Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reflections on Emerson

In preparing for the sermon this morning I gathered and studied the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings, his sermons, his lectures, and his journals he faithfully kept from the early to mid-19th Century. My intention was to select five and offer reflections this morning. As I began reflecting on Emerson’s writings I was reminded of current global humanitarian crises.

I decided that we are entitled to more. Our minds, our hearts, and our souls require more than mere reflections this morning. The three we will reflect on this morning are three that that I called me back again and again. And so, let me offer this first passage.

This is an excerpt of a letter Emerson wrote to an unknown admirer in July of 1841 questioning his creed and his ultimate reality: I am very much moved by the earnestness of your appeal, but very much humbled by it; for attributing to me the attainment and that rest which I well know are not mine, it accuses my shortcomings. I am, like you, a seeker of the perfect and admirable Good. My creed is very simple; that Goodness is the only Reality; that to Goodness alone can we trust: to that we may trust all and always: beautiful and blessed… Beyond this, I have no knowledge, no intelligence of methods; I know no steps, no degrees, no favorite means, no detached rules. Itself [Goodness] is a gate and road and leader and march. Only trust it; be of it; be it -- and it shall be well with us forever.”
Emerson names his creed, his ultimate reality as Goodness. In fact he uses a capital G in goodness which tells us that Emerson is aligning Goodness with the authority of a deity. He is naming his faith, his faith in Goodness. He writes that we can trust Goodness. He advises us to be of Goodness, to be Goodness. Later in this particular writing Emerson asks the question, “shall we not look at every object and empty it of its meanness?” Emerson was a transcendentalist. Transcendentalism centered on the divinity of each individual; but this divinity could be self-discovered only if the person had the independence of mind to do so.
Emerson believed in the inherent good in both people and nature. He refuted evil by insisting it was not an entity in itself but rather simply the absence of good. If good was allowed, evil dissipated. But what is goodness? It is hard to declare what is good in general, since people have different backgrounds and mindsets. Something is good if it has importance or value. People, actions, and ideas can be good. Emerson writes, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” In his view we all have goodness and meanness inside of us. We are self-reliant and make a decision as to which we will share with the world. We have a choice. The choice between Goodness and meanness.

I hold up these particular words from Emerson because they help us understand the choices we as humans, as a global community, as Unitarian Universalists have when we consider the actions we will impose on one another. My task today is to use Emerson’s words from nearly 200 years ago and offer an understanding of true Goodness.

I’d like to do this by considering the Israeli and Palestinian crisis, the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, and the humanitarian crisis with immigrant families and children crossing our borders in the context of Emerson’s idea of Goodness. You will not hear my opinions. I will share that I believe all involved on either side of these crisis have the innate ability to choose Goodness. That is, all have ethical responsibility. You may think this is na├»ve, optimistic, and oversimplifying the issues.

That’s okay. So did the Anti-transcendentalists of the 19th century. Regardless of how others respond to us, our families, our congregations, or our countries we are not granted a free pass from first considering ethical responsibility. Paul Waldman, contributing editor of the American Prospect writes, “As common as the claim is, we can't judge one side's actions by what the other side does. In this as in so many conflicts, both sides — and those who defend each — try to justify their own abdication of human morality with a plea that what the other side has done or is doing is worse.” Waldman is basically saying what Ghandi tells us about our role in conflict, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Waldman paints with a broad brush. Depending on our social, cultural, and economic situation ethical responsibility may look different to each of us. The idea that we might believe we are acting ethically responsible while others would disagree is common. However, if goodness or ethical responsibility is our concern, Ghandi hit the nail on the head. Ethical responsibility must be considered long before a conflict arises or escalates. It is to be the first effort. 

