Monday, March 21, 2016


On behalf of Palm Beach Pagans, thank you for your hospitality. We are a group of local pagans who came together some months ago in order to meet and establish a deeper sense of community.  Like you, we accept people of all backgrounds and we welcome a diversity of ideas.  Every one of my fellow pagans has his or her own story to tell.  I hope that you will take some time later to get to know all of us a little better.

Paganism, or as some would say neopaganism, modern paganism or pagan reconstruction, is a contemporary religious movement made up of numerous different paths or traditions.  Some of us are Wiccan, Druid, Asatru or Hellenist.  Some of us eschew labels and follow a more eclectic and personalized path.  All of these paths share three important features. 
One: we look to the pre-Christian roots of western civilization for philosophical and spiritual inspiration, as well as to the indigenous traditions of the peoples of the Americas, Asia, Africa and all over the world.
Two: we recognize Divinity as both feminine and masculine, as both Mother and Father.  Likewise, we believe strongly in the equality of men and women.
Three:  we regard all of nature as sacred.  We possess no dogma, no creed, no commandments and no infallible scriptures.  We believe that every man is his own priest and every woman is her own priestess.  We shy away from hierarchies and bureaucracy.

When we come together to worship in groups, such “covens,” “circles,” or “groves,” as they are called, they are often small, fluid and short-lived for we walk a path of personal revelation. Outside of brief apprenticeships, every pagan is her or his own authority.

I’m a pagan for the exact same reason some of you are Unitarian Universalists.  I was raised in a conservative Christian family.  The arbitrary rules and illogical dogma of the Church never sat well with me.  I have always believed in a loving God and such doctrines as hell and original sin were offensive to my innate sense of right and wrong.

I was an avid reader and at the age of ten I discovered the writings of Scott Cunningham, Janet and Stewart Farrar, Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente.  In so-called Witchcraft or Wicca, I found a religion that espoused all of the things I already believed:  God is both Mother and Father.  Women and men are equal.  All ethnicities are deserving of equal respect.  All of nature is sacred.

Some pagans believe in one God whom they might regard as “Spirit,” “Nature,” “The Universe” or “Providence.”  Others believe in a Goddess and a God who represent complimentary spiritual forces that manifest the universe:  similar to the Taoist idea of Yin and Yang.  Some believe in many gods and goddesses.  But some of us are atheists who regard gods and goddesses as representative of powerful aspects of the human psyche.

Until recent decades, the pagan movement has been predominantly a private, if not secret, affair.  Even today, most pagans practice alone and are focused on self-healing and in developing a deeper personal relationship with nature.  I believe that it is time, now, for pagans to assume a larger role in our communities.  In an age of rising sea levels, habitat loss and the extinction of species we need pagan voices to remind us of our proper relationship with Mother Earth.  Politicians can pass restrictions and companies can slap green labels on our products, but I believe that in order for us to truly walk in balance with the natural world, each and every one of us must change the way we relate to Her.

When was the last time you looked at your yard as a community of living beings rather than just as an arrangement of things you bought at Home Depot?  The sciences of biology and ecology provide us with a deeper left-brained understanding of how human beings depend upon Mother Earth. Paganism inspires us to compliment that knowledge with creative right-brained experiences that allow us to make that understanding a part of our day to day lives.

As I mentioned before, I can only speak for myself.  I hope you will take the time during the coffee social to allow my fellow Palm Beach pagans to share their own perspectives with you.

Today we observe the Spring Equinox, one of the eight seasonal holidays in the Wheel of the Year observed by most modern pagans.  Today, the tilt of the earth's axis causes night and day to be of equal length.  For us here in the northern hemisphere, Winter has ended and Spring is about to begin.

Because it marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring, the Spring Equinox has been celebrated as a holiday of renewal all over the world for thousands of years.  Today, even the dates of Passover and Easter are calculated from where the Spring Equinox falls.

In the Middle East it is called Nowruz and it marks the new year among Iranian, Persian, Kurdish and Turkic peoples.  Within the Zoroastrian religion and in the Baha'i Faith it is also a holy day. As a matter of fact, the English word “Easter” comes from the name of an ancient Anglo-Saxon goddess of springtime and fertility.  Eostre lent her name to the heathen month in which the Spring Equinox was celebrated.  When the heathens converted to Christianity, they used Eostre, or Easter, as the English translation of the Latin Pascha.  Some pagans today call the Spring Equinox, Ostara, another word derived from the name of this pagan goddess.

