Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

August 17, 2014: “Love, and Other Scary Parts of Life”

Sounding the Singing Bowl (Judy)

Prelude La Cinquantaine, by Gabriel Marie

Welcome and Announcements (Board Member)

Opening Hymn #118 This Little Light of Mine

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine…

Building up a world, I’m gonna let it shine…

Call to Worship (Rev Denis)

We are the presence of Pure Being
Embodying the Spirit of Life, Love, and Wisdom.
Together, we form a piece of the unknowable and ever-expanding universe.
We are at once microscopic in its vastness,
And essential to it, with the potential to create, or destroy.
When we gather, all thoughts of mortal limitations have no power over us.

We are the substance of Pure Love,
Its power and its fragility,
Bringing into being the covenant that binds us together,
Giving shape to the world we wish to see,
And making meaning of our lives. 

This, we gather to celebrate this morning.

Chalice Lighting (Rev Denis speaks, Judy lights)

The words for our chalice lighting today were written by Rebecca Parker.

Judy, would you do us the honor?

With the kindling of this flame,
We reaffirm our commitment to accept life’s gifts 
With grace and gratitude
And to use them to bless the world
In the spirit of love.

First Reading “The Best Feeling in the World,” by Sonya Reed (Denis)

It wasn’t an easy decision to feed the silver-and-white cat. Prison cats live such short lives, too often ended by disease, razor wire, and periodic trapping by the prison guards for euthanasia. As soon as you form an attachment, they’re gone. And she was just a tiny scrap of a cat, terrified of everyone and everything. But she looked so much like my last cat on the outside that I couldn’t help but tempt her to my cell window with a little food. I named her Violet.

It was stressful smuggling food from the chow hall and sneaking it past the pat searches, but I did it twice a day, every day. I had to ward off the cat-haters and bullies in my dorm who just needed someplace to direct their anger. When I defended Violet from these women, I became more fearsome than I really am. I would have done anything to keep her from harm. I watched her belly grow round with kittens, then worried over every scratch and cut as she fought off the tomcats, opossums, and skunks who tried to get at her babies. I grieved with her as she paced and cried for days after the well-intentioned yard crew took the kittens away at only four weeks. 

It took forever for Violet to trust me. I’d stand like a statue at my window week after week as she ate the scraps I’d brought for her. At first she’d dash off at the slightest movement from me. Then she graduated to eating on the sill if I kept the window closed. Finally I opened the window as slowly as I could and cooed to her until she stayed. I endured many scratches and bites in my attempts to pet her: first just her tail, then her back. As we became more familiar, she allowed me to scratch under her chin. 

Now, when I call her name each morning, she comes running across the field and leaps into my window, purring and rubbing against the bars. Her willingness to trust has reawakened my own ability to love.

Joys and Cares (Judy)


We will have a period of silence where we hold the joys and cares shared and unshared in our hearts. When the singing bowl sounds, please join in lighting a candle to remember a loved one, mark an event, or because you feel moved to do so.

Lighting of Candles, with Musical Meditation

Siciliano in g minor, by Johann Sebastian Bach

Hymn #128 For All That Is Our Life

For all that is our life, we sing our thanks and praise
For all life is a gift, which we are called to use 
To build the common good, 
And make our own days glad.

For needs which others serve, for services we give, 
For work and its rewards, for hours of rest and love: 
We come with praise and thanks, 
For all that is our life.

For sorrow we must bear, for failures, pain, and loss, 
For each new thing we learn, for fearful hours that pass: 
We come with praise and thanks, 
For all that is our life.

For all that is our life, we sing our thanks and praise; 
For all life is a gift, which we are called to use 
To build the common good, 
And make our own days glad.

Offering of Gifts (Rev Denis)

Sometimes we come into this place feeling like stray cats. Fearful. Hungry. Pregnant…in need of care as we care for ourselves and our families. 

And sometimes we come here feeling like prisoners, inmates in a world that can feel like an asylum. Or worse.

Stray cat or prisoner, we take care of each other. That’s our job here, to take care of each other as we take care of the world. And this place. That’s what stewardship is all about. Giving our time and love and care to make sure this church serves a world that needs it, well into the future. 

And we give our money. But…as the collection baskets pass, if you are a visitor, please let them keep going right on by. You are our guests.

Offertory Salute of Love, by Edward Elgar

Second Reading, from Reclaiming Prophetic Witness, by Paul Rasor (Judy)

This morning’s second reading is by Unitarian Universalist theologian Paul Rasor, from his 2012 book Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square. 

