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the stages of vacation. July 28, 2014

Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
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This year, for the first time in recent memory, my family and I were able to take a two-week vacation. It was quite an experience, which I recommend to everyone if you are able to do so!  But I could not help “getting up on the balcony” and watching my own process during the trip. Here is what I learned about my own personal “stages of vacation.” They may or may not resonate with you.

Days -1-0: Anxious planning

Holy crap, we are about to leave for 2 weeks. Have I done everything/packed everything/planned for everything? What am I forgetting? (What I forgot: to turn in that Redbox movie…whoops).

Days 1-2: Disbelief

Am I really on vacation? I needed this so badly, I can’t believe it is finally here. Thank goodness. But, um, exactly how does one “relax”??

Days 3-4: Reorienting

Okay, I am getting into the swing of things. I don’t have to rush. I don’t have to do everything all at once.  Thank goodness this is a two-week trip or else it would be half over.

Days 5-11: Enjoying

Yes! This is the life! Takin’ my time, relaxing, no rush to do anything or get anywhere.  The kids are happy, the spouse is happy.  And I am definitely happy. I wish we could be like this all the time.

Days 12-13:  Missing Home

This has been nice, but I miss my bed. And I miss all the utensils and gadgets in my kitchen. And my pets. I will try to savor these last few days, but I think that I am ready to go home.

Day 14: Returning

YAY! We are going home.  What a great vacation, and I will be so glad to be home.

Day 15: Exhaustion

Ok, I need to unpack, do the grocery shopping, do laundry, pay bills, balance the checkbook, check up on email, sort through the mail, clean up after the pets, sort through all these pictures…I think I need a vacation!

May you find the time and resources to get away long for long enough that you are able to look forward to returning home.

recharge, reorient, recommit June 23, 2014

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Recharge, Reorient, Recommit
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on June 22, 2014

Listen here:

Five years ago, we started our journey together. And what an amazing ride it has been. We’ve done so much together in that time – some of it has been wonderful and exciting, some of it has been really, really hard. We’ve stopped relying on endowment principle and balanced the budget, we processed ways we could be more multigenerational and created the Religious Exploration hour, we have seen the birth of new programs, the death of some that were no longer sustainable. We’ve had staff turnovers, negotiated conflict, helped to host a General Assembly, and had a wonderful capital campaign. And so much more. In these five years, I have grown as a minister, and you have grown as a congregation.

In fact, I have been so caught up in the whirlwind of life at First Unitarian that I’ve barely had time to process it all. After these rich and exciting, challenging and busy five years, I need to take a step back and make sense out of them. And so it is with both excitement and nervousness, plus, frankly, quite a bit of disbelief, that I stand up here before you knowing that it is my last time at this pulpit until January. Starting in July, I will be taking four weeks of vacation and then embarking on a five month sabbatical.

The paid ministerial sabbatical is an important part of our tradition. The standard letter of agreement between Ministers and Congregations, which my letter of agreement follows, states that a minister earns one month of sabbatical for every year at a congregation, with the sabbatical being taken every five to seven years. So we are right on time according to the letter of agreement. But I know that questions remain: where does this tradition come from? What will I be doing on sabbatical? What do I hope the congregation will be doing? These are the questions I want to address this morning.

First, where does this tradition of a sabbatical come from? Why is it a standard part of the relationship between a minister and a congregation, not just in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, but in many denominational traditions?

The Presbyterian Church compares “the life of a minister with that of a taxi leaving an airport. It is so loaded down with passengers and suitcases and the other items that the car has a hard time even moving and is strained to the point of breaking, yet the taxi may be only a few years old. So [can it be] with clergy…As a result, many, if not all [clergy], experience to one degree or another symptoms of emotional collapse, stress related illnesses [which has definitely hit home with me recently], and “burnout” adversely affecting the minister’s personal, family, and parish life, and greatly diminishing his or her effectiveness and well-being.” The ministerial sabbatical is a way to address this burnout.

One of the most powerful sermons I’ve ever experienced was delivered at a UU Ministers event in 2011. The Rev. Peter Friedrichs talked about how, when ministers are ordained and have the stole laid across our shoulders, we often don’t have any idea how heavy the stole will become. We bear the weight of our call to ministry, plus the hopes, dreams and expectations of the congregation. We bear the weight of the grief, loss and pain that we are asked to carry as ministers, and the weight of the empty leadership positions in the church that need to be filled. As Rev. Friedrichs was listing these weights, he was shrinking, getting smaller. “Suddenly,” he says, “we look down and wonder: has stole gotten longer?

And he continues. We carry the weight of a cloud of witnesses looking over our shoulder – Hosea Ballou, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker. Here at First U, I often feel the weight of James Freeman Clark, of Robert Terry Weston, of the amazing ministers this congregation has had in it’s formidable history. And ministers also bear the weight of having to bring an idea to fruition each and every week, to craft a worship service that appeals to a variety of generations, educational levels, length of membership, and more. Services that we know cannot be all things to all people, but we hope has something that each person can connect with.

It is enough, Friedrichs demonstrated, to bring us to our knees. Which can be a good place – it is certainly a humble place. But there is more. There is the weight of empty mouths needing food, of rent needing to be paid, of empty pockets. The weight of our families, waiting for us as we are out 2, 3, 4 times a week and can never get away for a weekend because ministers don’t get weekends.

At this point in the sermon, Friedrichs was lying down on the floor. And all the ministers in the room were laughing – not because it was funny, but because it was so familiar. I was going to try to do that today, but I was afraid I might not be able to get up.

Thankfully, that is not the end of the sermon. As we lie on the floor, we pray for enlightenment. And we find it. In the tears of someone who was moved by what we said on a Sunday morning, by watching a new member find their niche and thrive and grow into leadership. We are enlightened by the generosity of a donor who sees a need and comes to us very quietly to make it happen and by a family that is visibly comforted by our presence in the surgery waiting room. And to all this, let me add that the sabbatical is a powerful, powerful way to be enlightened of our burdens.

The sabbatical has it’s roots in scripture. In Genesis, God rests on the seventh day after six days of creation. Later in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told that in farming, we should let the land rest in the seventh year so that the nutrients in the ground might begin to replenish.

A sabbatical is actually quite different than just a rest – there is a replenishing aspect. “Sabbatical Leave…is a planned time of intensive enhancement for ministry and mission.” In many ways, we follow the model set by the academic community and a growing number of private sector groups in that a sabbatical is “qualitatively different from vacation or days off. [Instead,] it is an opportunity for the minister to strategically disengage from regular and normal tasks so that ministry and mission may be viewed from a new perspective.”

