In a very frightening moment from the Sondheim musical “Assassins,” eight historical characters  gather together around Lee Harvey Oswald to try to persuade him to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. They are together in the Texas School Book Depository and have just introduced themselves to the agitated and troubled Oswald: John Wilkes Booth, Guiseppe Zangara, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, Sam Byck, John Hinkley, Jr., Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme have all either assassinated an American president or tried to, and they want Oswald to
“revive them and give them meaning” lest they become “footnotes in a history book.”

It is a chilling scene, and I have a line of dialogue at that moment that I think about a lot. As Sara Jane Moore, a woman who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford because she thought it would start a necessary revolution, I say to Lee Harvey Oswald, “You think you can’t connect? Connect to us.”

People do want to connect. We are social animals. We need love and relationship. I believe we were made for those things. But if people do not connect to something life-giving, positive, inspiring and encouraging (with its root Latin word of cor, or heart) it is all too easy to be drawn into negative attractions based on ego, fear, common hatreds, and causes that stimulate our reptile survival brain, the amygdala.

Perhaps you came to this website out of curiosity after having seen “Assassins” at Arts After Hours and wondering why a minister would be part of such a disturbing theatrical event where she cusses like a sailor, simulates smoking pot and (by far worse) points a gun at a child. If you did, hello! Thank you for seeing the show and for visiting our church website!

I wanted to be part of “Assassins” because I am a huge admirer of Stephen Sondheim’s work, and because I am always drawn to theatre that makes people think and that prompts great discussions. As an actor, I am attracted to eccentric and complicated characters and I have kind of  a specialty in comic villains. Sara Jane is a real person, and although she is written as comic relief in the show “Assassins,” in real life she came very close to killing President Gerald Ford. She is not in the least a funny or charming person and her act is the result of disordered thinking and bad influences.

But Sara Jane wanted very much to belong. Throughout her adult life she sought to connect to movements and groups that would make her feel part of a movement toward social justice even though she eventually chose a deranged path to try to get there. She was an FBI informant for awhile (yes, she was fired), and she really did have five husbands and four children (not three, as it says in the show) who she sent to live under the guardianship of other adults.  Ultimately, she and the other assassins were loners and losers who represent the worst of what people can become when they are left in isolation to their most negative, demonic and selfish thoughts and plans.

And of course, we are seeing in recent years how isolation, anger, disordered thinking, toxic affinity groups and the easily availability of guns have lead to terrible violence, chaos and despair as more assassins take it upon themselves to earn a place in history at the expense of the freedom, joy, love and life of so many others.

Please connect. Connect with those who are also worried, angry, confused and determined to make a difference through cultivating not violence but reverence. Connect with those who know that some joy and hope are as essential to every day as are water and oxygen, and who know how important it is in these times to strengthen the soul through spiritual practice, the arts, activism and the solidarity of being in open-minded and open-hearted community.

I will be out of the pulpit for the summer but I hope to meet you soon. Get in touch if you’d like to meet for an iced coffee to talk about your spiritual search.

 

With faith, hope and love,

Rev. Vicki

 

 

 

  “Forged In The Fire” A sermon given at UUCGL on November 4, 2018

Courtesy of a tenacious bacteria by the name of campylobacteriosis, I had a full day and a half in a bed at Union Hospital in Lynn earlier this week with a lot of time to watch Netflix on my iPad. So first I want to say my thanks to all of you who have been caring and supportive through this adventure: you visited me, you brought me chicken soup, you wrote me kind e-mails and sent text messages and Facebook posts and it was a good thing to be on the receiving end of the care of the church in this way. I am on the mend and I think in a few days’ time I may be back to almost normal. I am so grateful for medical science and especially for the doctors’ ability to identify not only that we need an antibiotic, but to pinpoint exactly which one we need to go to battle against intestinal invaders.

I became enchanted with a show called “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” starring California chef Samin Nosrat, who takes us to gorgeous locales to watch her eat and cook beautiful food with the people in those countries who know and prepare it best, from sea or earth to table. This is a cooking show, but I saw it as a spiritual show, too.  In the way that the late, beloved Anthony Bourdain was determined to encourage his viewers to regard cuisines and dishes that might cause us initially to pull back in revulsion as fascinating and potentially delicious and worthy of respect – Samin seems to be on a mission of joy, reverence and gratitude. She genuinely delights in the smallest olive. She sips miso broth and her face goes into ecstasies. She takes a bit of pig fat (“lardo”) and it is as though she has never eaten before, her rapture is so sincere.

