Friday, September 22, 2017

Transitions in Unitarian Universalism preached by Reverend Tom Capo on 9/17/2017

Come into this place of peace and let its silence heal your spirit; come into this place of memory and let its history warm your soul; come into this place of prophecy and power and let its vision change your heart.” Reverend William Schultz, whose quote this is, was the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1985.  I had joined First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church  in 1979, and by the time Bill will president I was deeply involved in teaching all kinds of classes at my church—from Building Your Own Theology to Newcomers Classes to High School Youth classes—all of them involving a fair amount of UU History.  In the 1980’s and 90’s, I loved this quote and felt greatly comforted by it.  As I reflect on this quote today, there are parts of it I understand in new ways.  But I get ahead of myself. 

            My story begins with the mental preparation I went through before attending General Assembly this summer.  White supremacy in our country—everything that was happening in the initial post-Obama phase—I felt like I could see and understand a lot of that, and I could continue to work against it, but the accusation of white supremacy without our denomination caught me a little by surprise.  Then came the resignation of the UUA president and other national leadership staff within our denomination over the controversial hiring practices—the hiring mostly white male ministers for leadership positions at all levels.  This was quickly followed by the arrest of one of our UU clergy, a man who had successfully run a church that was missionally based, helping the poor and marginalized in a small town in Oklahoma. This person who had been one of my mentors when I was in seminary had child porn on his computer.

            So, I got to Ministry Days, the professional days held before General Assembly officially begins and caught up with some old friends. They shared with me another issue that had recently come to their awareness.  Some of you may be aware of one of the keynote events of Ministry Days, the Berry Street Lecture.  It’s given by one of our top ministers—a highly esteemed, highly respected professional clergy person is invited to speak before the assembly on issues facing UU ministers.  I was astonished to learn that one of the past Berry Street Lecture presenters, a woman, had had her lecture, which is published on the UU Ministers Association website, redacted by a male minister.  He had brought a lawsuit against the UU Ministers associated to have his name removed/redacted from the Berry Street Lecture because the lecture pointed out his sexual transgressions as a UU minister; she had been speaking about our need to be more vigilant in dealing with sexual transgressions by our fellow clergy.

And then near the end of General Assembly, I, along with many others, learned of the shockingly large severance packages that were given to the president and leadership staff of the UUA who had resigned, when they were the ones who quit of their own volition—hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have supported any of several worthy causes that we as a denomination say we hold dear.

            It would be easy to say I was a little down on Unitarian Universalism.  At Ministry Days, I knew we would spend time talking about all our painful feelings over some of these hard knocks to our faith.  I did not look forward to spending days rehashing my feelings about these issues and the state of Unitarian Universalism.  In fact, you could say I dreaded it.  But you know what, after some deeply moving discussions by my colleagues about these issues, colleagues who were on the front line dealing with these problems, what I took away from Ministry Days and from General Assembly was a sense of renewed hope for our faith.

            As General Assembly began Black Lives Unitarian Universalists were everywhere; providing guidance to people at General Assembly.  Educating us on what Unitarian Universalism will need to become if we are truly going to take this opportunity to reknit our brokenness as a denomination—brokenness that has its roots in that General Assembly of 1969, almost 50 years ago.  Reknit our denomination to authentically embrace and support people of color in our churches and in our denomination, and lift them up into power and leadership at every level.  An African American who left Unitarian Universalism in 1969, Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, preached ( “Unitarian Universalism at its best is an instrument to transform humanity so that humanity can transform to its highest level.” And as he says, so too do I believe. But he also said "We have to be a faith that is always under construction", both within our hearts and minds, and within our denomination.   If we ever think we are a perfect or a sophisticated Unitarian Universalism, we are prone to begin excluding others, perhaps not intentionally, perhaps outside of our awareness.  We have to always watch, to not let ourselves become stagnant or too full of ourselves, thinking Unitarian Universalism is what everyone needs, Unitarian Universalism is what everyone who is rational needs, or Unitarian Universalism is the best thing since sliced bread, for if we do we can begin excluding others, marginalizing others, minimizing others.        
              My friends, this is a message of challenge, and a it is a message of hope.  The crowd assembled for our denomination’s annual meeting was electrified by this message.  It’s the same message of hope that so many of you in this church live out in your lives  as we do the work of anti-racism, restorative justice, and being a congregation that is radically welcoming to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Gender Fluid and Gender Queer community.  We are in process.  We do not have to have everything right; we do not have to know everything right now; we can make mistakes and begin again in love.  And we can grow.
            Let me revisit the quote projected to my right: “Come into this place of peace and let its silence heal your spirit; come into this place of memory and let its history warm your soul; come into this place of prophecy and power and let its vision change your heart.”  When I was new to Unitarian Universalism, this quote comforted me, pacified me.  Now almost 40 years later, it challenges me and energizes me.  Come into this place of peace.  Yes there are times when this place is a peaceful, during meditations, prayers, and rituals and that is important.  But what you can achieve when you work from a place of deep inner peace is also important.  There are wounds we must heal together, and when we apply the salve of understanding, when we tend our wounds cautiously, we are renewed to do the hard work of co-creating a world that reflects the peace we feel.