Because sometimes, we really do need a new perspective. There is an old story about a traveler who saw three people at a pile of stones, working hard with hammers and chisels. Curious, the traveler approached the first one. He said, “What are you doing?” Grumpily, the worker spat out, “Just cutting these stones.” The traveler approached the second worker with the same question. The second worker paused, wiped some sweat from his brow, and said, “I do all this to make enough money to support my family. So, that’s what I’m doing.” Then, the traveler came to the third worker, and asked, “And what are you doing?” The third worker stopped what he was doing, and looked at the expanse all around him, before he said, beaming radiantly, “I’m building a cathedral to serve this community for generations to come.”

Even the best minister, who surely wants to feel like she is building a cathedral, sometimes feels like she is merely cutting stones. At such time, a sabbatical can help a minister to recharge professionally and spiritually. It can be a time to reorient the spirit by engaging in areas of ministry that the minister does not normally have time for, and a time to recommit ourselves to our calling.

Which then leads to the next question: What will I be doing on my sabbatical? Though I may be lying on the beach during my vacation, in my sabbatical you will find me, glued to my computer for the part of each day as I write. I want to take my roller-derby sermon and expand it into a book – something I have wanted to do ever since I wrote the sermon 3 years go, but not something I would ever have time for in my normal day-to-day life. And I will be blogging – about my sabbatical experience, and also reflecting on more general issues facing Unitarian Universalism – and maybe even sharing some of my book chapters. You can follow my writing on my blog, and on facebook and twitter.

I also plan to spend a great deal of time reflecting on our relationship. What has worked well? What habits do I want to continue? And, perhaps even more importantly, what about our relationship has not worked so well? What areas need tweaking, and how can I return in January and forge these as new habits rather than just falling into the old ones?

Sometimes, ministers go somewhere special on sabbatical. I know of ministers who have gone to congregations in England or in Australia for their sabbatical time. Or gone to a cabin in the woods for retreat and reflection. At this point, I will not be doing intensive travel on my sabbatical, though I do have a few brief trips planned. This means you are likely to run into me: at the grocery store, walking in the park, at Heine Bros, who knows where. When you do run into me, I would invite you to not hide your head and pretend I don’t exist. I am happy to talk to you and say hello. I am happy to talk about how the book is going, or how I am enjoying sabbatical. I might even ask how you are doing!

As you heard Linette share in our Children’s Moment, my family will also still be around – attending on Sunday occasionally while I am on sabbatical. I ask that you respect their boundaries and not pass messages through them to me or ask how I am doing.

There is one topic that is forbidden to talk about if you see me: how things are going at church. I will not ask and I hope you do not tell me about it either in person or online. Part of my sabbatical is a trust exercise: I trust that y’all can hold the fort while I am gone.  This is important, because this is your church. So, finally, what do I hope that First Unitarian Church will be doing on my sabbatical? A sabbatical is not just for the minister, after all – it is for the congregation as well. Let me bless you with my hopes and dreams for YOU during the sabbatical:

I bless you with a deep sense of lay ownership, which will enable the congregation to better embody your mission. Sabbaticals can rekindle a congregation’s calling. Congregations get busy doing stuff that makes a real difference.

I bless you with improved communication lines and new ones drawn when I am out of the loop.

I bless you with insight. There are ways in which, perhaps, I get in the way of you doing your work. And there are ways that you get in your own way. During this time, you will get a chance to figure out which is which, as well as discover strengths you did not realize you had.

I bless you with permission for new people to get involved. Gifts and talents that are currently unknown can be brought out and cultivated when new people are asked to pitch in.

I bless you with an increased sense of hospitality, as you welcome pulpit supply ministers and guest speakers.

I bless you with a robust immune system. Feed the healthy parts of this congregation, so that when anxiety inevitably rises, you are able to live your covenant and your mission and respond firmly, but not anxiously.

I bless you with letting go of out of date programs and committees that I may be propping up unintentionally. May they not survive when I am not around. This is okay! Prioritize. Let things go that need to go.

And, finally, I bless you with the permission and energy to try new ways of doing things. Balance the new and the old. Let your creativity guide you. Take risks.

We have had an amazing five years together. And I look forward to many more. The sabbatical is time for all of us to recharge, reorient, and recommit ourselves. It is an exciting time. For me, it will be spiritually re-engaging, full of contemplation about my call to ministry, and a re-fueling for the next stage of our time together. For you, I hope the same – that it will be enlivening, and full of positive growth and development. I hope that the story of this sabbatical, several years down the road, will not be a story of a congregation that “just hung in there” but rather one of a church that engaged in new opportunities and endeavors. I can’t wait to hear all about it, in six months. Blessed be.

mystery June 23, 2014

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Mystery
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on June 15, 2014

The Moment for All Ages was the story of The Mystic and the Scientist.

Listen to the sermon here:

 

reimagining Memorial Day. May 25, 2014

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Reimagining Memorial Day
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on May 25, 2014

Origin stories are important. They are a way to frame a character, to add depth to a hero, or just to explain why we do something. Take the song we sang a few minutes ago as an example. “We’ll Build a Land” used to be my favorite song in our hymnal, until the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Ever since then, I have had a hard time singing it. It has the ring of empire-building. Come, let us impose our values on these people and this land because we are anointed by God.

This song’s origin story is what saves it and makes it possible for us to sing it occasionally, provided we explain where it came from. Barbara Zanotti, a peace activist, wrote this hymn by adapting words from the Hebrew scriptures Isaiah and Amos. And the final lines of the hymn “Let justice roll down like waters and peace like an everflowing stream” echo those carved on Martin Luther King’s tombstone. It is a song not about conquering, but about creating the beloved community. The origin story allows us see that a song that, at first glance might be seem to be about so much that we stand against, in fact has its roots in civil activism and the creation of justice.

More apropos to today, look at the origin of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. This song, which our Orchestra opened with this morning, is one of the most popular patriotic songs of all time. It is often performed at the funerals of American soldiers and statesmen, presidential nominating conventions and inaugurations and more.

The song originated during the Civil War. On November 17, 1861, Julia Ward Howe, who, by the way, was a Unitarian, traveled with her husband, Samuel, then director of the Army’s Sanitary Commission, to inspect a Union camp outside Washington, DC. While there, she took notice of a particularly catchy marching song that the troops were fond of singing, called “John Brown’s Body” “His soul is marching on!” the Union soldiers sung in refrain

The song memorializes John Brown, the radical abolitionist who was executed in 1859 after leading an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry that killed fourteen men. Brown became a Union hero, praised by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and even the French novelist Victor Hugo. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was one of Brown’s principle financiers. Parker is also the origin of the famous Martin Luther King line “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Howe rewrote the song’s lyrics at the urging of a friend, the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, who was part of her traveling party. You may recall his name, as 30 years prior to that trip he was the minister of our church! Clarke suggested How write some good words for such a stirring tune, something higher-minded, something grander and more poetic, not so coarse.

Howe’s solution was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The new lyrics carry the same rah-rah sentiment as the old song, with the added weight of biblical references. She penned the new lyrics overnight, and they were published two and a half months later, on the front page of the February 1862 edition of the Atlantic Monthly.