In the Middle East, where the Spring Equinox marks the New Year, grains of wheat or lentils are sprouted in a flat dish called a Sabzeh, or “green shoots,” to represent new growth. Since 1970, April 22nd has been observed by people from all nations, religions and cultural backgrounds as Earth Day.  Earth Day promotes the protection of the natural environment and its celebration may include the planting of trees or beach cleanups.

Christians celebrate Easter with painted eggs and images of bunny rabbits.  Some believe that the dyeing of Easter eggs pre-dates Christianity.  Eggs are a universal symbol of creation.  Many ancient pagans taught that the universe burst forth from a cosmic egg in a process very similar to the Big Bang.  It is believed that before industrialization hens would produce an overabundance of eggs this time of year.  Our ancestors would find creative ways of using this surplus rather than throwing them away.
Rabbits are notorious for their romantic prowess.  As the Spring Equinox falls in the middle of their breeding season, bunnies are a natural symbol for this time of the year. The Jewish celebration of Passover is redolent with seasonal symbolism:  the egg, the bitter herbs and the lamb shank are rooted in a culture that once lived very close to the land and to the cycles of Mother Earth.

Today in Mexico, at Chichen Itza, the Return of the Sun Serpent occurs on the northern balustrade of the Mayan pyramid called El Castillo.

In Japan, today is a traditional time to visit the graves of loved ones and to honor the ancestors.  The home is cleaned to make it fit to receive new blessings.  Resolutions are made such as adopting new habits and starting new projects.

For all people, both pagan and non-pagan, both ancient and modern, the Spring Equinox is a time to celebrate the return of vitality and fertility to the land.  The snows are melting.  Snowbirds are returning north.  Bare trees are putting forth green shoots.  Pollen dusts our windshields.  The world is reborn.  Some say that Florida has no seasons but when you step outside today, pay attention to which flowers are blooming.  There are subtle signs in the wind and in the angle of sunlight that summer is coming.  If nothing else, you’re probably still missing that extra hour of sleep from when we turned the clocks forward.

As pagans, we seek to restore our intimate relationship to the natural world.  We take this time to celebrate nature’s power to renew all things.  It is a time to plant the seeds of that which we would see grow in our lives.  It is also a time to reflect upon balance.  Life cannot exist in complete light or in utter darkness.  Today, darkness and light are in perfect balance and it is upon that balance that all things are renewed.

The Palm Beach Pagans are going to perform a ceremony in celebration of the Spring Equinox. Please visit with Jim and Dayan during the coffee social to find out more about  what we have planned for this afternoon.  At 1 o’clock we will be gathering outside, just behind this sanctuary, to celebrate.  We hope that you stay and join us in our circle or observe from the sidelines.

Let us welcome the growth of new blessings into our lives, both for ourselves, for our community and for our world.  Let us find rebirth in this time of renewal and may we ever walk in balance between the darkness and the light.

Ostara, a sermon delivered by Mathew Sydney at 1stUUPB on March 20, 2016.


I wonder how many of you thought that the sermon this morning was about the movie Deliverance where two friends on a canoe trip run into moonshining hillbillies.  Speaking of my family in upstate New York ......

I constantly have to explain to them my choices and my faith.  Though supportive, they simply have a difficult time wrapping their head around things they don’t know. My family also turn to me with interesting questions.  Last summer I held a summit on the back porch explaining transgenderism and Caitlyn Jenner. It was a bit more difficult than the summit I held on an Easter Sunday many years ago explaining to them I would be marrying a man. The question I get most, as I was raised Catholic, is "What exactly do Unitarians profess?  I mean, if Jesus Christ isn't your savior, how are you saved?"

Many of us are long-time Unitarian Universalists, which means, among other things, that we’ve been attending coffee hours for a very long time.  In all my years of coming to UU coffee hours, I have never heard anyone ask "Have you been saved?" or "How are you saved?"  I’m sure those new to or considering Unitarian Universalism have noticed the absence of such questions.  But they are important questions.

When most of us hear "Have you been saved?" we assume it to be in the Christian sense of salvation.  To remind anyone who may have forgotten, or never knew, Christian theology suggests that we are saved from sin through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.  Moreover, upon death, we are granted eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is upon us after all.