The American public seems to share the unfortunate assumption that political liberals can’t be religious. Journalist and political commentator E. J. Dionne provides an interesting example of this stereotype from the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial election. Liberal Democratic candidate Tim Kaine, who won the election, often spoke publicly about the ways his religious values informed his political positions. Yet when focus groups were shown footage of Kaine making such comments , they were nearly unanimous in believing that “if Kaine was religious, he could not possibly be a liberal.” This bias both draws on and perpetuates the unfortunate stereotype that sees America divided by a culture war between the secular left and the religious right. 

The result is an overly simplistic worldview that equates liberal with secular and conservative with religious, and liberal religion becomes invisible. 

There are several possible explanations for the relatively low involvement among religious liberals. In some cases, declining numbers plays a role. Congregations worried about survival tend to turn inward rather than outward and may avoid activities that could be seen as controversial. Another factor is the emergence of the religious right as a major force in American life since the late 1970s, and the corresponding shift in media and scholarly attention away from religious liberalism. 

One observer suggests that liberals have grown complacent, perhaps as a result of their own earlier accomplishments in areas such as civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and environmental protection. Theological factors are also at work here. Religious liberals tend to avoid using specifically religious language in their public activities, perhaps out of fear that the media will ignore or distort their message, and this can lead them to disguise their religious commitments. Moreover, mistrust of religious dogma and openness to diverse theological traditions, while generally a positive trait, can leave religious liberals uncertain about how to relate their faith commitments to their social and political commitments.

Musical Interlude Pan, by Johannes Donjon

Sermon Love, and Other Scary Parts of Life,

Every two years in the United States, 1 person is killed by a shark. In that same period of time, 44 people are killed being stepped on by cows. 

Seriously. If you were to look these two statistics, you could draw the conclusion that you are 44 times more likely to be killed by a cow than by a shark. Then again, you have a 1 in 3.7 billion chance of being ripped apart in the jaws of a shark. Practically zero. And the chances that you could be trampled under the hooves of a cow? Well, 44 times greater than practically zero is still…practically zero.

People are afraid of a lot of different kinds of things, like the suffering that comes before death. We lost an icon, one of the funniest men ever, when Robin Williams committed suicide earlier this week, in the wake of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. 
But some of our more irrational fears are blown all out of proportion by media sensation and literature.

So it should come as no surprise to anybody aware of the human experience that the thing most written about and dramatized, love, is the biggest source of fear for many. It’s become a clich�, our capacity for avoiding love and all that goes along with it, the commitment, the expectations. Like bridegrooms with cold feet, we can whip ourselves in a frenzy of avoidance and lying, isolating ourselves. 

But I think most of the time, most people are afraid of not loving. We are afraid of being alone, being rejected, or worse: suffering the pain of losing the objects of our affection, so we do whatever we can to keep love. Even if our actions make no sense. We might make ourselves irreplaceable, by habitually putting the needs of others before our own needs, to our own detriment…which of course makes us less secure. We might protect our loved ones, especially our children, to the point of stifling their creativity and planting in them a kind of risk aversion. Overprotected children notoriously suffer from a failure to launch into self-sufficient adulthood. 

Most of us though are like Sonya Reed in this morning’s first reading. We want love. Our hearts long for love, our skin yearns for contact, in order to feel human, to feel alive. But we’ve all been hurt. We’ve all suffered loss. And it’s hardened us, making us self-protective, unwilling to risk deepening our wounds, even as we nurse them. We go sheepishly into the pasture of love where we fear we’ll be trampled by cows dancing with reckless abandon. 

We’re afraid of love, and often, we are afraid of putting ourselves out there, into the world. And with good reason. Look at what’s going on right now in Ferguson, Missouri. I could recount the events of the last week, but I’ll just assume that we have all been bombarded with words and images and footage presenting very different ways of understanding a lot of conflicting information. If you’re white, chances are you see things one way, and if you are a person of color, you’re likely to see things another way. Again, we’re talking about chances here, not absolutes. 

Ultimately though, here’s what we know, what I think we can agree on:

• there is a dead 18 year old
• his family is grieving and under a lot of pressure to represent a whole community, a whole identity group
• death is a high price to pay for grabbing a guy and taking a few cigars
• the police have been in an impossible situation, on an emotional roller coaster while elected officials play politics
• one police officer’s life is ruined, or at least in shambles right now
• the implications of this story reach far across the United States…it’s not just sensationalism

Most importantly, this kind of thing happens way… too… often. 

I’m going to speak for myself here. Situations like this always make me think long and hard about the privileges I have as a person with white skin. I’ve never lived in a time and place where militarized police arrive in riot gear, toting tear gas. I’ve never had to wonder, “what would have happened if I had been there? Would the police have assumed I’m dangerous, just because of the color of my skin?” But during the year I lived in Los Angeles County, at least once a week, I would witness white officers stop young black men, handcuff them, frisk them, question them, talk on their radios, then release them. 