I can’t help but think that, were Howe alive today, and were the giggling-type, she could not help but giggle that this song, set to a Union tune and glorifying the leader of a slave revolt, is now beloved and sung in even the most staunchly conservative Southern states.

Origin stories matter. This leads one to wonder about the origin of Memorial Day.

There is a photo making the rounds on facebook.

First_Memorial_Day

The text that goes along with it says:

“Memorial Day was started by former slaves on May, 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC to honor 257 dead Union Soldiers who had been buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. They dug up the bodies and worked for 2 weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children where they marched, sang and celebrated.”

The singing included songs such as “John Brown’s Body” and “The Star Spangled Banner” – the pieces our orchestra is playing this morning.

As most of us have learned the hard way, just because something is circulating on the internet does not mean it is true. So is this story accurate? My favorite fact checker for this kind of thing, snopes.com, says it is mixed. On the one hand, these events did happen. On the other, there is dispute as to whether this is the origin of Memorial Day. Well, there would be a dispute, wouldn’t there? I mean, what white male in power wants to attribute such a powerful day to a bunch of former slaves?

Let me read to you from a 2009 Time magazine article. Laura Fitzpatrick writes:

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, conjuring images of picnics, barbecues or just a lazy day off. But originally the holiday was charged with deeper meaning — and with controversy.
The exact origins of Memorial Day are disputed, with at least five towns claiming to have given birth to the holiday sometime near the end of the Civil War. Yale University historian David Blight places the first Memorial Day in April 1865, when a group of former slaves gathered at a Charleston, S.C., horse track turned Confederate prison where more than 250 Union soldiers had died. Digging up the soldiers’ mass grave, they interred the bodies in individual graves, built a 100-yd. fence around them and erected an archway over the entrance bearing the words “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

On May 1, 1865, some 10,000 black Charleston residents, white missionaries, teachers, schoolchildren and Union troops marched around the Planters’ Race Course, singing and carrying armfuls of roses. Gathering in the graveyard, the crowd watched five black preachers recite scripture and a children’s choir sing spirituals…While the story is largely forgotten today, some historians consider the gathering the first Memorial Day.

Despite scattered celebrations in small towns, it took three more years for the holiday to become widely observed. In a proclamation, General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic — an organization of former soldiers and sailors — dubbed May 30, 1868, Decoration Day, which was “designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” On Decoration Day that year, General James Garfield gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. Afterward, 5,000 observers adorned the graves of the more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers entombed at the cemetery.

At the outset, Memorial Day was so closely linked with the Union cause that many Southern states refused to celebrate it. They acquiesced only after World War I, when the holiday was expanded beyond honoring fallen Civil War soldiers to recognizing Americans who died fighting in all wars. It was also renamed Memorial Day. Some critics say that by making the holiday more inclusive, however, the original focus — on, as Frederick Douglass put it, the moral clash between “slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization” — has been lost. Most Southern states still recognize Confederate Memorial Day as an official holiday, and many celebrate it on the June birthday of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. But Texas, for one, observes the holiday on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, Jan. 19 — which also happens to be Martin Luther King Jr. Day…

With the National Holiday Act of 1971, Congress moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the last Monday in May. But critics say guaranteeing that the holiday is part of a three-day weekend promotes relaxation instead of stressing the holiday’s true meaning. In 1989, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii introduced a bill to move the holiday back to the fixed date of May 30. He has reintroduced it in every Congress since then — with no success…”

So here we are, today, in Louisville, KY. A town that has a blend of the best of Midwestern and Southern qualities, in a state that one minute will pass a highly restrictive law and the next a progressive one. Those of us who are progressive take pride that Kentucky was a Union state, but that was not originally the case. Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War – a state where the war was fought over the dining-room table, with brothers fighting against brothers. At the beginning of the war, Kentucky was neutral, but after the Confederate army invaded, the state petitioned the Union for assistance, and thereafter became solidly under Union control. Now, as you may recall, the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves really only freed the SOUTHERN slaves – those in Confederate states. So this meant that there was still legal slavery for a few months in Kentucky until the 13th amendment was ratified in December 1965 (aside: KY did not ratify the 13th amendment until 1976!!)

So how does this origin story for Memorial Day impact us, right here, today? I would invite us, just for right now, just today, to expand those who we honor. Let us look at that first Memorial Day, and honor all those who have sacrificed so much in search of justice. Let us take a piece of today to remember those Union soldiers who worked to free the country of slavery, and let us take a moment to remember others who have sacrificed their lives in search of justice.

In the Civil Rights movement, let us remember people such as George Washington Lee, an African American civil rights leader, minister, and entrepreneur who was head of the Belzoni, Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He was assassinated in 1955.

Let us remember Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist from Mississippi. After returning from overseas military service in World War II and completing his secondary education, Evers became active in the civil rights movement until he was assassinated in 1963 by a member of the White Citizens’ Council.

Let us remember James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwermer, the three civil rights workers who were murdered during Freedom Summer 1964 by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Let us remember Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian who was killed in 1965 in Hayneville, Alabama while working on the civil rights movement in Lowndes County.

Let us remember Jimmie Lee Jackson, an unarmed civil rights protestor who was shot and killed by an Alabama State Trooper in 1965. His death inspired the Selma to Montgomery marches.

Let us remember the Unitarian Universalist Minister James Reeb,who was beaten severely by white segregationists and died of head injuries two days later in the hospital in Selma, AL where he had been marching for civil rights in 1965.

Let us remember Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan, who heeded the call of Martin Luther King Jr and travelled from Detroit, Michigan to Selma, Alabama in the wake of the Bloody Sunday attempt at marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She was shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan, while driving civil rights workers back from Montgomery to Selma in 1965.

Let us remember Malcolm X, an African-American Muslim minister and a human rights activist. He was a courageous advocate for the rights of blacks, a man who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans until he was assassinated in 1965.

And let us remember Martin Luther King, Jr, pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the Civil Rights Movement until he was assassinated in 1968.

There are many  areas of life in which we need justice, so let us also today honor and remember:

Frank H. Little, an American labor leader who was lynched in 1917 in Butte, Montana, for his union and anti-war activities. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World organizing miners, lumberjacks, and oil field workers.

Let us remember Alice Cosu, a suffragette who suffered a heart attack during the “Night of Terror” in 1917, when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to brutally beat and “teach a lesson” to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson’s White House for the right to vote.

Let us remember Harry Simms, a Jewish American labor leader who was sent by the National Miners Union to Harlan County, Kentucky during the Harlan County War to organize the mine workers there. He was shot in 1932 near Brush Creek in Knox County by a sheriff’s deputy who also worked as a mine guard for the local coal company.

Let us remember Pete Pantowas, a longshoreman and union activist who was executed in 1939 by the mob for attempting to revolt against union leadership.