Samin’s enthusiasm bothers some more jaded viewers – one commenter wrote, “It’s like she thinks none of us have ever eaten focaccia before,” but I find her inspirational. She reminds us to attend to beauty, to the gifts of the planet, to our local terrain, to stewardship of vegetable and animal life. She reminds us to be prepare food and to eat it in awareness and appreciation, honoring those who have carried on generations of recipes and techniques for growing, harvesting and cooking or preserving.

I greatly appreciate anyone who teaches reverence and awareness. We need more of it.

 

I do not know what will happen this Tuesday at the polls. I am not so naïve as to think that the ugliness, violence and hatred that permeates our public discourse will resolve any time soon.  What I hope for is a more functioning and inclusive democracy. For all those who say that they don’t understand why religion gets “mixed up” in politics, I encourage you to respond with me that politics and religion have always been deeply intertwined in Western civilization. It is not a new thing at all in America and religious communities have always, and should, be among those who speak truth to power and remind elected officials in this country of their obligation to uphold the constitution and serve the people. This is not a monarchy or a theocracy… yet. Our public policies should address the needs of the people – all the people – and do so in a humane way, distributing resources to best serve the common good. The Church must be more than a praying arm of society, or a symbol. It must be an advocate for those forgotten, ignored or oppressed by the powerful.

I saw a Muslim woman interviewed the other day at a vigil held for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting who said, “I think that our coming together like this – where we get to know each other across our differences – it’s the only thing that will stop this madness.” I had to sadly disagree. Please don’t misunderstand. Interfaith gatherings are very important: coming together across differences help us establish important connections and relationships that allow us to have a fast communal response when violence or disaster strikes. These events help us to know each other better, and to care about each other more deeply. They get us to put each other on speed dial, and that is crucial for strategizing and survival. However, I believe nothing will “stop this madness” but stringent gun controls. There will always be peddlers and purveyors of hatred; there always have been. Preventing them from being armed is the only thing that will stop so many massacres in our country.

 

But we are going to do more than just survive. Here in this place and through this community we are building immunity against intestinal invaders that are not bacterial but spiritual: some of those are despair, paralyzing bitterness, contempt, apathy, and magical thinking. As I watched Samin Nosrat throw a handful of salt onto a dish (she uses way too much salt) to bring out the flavor of the food, I thought of the way that salt and fire and acid and heat transform not just foodstuffs but people. I thought of the expression, “feet to the fire” and thought yes, we are being forged in the hot circumstances of our time.

In cookery, it is fairly well-known what will happen if you add an ingredient to the dish: eg, acid breaks things down, tenderizes meat, heat causes disparate elements of flour, sugar, egg, water, to coalesce into a solid form you can sink your teeth into, al dente, to the teeth. With human life, we do not know exactly what elements to add to a situation to assure an outcome. I think we have seen that the art of prediction has proven most unreliable in the past years, as the factors (or ingredients) that have historically tended to lead to one outcome have turned in the pot or the skillet to something curdled and burnt, inedible.

So let us not predict but plan; plan to stay faithful to our values and to be transformed by these challenges, transformed rather than scorched.  UU composer Jason Shelton wrote about the “Flame that burns within” in our opening hymn “The Fire Of Commitment,” and it is this flame that we need to tend very intentionally and with everyone taking their turn stoking the flames. When Moses had his theophany – his revelation — of God in the desert those thousands of years ago, kicking off monotheism, he knew the holy was present because he saw a burning bush where the bush burned but was not consumed.  That is holy fire. The fire heats, illuminates and transforms but does not destroy.

I visited Transylvania ten years ago, to visit our church’s partner church in the village of Kadacs.  I stayed with the minister and her family in the parsonage and enjoyed the beauty of rural Romanian life. The Unitarians are a tiny minority church in Romania – they are ethnic Hungarians and have been terribly oppressed by the communist Romanian government. Things have gotten a little bit better since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu‘s regime, but the villages are still very poor and there is little opportunity for the young, who almost inevitably leave and often emigrate to another country entirely.