Meanwhile, my world, here in Northeast Ohio is pretty safe, especially here, in this place, among you. And still, I am afraid. I’m afraid because I care what happens. I care that people are treated fairly and justice is served. 

Situations like this also leave me wondering, what would we Unitarian Universalists risk ourselves and our safety to fight for? What would I risk myself to stand up for? 
Just last month in New Orleans, my friend Reverend Deanna Vandiver, the executive director of the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, a community ministry supported by five Unitarian Universalist congregations in Louisiana, was leading worship at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, one of those affiliating churches. 
In the middle of a silent meditation for church members who had died in the preceding months, members of Operation Save America stood up and proclaiming the gathering a “Synagogue of Satan.” The disruptive protestors were escorted out, but they went around the building and put graphic, gory photographs up to the windows of the childcare room. The quiet protesters stayed in the sanctuary. After the service, the protestors were joined by more members of Operation Save America, all staying for seven days, boasting on their website that saints had disrupted the work of the devil. All of this happened because they equated the construction of a nearby abortion clinic with the worship happening inside that church. 
With that in the back of my mind, on Thursday, I got a message from Jan Podolak at the News-Herald, asking for an interview with me, the newest minister in the area. Believe it or not, my stomach tied itself into a little knot. We had a great chat for an hour, but for just a moment when I got that message, all I could think about was the hate mail I will get after the article appears, the nasty posts on the newspaper’s website challenging my ordination and denouncing my faith. I’m sure I will receive anonymous letters suggesting I go back to California or face the consequences here, thinly veiled threats to my safety and peace of mind. It’s happened to me before, and it will happen again.

“The American public seems to share the unfortunate assumption that political liberals can’t be religious. “ Often, they assume that we here are all political liberals, and that our work is by definition the work of the democratic party. Religious conservatives and unchurched have the idea that all ministers must be conservative in their politics and their theology, so when they are faced with a church like ours, it messes with their comfortable worldview.

The thing is, religious conservatives aren’t the majority in the United States. In fact, according to a variety of studies cited by UU Theologian Paul Rasor in Reclaiming Prophetic Witness, Religious Liberals make up about one quarter of the adults in the United States. 
Whether you count the number who self describe as religious liberals, the number of religiously liberal churches in the United States and their members, or you go by the results of the “widely cited 2008 Pew Religious Landscape Survey on American religious beliefs and practices.” Religious Conservatives make up about the same percentage. That means that half the people in the US are atheists, or they go to church but they have no idea what they believe. Then there are the unchurched, “the nones” N-O-N-E-S, that have been so talked about since the release of the Pew study.

Rasor understands the problems that arise when religious liberals voice an opinion in the public square. He defines religious liberalism this way: it “starts with the premise that religion should be oriented toward the present, not the past, and that religious beliefs should be in tune with modern knowledge and experience.” 

Let me repeat that, so we can be very clear. Religious Liberalism starts with the premise that religion should be oriented toward the present, not the past, and that religious beliefs should be in tune with modern knowledge and experience.

In other words, we understand that a 2,000 year old book written to summarize the beliefs of one group of people during a very small part of human history is not a science book, and it is not a law book for our times. While we may value and learn from the wisdom in that book – or any other sacred text from around the world – we are concerned with what is going on here and now, in our context of the long arc of human history. 

But, according to Rasor, “Because of its orientation toward cultural engagement, religious liberalism is ideally situated to hold creatively the prophetic tension between independence and participation.” We tend to be able to see both sides of an issue, and even when we feel strongly on one side of an argument, we are loathe to do that which we hate most: tell other people what to do or how to think. We don’t want to proseltyze. 

But because of our broad and inclusive worldview, the reality is that we are in the perfect position to be prophetic. 

So, what do I mean when I use the word prophetic? 

Well, being prophetic isn’t about having some magical power to see into the future. Being prophetic is about paying attention to what is going on in the world enough to see what the natural outcomes of our actions will be, making connections between events and situations that may not appear on the surface to be connected. Being prophetic is saying, if we drill horizontally for oil, we are very likely to do irreparable harm to the planet and our habitat. Being prophetic is saying if we treat LGBT people, or women, or black youth like they don’t matter, they will behave as if they don’t matter. Being prophetic is paying attention to the suffering that is going on around us, then responding in love.

But, according to Rasor, “prophetic practice requires both cultural engagement and theological distance. It must be grounded in religious values independent of cultural norms so that it has clear reference points for forming judgments. At the same time, its theological reference points cannot be so foreign that its critique becomes incomprehensible. The prophet thus lives in this tension between participation and independence, standing both inside and outside society.” 