Let us remember Harvey Milk, the American politician who became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. This weekend, the Harvey Milk stamp was dedicated at the white house. Less than a year after he took office, he and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone were assassinated on November 27, 1978.

Let us remember Alex Odeh, a Palestinian American anti-discrimination activist who was killed in a bombing as he opened the door of his office in Santa Ana, California in 1985.

These people, and many more, too many to list – both armed forces and civilians, sacrificed their lives to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. They died working to turn our our country into a land where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream. Let us remember them today, in honor of that first Memorial Day.

the death of Postmodernity? April 29, 2014

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The Death of Postmodernity?
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on April 27, 2014

Listen here:

 

Reading

Excerpts from AFTER POSTMODERNISM? “TRUE, BUT STILL…” by Geoffrey Holsclaw

Sermon

You know that scene in the Matrix, where Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, suddenly can see the lines of code that make up the Matrix in which they live? Well, that is about how I feel right now. I am suddenly looking at these lines of code, and I am going to try to explain to you what I see, where it comes from, and what it means. If I fail along the way, I apologize – trust me, though, at least for me and I hope for some of you, this is exciting stuff. It is like taking apart a machine and seeing how it works.

My immersion into this matrix actually started in the fall of 1998. I was feeling a sense of despair about the way the world was going, and I decided it was time for a revolution. So, being the new seminarian I was, I decided to write a sermon about it. But I knew we didn’t need a modern-style revolution, as these are no longer modern times – instead, I thought we needed a Postmodern Revolution.

Of course, to begin that sermon, I had to immerse myself into Postmodernity. And as I did I became more and more depressed. I realized that I didn’t want, and I didn’t think the world needed, a postmodern revolution, but that instead we needed a revolution against postmodernity.

Fast forward 15 years, and I now see that revolution in full swing. Have you noticed it? I think the linch-pin moment for me was when I saw the Zombie love movie, Warm Bodies.

What, HUH?

Yup. Bear with me. To explain this, we have to take a journey back in time a couple hundred years to deconstruct – that is, take apart and look at – where postmodernity came from.

In Western Civilization, up until around the 1650’s, the church was the primary source of authority, and it imparted ultimate Truth that had been revealed to it by God. This was how knowledge came to the people – from God, to the church, and on down the line. We call this time period the Premodern era.

What we call the Modern era began in Western Civilization during the Enlightenment, in the early 1600’s. Rather than knowledge only being imparted by God, in the Modern era knowledge could also be gained through our senses, such as through scientific observation, or through reason and logic. When observation and reason became an important part of discovery, science began to take leaps and bounds. Anything and everything became possible. Power shifted away from the church as governments and universities became the sources of authority. The modern era was characterized by a belief in “Onward and upward!” – the linear progression of humankind. Not surprisingly, it was also characterized by an ultimate optimism.

Europe moved toward Postmodernity in the very beginning of the 20th century. In the United States, we seemed to hold onto the modern worldview a bit longer. Our transition to Postmodernity probably began with the Great Depression, but much of modernity held on – the 60’s brought with them an era of hopefulness – a sputtering renewal of modern optimism. The beginning of the civil rights movement was firmly entrenched in this hopeful modern philosophy. But towards the end of the 60s, people were losing hope. Vietnam came along and became more and more complicated. Then there was the revived threat of nuclear war and the air-raid drills, mind-altering drugs and the sexual revolution and presto-chango, counter-culture was reborn as the norm.

Question authority! It did not matter whether it was scientific, religious or political – this became the rallying cry of the postmodern era, with its cynicism in direct opposition to the optimism that had been characteristic of the modern period it grew out of.

Postmodernity questions everything in search of ultimate reality. It seeks to deconstruct, or take apart and look deeply at, previous authority sources. It “believes that the result of modernism, what is new and better, is erroneous because new and better can only exist in reference to what was, and a total rejection of what was means it cannot be used as a reference. Once you reject the reference point, all becomes universal and relative. Without a reference point, or if each is its own reference point, all are then equal.” And all are equally meaningless.

Postmodernity showed us that the truth is subjective – that what may be true for one person or one culture is not necessarily true for another. This can render the truth to be a meaningless concept. This leads to a nihilism and relativism that produced the self-centered cynicism that was so characteristic of culture in the United States back in 1998 when I began this journey.

I suspect that the despair that can come out of dwelling too long in this place of meaninglessness is, in part, what has led to the flourishing of our consumerist culture. If nothing is meaningful, then we might as well pacify our existential angst with things we can consume.

Back in 1998, I could not see the Matrix before me like I do now, but I had my suspicions. I knew we were entering the process of change. We were beginning to look around and realize that we were tired of this backlash against optimism and idealism – for it is tiring. Negativism is tiring; cynicism will wear you out. Irony – well, it gets old.

And yet we cannot just revert to the blind optimism of the modern era. Our eyes have been opened to the world around us and it is much bigger and more complex than we ever imagined – we cannot forget what we have seen. Therefore, whatever comes next, has to incorporate postmodern elements.

Instead of it’s own era, I suspect that postmodernity is the necessary transition between Modernity and whatever comes next – a New Era. I don’t think Postmodernity dead – heck even Modernity is not dead yet – but I do think it is dying. So what will be taking its place? What comes next? Everyone seems to refer to the New Era differently: Neomodernism, Altermodern, Ultramodern, Pseudo-Modern, and the ever-helpful Post-Postmodern. In preparing this sermon, I read a dizzying amount about all these things, and the conclusion that I have come to is that this New Era may not have a name yet, but it has some defining characteristics. These include:

  • connection
  • globalization
  • creativity
  • knowledge
  • authenticity
  • resilience*
  • earnestness
  • hope

Our reading summed it up beautifully. The modern era was characterized by an “either/or” paradigm – something is either true OR false, right OR wrong, and we can figure it all out. The postmodern paradigm is “both/and” – sometimes, something is right and something is wrong. It all depends on your context and perspective. The paradigm for the New Era looks to be along the lines of “True, but still…”

Let me give you some examples that might make the differences easier to understand. In his paper, Whence Hermeneutic Authority, delivered at the 2007 Wheaton Theology Conference, Tony Jones uses his experience of being a baseball umpire to help clarify the different perspectives.i

He shares that a pre-modern umpire would say “I call ‘em as they are” whereas a modern umpire would say “I call ‘em as I see ‘em” – appealing to what his senses tell him. A postmodern umpire, by contrast, would say “They ain’t nothin ’till I call them!”

I would add that the New Era umpire might say, “They may not be anything until I call them, but I gotta call ‘em as I see ‘em!”

Or this example, in the realm of the religious:

Premodernity might say: God gives us meaning.
Modernity might say: It is up to us to make meaning in the world.
Postmodernity might say: The world is meaningless, as there is no objective meaning.
The New Era might say: There may or may not be any objective meaning, but still, we are going to keep looking for it and, even, creating it.