In this formula, we are taught we are saved from sin and we are saved for eternal life.  Let’s take a close look at this blueprint for salvation -- what about that formula makes sense for us and what doesn't.

There is much about Jesus and Christianity that has given me great solace and understanding.  Believing that Jesus was a man whose ministry we should ultimately imitate. However, there is much in Christian theology and church dogma I find difficult.

Can we critique something that some of us also embrace?  I hope the answer is yes.  I don't believe any faith is worth much if it doesn't leave room for expressing doubt and asking questions.  We regularly reflect on our affirmations and our denials -- what do we believe and what do we disbelieve? Using these questions as a starting place, let’s explore salvation or deliverance in the context of the Unitarian Universalist living tradition.

Why don't we start with what we are saved from?

Unlike many liberal religious folks, I have no problem with the concept of sin.  I appreciate the words of Unitarian minister, A. Powell Davies who wrote:

To the best of my observation and belief, sin is highly contemporary, and we are all up to our necks in it.  Evil in human life is not a fiction; it is a very somber fact.

He wrote that in 1950, but it could have been this morning. I might want to broaden the definition of sin just a little - to sin can mean more than to do evil -- I believe it to mean anything that prevents wholeness.  I do not deny evil -- not in myself and not in others -- but I don't believe we have to be evil to be sinful.  We are all broken in some way. The minute we attained consciousness and in effect, understood ourselves as individual humans, we also understood our apartness from whatever had created us, and our separation from one another.

We have a variety of beliefs about what created us (pure biology, God, the universe, some combination) and the severed relationship with that creation affects each of us differently.  What unites us is that we all need deliverance. That is. we all need to be set free.

I need to be set free from excessive pride, self-righteousness, and envy, just to name a few. Some need to be delivered from our obsession with the little trinity: money, fame, and youth. We need to be delivered, set free, from loneliness, cynicism, and fear. So, I understand the need to be saved.  I just don't understand how the suffering and hideous death of Jesus became the crucial link in our redemption.

I am not alone in my discomfort.  The Christian ministers and scholars, Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakishima wrote a brilliant book called Proverbs of Ashes which critiques the theology of the cross.  That argument says we should be like Jesus: the obedient, silent, suffering servant, willingly going to his death for us. That belief has led to great violence against women and children in particular. The authors are not the only Christians who take issue with this limited view of deliverance.

So let's broaden it a bit.  I'm one of that long line of Unitarians who weren't satisfied with the sacrificial-lamb metaphor. The 16th century Unitarian theologian Faustus Socinus asserted that Jesus saved humans, not by dying for them, but by setting an example for them to follow. The scholarship coming out of the present day theological thinktank, the Jesus Seminar, also emphasizes the significance of Jesus' life -- his practice and preaching. He lived a life dedicated to an egalitarian society. His parables are, almost without exception, about subverting current society, with its hierarchies, its imbalance of power and wealth. He embodied his teaching in how he lived his life.  He ate with all the wrong people, touched all the wrong people, healed all the wrong people. That sounds a lot like what our Congregation did last night -- hosting and sharing a meal with farm workers considered dispensable.

While I understand that suffering can be a transformative event, I don't believe in the substitution theory of suffering. Nor do I believe that all suffering is liberating. How has a child who has starved to death been delivered or set free? How has a woman who is beaten by her husband delivered or set free by staying in that relationship? Clearly our world needs deliverance from suffering just as much now as it did in the ancient Near East. Our world is wounded by pollution and poverty, by political and religious oppression. It suffers from widespread and unchecked disease, from the glamorization of violence.

We need deliverance from the consequences of a popular culture that can sink down to the very lowest common denominator, giving us junk journalism, reality TV, and my personal favorite rendition of hell: Disney World. My apologies to its fans. I don't think the problem lies in which faith tradition people choose to make meaning out of their lives. I think the problem lies in our overwhelming inability to respect anyone who believes something we don't. Deliverance lies not in any one path -- it lies in our openness to the reality of many paths. There is always more than one trail up the mountain. Do we respect the person who has taken a left at the fork when we have chosen right?  We needn't agree with all the tenets in any faith tradition to accept it as a viable religious choice. 