We mustn’t relinquish our responsibility to goodness, especially as retaliation.
Let us look at the examples I named. Remember this is not commentary on who is right and who is wrong. We are exploring ethical responsibility and our responses in relationships with people, countries, races, and so on in the context of Emerson’s writings. First, let us think about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

In his July 2014 commentary in the Palm Beach Post Ghassan Rubeiz writes, “Attitude is one root of the problem: expressing sorrow over all the dead, Arab and Jew, without accusing a single perpetrator is considered 'betrayal' by the majority on either side of the conflict.” He later makes three predictions for needed changes in the Middle East and writes: “These predictions may sound like political science fiction. Well, at this miserable time fiction is needed. The severity of the situation requires imagination, hope and drastic change in conflict resolution.” Rubeiz leads us to the complexities of ethical responsibility but also suggests a change in how we confront conflict.
In this conflict both sides believe they are acting ethically responsible. We agree that this belief is about the varying definitions of ethics. Ethical responsibility or goodness could or should have come into play long before the instigation of the present conflict. What if a decision based on goodness were made long ago by both sides on how to coexist. “Attitude is the root problem.” If in the beginning, before any conflict, both Israel and Palestine had the attitude of goodness, as Emerson describes it, I wonder what form the potential for conflict would have taken. All have innate goodness and all have ethical responsibility for their responses.

Let us focus on the humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq. A small Iraqi religious minority, the Yazidis, desperately tried to escape the efforts by militants to carry out a genocide against them. There are tens of thousands who remain on the mountain who are under conditions of extreme heat, lack of food, water, unmet basic needs, and threat of attack. Many have died. The Yazidis are an ancient people. They are neither Christian nor Muslim, and are called heretics. There are many levels of the lack of goodness or ethical responsibility in that crisis. Religious persecution and genocide are among them.

Emerson tells us that goodness is within each of us and it is our choice to claim it. In a world that lives by this truth, people choosing goodness, none are at risk of being killed because they believe God is the creator of the world who has placed the world under the care of seven holy beings. This is what the Yazidis believe and because of this they risk extermination.

All gathered here this morning have varying theologies. None of us are killing to create a dominant or one true theology. We aren’t chasing people from their homes and watching them scurry with a few significant possessions only die, suffer, or watch their children die. We are making a choice of goodness. Our ethical responsibility is to respect the inherent worth and dignity of the other including our beliefs. We exist because our ancestors and martyrs believed in freedom. We’ve inherited goodness.

Thousands of immigrant children are fleeing Central America and are unwelcome in the United States. Reporter Halimad Abdullah writes, “The children, many of them arriving unaccompanied from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, have traveled up to 3,000 miles across deserts and rivers, clinging to the tops of trains. They sometimes face rape and beatings at the hands of "coyotes," smugglers who are paid thousands of dollars to sneak them across the southern border with Mexico.” Earlier this month busloads of babies in their mothers' laps, and toddlers were turned back. They were met by screaming protesters waving and wearing American flags and bearing signs that read such things as "Illegals have no rights. They are criminals.” Just to show a tiny bit of my meanness you should know that “illegals” was spelled incorrectly. Children are piled on top of another and kept in cages while they are detained. Some ask, “Why are these children not already declared refugee status?” or “Where is the goodness or ethical responsibility in the human response to this crisis?” Would you agree that ethical responsibility is being dodged? Kathleen McQuillen the director of a Quaker-based organization, questions how the country could spend trillions on war and not have the pennies on those dollars to spend to take care of children in dire need. She said, "It's a simple thing to begin to say, what's important in this world?" People in this movement are pleased that President Obama is showing his inherent goodness and responding by considering an executive order to protect the children.

Let me remind you that at the end of the Emerson passage I shared he asks the question, “shall we not look at every object and empty it of its meanness?” This is our work. Shall we not tip the barrel of humanity and empty it of desire to control leading to war and death, genocide, persecution, and racism. Empty it of its meanness, choose goodness, return to ethical responsibility as the first choice of response.

Goodness is in each of us. What does it require to uncover our innate goodness? What keeps us from goodness? Emerson tells us how to live with goodness — practice being honorable and compassionate. In Spiritual Laws Emerson writes, “A little consideration of what takes place around us every day would show us that a higher law than that of our will regulates events; that our painful labors are unnecessary…. Belief and love — a believing love will relieve us of a vast load of care. O my brothers, There is a soul at the center of nature and over the will of every man, so that none of us can wrong the universe. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word.”