Or how about this one. If you have been to a rally, you have probably heard the chant:

What do we want? Change!
When do we want it? Now!

This is a very modern perspective, trusting that that change is possible to create in the here and now. A postmodern take on the chant might be:

What do we want? Respectful discourse
When do we want it? Now would be agreeable to me but I am interested in your opinion as to what might be a good time, and maybe you have other ideas you want to bring to the table, mine certainly are not the only ones.

I would like to suggest that in the new era we are moving towards, it might sound more like:

What do we want? Change through, in part, respectful discourse
When do we want it? It is already happening!!

Which brings us back to “Warm Bodies.” The desire to create, or talk about, or create stories about Utopia is a very modern phenomenon. Similarly, zombie movies are very postmodern. But in this New Era, I am seeing a trend – dystopian stories that acknowledge how messed up things are but focus on the ability to challenge and ultimately change it. You might think Warm Bodies is your typical postmodern zombie movie. It starts off that way. Society has fallen, and the few humans remaining have staked out a small bit of land, which they defend from zombies and the UltraZombies – called Bonies. But then against all reason and odds, a human and a zombie fall in love. And, it turns out, love has the capacity to turn Zombies back into human beings. The message is that love conquers all. This not a very postmodern message – in fact it leans towards modern optimism. But love cannot bring back the Bonies, they are too far gone. This is a nod to reality as revealed by postmodernity. And so the movie seems to come straight out of the New Era, embodying traits of both modernity and postmodernity, and also something new.

So we are moving out of Postmodernity and into this new era – and each have their own characteristics, with their own ways of looking at and understanding the world. This becomes particularly interesting when you look at what it means in how we relate to each other along generational lines.

Eras and Generations in the United States

The Silent Generation was primarily born during the Modern era, and their parents were modern-era parents. You all tend to have a Modern worldview, though it sometimes dips its toe into the Postmodern. The Boomer generation, however, is almost entirely formed by the Postmodern worldview, but it held onto the optimism of the Modern era. So you all get the Civil Rights movement, which had both Modern and Postmodern characteristics. Then Gen-X comes along, and we are fully in the Postmodern worldview, and boy, do we tend to be cynical.

Those of you who are Millennials probably have parents that were raised in postmodernity, but you were impacted early on in life by increasing globalization, access to the internet, and events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most of your lives will be in this New era, and so much of your outlook will be shaped by that. Similarly with the generation born after the Millennials, who also don’t have a name yet but I will call them the Post-Millennials.

And in fact, if we look at the characteristics of the Millennials and the Post-Millennials, we find that they match up beautifully with the characteristic of the New Era that is emerging: y’all are global citizens, used to information being at their fingertips. You value authenticity, you are earnest and you are generally hopeful. You also look at many things very differently than do your parents. For instance, you have very different expectations about privacy. And your interpersonal needs are carried out both online and in-person – you have a flexibility that many of the rest of us lack. Also, you tend to be creators rather than being merely consumers.

Okay, if that is the primer, then so what? Why does any of this this matter?

I think our faith as Unitarian Universalists is custom made for this New Era. I think we were pretty onboard with modernity: in fact we could probably be critiqued as having been stuck in the modern era since well before the consolidation in 1961. We have certainly retained the ideas of onwards and upwards, the importance of reason, and an ultimate optimism.

But we have learned a lot from postmodernity as well. Our contemporary critiques of oppression and injustice have been deconstructive, searching for the ultimate reality – they look at multiple layers and points of intersection. And we have always questioned authority, even before it was cool. On the other hand, we never gave up our search for truth and meaning, or bought into the idea that it was all meaningless.

And the idea that love, compassion, can even bring a Zombie back to life? Well, we are known as the “Love People” for our Standing on the Side of Love campaign. And so this new era represents enormous potential for us if we can embrace it and not struggle against it. The challenge now is to move gracefully into the New Era.

We can do this, in part, by creating more opportunities for intentional intergenerational conversations. Church is one of the few places where our generations mix and mingle – what if we joined together in an unprecedented way, to learn from each other and move forward together? Generations of this New Era need those of you who are of the Silent Generation to share your experience of progress marching onwards. They need those of your who are Boomers to share your optimism. They need us Gen-Xers to share our talent for questioning authority, and to help them learn how to deconstruct everything around them (much like I have in this sermon so far!). And we need you younger generations to share these new forms of connecting, these new ways of finding our way in an increasingly complex world. We need you to demand authenticity from us, and we really, really need you to remind us of the importance of hope.

When we do this, we will find that we are more easily able to enter into this New Era with curiosity and excitement rather than fear. We will be more likely to look at Postmodernity as a passing trend between the end of the Modern era and the beginning of something new – not somewhere we are supposed to hang out for too long. And our faith tradition will continue to move forward, as we have always done.

When it comes right down to it and all the evidence is examined, what we see is that postmodernity may not be dead, but it is dying. This is what I see in my matrix-like state: A New Era, a new way, is emerging that is a unique blend of the ultimate optimism that marked the modern era with the ultimate realism that postmodernity brought. An era of involvement, creativity, connection, authenticity, resilience* and hope. It is a way that is bursting with possibility, particularly for us as Unitarian Universalists. May we build it together. Blessed be.**

 

 

 

Notes:

* I ended up cutting out a characteristic that, in retrospect, I wish I had left in: Resilience.  Particularly in how it relates to our relationship with the environment.  For instance, see the article “Learning to Bounce Back” by Andrew Zolli, published November 2, 2012:

“Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.”

I suspect sustainability is more of a modern idea, and that postmodernity was more tuned to looking at the multi-layered causes of our current environmental crisis rather than finding solutions. Resilience, in this way, definitely seems a characteristic of a New Era. And so I am sorry I left it out and so I have included it in the list of characteristics in this printed version but it was absent from the sermon I delivered.

** I read a whole bunch of stuff to prepare for this article, but it is impossible to read everything on postmodernity and, indeed, one article often contradicts another.  Here are the articles that I found most formative that I have not already linked to in the body of the sermon:

4 Reasons Why P&G Ad Featured Resilience Parents – not Helicopter Parents
by Anne Boysen

Time to Abandon Postmodernism: Living a New Way
by Andrew J. Fabich, Assistant Professor of Microbiology, Liberty University
A wonderful scholarly paper from a surprising source :)

A MILLENNIAL’S VERSION OF “THE AMERICAN DREAM”
By Tara Gentile

Fostering Hope – Christian RE in a Postmodern Age
by Harold D. Horell

Does History End with Postmodernism? Toward an Ultramodern Family Therapy
by JUAN LUIS LINARES, M.D., Ph.D

Altermodern: A Conversation with Nicolas Bourriaud
by Bartholomew Ryan

Young Talent: What to Expect From the Post-Millennial Workforce
By Adam Vaccaro

What Comes After Postmodernism?
Partial Objects

Altermodern
Tate Triennial 2009

Special thanks to colleagues Claire Feingold Thoryn, Tony Lorenzen and Sarah Gibbs Millspaugh for sharing their resources, and numerous other colleagues for sharing their ideas.

a new time. April 20, 2014

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A New Time
An Easter Sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered April 20, 2014 at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY

I spoke extemporaneously today at First Unitarian, so I don’t have any manuscript to put up here. I am in the process of getting permission of some of the folks who shared their stories – when/if I do, I will post the audio. There was some powerful sharing going on, so be sure to check back.  Here is an approximation of what I said.