This is where Unitarian Universalism has something to teach. The past President of the UUA, Bill Sinkford, is fond of saying that we have a saving word for the whole hurting world.

We may not have the overarching story of the Exodus. We may not have one savior. But we do have a faith that respects, even encourages many beliefs, yet is grounded in certain universals: We have faith in life as an unmerited gift, to be relished and treasured and appreciated, faith that people are basically good; faith in the never-ending mystery of why and how we are here. We have a faith that says Yes to life and love -- even in the face of suffering, even when confronting death.

People tease UUs about our lack of belief. One popular joke I have heard for years is "What do you get when you cross a Jehovah's witness with a Unitarian?  Someone who knocks on your door for apparently no reason." We've heard the jokes, we've gotten the looks. But it isn't true that we believe nothing.

The congregations in our association covenant to affirm 7 principles, all of which offer saving to our world.  I offer to you now the first of our principles:

We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Every one of us on the planet is intrinsically valuable. What a radical idea!  It goes against everything we see around us every day, everything our society is built upon: The rich are better than the poor, men are more valuable than women, whites are better than blacks -- and everyone else.  Bishops are more important than parishioners.  Paying members are more worthy than non-paying members.  Straights are more worthy than gays, and on and on.

The inherent worth and dignity of every person.  It is not an idea original with us.  But in UU churches, the idea has vitality. We bring it to life in our polity, our practices. Congregations "call" ministers as well as make all the important decisions about how the church will run. Our lay people not only participate in the services, but lead them. Our children are nurtured and respected for who they are.

Our congregations accept people who are Jewish, Pagan, and Christian and Buddhist and undecided.  Our chairs are filled with theists and atheists, humanists and agnostics, pagans and tree huggers. Our pews are filled with individuals who have not or cannot pay for their participation here.

How many houses of worship profess an open heart while practicing a closed one?  Here are some other principles we promise to affirm:

 Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
 A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
 The use of democratic process in our decision-making;
 Respect for the interdependent web of all existence.

Do we practice these principles every day?  Of course not.

We are fallible and human.  But just because we don't always follow our principles doesn't mean there's something wrong with them.  Our universalism -- historically our belief in universal deliverance, not just a chosen few -- and more currently our belief that we are all worthy and that we are all connected, leads naturally to the assumption that all religions have wisdom to transmit and beauty to behold. It is a saving idea for a world divided and divided and divided.

If one finds the principles too cumbersome, we can turn to our affirmation and our doxology.  Read those words in your order of service over and over, perhaps daily as a spiritual practice.

I have been delivered by the earth's beauty over and over again.  The northern lights; phosphorescence on the water while paddling in a canoe at night; the first days of spring in New England when everything is glowing green and pink and purple and the beautiful beaches and the flowering bush demanding attention by its color that appears everywhere here in south Florida.

And the autumn. One morning when living in the northeast I left the house in despair.  As I was driving, I came around a corner and saw the most brilliant red leafed maple tree. It took over the whole sky with its radiance, and it stunned me into humility and gratitude. I have been delivered by the beauty of our world. I have been delivered by a free search for the truth. Not the Truth with a capital "T" because we don't believe there is just one. But my truth. I have been delivered from self-deception by discovering what my truth is, and learning how to express it.  I have been delivered by the good. The endless goodness of others, in communities like this one, and in others, and by the goodness people have brought out in me. We are responsible not only for our deliverance but for the deliverance of others.

Our faith allows us to choose for ourselves what will be binding.  What is meaningful to me?  What gives me hope?  What strengthens my faith?  I have been given hope and faith by my grandmother, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jerry Seinfeld, my dog, my family; the band U2, theater, my husband, my children, and the poet Mary Oliver. I have been delivered by a good meal served by people who love me.

Our faith has given me the freedom to be delivered by so many people, places and things -- I cannot imagine I am alone in this. How have you been delivered?  How did it happen for you? Tell someone.

Perhaps you have come here to be delivered. I hope you have come to the right place. Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey, we welcome you and want you to be here. Perhaps we can set you free and perhaps you can deliver us. We are set free so that we might pay attention to what is in front of us right now. In the present moment we will smell the sea and be aware of our breathing.  We will attend to beauty, to suffering, to goodness, to the evil residing within, to the love in and around and among us.