Cows ambled down the main street. Horses pulled the picnic tables for the church picnic into the yard. Shirtless men came in from the fields for pastoral visits carrying chickens. I ate the most delicious bread I have ever eaten in that village: heavy, thick, chewy, spread with butter and cheese, or fresh plum jam. I was obsessed with that bread and I asked how it was made. The women took me for a little walk to the edge of the village where I met a large, warm woman who looked very much like my Slovak great-grandmother, who was wearing a well-worn housedress and apron. She showed me the enormous stone ovens that she tended – and with a long wooden paddle, she pulled out one of the loaves which was covered in a thick, burned brown crust. I thought the bread was hopelessly burned. But, taking a smaller wooden paddle, the woman smacked the crust away – thwack, thwack, thwack! — and slapped the fresh loaf down on a bench, carving into it to hand me the warm piece she had sliced off. She smiled as I chewed the bread in ecstastic appreciation. Through a translator, I learned that this woman tended these communal ovens where all the villagers brought their loaves of dough to be transformed into bread.

 

It was a metaphor that has stayed with me. I think of the church as that common hearthfire, where all who need nourishment can bring our ingredients together into not only the warmth of community but the fire of commitment, the transforming element to which we offer ourselves as, in the worlds of the King’s Chapel prayerbook, “a living and willing sacrifice.”

I am willing and I am able, for to be hopeless would be so strange…

Here we resist hatred by cultivating reverence, by making art and music, by learning together, by equipping ourselves to be advocates and activists. Here we harness the power of creativity in the understanding that we cannot move into any future – personal, interpersonal, political – without robust imagination that allows us to consider not just where we are, but where we want to be, and with what moral values and practices we want to get there. My friends, our feet are to the fire. As of yet, most of us are still very comfortable, but as the heat rises, may we put ourselves in constant alliance with holy love so that we may burn… but not be consumed.

— Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

 

 

When I was a teenager I had two very talented friends who starred in many of the theatre productions I was involved in. They were wonderful performers and close friends who had a motto: “Whoever gets in first gets the other one in.” What they meant by that was that whoever made it big in the theatre would make sure to recommend the other one for work. One of them eventually ended up in teaching and I saw the other one onstage last spring in “The Age of Innocence” at the Hartford Stage – a production headed for Broadway.

I have always loved the supportve confidence of that expression, “Whoever gets in first gets the other one in.” It could suggest cronyism, but in the way these two used the expression it conveyed respect and solidarity: “You can count on me to remember you in my successes.”

Something that we need to remember about the church is that, once we are in — that is, once we feel we have found a community that provides spiritual support and loving witness to our lives — it is imperative that we immediately expand our attention to those who have just walked through the door wondering if maybe they can find the same thing.

This is what it means to “draw the circle wider” – that while we participate in the life of the congregation for ourselves and our children, we also participate for the sake of others who have taken that risk to walk through the doors for the first or second or third time.  The doors of the church are revolving doors, metaphorically speaking. We do not look anyone out, and we do not lock anyone in. To keep people moving through the doors and staying within the community requires each one of us to consider ourselves a living gluestick,a potential spiritual friend, and someone who is necessary not only to the community as it is today but to the community as it can become.

Our coffee hours after the services are a bit loud and bustling to allow for deep conversation (and what a good thing that they are!), but they are a great time to make a quick connection and to extend an invitation to coffee, to sit together in church, to have a meal, to attend a program at church or elsewhere, have a phone conversation, or take a walk.  If you are “in” the church and have friends and a sense of belonging, bring others in. Make it your priority. You are glue that can help someone find a community they want to stick with.

In faith, hope and love,

Rev. Vicki

 

 

I will be on vacation from July 6-August 3, 2018.

Gloria Kozlosky, Membership and Hospitality Ministry Team Chair, is the Summer Caring Coordinator.  Please let her know if you think someone needs a call or visit. She will contact me if there is a pastoral emergency.

Liz Weber, UU seminarian, is happy to receive inquiries for non-member rites of passage (weddings, funeral and christenings) through August 13.  Inquiries about the church program can be made to the church administrative staff or to Mark LaPointe, Acting Interim Director of Community Life and Learning.