 

We Unitarian Universalists have a complicated relationship with Easter.  Often, we prefer to talk about Spring instead.  We say it is becuause we no longer believe in the literal truth of the resurrection (if we ever did), but the truth is that many Christians don’t believe that anymore either.

But if the story were just about one man, and what he did and what happened to him, that would not be nearly as compelling as understanding it as a myth – becuase a myth means it is something each of us can relate to.

Joseph Campbell says a myth is a story told almost exclusively  through symbols, that it addresses our human questions of: Where did we come from? What has meaning in life? How shall we live knowing we will die?

When we look at the story of Jesus, particularly the Easter story, as a myth in this way, it becomes something we can all relate to.

Jesus was teaching stuff that the people in power didn’t like.  And this made them angry.  Stuff about how God is love, and that we are each God’s instruments to create paradise here on earth through, in part, loving one another.  And so Jesus had to die – you don’t get to challenge the status quo and live.  And so he died. But he could not stay dead – then his message would stay dead.  In order for this story to live on forever, Jesus had to rise from the dead.  Any by doing so, the story is cemented forever in history.

This story is a powerful one. It is one that has a before, and an after . Before Jesus, After his Death.  In this way, it was a pivotal moment in our Western Culture – not unlike the invention of the printing press, or how assembly lines brought in the Age of Industry.  Or, maybe, even like September 11, 2001.  We are probably still too close to it to know, but for many of us, we know where we were on that day.

And we have other pivotal moments in our lives – things that we define as a “before” and an “after” – things that changed us, that shifted how life was for us.  Events that ushered in a new time in our lives.  Perhaps we didn’t know it when it was happening, but when we look back we see it that way.

It may be something like the birth of a child. I know for me, the birth of my first child shifted everything – suddenly my heart was out here, in my hands, not safe and protected inside my ribs. That shifted how I did everything. But it could also the be death of a loved one, or an event that happened in our lives.

I invite you now to think about these pivotable moments in your own lives, those times when everything shifted.  And as you feel comfortable, I invite you to share them…

And people shared.  Beautifully.  Powerfully.  Soulfully.  As they shared, I made more connections with the story of Easter

  • loved ones featured prominently in many of the stories, much like how Jesus had gathered his disciples to him before his death;
  • that there was also darkness, sorrow, and pain in these pivotal moment – that Easter would not occur without Good Friday
  • that there is often a time of not knowing, of confusion – and the story of Easter would not be the same if Jesus had just immediately come back Friday night and said “Hi, here I am!”

We ended the sharing with the powerful story of a young woman who was raped, and who was now working to not be a victim, but a survivor.  And we talked about how love can conquer even death.

We each have our own resurrection stories – pivotal moments in our lives that we end up with a before, and an after.

May Easter be a reminder that even when things seem bleak, hope is there – hope that a new life will emerge,  hope that how things are now is not how things will always be, hope that new times can bring a new way of being in the world. May it be so. Blessed be.

emotional cutoff. April 11, 2014

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By the time I was midway through my freshman year of college, I thought I had completely cut ties with Christianity. I was sick of hearing about a God who would wreak violence and destruction on the world in Armageddon, I was sick of a God who could choose to act in the world but didn’t. I was sick of being told that because Eve had eaten a bite of apple eons ago, all humanity was doomed unless we believed the right thing. After years of repenting, years of being born again (multiple times), years of trying to have faith, I was sick of it. Done.

My friends and I explored other religions and we stumbled NeoPaganism. I traded my mean, vengeful God for a life-giving goddess. For a few years, I traded my rituals celebrating the life and death of one man for rituals that celebrated the cycle of all of life.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not angry about this anymore. But I was. I was very angry. That anger also covered up the hurt that I felt. Hurt by a God that would base eternity on one wrong decision. Hurt because I had tried all those years to be a Good Christian Girl and all it had done was left me feeling shut outside of everything. Hurt by a church that told me that, because God had made me a girl, there were certain things I was unfit for (such as Ministry).

When my spouse and I eventually started attending a Unitarian Universalist Church, I wanted nothing to do with any “language of reverence.” In fact, much of my new path had been formed directly in opposition to anything that reminded me of what I had left behind.

In many ways, my story is not unique. Many of the folks in our Unitarian Universalist congregations come out of similar experiences, and carry similar wounds. They have cut themselves off from the faith traditions in which they were raised, and no longer want anything that reminds them of it AT ALL.

So it was with much surprise that I found my world opening and my wounds healing at the Methodist Seminary that I attended. There, I found Christians whose understanding of God was not the old, white-haired pointy-fingered God of my youth but was instead right in line with how I now understood “The Ultimate.” I found Christians, studying to be ministers, who did not believe in the literal interpretation of the virgin birth or resurrection. I found Christians who were trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, not the religion that had been founded upon his death. And I began to heal.

I changed seminaries when we moved, and I started attending a UCC seminary that was even more religiously liberal. There I found professors and ministers whose theology and ethics and sense of the spiritual lined up with mine so well that we could easily worship in the same church, but they chose to stay with Christianity and I chose to leave it. I found my own way to translate and understand such loaded terms like “God” and “Salvation” and “Atonement” – so much so that, though I still understand myself to be more of an agnostic, mystic humanist, I can visit and be comfortable in almost any liberal religious congregation. Quite a difference.

I am reflecting on this right now, because I have recently finished a course in Bowen Family Systems Theory. I took the course to better understand how the way we are in our families is replicated in how we are in our congregations (both as ministers and lay people). It was enlightening.

One of the key concepts in Bowen Family Systems Theory is the concept of emotional cutoff. “The concept of emotional cutoff describes people managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them.” However, the person who cuts themselves off from their family still has all that anxiety and emotional reactivity, and nowhere for it to go. We can try to bottle it up, wall it off, but even if we try to ignore it it can build up and cause stress in unrelated parts of a person’s life, even physical illness.

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Using Bowen Theory, I can describe my experience with Christianity as one of intense anxiety leading to cutoff. But I still had so much reactivity that I could not even hear language that reminded me of the pain I had experienced! My blood pressure went up whenever I heard someone talk about “faith” or “prayer” or anything that reminded me of what I thought I had totally given up on. This left entire areas in which I was bound up and in which I could not grow.

The only way to heal cutoff, according to Bowen, is to bridge it. For me, seminary served that role in unanticipated ways. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to heal, and begin to grow again.