            Come into this place of memory and let its history warm your soul.  Remember the good—Universalism ordained the first woman minister in America to ministry, Olympia Brown; Unitarian Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged graduating Harvard Divinity School students to look within themselves for inspiration, not at the Bible or religious tradition—our denominational history is populated by a long line of women and men who were not only great thinkers; they turned their visions of a brighter future for all into reality.  Remember the good, but not at the expense of forgetting the bad.  There are scars that mark our history, and what is done cannot be undone.  Learn our history—all of it—and let’s work together, with slow precision, to repair the wounds—not to cancel or deny them.

            Come into this place of prophecy and power and let its vision change your heart.  Prophecy is speaking truth to power.   And Unitarian Universalists have done that – Henry David Thoreau and Theodore Parker writing and preaching about the abolition of slavery.  Many of our ministers preaching against wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Albert Schweitzer speaking out against nuclear weapons and working to stop their proliferation.  But we have to be careful with power.  Power corrupts.  Power can lead us to thinking we are a perfect or sophisticated Unitarian Universalism, stagnant and too full of ourselves, too self-satisfied, too self-congratulatory to ever realize how we are excluding, marginalizing, or minimizing others.

            We have a vision of a world with peace, equity, justice, compassion, respect.   This vision, and the work we do to bring this vision into reality, rekindles my heart and renews my hope.  Yes, I will continue to speak truth to power, it is more critical today than it ever has been.  I will name injustice to people in political power and I will continue to work for justice, for the poor, the future of our planet, and for people of color.  And I hope you do the same. 

The SMILE project, a social justice project still in its developmental stage here at this church, rekindles my heart and renews my hope.  We’re creating a program of summer internship and mentoring for under privileged and discriminated youth, so they can have a chance of success in this world.   This is a direct result of the multi-cultural outreach we’re engaging in with PTMAN, the Proviso Township Ministerial Alliance Network, for the past couple of years.  When I see all of the individual and group efforts of members of this church—letter writing, calling, and emailing congressional representatives, marching in rallies, standing loud and proud in support of Planned Parenthood—all of this rekindles my heart and renews my hope. 

            I read in the prayer today:

What is done cannot be undone.

What is done next must now be done with care.

We gather because we are hopeful,

Because we have visions and dreams of a brighter future.

May the strength of this time together help us to walk forward.

May the wisdom of this experience help us to know our path.

May we have courage to return, as often as necessary, until our way is clear.

May we have perseverance, together, to see it through.

May we cause it to be so.

            We do have dreams and visions for a brighter future, and we must work for that future with persistence, courage, and caution.  If we are mindful, we will develop wisdom along the way.  And we will redefine and reimagine what Unitarian Universalism is as we adapt to become responsive and effective in these difficult times.  We are not static, either individually or as a denomination.  We’re under construction.  It’s time to add some new rooms to our house of prophecy.  Let’s pick up our tools and build a new way forward.   Amen, Amen, Amen.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Nature through the lens of Spirit by Reverend Tom Capo


In the time before time, there was nothing.  Not a thing!
            Who knows how it happened, and whether it was caused by a spark or a shudder or a breath of wind.  But suddenly the moon rose, the sun shone, and Earth Mother and Sky Father were revealed.
            The attraction between Earth Mother and Sky Father was magnetic.  Nothing else existed before them.  They fell into an embrace that was so close and went on for so long that they had seventy sons.

            They continued to lay in an embrace so close that their children, those boy-gods, dwelt in darkness.  They had no room to move or play or grow.
            The boy-gods felt suffocated without space and light.  They whispered and complained; they plotted and planned. 
            The god of war shouted, “Let’s kill Earth Mother and Sky Father!”
            But sixty-nine brothers shouted, “No!” and continued to plot and plan.
            Finally, Tane, the god of forest, spoke: “Let’s pull our mother and father apart!”
            Sixty-eight brothers shouted, “Yes!” The god of storms raged in disagreement, but the others ignored him and proceeded with the plan.
            The god of edible plants pushed up against the Sky Father with all his might.
            He could not budge Sky Father.
            The god of women and men tried and failed.
            The god of fish and reptiles was unsuccessful.
            And so it went: One god after another was unable to separate Earth Mother and Sky Father.  Defeated, they turned to Tane, the god of forests.  “It was a good idea, but it is impossible.”
            Tane lay down on the earth.  He braced himself against Earth Mother and gathered her strength into his shoulders.  He lifted his legs and pressed them against Sky Father.  He pushed! Tane pushed and pushed with all his might, until suddenly, there was a groan and then a snap!  Tane had separated his parents.
            Tane and sixty-eight brothers rejoiced.  They leapt and celebrated the newfound space and light all around them.
            Sky Father floated high above his wife and was full of sorrow.  He cried and continued to cry tears of rain, which made her more beautiful than ever.  Earth Mother responded by sending mist skyward. 
            Meanwhile, the gods busied themselves with their work of creating the world.
            Each god did as he was called to do.  Tane decorated his mother with trees and plants of all shapes and sizes.  He searched out sparks of light and threw them into the heavens to decorate his father with stars. 
            The gods of storms joined his father in upper realms and lives there still.  As you well know, he continues to rage—that’s how it is with some people.
            His rages undo some off their work, but Tane and the other gods go on creating and tending to Earth Mother and all that dwells there.