Some pertinent dates for Rev. Vicki:

Wedding Rehearsal and Ceremony, July 27-28 (Salem, MA).

Peace Conference at Rolling Ridge Retreat Center, July 21-22 (Interfaith Environemental Studies).

Funeral and Interment, August 3 and 4 (Milford, NH and Concord, MA).

OWL (Our Whole Lives Sexuality Curriculum) facilitator training, August 17-19.

I am out of the pulpit in August and spend much of that month in “study leave.” Technically, I am “free from parish duties” during that time but I meet with staff to plan worship, I work with a consultant (this year on our home base plans), I meet with team leaders and the board president, and I coordinate community work with other religious leaders. I also get to attend church as a worshiper and visit various houses of worship in our area.

Blessings of peace, rest and renewal to you all,

Rev. Vicki

Although we definitely slow down during the summer, we do not stop being a church: a community that cares, that responds, thatlearns, that prays.

If you’re looking for a community of action this summer, don’t let our sleepy appearance fool you. We do a lot less programming in July and August and our minister is on vacation for much of that time, but she and many others are using their time away from the regular round of meetings and programs to put faith into action.

Some of us will be volunteering for Kids In Community, a summer camp for kids in Lynn located at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the Common. Suzanne Forgione can help you connect with opportunities to volunteer by reading to the children the week of July 16-20. Call the church office for information on how to contact Suzanne.

Are you concerned and angry about the current administration’s policies toward immigrants in America? Learn and engage. Our county community organization, ECCO, also slows down in July but will be back in full swing with regular meetings in August. Please  follow ECCO on Facebook and get on their email list. You can join us in our work for immigrant advocacy, building relationships with the police in Lynn toward more community-accountable and anti-racist practices, legislative campaigns (our most recent were raising the minimum wage and putting into law earned sick time for all MA workers) and building strong relationships among our faith communities in Essex County.

I would also recommend following Cosecha Boston, another immigrant-advocacy and justice organization that can help you put your faith into action. There is so much you can do: learn, educate others, write letters, attend deportation hearings, be a witness, become part of a response team for immigrants who are arrested, detained and in fear of deportation. Many of them have lived in this country for well over a decade and their children, American citizens, need our support when they are abandoned. Cosecha Boston is focusing right now on working to interfere with ICE. It is not hard to take action from your computer.

Are you dedicated to the rights and safety of LGBTQ people? So are we, officially, as a Welcoming Congregation. We march as a congregation at North Shore Pride every June. We supported and worked toward Marriage Equality and we will do it again if those rights are ever threatened. We support transgender individuals in their right to be safe and protected under law. You might want to learn about the ballot initiative to repeal transgender public accomodations law.  Connect with Freedom For All Massachusetts become an active ally.

Our Social Justice Ministry Team, together with LUUP (Lynn UU Partnership), urges us all to read Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton as an all-church read for the 2018-19 program year. It’s an easy read. Please let Rev. Vicki  know if you would like to be reimbursed for a copy. She is happy to do so. We also have some copies available at church.

Check out the Green Sanctuary Ministry Team blog and read about their recent programs and efforts to educate our local community on environmental issues.

 

 

 

[I offered these reflections during our Annual Meeting on June 10, 2018. – VW]

We shaped the arc of this year as a circle. “Draw the Circle Wider” was the theme of our ministry, the metaphor we used for our mission to think expansively and to prepare for a future where we would not fairly passively expect people to find us on Sunday mornings but would intentionally create a program and community life that reached out to them.

We drew the circle wider, doing and thinking differently.

But as I reflected over the year just concluded, it occurred to me that a circle is an interesting configuration for a progressive institution to embrace.  There is more to it than meets the eye!! As Americans, as Westerners, we stand in a tradition that has instructed us that time marches forward and so should we, questing always for the new, and ever moving FORWARD. “Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,” says the words of one of our most cherished hymns (those are the UU lyrics to the old chestnut “Onward Christian Soldiers”).

So it is therefore a little more countercultural than we may have realized to suggest that we draw a CIRCLE.  After all, “you’re going on circles” is not a compliment but an expression of concern. To draw a circle wider is an expansive notion but still… are you just going in circles?