The word that is most dear to me in Emerson’s list is compassion. You may know Krista Tippet who hosts the NPR program On Being. While listening to Tippet’s TED talk about linguistic resurrection and reclaiming the word compassion, I remembered how essential compassion is to our goodness and how it informs our ethical responsibility. Tippet says, “When we see compassion it changes for us what we think is possible.”

Many are the stories we hear and read where compassion triumphs, surprises us, or reminds us of the immensity of the human spirit. Compassion eliminates the dark side. Compassion is a choice of goodness and informs our response to the complex ethical decisions we make.

Discovering our goodness or having insight into our meanness is not an overnight process. We are fools if we think that after this sermon we will be perfectly good. We are imperfect. So was Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Again, our work is not to live perfectly. It is to practice, model, and expect goodness to prevail. It is to embrace our ethical responsibilities to one another and the world holding them tight while we decide what our responses will be.

Our pluralistic congregations include diverse beliefs, backgrounds, and personal stories. We do not agree on many issues and we sometimes stand on different sides of conflict given our understanding of the issue. Yet we unite in striving to live out the values and principles that call us to work for compassionate possibilities. With open minds, helping hands, and loving hearts, we work to affirm the worth and dignity of every person and to replace meanness with compassion, fear with acceptance, judgment with love, and insecurity with safety.

May it be so.

Reflections on Emerson, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Aug 17, 2014.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What is a Committed Unitarian Universalist?

While I was serving as an usher at Sunday services last Fall, a visitor to our Congregation noticed the gold chalice I wear around my neck. He asked me what it was and I said it is the religious symbol of Unitarian Universalism, a flaming oil lamp called a chalice. The visitor immediately replied, “You must really be a committed Unitarian!”

That encounter made me stop and think. This was the first time since I signed the book in 1961 in Pittsburgh that anyone referred to me as a committed UU. What have my 53 years as a UU taught me about what it means to be a committed Unitarian Universalist? The sermon which follows represents my personal answer to this important question. Your answer may differ, and that is as it should be.

UUs put great store by our right to decide for ourselves what is true and what is false. This is in part because we have no official creed, no organizational dogma that one is obligated to accept, internalize, and follow, in order to be a “good” Unitarian. We are therefore free to accept or reject ideas, beliefs, and values that we encounter as we live our lives.

We are members of a truly “free” church. Our great degree of freedom differentiates us from all other faiths, and parenthetically, makes it hard for members of those faiths to understand what it is we actually believe. One simple answer is that UUs hold sacred the right of each individual to engage with others in the perennial search for truth.

We therefore reject the concept that the Old and New Testaments are the primary sources of revealed truth, even though our faith has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nor do we posit the idea that our ordained ministers, whom we hold in high regard, are themselves the primary source of truth. Our ministers are there to guide us, to advise us, to call our attention to the moral, ethical, social, and intellectual issues of our day, and to perform pastoral care.

Few of us were born and raised as Unitarian Universalists. We are mainly a Congregation made up of converts from other faiths. As First UU of the Palm Beaches members, we have agreed to fulfill three duties -- to pay a pledge, to attend services on a regular basis, and to participate in church activities.

Our religious understanding imparts to us two essential historically-based concepts: the unity of God as opposed to the Trinity, a denial of the divinity, as opposed to the humanity, of Jesus; and, the forgiveness of God for whatever wrongs we may have committed on earth. The significant Universalist message is that all are eventually saved, and there is no hell.

Compared with the three Abrahamic God-centered beliefs, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, our key religious teachings are really quite radical. UU independent, revolutionary zeal stands out as an intellectual challenge to traditional religious thought about the nature of God and God’s relationship to human kind. The simple, yet extraordinary message of Unitarian Universalism is, God is one. All are saved.

And yet, for Unitarian Universalists, there is no requirement to believe in God. We are free to question the existence of a supernatural being or what some refer to as a supernatural force. Some of us are Agnostics. A few of us are Atheists. Others are Humanists, Buddhists, Ethical Culturists. In the Unitarian family there is room for believers, doubters, and non-believers alike. The point is because we are free individuals within a free church, each of us is entitled to our own set of beliefs. Regarding the existence of a Deity, there is no single paramount belief that all of us share equally.