Indeed, deliverance is defined as the act of setting free or of being set free. We are right here, filled with all the love and energy we need to heal each other and our broken world. We have a saving word for our whole hurting world. Let us know it and proclaim it and live by it.

 May it be so.

Deliverance, a sermon delivered by The Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on March 13, 2016.

Conversion to Humanity

In case you haven’t caught on just yet we have been celebrating the theme of love each Sunday in the month of February. Today we begin our official pledge drive.  That is when we ask our members and friends to consider how they will share their resources to keep this beloved community growing deeper in its values and in the number of people who have yet to find us and experience our freedom of belief, our free church.

When I think about our Congregation’s pledge drive, I instantly think of those who came before us.  Not only those who assembled and gave birth to the Congregation we love in the 1950’s, but also those who led and inspired our movement and give us our identity and heritage.  Names such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and Bronson Alcott come to mind. Those Unitarians, those Transcendentalists, ushered in loving and transformative facets to our beloved Unitarian Universalism of today.

Transcendentalists regarded the inner spiritual transformation of the individual as the central event of human existence -- a conversion. That experience of conversion involved a transcendence of the pleasures and routine miseries of everyday life, into the joy and righteousness that was to be found in a new, or renewed, relationship with the divine. The conversion took place on a personal level; and shared the belief that an individual's relationship with the divine could be, and indeed should be, unmediated -- by institutions, by history, by conventions, or by other people. And so here we are celebrating our free faith.

Following conversion, obviously, one remained a human being who continued to live and work in the material world, but conversion would have transfigured one's understanding of the world and of the relationships involving all around them. That is our goal today.

To understand that in this place we enter a conversion that holds us, inspires us and offers an opportunity to sustain this place.  I wonder, what will your conversion look like?

At the time of Transcendentalism, American denominations -- Anglicanism, Congregationalism, Unitarianism -- had lost much of their power to move the hearts of their flocks, and Transcendentalists sought to return to a purer, more visceral form of religion that derived its strength from emotion, rather than convention or duty.  The Transcendentalists can be exasperatingly vague in their prescriptions for spiritual transformation, a vagueness which derives principally from their distrust of all forms of ritual and inherited religious forms. Does that resonate with anyone here?

I offer you this look into Transcendentalism as part of our history, our faith and to help us understand that as the Transcendentalists believed, we too must believe that if we are unconverted to radical love, we will not feel in the fibers of our being a sense of connection, love for humanity, but rather a sense of alienation from a benevolent universe.

Thoreau tells us that the practical intent of Transcendental preaching was to renounce the distractions and temptations to which social intercourse or human nature expose you, and which will interfere with your spiritual development. Failing to do so will leave you lonely, without compassion or the urge for the rebirth of our humanity.

In The Oversoul, Emerson expresses the fundamental Transcendentalist belief that a higher view of reality can only be achieved by ascending above the plane of individual subjectivity. He writes:
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 .... And the blindness of the intellect begins, when it would be something of itself. The weakness of the will begins when the individual would be something of himself.

To convert is to change from one character, type, or purpose to another. Our bodies convert food into energy. We can convert inches to centimeters, pounds to kilograms, and dollars to euros. Our hearts can undergo similar conversions. We can change direction morally, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. The Hebrew word translated “converted” means “to turn back or return.” It is also translated as "restore," or to return to what we were initially meant to be.

Conversion begins in the heart and radiates outward to affect everything we think, say, or do. Merely stating that conversion has occurred does not make it so. Real conversion is obvious as a person switches direction, changes allegiance and moves from individuality to community.  As the heart is transformed, the actions follow until the entire life has been converted to humanity.

Episcopal priest and theologian Carter Heyworth tells us “Love, like truth and beauty, is concrete. Love is not fundamentally a sweet feeling; not, at heart, a matter of sentiment, attachment, or being "drawn toward.” Love is active, effective, a matter of making reciprocal and mutually beneficial relation with one’s friends and enemies.”  The most compelling relationships demand hard work, patience, and a willingness to endure tensions and anxiety in creating mutually empowering bonds.

What if we considered it that way? Recognize that loving in the way that Heyward describes love as a conversion to humanity, a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile…a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world is an heroic journey, one that requires a willingness to move beyond at least the pettiness of our personal ego to embrace, as far as possible, a love for others that is not weak and sentimental, not based on what  or who we like or do not like, but rather is a life and world-changing commitment we can make. What kind of people would we be then? What choices would we make?