The circle is a symbol of eternity. It is sacred. It is the shape of the sun, the planet, of wholeness. To embrace the circle is potentially, an interruption and rejection of the violence to self and to creation that can be the result of endless questing, endless forward motion —  the kind of quest that we know can lead to obsession with conquest. To abide within a circle of motion is to recognize that our job and our journeys are not linear propositions, where we move forward in exhausting and eternal pursuit of some unattainable ideal beyond the horizon, but are cyclical: we are born, we live, we die, we leave a legacy that helps to root in the next cycle of gentle growth. And so this cycle, this circle proceeds not in competition and quest but in blessing, as the indigenous American poet Joy Harjo writes,

Like eagle rounding out the morning

Inside us.

And as we have sung many times this year in our signature anthem:   “Draw the circle, draw the circle wide! Draw the circle, draw the circle wi-i-ide! No one stands alone, we stand side by side. Draw the circle. Draw the circle wide.”

Five years ago today I was getting ready to lead the second of two candidating week services at UUCGL. We had had a busy, exciting week of discernment together. I met a lot of church members and talked with you about your hopes and dreams. I explored the area and found the house I wanted to buy – my first home.  At the conclusion of that service, I drove away from the church and parked in the middle school parking lot to wait for the results of the congregational vote to call me as your Parish Minister. I was elated when I got the news that you had voted unanimously to entrust me with this honored position.

Five years have flown by! I have loved every year and every season with this church. UUCGL is in a beautiful setting and the community is warm, smart, creative and committed. Our staff and lay leaders work incredibly hard and care deeply about the living out of Unitarian Universalist values through our institution and our individual members.

I can’t write as much as I’d like right now because not only am I putting finishing touches on my sermon for this morning, there is a crew of roofers arriving to finish putting on an entirely new roof on that little house I first toured exactly five years ago today! It seems a good metaphor for the work we are doing as a faith community: making stronger and sturdy the structures that support life.

 Love, Rev. Vicki

 

Beach Service Crew!!

Summer is coming! We need a Beach Service crew for our annual service on Fisherman’s Beach on June 17 (Father’s Day!). Bruce Campbell, our stalwart set-up guy of so many years, is going to be celebrating his and Clare’s beautiful daughter’s wedding that weekend (*sniff*). Can someone/s with a truck or big car get the little tent and chairs to Fisherman’s Beach and set them up? Let me know.

Some of you will be participating in March For Our Lives protests today, March 24, 2018. I am still limping around on a “sore chop” after slipping on the ice last weekend but I was there in spirit.

What a sad, sad state our country is in. It feels like madness, like a possession by a violent god. Maybe it is. Jungian psychologist James Hillman, in his powerful book A Terrible Love Of War, suggests that to get at the love of war we have to get to its myths, “recognize that war is a mythical happening, that those in the midst of it are removed to a mythical state of being, that their return from it seems rationally inexplicable, and that the love of war tells of a love of the gods, the gods of war…” (p 9)

I think about this idea a lot lately, replacing “war” in Hillman’s statement with the word “guns.” Those who love guns and think of guns as protective, powerful and a necessary expression of freedom are in a rationally inexplicable condition — in thrall to the wrong gods.

 

The youth who survived the shooting in Parkland, Florida are like those who have returned from war and survived it. Or they are perhaps like mythological figures like the goddess Persephone or Orpheus who went to the place of death and came back to the land of the living with profound and frightening wisdom that must be heeded.

These issues are not merely constitutional and legal. They are spiritual, issues of the soul and psyche.

The dead cannot speak. In the season of resurrection, we must witness to life and advocate for those who are not here to tell us what tragic fools we have been, and continue to be, to worship the Gun God. We have made too many human sacrifices to them already.

 

Our videographer, Steve, has been out with an arm injury so we haven’t been posting as many sermons online as usual. This was one I gave on January 14, 2018.

 

Sources of Faith

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, if you were Jewish, you learned Jewish tradition and Jewish Scripture. If you were a practicing Catholic, you learned the catechism and took the sacraments. You read the Catholic Bible (which is a bit different even from the Protestant Bible). If you were a Buddhist, you practiced Buddhism according to whatever lineage your tradition was. If you were a Jain child in India you practiced the dharma and did not know anything at all about the Kabbala. And so on. You get the idea.