When did you first discover you were a Unitarian? Did you, like me, have an epiphany, an “ah ha” moment when you suddenly understood you were a Unitarian? Do you remember “coming out” to your family and friends, prompting some of them to ask, “So, what are Unitarian Universalists and why do you want to join them?” Did you struggle with how to explain your attraction to Unitarianism to those who may have never heard of it before? Were they surprised to learn that your new faith was not God-centered or Bible-centered? Many years ago a new girlfriend of mine who had been accompanying me to church announced she did not wish to continue attending services. When I asked her why, she said, “Unitarian services are not Christian enough for me.”

She had been raised Presbyterian, a Protestant from birth. She missed worshiping in front of the cross, singing Christian hymns, listening to her preacher reciting the miracles allegedly performed by Jesus. I understood why Unitarian church services did not satisfy her. She needed the reassurance of certain familiar symbols. She needed a structured set of approved values. She needed and wanted to believe in miracles. The Christian Gospel gave her joy. Unitarian Universalism is not for everybody.

I recall the very first time I heard a Unitarian minister speak about Jesus. He called him “Yeshuah Ben Yoseph,” and referred to him as an itinerant Jewish rabbi, a man of conscience, critical of the societal norms of his day. This was a concept of Jesus I could relate to...a principled social reformer whose own life was an example to others …. a teacher, a man who spoke truth to power, who risked his life to bring a message of change, hope, and love to his oppressed community.

Perhaps those of you who are visitors today are searching for a new faith. Or maybe you are hurting emotionally, and looking for the solace a caring, spiritual congregation can provide. Possibly you are hoping to find other like-minded persons with whom to communicate, sharing views and experiences. Perhaps you are a parent wondering how to educate your child in a liberal, non-traditional religious environment. Or maybe you are a minority person, a gay person, or an individual with very “different,” unconventional ideas. Here, you are welcome. Here, you are wanted. Here, you are valued and respected.

The Unitarian Universalist congregations have established seven guiding principles our members are asked to commit to. Among others these include working to achieve peace and relieve hunger and suffering in the world. We follow through on this goal via our international NGO, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and by supporting the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and other groups in service to humankind, like Doctors Without Borders. Our principles state the need to respect the interdependent web of all living things and ask us to be stewards of nature. Many local UU churches advocate for conservation, for anti-pollution laws and regulations, for the maintenance of animal shelters that have no-kill policies, and for the protection of endangered species through other organizations like Greenpeace and the Nature Conservancy. UU congregations through their Social Action Committees, mobilize to combine their efforts to combat racism, homophobia, and gun violence. They advocate for the sheltering of abuse victims, and they speak out against inequality, poverty, and injustice at home and abroad.

As a committed Unitarian I personally believe that our faith has endured because of its democratic values, its egalitarianism, and its shared search for truth and meaning. Unitarians reject dictatorial rule, authoritarianism, and elitist, narrowly constructed ideologies. We recognize that bringing about betterment depends on the determination and hard work of many people willing to help those less fortunate.

Committed Unitarians understand if better is to triumph over worse, we ourselves must be the primary engines of change. We have to help make it happen. It is not sufficient simply to pray for a better world. Heartfelt prayer helps one to focus, and it can provide the emotional strength needed to accomplish that which is difficult and often seems impossible. But, Unitarian Universalists do not sit around waiting for miracles to occur through an other-worldly source. We do not rely on a supreme power to do that which we, through collective action, are capable of accomplishing ourselves. We may praise the Lord, but we also roll up our sleeves and pitch in.

What are some of the chief values espoused by committed American Unitarian Universalists today? We believe in the right of all to marry, and therefore, standing on the side of love, strongly support same-gender marriage. We practice gender equality and believe all men and women should enjoy equal status and equal rights. We believe in the right of women and men to determine the size of their families using whatever means of birth control they choose, including the legal right of women to seek a safe medical abortion. We believe in the right of gays and lesbians to adopt children on an equal basis with heterosexuals.