Many of our congregants are still cutoff, hurting from previous experience and trying to distance themselves from the faith traditions in which they were raised. This is particularly problematic now that we are getting more people who are raised in our congregations or come to us without this history and who are more comfortable with a language of reverence. There is a clash between those who are cutoff (and thus unable to form their own understandings of commonly used religious language) and those for whom this language comes naturally.

Plus, cutoff gets passed down through the generations. So if my grandmother was cutoff from her family, I would likely see that tendency arise in my mother’s generation, my own, and even with my children.

This has me wondering about our congregations. If so many folks came to UUism through a cutoff with their previous religious tradition, does this explain why so many people reject UUism as adults? Is cutoff built into our system at this point? If so, how do we begin to help folks bridge the cutoff – for their sakes as individuals and for the sake of our congregations?

Bowen Theory would suggest that the only way I can impact a system is through working on myself. For me, this has meant beginning to utilize this language reverence more often by telling my own story. Perhaps, if others who are cutoff recognize that they are still living their lives in reactivity to the faith tradition in which they were raised, in my story they will realize that there is hope for more – hope for a whole, healthy spirituality that is not formed in reaction against one tradition but instead allows for exploration and growth across the spectrum of human experience. For me, this has been powerful, indeed.

averages. April 9, 2014

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I have another blog post that I am working on, but I just read some of the materials that the UUA Board will be discussing at their next meeting and I am fascinated by some numbers.

First, the average congregation size is 151. In fact, over 68% of our UU congregations have 160 or fewer members.

Our smaller congregations are also growing, particularly in the south and midwest.

With these numbers, I am glad to read that the Board is discussing changing the bylaws to reduce the number of members required to join the UUA. This will also allow small, covenanted communities (of whatever form, congregation or not) to join and have a say in our present and future. That is exciting news.

I hope that these numbers mean that there will be more discussion about how the UUA can more effectively support these smaller congregations (who often feel overlooked) and other emerging covenanted communities. The numbers would indicate that they are our present, and our future.

Love the Hell Out of the World. March 3, 2014

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Love the Hell Out of the World.
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 2, 2014

When I was a teenager, I was desperate to save people from spending eternity in hell. The youth group of the fundamentalist, evangelical nondenominational church that I belonged to would drive en-mass to a neighborhood and then go around knocking on doors, distributing tracts that talked about how believing in the wrong things could damn your soul to a future of fire and brimstone.

I tried very hard to fit into this youth group, but all the time, there was a nagging dis-ease in me. I would repent, and dedicate myself to saving others, over and over again, but at my core, this theology based on fear and retribution did not work for me.

It was not long before there came a time when I could no longer believe, or even pretend to believe, that God would inflict such torment on the starving children in Africa who had never heard of the Resurrection. There came a time when I could not longer believe that “Jesus loves the little children” but his Father condemns some of those same children to eternity in hell. There came a time when I realized that, if God truly is a God of love, there is no way that he/she/it could possibly love me any less than my parents do, and they would never, ever do something that horrible, that permanent, to me.

I wish that when I was about 18 I had heard the story about Hosea Ballou that we heard in our Moment for All Ages. I would have become a Universalist on the spot “Father, I remember what you told me when I was small. I believe that even if God is disappointed with people, or a little angry with them, God will always love them and want them to be happy, no matter what they do, and no matter how muddy they are.”

Love the Hell Out of the World The road was a bit more winding for me, but it was not too long before I found Unitarian Universalism. It was not too long before I came to feel a deep awe that in this vast, mysterious universe, you exist, and I exist, and we all exist and live and love and are loved in return. That instead of trying to save the world from eternal damnation, I would instead try to love the hell out of it.

Many of us believe that, at the core of Unitarian Universalism, our mission is to love the hell out of the world. Such a fabulous phrase from my friend and colleague, Joanna Crawford. Like all good ideas, it has been seized and claimed by many others, including myself, not only as a personal mission but as a core theological statement. And it continues to capture attention and imagination, not only because you can’t help but smile impishly when you say it, but because it has multiple levels of interpretation.

First, there is the “Love the world a whole heck-of-lot” interpretation. This understanding recognizes the incredible wonder that life exists, that beauty exists, that we are made of star stuff and all a part of the interdependent web of existence. When you love the world a whole, you appreciate a loving relationship, recognize the beauty of a sunset, an embrace, a walk in the woods, marvel at the unending drive of humanity to find meaning and the amazing things we create in the process. E. B. White is rumoured to have said that he wakes up in the morning torn between a desire to save the world, or to savor it. This first interpretation is one of savoring.

The second way to interpret “Love the HELL Out of the World” touches on the saving of it. This “old world is full of sorrow, full of sickness, weak and sore.” You don’t have to look far to see that as beautiful and wonderful as the world can be, so can it also be a hell. A hell that imprisons people in poverty, oppression, injustice. A hell of alienation, isolation and distrust.

Martin Luther King, Jr, once said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” To love the hell out of the world is to drive out hate with love. It is to create salvation – not in some other world, but in this one, right now. To work to create the beloved community, where the inherent worth and dignity of each person is respected and where all have access to peace and justice.

Loving the hell out of the world means you don’t have to be torn between a desire to save the world, or to savor it – it means that both go hand in hand.

And there is a third way to interpret what it means to love the hell out of the world – a third way that is increasingly apt given the way the religious right tries to use the fear of eternal damnation to oppress people and keep them in line. In this interpretation, loving the Hell out of the world means fighting the forces of that fear, not with anger or frustration, but with love. Again, I appeal to Martin Luther King, Jr, who, in our opening words, said that “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that.”

I have heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that Unitarian Universalists can “believe anything they want.” This is not true, and I will get to that in a moment. But I see where it comes from. Our Unitarian forebears said that each person possesses the capability to look at Scripture and interpret it for themselves. This expanded to an understanding that each person can experience the divine in our own way. Our Universalist forbears agreed. Indeed, their 1899 Universalist Declaration of faith ended with the statement: “Neither this nor any other precise form of words shall be a condition of fellowship.” We have a clear history of upholding freedom, reason and tolerance. Misinterpreted, I can see how someone might shorten all this “You can believe whatever you want.”

But this is incorrect because, at the very least, there is no room for belief in eternal damnation in Unitarian Universalism. And this comes primarily from our Universalist heritage of faith, hope, and love.

In the United States, Universalism arose in the late 18th century. George de Benneville was a French preacher and physician who was imprisoned in France for advocating Universalism. When he immigrated to America, he continued preaching Universalism and gathered quite a following. John Murray founded the first American Universalist meeting house in 1779. And Elhanan Winchester founded the first Universalist church in Philadelphia and wrote several books promoting the universal salvation of all souls. These men, and others, preached a theology of Universal salvation out of protest against Calvinism and it’s theology of predestination – the idea that even before a person was born, God would know whether that person was destined for heaven, or hell. Murray, de Benneville, Winchester and their contemporaries agreed with the Calvinists that God is just, but then argued that God is also a God of love, which meant that there was nothing a human being could do that would justify eternal damnation. Many felt that one’s soul might spend some time in purgatory in punishment, but all would be united with God in heaven eventually.