And if you were a Unitarian Universalist, in post WW II era, you were part of a humanistic religious tradition that proudly announced its appreciation for the wisdom of all world religions.

Nowadays, Jews and Catholics and Protestants and Buddhists practice an ancient Hindu form of embodied spiritual practice called yoga. The Episcopal priest is reading the Upanishads in order to better understand the texts that were foundational to the life and thought of Mohandas Ghandi, who was himself reading the 19thh century Unitarian Transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau for inspiration. The Buddhist priest is part of a study group that is spending the year studying the works of Baptist minister and civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. She cross-references Bible references as she reads through King’s speeches and letters.

The young Muslim attends a Taizés service on Thursday nights because she finds the simple Christian chants to be centering and the music beautiful. An elderly Greek Orthodox woman joins her Muslim neighbors in their Ramadan fast because she is interested in understanding and experiencing the spiritual effects of fasting, a practice that is part of her own religious tradition. The Jainist child grows up, goes to university and dates a Brazilian Pentecostal woman.

The Unitarian Universalists are no longer unusual. What was once fairly unique kind of “selling point” for them has become mainstream. What they once fantasized, that they are a world religion in their own right by virtue of borrowing smatterings from other great faith traditions, turns out to be a far more problematic and complex assumption than anyone imagined: at the best, naïve, and at worst, colonialist, entitled and prone to cultural appropriation.

Who knew? Not UUs. But we evolve, and we learn, and we get humbler, and we hopefully get better.

Unitarian Universalism is confronting its terminal uniqueness and coming to terms with what that means. We know now that it is not at all unusual for people in a wide variety of socioeconomic and cultural contexts to find spiritual inspiration from a variety of sources. The internet, patterns of human migration, doctrinal evolution and globalization have made it commonplace for people to weave a personal tapestry of meaning from a wide variety of sources: world religions, spiritual philosophies, the New Age movement, metaphysics, the occult literature, the arts, science, futurism, technology, the recovery movement, and secular self-help gurus. While this evolution is occurring, awareness of cultural appropriation has caused Unitarian Universalists to consider that it not always responsible or ethical to freely take from and adapt rituals and theologies not original to Unitarianism and Universalism for our own use.

When someone suggested in our General Assembly a few years back that we identity the religion of Islam as one of our official sources of “wisdom and spirituality,” there was a fast rejection about which many of us were relieved. It isn’t a bad desire to want to show special respect for Islam at a time when Muslims were being targeted for harassment in the United States, but Unitarian Universalists generally know very little about the Muslim religion  — and furthermore, we have no permission or authority to declare ourselves to be formally affiliated with the Muslim religion.  What begins as a desire to be more inclusive can wind up looking a lot like colonization. Hopefully we are getting wiser.

Let’s take a look at what UUs identify as our sources of spiritual wisdom:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Where do you find yourself and your own theological grounding in this roster? You may find, as I do, that some years you’re more of a first source UU – other years or seasons, more of a sixth source UU. This is not a hierarchically ranked list, nor is it proscriptive or exhaustive.

The broad categories of our sources leave each of us individually with lots of room for us to explore, to study and to investigate whence we find most profound religious meaning. That is the joy and the huge responsibility of this non-doctrinal tradition: it asks each one who participates in it to do that investigation in an intentional way.

Have any of you seen the film “Lady Bird?” It just won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Comedy or Musical. and I loved it. It is a coming of age story that centers around a mother-daughter relationship. The lead character, Lady Bird, is a dramatic, intense high school senior who attends an all-girl Catholic high school in Sacramento. One of the things I loved best about the film is its affectionate treatment of Immaculate Heart, and of religion, which is depicted as a sometimes irritating obligation in the students’ lives (there’s a great scene of Lady Bird and her best friend lying on their stomachs on the floor and munching communion wafers) but often the thing in their lives that opens up their minds to important growth. Two of the most sympathetic and beautifully written characters of those of a priest who runs the drama club and Sister Sarah Joan, a wise and funny nun who is the school’s principal.