He elaborates, Loving involves commitment.… Love is a choice — not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense. Love is a conversion to humanity — a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world or as a deity above the world, aloof and apart from human flesh."

The Transcendentalists had it right.  This is what our faith is all about -- a conversion to humanity, a rescuing life from cynicism, redeeming it from crassness, saving souls, although not in the narrow and restricting sense in which too many churches use that phrase. Many of us were reared in denominations where being saved meant taking communion every Sunday, or reciting the creeds, or confessing a laundry list of nitpicky sins. Mark Twain ridiculed that kind of religion a century ago when he defined faith as “believing what any darned fool knows ain’t so.” That kind of faith is more concerned with obedience and conformity than with changing hearts or freeing the spirit.

But that is not our faith, not the one we support with our dollars, and not the one we celebrate this morning. Religion for us is not about tithing. Not about dogma, not about ritual or living up to other people’s expectations. Rather, religion for us is an openness to the mystery that sustains and upholds life. It is a sense of kinship with the cosmos. It is an invitation to bolder dreams and more generous action. It entails radical affirmation.  Unitarian Universalism is self-transcendence expressed in service to the world.  This is not only the faith we choose, but also the faith that chooses us.

And so on this day, the beginning of our pledge drive we have a choice to choose love, a conversion to humanity -- to become a member and a partner.  A choice to keep the free church, the liberal voice of the south, the hands and hearts of this Congregation firmly standing, innovative, offering intellect, spirit, mercy and justice in an aching world crying out for us. Love as a virtue is a possibility: it is an opportunity to expand our small selves into a larger sense of self, which includes the world. It is a chance to engage others creatively and “without pretense or guile,” opening ourselves to new ways of shaping the world and our place in it.

If we approach problems like global warming, or poverty, or health- care reform, or war from a perspective of love, the whole conversation shifts. We begin to look for what needs are being met by those things we see as problems; we begin to listen to the people on every side of an issue, seeking ways to connect and respond to them, rather than merely counter their positions…we take risks and others respond with their own. Most of us have had an experience where we let down our guard and tried to love rather than defend, and were astonished by what happened next.

It can change big conversations, but of course, it’s still worthwhile to consider the impact when it is smaller and more personal. Sometimes, we change things just by helping to forge one more link in a chain of love. Choose to set aside other causes, other requests for your resources and give to this Congregation knowing that you continue to build a place that will defend, occupy, and promote the values of reason, compassion, and equity that we hold so dear.  Supporting this Congregation beyond belief will maintain what we have already built and create a center of community that honors love, not hate; comfort, not judgement; that strengthens, not destroys.

Love is a choice, a conversion.  What will your conversion to humanity, your return to what you have been created to give and support look like?  If you support one thing surely it would be this Congregation that heals, challenges, questions, offer companionship and compassion, offers a way of becoming whole.  Do other places you contribute to offer you this opportunity?  Are they able to become the center of your personal, spiritual, justice-seeking lives?  Probably not.  This Congregation can offer that to you and is asking to be part of your conversion to humanity.

Answer the call.  Be bolder, more generous and rise in support of this community that embraces you and all that you believe in and hold dear.  Together we can spark a conversion here and now, in our families, in our communities, in our state and around the world simply by making a commitment to this holy place.

I feel like I should be giving you an 800 number to call so that means I need to step back a little.  This will give you a chance to step up. May you understand that your conversion to humanity starts here.

May it be so.

Conversion to Humanity, a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Feb 21, 2016.

Love Versus Fear

I want you to go back to your childhood.  Try to remember how the adults in your life managed you when you stepped out of line. What made you step back in line?  For me it was just one look. My mother would make one facial expression and I knew that she meant business.  She was talented.  She could smile all the while shooting flames from her nostrils or track you with her eyes with laser precision. Could your mother do that? Those are our earliest memories of fear.  The behavior of adults controlled our behaviors, reactions, and responses.  We  are still controlled by fear.

Turn on your television or flip open the newspaper on any given day, and you will find yourself accosted by all the reports of events, people, races, and religions we should mistrust and fear.  You will be assaulted by the indignity of people, candidates, and governments using fear as a strategy. This isn’t by coincidence.  It’s a well- organized system of control.  You see, people living in fear are easier to control.  This post September 11 culture we live in is the perfect breeding ground for fear and paranoia mongering.