Committed Unitarians believe in the democratic process and reject gerrymandered voting districts that favor one party over another. We believe in the right of every American citizen to vote and reject requirements for voting registration that place a burden on disadvantaged minorities. We believe in the democratic, egalitarian principle of majority rule, and therefore question the fairness of the electoral college system which grants disproportionate power to smaller states at the expense of larger states. We regard the principle of one person-one vote, to be fundamental to democratic decision-making.

Few of us believe that private corporations are the same as persons, and therefore call into question Supreme Court decisions which solidify rights and privileges for companies as if they were human beings. Although we believe in the principle of self-defense, we question the wisdom of stand-your-ground gun laws that permit individuals to conceal deadly weapons on their person and fire them at presumed attackers without the obligation to retreat. We are critical of weak gun laws that allow people to purchase semi-automatic assault rifles and large ammunition clips. We insist that a person’s mental state be a key factor in determining whether or not to grant him or her a license to purchase a gun.

We believe in the peaceful resolution of disputes between nations and peoples, and reject armed aggression, terrorism, and torture. We strongly oppose human trafficking, slavery of whatever type, and living and working conditions that are dangerous to human health and threaten human survival. Above all we support the right of every human being on the planet to have access to sufficient food, essential health care, decent housing and sanitation, basic education, safe drinking water, a reasonable degree of privacy and adequate security.

In matters of faith, committed Unitarian Universalists question many of the age-old biblical stories taken literally by traditionalists and religious fundamentalists. We as Unitarians are inclined not to take such stories literally. Rather we assume they have symbolic importance and are open to broad interpretation.

Committed Unitarians generally reject the many anthropomorphic attributes of God as described in the Bible. God is often equated with a law-giver as in the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, and a life-taker, as in the story of Noah and the Flood. Law is a human invention and taking life, an unfortunate human pastime. Committed Unitarians doubt that the Deity can be appeased, angered, or delighted by anything humans do or fail to do. Certainly it is hard for us to imagine the Supreme Being loving and hating in the same sense that humans do, or authorizing prophets and messengers to communicate heavenly-approved behavior to humans.

I have my doubts that God has ever anointed a prophet or brought a deceased person back to life. And I don’t think God exclusively belongs to any one group of people or to any nation, race, or culture. I see no likelihood that God favors any particular religion or sect, the so-called “one true faith.” As a modern, educated adult, a teacher who has studied global cultures, I find it hard to believe in the concept of a “chosen people,” a “promised land,” or conversely, the notion that some people are “infidels.”

Traditional religion represents to me, a form of sanctioned social control by an all-knowing, all-powerful God, as interpreted by an authoritative, church hierarchy. But for we Unitarian Universalists, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “God leaves the fate of mortals in the hands of mortals themselves.”

Summing up then, it is not easy being a committed Unitarian Universalist. We have no absolute, dogmatic truths to guide us or fall back on. We are tasked to maintain our individual distinctiveness as Unitarians while at the same time, drawing upon the world’s religious traditions for inspiration and guidance. Our Unitarian Universalist ministers are called by congregations and are primarily responsible to those congregations. Although we are fully aware our ministers are mortal and fallible, we nevertheless hold them in high regard and cherish their advice and guidance. We not only preach equality and democracy, we covenant with each other to practice these virtues as well, in our congregational life and in our civic life. And when we say “all are welcome”-- to our churches, to our congregations, and to our fellowships, we mean all, and not some. We are indeed, a welcoming faith. Committed UUs are proud to wear the golden chalice as they should be, for taken together, we are a light unto the world. May it be so. Amen.

Thank you all for attending the service today. I am reminded that we stand on the shoulders of Unitarian martyrs whose sacrifices have made it possible for us to worship in peace and security this morning. We are thankful for the inspiring legacy that has been left to us. If you came seeking communion with others, may we be your family. If you came searching for a better way of life, may a path be found. And if you came looking for an answer, may your prayers be heard.

What is a Committed Unitarian Universalist?, a sermon and benediction delivered by Andrew Kahn at 1stUUPB on Aug 3, 2014.