These are words from Walt Whitman

I know nothing of miracles…
Whether I …wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,

Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in the spring.
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with miracles
Every foot of the interior [of the earth] swarms with miracles.

      The story and the meditation reflect two aspects of nature.  The story is the origin myth from the Māori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand.  Origin myths in religion and culture attribute natural phenomena, the weather, the stars and the moon, the fish of the sea, the birds of the forest, and the forests themselves with gods, goddesses and supernatural phenomena.  Many people, some who are members of this church, hold beliefs about nature that include a sense of divinity or the sacred.  I consider myself a Panentheist—holding a belief that the divine pervades and penetrates every part of the universe. 
        I also embrace the understanding of nature that is reflected in the meditation.  A sense that what I experience in nature is miraculous, not in a sense that a god or goddess created it, but in the sense that so many amazing things occur in the natural world that I am held in awe when I take the time to attend to them—whether it be a sunset, a seed opening up into a plant, a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.  Whatever your theology--belief in something supernatural or the innate miraculousness of the natural world—whatever your language of reverence, nature has many opportunities to foster and enrich our spiritual lives.
        When I was in my senior year of High School, my friends and I went to Big Bend National Park on Spring Break.  There are certainly many stories from that trip, but one that I want to share with you.  Our first night in the park, we hiked to the top of Mt. Emory, the highest peak in the Chisos Mountains.  We sat atop the peak and watched the sunset, then camped out for the night just below the peak.  The next morning, my friends and I decided that we could cut across the park and save a good 5 miles of hiking, on our way to Boot Canyon.  
This picture is not from our trip, but you now see what we saw looking toward Boot Rock from Mount Emory.   Boot Canyon is one of the lushest and greenest parts of Big Bend.  Hiking off trail to shorten our route really seemed like a great idea at the time.  All we had to do was scale a sheer cliff that was about 50 yards straight down, which ended not in a flat surface, but angled out into a steep decline down to the base of the mountain an additional 300 plus yards down.  And the decline was densely populated with various types of cacti.   But we would be saving 5 miles from our hike!
        I was little concerned, but you know we were young and full of testosterone.  None of us wanted to say we couldn’t make the climb.  One of my friends, Patrick O’Malley, was the first to make the descent.  We lowered all the backpacks down to him.  I think he went first because his backpack was filled with canned peaches.  It was outrageously heavy, and while he strained under the weight as we hiked, he was the only one who wasn’t eating freeze dried beef stew at night.  One by one my friends made it down the cliff, until there were just me and Richard Smith.  I decided I would probably be safer if I had someone up top and someone below me when I made my way down the cliff.  Just to complete the picture: we decided we didn’t need ropes to climb down, we all wore brand new leather hiking boots, and we had no gloves or any other kind of gear to make this climb.  Like I said young and full of testosterone.  So over the lip of the cliff I went.  As I began, I found a few openings for my hands and feet.  I was scared, but gradually making my way.  About a third of the way down, I couldn’t find any hand-holds or foot-holds.  I was stuck.  For a moment I was paralyzed, deathly afraid I would fall, and feeling tired and acutely aware of the strain on my fingers, hands, and legs.  I remember saying something to my friends about not being sure I could make it.  They called up and down to me to reassure me.  I took a deep breath and closed my eyes for a moment, centering myself.  Then I brought my attention to my hands.  I focused on the sensation of my fingers holding onto the rock.  There was nothing else but my hands, and fingers, and the cliff face.  I moved my right hand slowly to the right, sensing, not seeing, the outcroppings and indentions in the cliff.  Eventually I found a new hand hold, a rock solidly sticking out of the cliff.  I grabbed it firmly and then adjusted my body.  I did this again and again, one hand and one foot at a time, only focusing on the sensation from my hands and feet.  My sense of time faded.  Even my progress faded.  My world was my hands, feet, and the cliff face.  When I finally reached the bottom, I was surprised, as if coming out of a trance.  I was elated to have made it down the cliff face.  Then I slipped on some rocks, my bottom landing hard on a cactus with very long spines.
         I tell you this story because one of the spiritual gifts of nature is mindfulness.  In my story mindfulness—the meditative technique that combines relaxation with acute alertness and/or extreme attentiveness-- mindfulness was discovered in the taking of a risk that required a focus and intense awareness that most of us don’t cultivate in our daily lives.