Frank Furedi, a former professor of sociology, tells us that today's culture of fear did not begin with the collapse of the World Trade Center. Long before September 11, he argues, public panics were widespread -- on everything from genetically-modified crops to mobile phones, from global warming to foot-and-mouth disease. Furedi argues that perceptions of risk, ideas about safety and controversies over health, the environment and technology have little to do with science or empirical evidence. Rather, they are shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability.

It is not news that we live in fear; we always have. Life has its risks and fear is sometimes a very appropriate response. As self-conscious beings, we carry a basic fear of abandonment and loss. That is because we know we will die. That is because we learn, some of us much too early, that in our lifetime we will experience abandonment and loss. Our fear is a response to the reality of engagement with life. To the reality of our loving others. Fear is sometimes the price we pay for being alive.

At the same time as fear is the price, our fear also seeks to protect us from having to pay such a price; to protect us from loss, from pain, from harm. In the name of protection, fear tells us to stay away; don't touch; to build defenses; to attack before we ourselves are attacked; to shut down; to deny; to avoid; to numb ourselves from feeling our feelings. How many of us have ever ignored physical symptoms of disease in the hopes that it would just go away? And in the fear that it would not? How many of us drink or drug or eat our difficulties away? Because we just don't want to know. How many of us, are frightened at the thought of weapons of mass destruction? How many of us shut the doors of our souls? Out of fear, whether we recognize it as such or not. Fear tells us that it's better to be safe than sorry.

Our fear seeks to protect us and keep us safe, which is good and necessary. But fear cannot protect us from fear. Fear does not, ultimately, protect us, or keep us safe. Fear causes us to become rigid and it closes our minds and hearts, which only gives rise to more fear.

The opposite of fear is not fearlessness. The opposite of fear is love.  Fear separates us; love connects us. Fear does not protect us, love does, because love allows us to live with a certain acknowledgment of our vulnerability. Love allows us to live with the fact that we cannot be perfectly safe, and thereby we take some risk and survive it. Fear will never go away because on some level it is an appropriate response to the losses and chances of life. But we cannot be ruled by fear, not if we want to live.

Yet we live in a society saturated with fear both on the personal and national level. We Americans are no strangers to fear. Our governments, our media, elements of our culture have, in certain time periods, fed on fear and used it to manipulate and control the public. It is not something new. Return to that place of your childhood. Think of the people, weapons, gods and movements you were taught to fear.  Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1933 first inaugural address, recognizing the power of fear, uttered those famous words: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The whole sentence is even better and it goes like this: So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

In January of 1941 he laid out what he called the four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his (and I add "her") own way -- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want -- which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough manner that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.

We are no strangers to fear and while there have been, and are, times in our history when we have succumbed to it, there have also been times when we have had leaders who have taught us how to counter it. The years following WWII were not one of the latter periods. During those years we experienced the fear of communism and that fear manifested itself in the McCarthy hearings, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, covert operations in Central America, the growth of the political power of the Christian right and the nuclear arms race. The years since 9/11 have been particularly fearful ones, having provided us with a new enemy -- terrorism, which has left us almost consumed by anxiety for our safety. We go so far as to elect our leaders based upon the perceptions of who will keep us safe and in our anxiety we do not see that those perceptions are illusions.

Think about what we do and do not fear. And why. National fears play into personal fears for our safety. Michael Moore pointed out in his film Bowling for Columbine, we fear for our security, so we carry more guns and behave more violently than almost any other peoples in the world. We fear for our economic security, which results in a hostility to immigrants despite the fact that it's a myth that immigrants take jobs away or consume an undue share of public services without paying any taxes.  Where does this come from? Our fears have been shaped and defined by the age of information which throws boatloads of specialized, unanalyzed and undigested facts at us all the time; by ever-increasing technology which puts all of this information at our fingertips all the time whether we want it there or not;

by our government which uses fear to get votes for its own policies; by the media which seemingly loves to stir up fear with exaggerations and half-truths;
by fundamentalist religions which look gleefully to an apocalyptic end of the world;
by our educational system, through omission, which has not taught our children to adequately think for themselves, look beyond themselves, and to question.
And by our own complicity in all of this.

