the right path to take in life. Sometimes, we need help along the way.  I would say this religion has saved me.  It provided for me a safe place, a safe community, a place to freely explore the meaning of life, and my place in life, and it changed my life. I believe in the ongoing improvement of the world, and in the basic goodness and unlimited, though faulty potential of humanity.    Although we may not think of that as salvation, I think that is what Jesus of Nazareth was trying to teach his followers.  One of the earliest Unitarians  Faustus Socinus of Poland in the 1500s in his treatise on “Jesus Christ the Savior” stated that Jesus saved men not by dying for them but by setting an example for them to follow.
Our society has been so inundated with the traditional Christian concept of Salvation as through the death of Jesus Christ that we have lost the intention behind the story. What does it mean that Jesus died for our sins.  I liked the idea of  Brian McLaren an emergent Christian writer,  who asks us to think of this statement in a far more simple way.  He points out that we assume the “for” statement in Jesus died for our sins, means as a substitutionary sacrifice for. He asks us to consider the two sentences “I took medicine for my disease”, and “I got a ticket for speeding” These are causal actions not substitution.  And he follows with the logic that Jesus died for our sins, means that he died from the causal sins of those who tortured and killed him. Christian Theologian Marcus Borg laments the loss of salvation’ meaning and his desire to reclaim the word salvation. He states “the word has extraordinarily rich meanings: liberation from bondage, homecoming, life rather than death, sight to the blind, healing of the wounds of existence”
For most, especially in this country, our quest for salvation is the knowledge that we are going to die and trying to reconcile that fact with how we live in the world.
As A Powell Davies said in the opening reading, we often use some otherworldly salvation as a means to avoid the responsibility to lead a moral life. Even if we try to live a moral life, we all fall short at some point. The Jewish word for sin means missing the mark.  And we all miss the mark sometimes. The  message in the Christian Scriptures is that Salvation is the forgiveness of our sins.  Forgiving us for missing the mark.  We can forgive each other, and we can forgive ourselves, and that is a form of salvation. But it is not enough just to forgive.  We must also change how we act moving forward. Let us forgive those who didn’t stand with us before, if they are willing to stand with us now.  Let us ask for forgiveness from those we didn’t stand with and if they are willing, let us stand with them. That is what I believe the message of Jesus was about.  About forgivness, acting, and sacrificing to achieve liberation, by living life fully, by engaging in the world. By coming together to bring about a just world, in this world, not in the next. And it is in this world that we will find our salvation.
Throughout the history of Unitarianism and Universalism, we have taken a contrary view compared to how traditional Christianity viewed Salvation. In the 1800s Universalist Hosea Ballou preached about Universal Salvation and a loving God while most of Christianity preached about eternal damnation and predestination.  With each generation, the use of reason and rationale moved the Unitarians and Universalists towards a form of religious humanism They believed that humans must take responsibility for their actions.  In a humanist view salvation came about in two ways.  First salvation came if we found our purpose in life and reached our maximum potential.  They believed True salvation and eternal life however is found by our descendants who lives are affected by our actions. From our Humanist sources,  I think John Dietrich in the early 1900s summed it up best when he said:
“Humanists, because they can know nothing of another life and do not care to speculate about it, devote their energies to this world: Instead of trying to get ready to emigrate into some unknown world, we should do our best to make life in this world so beautiful, so exalted, so free, so attractive, as to make the people in the next world, if there is such a world, long to come and live with us. (Clearly he never saw a zombie movie) He goes on “If there is another life, the people who make the best of this life will certainly attain it; if there is not, they will not have wasted a lifetime trying to attain something that does not exist”

We don’t have time to waste.  Last week, in talking about Sabbath, I spoke about time, and coming together as a community, and I think that we have to think of salvation as happening through time. I think by coming together to experience and participate in our long tradition of commitment to justice seeking, as a means of salvation, is a way to create a community that lives its beliefs over time.  I do not believe it is enough to read a book about UU theology, to consider oneself a UU.  A person must be part of the UU community and participate in living out a  UU theology with others.   