The next generation of Universalists were called ultra Universalists. Like many who came before them, they understood God to be the ultimate parent. They believed that no matter how poorly we humans behave, God still wants what is best for us – nothing can separate us from God’s love. But they took the next step and said that all people will be united with God in heaven, without any time of punishment or suffering.

There is another wonderful story about Ballou (there are many of them, actually!). He was riding between pulpits, when

“he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer was upset. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. “All right,” said Ballou with a serious face. “We’ll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we’ll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we’ll grab him and throw him into it.” The farmer was shocked: “That’s my son and I love him!” Ballou said, “If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!”

Today, many, many Christians hold to the theology of eventual universal salvation, even if it is not official church dogma. But back then, it was threatening. People were concerned that the Devil was using Universalism to preach a false doctrine that would inevitable damn its followers. Here in Louisville, the Universalist church (which merged with the Unitarian church in 1870), was called “The Devil’s Chapel.” This was not a term of endearment!

Universalists believe that God loves each and every one of us. And therefore, we should treat each other accordingly. This made them vigilantly evangelical and caused them to be very active in the social justice causes of the times, such as abolition, the separation of church and state, and the ordination of women.

Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Josh Pawelek, writes that today, this positive theology manifests as a “a life-saving, life-giving, life-enhancing religious response to all those theologies that drive arbitrary wedges between people, that seek to frighten people into faith, and that teach people of their inherent sinfulness rather than their beauty, worth, and potential.

Indeed, I see a direct line between historical Universalism and our current “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. If God won’t be damning people to eternity in hell in the afterlife, shouldn’t we be working to free people from hell in this life? Or, put another way, if we are all connected in sacred mystery, then no one can be free of suffering while others are oppressed.

Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed reminds us that “in being loved we learn to love. Those who are loved will in turn love others. Those who feel God’s infinite love within themselves will feel so good about themselves, so connected to life, so full of compassion that they will not be able to help but to spread that love. They will overflow with love.” We strive to be God’s hands, the embodiment of the divine in the world, to create heaven on earth for one another – to create the beloved community where all are loved because all are loved.

Building on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that only love can defeat fear, blogger Tom Earthman urges us, as Unitarian Universalists, to take up the mission to love the hell out of the world because when we do, love becomes a new kind of battlefield, and we become “fighters in a sort of war against fear, hate, and ignorance. It gets us hurt, to open our hearts to others. We really do share the pain of those who are suffering…We need to focus on healing people, however large or small their hurts, and sending them back into the world to share love.”

I recall a time more recently when I was in the trenches, fighting on the side of love rather than the side of fear, working as a chaplain in the cardiac unit of a local hospital. A woman I was visiting opened up to me. She told me that she was afraid of dying because she was estranged from her brother and wanted to reconcile with him. “But he is gay,” she told me, and her church had told her she was not to associate with him because he was a sinner, doomed to eternity in hell. “Do you believe God is like that?” she cried out to me, obviously in pain – torn between her love of her brother and her fear for her own soul. It would do no good for me to explain to her that I was agnostic, at best. “You love your brother, I can see that.” I told her. “Would you damn him to hell to eternity for being gay?” “Of course not!” she replied. “So how could God be any less loving than you?” She broke down, called her brother, who came in to visit her and they reconciled. She told me later that her heart, which had been so full of pain and fear, was now overflowing with love and gratitude. And she made a speedy physical recovery.

Loving the hell out of the world means being in relationship with the world. It means constantly expanding who “we” are. It means challenging ourselves to not turn away from the pain within ourselves and within others. Loving the hell out of the world means loving each other out of hell. It means listening to one another, learning from one another, helping each other. It does not mean we will always agree – we won’t – but it means we will stay in conversation because our mission is the same, even if our politics or theology are different. Loving the hell out of the world means overcoming fear, bitterness, and hatred, with abounding and embodied love.

This world may be full of sorrow. But a bright new day is dawning – a day when we are able to love each out out of hell, out of suffering, out of injustice. This is the divine vision. It is a Universalist vision, and it is why we stand on the side of love. May we each go our way this morning, knowing we are called to love the hell out of the world, to both save it and savor it. There can be no other way. May it be so. Blessed be.

Aliens, ExtraTerrestrials and Faith February 18, 2014

Posted by Rev. Dawn in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

I have to be one of the luckiest people in the world, because for the past 2 weeks at church, I got to preach on one of my favorite topics: Astrobiology.  Yes, I preached actual sermons wondering if there is a biological imperative to life and sharing how my personal faith is so bound up in the awe-someness of the cosmos.

The sermons were pulled from a paper I wrote two years ago for my study group, so I suggest you check out the footnote-heavy paper, entitled “Astrobiology as Contemporary Theology or Why Extra-Terrestrial Life Matters.”  Here is the table of contents:

  • Introduction
  • The Vast Cosmos
  • Astrobiology
    • An Imperative to Life?
    • Potential Forms of ETL
    • Potential Forms of Contact
  • Mileage May Vary
    • Attempting to Quantify
    • Cultural Responses
    • Religious Crisis?
      • Historical Search
      • Current Status
  • Arguments Against ETL
  • ETL & Faith: A Personal Reflection
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

In the services, I included this video from Symphony of Science:

Last week, we started with these words from Robert T. Weston (who served my congregation 50 years ago):

Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity,
here have we come,
Stardust and sunlight,
mingling through time and through space.

Out of the stars have we come,
up from time.
Out of the stars have we come.

Time out of time before time
in the vastness of space,
earth spun to orbit the sun,
Earth with the thunder of mountains newborn,
the boiling of seas.

Earth warmed by sun, lit by sunlight;
This is our home;
Out of the stars have we come.

Mystery hidden in mystery,
back through all time;
Mystery rising from rocks
in the storm and the sea.

Out of the stars, rising from rocks
and the sea,
kindled by sunlight on earth,
arose life.

Ponder this thing in your heart,
life up from sea:
Eyes to behold, throats to sing,
mates to love.

Life from the sea, warmed by sun,
washed by rain,
life from within, giving birth,
rose to love.

This is the wonder of time;
this is the marvel of space;
out of the stars swung the earth;
life upon earth rose to love.

This is the marvel of life,
rising to see and to know;
Out of your heart, cry wonder:
sing that we live.

This week, we started with these words from Carl Sagan:

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos…Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.

And we ended with Commander Chris Hadfield’s Space Oddity:

I didn’t get a chance to include this one, but yay for blogging because here it is! The trailer for the new COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey with one of my heros, Neil deGrasse Tyson, which debuts March 9, 2014!!!

May you never cease to wonder when you gaze up into the stars.

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