Look at what happened in New Orleans, at the UU church. That Sunday, they happened to be honoring a group of youth that had just gone through a week long training in how to be social justice leaders, how to respond peacefully to violence. So, when the intruders stood up and disrupted worship, they knew how to respond in love. They surrounded the people who were yelling hateful slurs, and brought them outside, and invited the quiet protestors to stay for conversation after the service. Which they did. Even as the protest continued into the following week, the Unitarian Universalists engaged with them gracefully, naming their behaviors that were unacceptable, and encouraging civil dialogue. 

The protests in New Orleans erupted because Operation Save America is convinced that all Unitarian Universalists are baby-killing abortionists and they are saints. We know differently. We know that Unitarian Universalists don’t all agree. We know that some of us have no problem with abortion as a medical procedure, some of us are against abortion, some of us have serious misgivings about abortion but understand that it is a woman’s right to decide on issues concerning her own body. We also know there are a lot of other more nuanced stances. We know we don’t all agree on everything.

Working together is hard when we don’t agree, but finding common ground is worth the effort. I’ve only been here two weeks now, and I’ve only had the chance to talk one-to-one with a handful of you, but my feeling at this point is that this congregation has been having a tough time over the last few years engaging in social justice work, mainly because of the continuum of beliefs that exist here. 

More than any other church I’ve served, there are two broad continuums here, that intersect with one another. One has political liberals on the left, and conservatives on the right. The other continuum has head-centered folks on one side, and spirit-centered folks on the other. The thing we have in common though is that we are all religious liberals. We all believe that religion should be oriented toward the present, not the past, and that religious beliefs should be in tune with modern knowledge and experience. We believe in education and fairness. And I believe…I sense from everyone I talk to…that we are ready to change the recent past and begin engaging more in prophetic work outside of these walls.

We’re ready to work together to change the world.

The trick, if we are to live into the potential to affect positive change, a potential I think we all want to reach, is to not focus on what we have in common, but rather, what we are willing to commit to. Instead of dwelling peacefully on the things we agree on, we’ll have to figure out what it is we could agree on. We have to live in the present, and look more toward the future. 

It’s scary to think about intentionally treading in the possibly shark-infested waters of disagreement, but I think there is enough love and commitment here that we could survive it, and thrive.

I met Thursday with Melina Bennett, Director of the Lake County Community Network. She works with 62 partner churches in Lake County that range from roman Catholic and Assemblies of God churches at one theological end and Unitarian Universalists and Liberal Methodists at the other end. Some churches have problems with the fact that LCCN may refer a woman to a family planning clinic, while others churches have a problem with serving people they’ve labeled illegal aliens. 

They’re always struggling with language, avoiding hot button words and certain topics, but they agree that there is suffering here in Lake County that must be alleviated by those of who have the resources to help. They work together by not focusing on the few areas they agree on, but rather by the things they are willing to commit to, like providing emergency financial assistance to families and mentoring young parents who didn’t have positive role models when they were growing up. LCCN and their partner churches make a difference in the lives of over 700 people a year. 

My hope is that we will be able to engage in social justice work together in the coming years, to find the causes that unite us. Not just the commonalities that already exist, but also the commitments we are willing to make together, to ease suffering, to increase understanding, and to protect our world from degradation. 

My hope is that we will connect on a deeper level, to take more risks together to create a world that is more loving, as we discover more ways to live with reverence for the world that exists, and build a kinder, more compassionate future. 

There are so many problems in the world, real problems that we can help solve. I’m not claiming I know right now which problems we can effectively work on together to solve. I’m pretty sure it won’t be the menace of killer cows. But I know there are plenty of things that will present themselves as issues that we can work on. 
And even if we don’t agree on the causes of these problems, we can work for solutions together. And hopefully it won’t require people who don’t know us disrupting our worship to help us find our work.

Please rise now, in body or in spirit, and open your hymnals to #124, Be That Guide.

Closing Hymn #124 Be That Guide

Be that guide whom love sustains. 
Rise above the daily strife:
Lift on high the good you find.
Help to heal the hurts of life.

Be that helper nothing daunts –
Doubt of friend of taunt of foe.
Ever strive for liberty.
Show the path that life should go.

Be that builder trusting good,
Bitter though the test may be:
Through all ages they are right,
Though they build in agony.

Be that builder faith directs.
Move beyond the old frontier:
Though the frightened fear that faith,
Be tomorrow’s pioneer!

Bond of Union — Church Covenant (Unison)

We join hands in Unitarian Universalist fellowship, pledging ourselves to an individual religious freedom, which transcends all creeds, not to think alike but to walk together.

Extinguishing the Chalice John W. Brigham

Judy: Go your ways, knowing not the answer to all things
Denis: yet seeking always the answer to one more thing than you know

Postlude Scherzino, Op. 55, No. 6, by Joachim Anderson