The writer and director of the movie is Greta Gerwig, who based much of the feel of the film on her own Catholic school years in Sacramento. When she was recently asked by interviewer Terry Gross if she was Catholic, Gerwig said that no, she was actually raised Unitarian Universalist, which gave her a great respect and appreciation for ALL religions. Gerwig then talked about how powerful she found the Catholic religion to be, with its rituals and mystical theological tradition.

And I laughed, because it seemed so classic a UU thing to say: “My religion taught me to appreciate other religions so much that I decided to leave UUism.”

I too was raised Unitarian Universalist and got the impression for a very long time that Unitarian Universalism was nothing but a place to contemplate interesting ideas posed by other world religions and spiritual philosophies. I definitely got the idea that UUs were not their own legitimate religion. I graduated from Sunday School never having any idea that Unitarianism and Universalism were two distinct religious traditions that have ancient roots but flourished during the Protestant Reformation  — or that each had a huge influence on the development of American culture from the founding of this nation through the mid-19tth century.

No one informed me that Unitarian Universalists are heirs of the far left wing of Protestantism, or that our form of governance (polity) and congregational structure was created at great sacrifice and bequeathed unto us courtesy of the Puritan movement in England. No one explained to me that our focus on love and acceptance did not emerge from the 1970’s “free to be you and me” movement but had theological origins way back in a third century argument against the development of a punishing God concept, and that when our forebears argued that point again in the Reformation era, they were called heretics and persecuted.

I wish I had been taught that our fervor for debate, interpretation, over-thinking, learning and reading were not contemporary developments but centuries old, influenced by the Enlightenment, classical Humanism and historical criticism of the Bible. Someone in one of my Sunday school classes might have explained that our church was built in the woods and we spent some of our Sunday school classes communing with Nature because of a group called the Transcendentalists, who flourished way back in the 1840’s and had a huge influence in the creation of American culture. It wasn’t because we were hippies.

I would have been fascinated! I would have so appreciated having some knowledge of this!

But when I was born into a mixed marriage in the mid 1960’s to parents who were married in the UU church, the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists were what we call “come-outers,” that is, refugees from some other religious tradition to which doctrine they could not subscribe or even tolerate.  A lot of people were rejecting religion altogether and were gathering in lay led fellowships in a sort of ethical culture society model to discuss important ideas and to study religions in some cases – educational forums were very popular – but often to assiduously avoid anything that smacked of, you know, religion. There was a serious skepticism about the necessity or advisability of having clergy around. Some of that suspicion was based in generational suspicion of authority figures.

The word “spirituality” was treated with some horror as a mushy, irrational concept not fit for sharp minds.  God was dead, or so said existentialist thinkers at around that time, and Unitarian Universalists weren’t so much interested in knowing their theological heritage as they were in social change and intellectual inquiry (as if though those things couldn’t be compatible.  Of course they can be — and marvelously so).

Unitarian Universalists were aiming to be modern and relevant and culturally cutting edge, and so they buried their Protestant origins in their libraries and didn’t mention or teach them much, and kids like me grew up not even knowing that our religion was a religion.  I learned that it was when I won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller with Professor David Robinson at Oregon State University in 1992. I went into the summer seminar a tired high school English teacher. I came out four weeks later with a burning passion for the ideas to which I had been introduced over long days of study and the long nights of reading, and a suggestion by Dr. Robinson that I apply to Harvard Divinity School – Emerson and Thoreau’s alma mater. David is not just the author of several books on Thoreau, he is also the author of the seminal Unitarian Universalist historical text, The Unitarian And The Universalists, and a graduate of HDS himself.

Funny how the universe works.

That is my story. But the broader story of our religious community is that Things Have Changed. The world has changed. The derision toward “spirituality” is resolving as staunch opponents of anything “mushy” realize that new generations are not only not afraid of it, but are perfectly capable of joining science and soulfulness, ritual and intellectual approach. They are rightfully dismissive of humanist fundamentalists.

I learned a lot about Unitarian Universalist theology and religion in seminary. But I have learned just as much in the parish ministry, in congregational life. After twenty-one years in the parish I believe that it is the practice of community that is the essential theological foundation of Unitarian Universalism. Whether or not you are a fan of the Puritans, we must give credit where it is due and appreciate their legacy of organizing and establishing congregations not around doctrinal conformity but around covenant; the relationship between God and humanity and humans with each other.