         You don’t have to be climbing down a cliff to practice mindfulness outside in nature.  Being outside, in nature, elicits mindfulness in many of us.  When I go home from work on a normal evening.  I get in your car, drive home, open the garage with the remote, park the car, and go inside. Most times, I don’t take time to look up at the stars, to notice the moon, to feel the breeze brushing against my cheek, or hear the rustle of the leaves in the trees.  But when we intentionally go out in nature, walk a trail or camp in a park, we slow down, we look around, we appreciate those things that are around us every day.  You notice things around you with that combination of relaxation and alertness or attentiveness, the mindfulness that being in nature seems to elicit.  You feel like you could look up at the moon or gaze up at the stars for hours.   You stop, slow down and really notice the beauty and detail of a single flower.  We can cultivate mindfulness through meditation, but nature provides additional opportunities for mindfulness that are spontaneous and, because they are spontaneous, can be just as impactful.
        Martha, my lovely wife, sometimes reminds me to be mindful as we walk in nature.  I am all about the exercise.  She is all about the experience. Exercise for me is about my physical and mental health, and I see it as a must in my daily routine.  I can be so driven by this that even my natural instincts to stop, relax and be alert in nature can be suppressed.  Martha is all about the side trails.  She sees little trails and is happy to wonder far away from the paved or limestone roads.  She can be so focused on the experience that she never notices I have marched on ahead without her.  I can be so focused on marching ahead that I never notice she has gone rogue.  Thank goodness for cell phones.  Unitarian and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay Nature:  “Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all egoism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”  Experiences in nature provide us with opportunities to sense or feel our unity with the universe, with god or goddess, with humanity.  We are able to set aside our own ego, our own personal desires and priorities, and realize or remember that we are part of all that exists.  Nature can offer us this.         
          I am anticipating something that is happening tomorrow.  If you have read a paper or watched the news, you know I am talking about the solar eclipse that will sweep across the country.  I will be joining our Science Sunday leaders outside on our property tomorrow to watch the 85% eclipse with them.  We are a little north of the total eclipse. While I and perhaps many of you will be looking up at the sun with our proper eyewear, I will be opening myself up to another spiritual gift that nature offers: humility.  Nature reminds us that we are small part in a vast universe and that our lives are surrounded by mystery.  This is a deeply spiritual feeling.  When we see a mountain so tall it seems to touch the clouds or red woods big enough for cars to drive through or glaciers so vast they seem to go on forever or a planet through a telescope, we have the opportunity to open ourselves to a profound sense of connectedness.  The book, Soul to Soul by Unitarian Universalists Reverend Christine Robinson and Alicia Hawkins, was resource as I prepared for this service.  They write: “Humility is a sobering and necessary correction to the heady discovery that we are at one with the universe.  Some people dislike the word humility, because it has connotations of bowing and scraping before an arrogant power.  But the root of the word humility is the same as the root of words like humus, meaning fertile topsoil or earth, and human.  Humility has connotations of groundedness, of connection to earth and humanity.  The truth of the matter is that we are specks of life and consciousness in immensity; short lived, soft shelled and vulnerable.  Experiences in nature offer a healthy corrective to hubris.”
       German theologian, philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart wrote: “If I spent enough time with the tiniest of creatures, even a caterpillar, I would never have to prepare a sermon, so full of God is every creature.”  I had have a number of people tell me that their church is nature.  They get more from a walk in nature than they have ever gotten in a church building.  And I get that.  I still want to encourage you to come to church, but I get that.  I believe that Meister Eckhart speaks a deep truth: being in nature can be, if we are open to it, if we allow ourselves to be mindful, if we walk in nature in a reverent way, deeply spiritual.  We can learn more about ourselves, about our connection to others—the universe, mother earth and all that resides on it—and we can get a break from the routines of life that distance us from ourselves and creation.  We need to attend to our feet as we slip them into the cool water of a babbling brook or to our hands as we dig in the dirt of a garden.  We are able to remember what is really important when our daily routine is stripped away and we step away from the work-a-day world as naturalist, Transcendentalist, and Unitarian Henry David Thoreau did.  As he sat out by Walden Pond, he wrote:  “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, [that] is more elastic, more starry, more immortal- that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by [hu]man to [hu]man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”  Namaste