Ultimately it comes down to a theology of courage.  The courage to be transformed and to transform.  It is the realization of our religion as a means of personal, communal and societal transformation, all three of which are inter-dependent.  It is the balance of reason and intuitiveness as well as the integration of individual salvation with communal salvation through commitments to self, and a commitment to others in order to act to fulfill those commitments.  I think James Luther Adams a late 20th century Unitarian theologian, states it best when he says
“Right attitudes are never sufficient alone.  They must find embodiment in social institutions.  Indeed one must say that one does not even understand the meaning of right attitudes or even of a theology until one recognizes their implication s for social organization.  If no particular demands ensure with respect to social organization, right attitudes can be a snare and a deception, a form of organized irrelevance.” 
This past week the United States Supreme Court handed down two very different decisions.  One struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act which will lead to voter suppression, and the alienation and further oppression of people of color. Another was the striking down a provision in the  Defense Of Marriage Act which by doing so,  will now grant federal benefits to same gender couples and as well the court rejected Prop 8 in California which will have the effect of allowing same gender couples to marry in California.  The end of June also marks the anniversary of a more violent history. It was almost 50 years ago in June that we mark the murders of Freedom Riders Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Cheney who were lynched by the Klu Klux Klan in Mississippi as they attempted to register African Americans to vote.  This after years and years of countless violence against African Americans trying to obtain their rights. But I point to this, the freedom riders, because it was a time in our country when people of different backgrounds came together to fight for justice against oppression.  White people and people of color coming together, sacrificing their time, their energy, and in some cases their lives to bring about salvation in this world, to bring about liberation in this world. We must learn to be allies with others, not competitors.  This life is not a zero sum game, where if I win someone has to lose. 
Our religion believes in the fullness of salvation, where all who suffer from injustice can find redemption and reconciliation.   Ours is a religion that believes in justice equity and compassion in human relations.  Ours is a religion that believes in the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; not justice for some, but justice for all. We can not let those in power divide us.  We are far stronger together than we will ever be apart.  It is very easy to think this last week that at least same gender couples won something, with the rejection of Prop 8 and of a part of DOMA. But that is not enough if we are to find salvation. We must build this bridge between people.  We must build this bridge between all people who face oppression.  If we get stuck in a loop of competing oppressions, no one will win. If we do not realize our interdependence with all, if we do not realize that the repeal of the Voting Rights Act is a threat to all Americans, then we shall surely all fail.  For just as 50 years later they have removed this hard fought right of voting this right that many people died for, do not doubt for one second that given the chance the rights granted to gay and lesbians this past week will be removed one day.  We must remain vigilant, and we must stand up for each other.
As the song said, we must emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. We must free our mind from this belief that we are separate from others.  For another definition of salvation is wholeness. We can never be whole, any of us if we are divided.  For us to be whole we must act together. We must be a religion that brings people together. we must be a religion that inspires people to live out their values in the world.
To quote James Luther Adams one last time,
“The faith of a church or a of a nation is an adequate faith only when it inspires and enables people to give of their time and energy to shape the various institutions social, economic and political of the common life  A faith in the commanding, sustaining, transforming reality is one that tries to shape history.  Any other faith is thoroughly undependable; it is also  in the end, impotent. It is not a faith that molds history.  It is a faith that enables history to crush humanity.  Its ministry prepares people to adjust to the crushing by focusing on, and salving, the personal experiences of hurt” 

What are we doing to bring our values, our stated vision and mission into embodiment as a Congregation. Together we can be so much stronger than we can ever be alone.
Let us be courageous, let us be strong. Let us be relevant,  let us be dependable  let us be potent and let us be transforming, Let us a be a Congregation and a religion  that molds history, not one that stands idly by while humanity is crushed. Let us not just salve our personal hurts, but let us heal ourselves and the world and make ourselves and society whole. Let us be that faith. May it be so.