Christian theologian Walter Brueggeman has said that it is in the interests of those who profit in wealth and power from war, or other human misery, (and throughout history there have always been those who profit from such), it is in their interests to cultivate a culture of fear and keep the public anxious about its own safety and focused solely on its own private interests, thereby distracted from larger issues, leaving them free to continue to profit, saying "If you don't do what I say, terrible things will happen. Trust me, I know best how to keep you safe. How dare you question my actions?"

How then, do we counter this culture of fear? Mary Oliver was quoted saying  Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

The Reverend David Gage gives us instructions on what to pay attention to:

  • Pay attention to the wider world and we will see how much the rhetoric of exaggeration and catastrophizing permeates society, government, and media, stoking the fires of fear. Counter it with education and keeping ourselves informed with a larger perspective and an open mind. Question, for example, why threats to our safety are more important than threats to our civil liberties. Question our leaders when they would use the rhetoric of fear.
  • Pay attention to the meaning we chose to make in our lives, and the purposes for which we chose to live. Ethics matter, both personally and nationally. Counter fear by living according to principles of morality. Question the consequences of the choices we make, individually and collectively.
  • Pay attention and we will find our own personal fears, often wearing the masks of protectors. Identify them and look at them. Counter them by uncovering the ways in which we are blinded by that which we believe will protect us. Question whether it does.
  • Pay attention to our own histories. Recall a time when we broke through fear. Counter our anxiety by recovering our sense of competence. Remember our sense of confidence and know that we can live with some ambiguity. We can live with some vulnerability. We can live with some risk of loss.
  • Pay attention to other people. See how they handle adversity and fear. Counter our fear through inspiration from others. Question ourselves when we perceive that we have become rigid and closed.
  • Pay attention to our faith, whether it is in ourselves, in other people, in spirit, in nature, and on. Counter fear through connections to something and someone larger than oneself. Open our hearts. Open our minds. Simply love as our Unitarian Universalists values call us to do.

Fear exists as part of our human condition and it is a realistic response to the reality of engagement with life. Nevertheless, we cannot live as a servant of fear because that only grows more fear, less engagement, diminished connections. It overshadows the presence of love in our lives and that does not help us.

Fear is the root of the problem. The only thing which will improve our present condition is the taming of our fear. We must act on courage. Courage to think differently, speak loudly, and challenge directly the systems which we know to be unjust.  We choose to counter fear with love.  Choice is one of Viktor Frankl’s big ideas.  He speaks of being in the concentration camps and having everything taken away except one thing:

He writes, the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.   And there were always choices to make.  Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom….    

He goes on, The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.  It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish.   Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.  Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forego the opportunities of attaining the values that a difficult situation may afford him.
May we counter our culture of fear. May we cultivate love; may we cultivate peace; may we cultivate joy. May we live generously and strongly, singing our song of praise and thanks for all that is our life. May it be so.

Love vs Fear, a sermon delivered by The Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB Feb 7, 2016.

Thursday, March 3, 2016



I am happy to report that the Stewardship Kickoff Luncheon, attended by 51 members of the Congregation, was a rousing success! The food provided by TooJays Deli was delicious and plentiful. Animated conversations were carried on as participants discussed current positives and the need for changes in our Congregation.  According to Assistant Treasurer Harry Wolin, the 31 pledge cards signed at the event represented an increase in giving of 8.9% as compared with last year’s pledges.

The 2016-17 Stewardship Campaign is already half over, aiming to reach a goal of $150,000. 23 members have agreed to participate in our second round of small group meetings in early March. There is still room for participants at the Wednesday, March 9 meeting at 7pm. Call or email Andrew or Phyllis to sign up. Facilitators are also busy contacting an additional 27 members on an individual one-to-one basis. Please cooperate with them when you are telephoned.

Our Stewardship Team 7 and facilitators are working hard to reach the financial goal that has been set. They need your help if success is to be achieved. When considering your pledge, please bear in mind the $1600 figure that is needed from each and every congregant for us to keep the doors open and the lights on. We have been asking everyone to increase their pledge by 15% if they can afford it. To support our varied programs and our excellent professional staff, to maintain our beautiful Sanctuary and our busy social hall, will require members to dig a little deeper and stretch their pledge commitment. Thank you all in advance for your generous giving.

Andrew Kahn, president, Board of Trustees