I will be preaching more about this because it is so important for us to understand, and to embrace and to own, and to explain: we are ultimately and essentially a religious tradition that believes in growing the soul in community.

Where each one of us personally finds profoundest meaning, whether in the Bible or walking meditation by the beach, or Jewish rituals learned from our youth, or dream work, or choral singing, or a combination of any or all of these and other sources, is interesting and important. However, when someone asks you, “What is a Unitarian Universalist” you can say, “We are a religious tradition with historical roots in the Protestant Reformation but that has evolved over the centuries to include a wide variety of sources of spiritual wisdom. We personally believe many different things but what we practice is spiritual and ethical growth in community. Our shared spiritual practice is community. That’s what we understand what it means to be the church: to be in relationship, and it’s demanding. It holds us accountable. It gets intense. It’s creative and dynamic and sometimes frustrating.”

And then you can quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to them and say,

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and
this will require a qualitative change in our souls
as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

To be a Unitarian Universalist, or in fellowship with UUs, is to carry within an inextinguishable flame of faith that humans are capable of moral evolution. To hold confidence in that possibility and to work toward it is our heritage and our mission. It is a journey, and let us sing praises to it.

I was having breakfast the other day while in Mexico and struck up a conversation with an American woman. She asked me if I had ever been to that region before, and we talked about solo travel in Mexico and Central America. She asked me if I thought that it would be safe for her to travel to another part of Mexico, Oaxaca. I paused for a few seconds. And then I said — and we locked eyes as she had the same thought at the same time –“But… we have mass shootings pretty much every day now in the U.S.” She was nodding with me before the words were even out of my mouth. We both realized it. What are we doing acting as though other countries are somehow more dangerous than our own?

The very next day, Nikolas Cruz went to school with an AR-15 that he acquired legally, and murdered Alyssa Alhadeff, a fourteen year old. He killed Scott Beigel, a teacher. He killed Martin Duque Anguiano, a 14 -year old. He killed high school senior Nicholas Dworet, and football coach Aaron Feis. He shot and killed 14 year old Jaime Guttenberg, and athletic director Chris Hixon. He killed Luke Hoyer and Cara Laughran, 15 and 14 years old. He killed Gina Montalto, 15, and Joaquin Oliver, 17 and Alana Petty, 14. He walked through the halls and killed 18-year old Meadow Pollack, and 17- year old Helena Ramsay. Alex Schachter’s life ended at the age of 14 that day, as did the lives of Carmen Schentrup, who was 15, and Peter Wang, the same age.

He terrorized an entire community and shattered countless lives.

I won’t read any articles about Nikolas Cruz. I know only that he was radicalized by our culture of violence and shooter celebrity and that he sent out enough warning signs and exhibited enough disturbing behavior to be expelled from school and reported to the FBI. Further analysis is a waste of time — a distraction from the real issue, which is the United States’ worship of the god of guns.

We must stop assigning the descriptor “mentally ill” to all the young, white men who obtain guns and go on killing sprees. It is too easy an explanation and implies that any of our mental health is a thing that exists outside of the context of culture. “Mental illness”  is far too broad a term to be productive as a talking point after these mass murders, and it stigmatizes everyone who suffers with any kind of mental illness.

I prefer to look at societal illness, cultural illness, sick leadership and spiritual sickness.

It is devastating to think that there are over 100,000 young people living in the United States today who have the shared experience of having survived a school shooting.

We have become a nation of whom prospective tourists now legitimately ask each other, “Have you been to the United States? I’m not sure I would go — it’s too dangerous.”

In many ancient Scripture stories, God punishes hard-hearted leaders or communities. I don’t believe in that kind of God, nor does our UU religious heritage teach that theology. We are punishing ourselves. And it is for us, the people, to turn the hearts of the corrupt rulers who take money from the National Rifle Association with one hand while wiping crocodile tears with the other and mouthing empty platitudes about “thoughts and prayers.”

We are so lucky — even when it feels like an overwhelming responsibility — to belong to a faith tradition that has always taught that service and justice-making is a form of prayer.  Our thoughts and prayers have action behind them.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are those who work for change, for they shall not fall into despair.