This is the service that caps off the calendar year leading into the summer session.
When we gather in September, the first Sunday after Labor Day, we look ahead to a new church year; we rededicate ourselves to the purposes, plans and hopes we share as a religious community. We hold up our sacred objects: the Constitution and By-laws under which we govern ourselves; the books that inform, inspire and guide us, including the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament; the Koran; Baghavad Gita, Analects of Confucius, the poets and others; the curriculum of our Religious Education program; a copy of our hymnal as a reminder of the importance of music in our worship; the Membership Book, and so forth.
At this end-of-year service we look back and recall the highlights of the year.
It has been a good year for us—a year best characterized by the word transition.
We changed our fiscal year, and we’re about to begin the first of time the year begins on July 1.
Barbara Fast has moved on; Bob Perry completed eleven years as Youth Advisor and said, “That’s it.” We’re in the process of finding a Social Justice Director. It has been a year of transition, and we’re negotiating those changes smoothly, without denying the challenge each of the changes presents.
Looking back helps us to see ahead more clearly.
You have some looking back to do of your own, and so do I. May this time together today help us to come to terms with whatever mistakes we’ve made—those about which we’re consciously aware and those mistakes which exist only in other people’s eyes, about which we may not even be aware but need to acknowledge.
May this time together today help us to put to rest any old grudges, resentments or ill-will, so that we can find that place of peace that allows some necessary rest, and prepares us to use the summer as a transition time into another new season…
It’s good to be together.
I’ve said that this has been a year of transition for us as a religious community.
The word I would use to characterize this year in our society—our nation—is divisiveness. We expect and accept a certain amount of disagreement or difference of opinion. But we’ve moved beyond simple disagreement this year—the red state, blue state image speaks to the deep divide, but it’s more than that, it’s deeper than that.
The culture conflice was heated up this year not only by the usual political differences that get highlighted during a presidential election, but it was heated up this year by a deepening of the religious divide.
It’s not about believers v. unbelievers, however. The divisiveness is among people of faith who have strong disagreement about important social issues. The Terri Schiavo case highlighted that divide; the stem-cell research debate highlights the great divide; the attempt to pass constitutional amendments to deny homosexuals their rights; the threats against a woman’s right to choose—including the denial of communion to Senator Kerry for defending that right.
Diversity is one thing—divisiveness is another. We hope to have diversity within our own congregation and to affirm diversity in our community and nation. But diversity becomes divisive when you mix religion and politics.
I’ve attempted to keep the delicate balance, expressing my personal beliefs, ideas and concerns without crossing the line into political ideology. I respectfully accept the criticism of those who believed I sometimes fail to keep that balance.
It isn’t easy. I’ll keep working at it.
In last Friday’s Times there was an op-ed piece written by an Episcopal minister, John Danforth, the former Republican Senator from Missouri, titled ‘Onward, Moderate Christian Soldiers.’ It’s a gem. He said;
“It would be an oversimplification to say that America’s culture wars are now between people of faith and nonbelievers. People of faith are not of one mind, whether on specific issues like stem cell research and government intervention in the case of Terri Schiavo, or the more general issue of how religion relates to politics. In recent years, conservative Christians have presented themselves as representing the one authentic Christian perspective on politics. With due respect for our conservative friends, equally devout Christians come to very different conclusions…
“For us (moderates) the only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves…
“We think that efforts to haul references of God into the public square, into schools and courthouses, are far more apt to divide Americans than to advance faith…
“We strongly support the separation of church and state…
“In the decade since I left the Senate, American politics has been characterized by two phenomena: the increased activism of the Christian right, especially in the Republican Party, and the collapse of bipartisan collegiality. I do not think it is a stretch to suggest a relationship between the two. To assert that I am on God’s side and you are not, that I know God’s will and you do not, and that I will use the power of government to advance my understanding of God’s kingdom is certain to produce hostility.”
I’ll simply say ‘amen’ to Rev. Danforth’s sentiments.
The culture war is going to continue; we should not be silenced. We must not allow ourselves to be intimidated by those who say it’s unpatriotic to criticize our government’s policies at home or abroad. We need to find ways to serve as moderators, to bring some balance into the debate as we live out our faith.
Second Reading: Letter to Car Talk From Gregory Paul Engel
Dear Tom and Ray;
I’ve listened to your show for a while now. I must say, I was a lot like you guys. Carefree. Blabbed a lot. This was before my life took a tragic turn. A turn which, I sense, both of you are on the verge of taking. There is no help for me, unfortunately. But perhaps my story will help prevent you from falling into the abyss that I have been thrown.
It started out innocently enough. I began to think at parties now and then to loosen up. Inevitably though, one thought led to another, and soon I was more than just a social thinker.
I began to think alone -“to relax,” I told myself – but I knew it wasn’t true. Thinking became more and more important to me, and finally I was thinking all the time.
I began to think on the job. I knew that thinking and employment don’t mix, but I couldn’t stop myself.
I began to avoid friends at lunch time so I could read Thoreau and Kafka. I would return to the office dizzied and confused, asking, “What is it exactly we are doing here?”
Things weren’t going so great at home either. One evening I had turned off the TV and asked my wife about the meaning of life. She spent that night at her mother’s.
I soon had a reputation as a heavy thinker. One day the boss called me in. He said, “Greg, I like you, and it hurts me to say this, but your thinking has become a real problem. If you don’t stop thinking on the job, you’ll have to find another job.” This gave me a lot to think about.
I came home early after my conversation with the boss. “Honey,” I confessed, “I’ve been thinking…” “I know you’ve been thinking,” she said, “and I want a divorce!” “But Honey, surely it’s not that serious.” “It is serious,” she said, lower lip aquiver. “You think as much as college professors, and college professors don’t make any money, so if you keep on thinking we won’t have any money!”
“That’s a faulty syllogism,” I said impatiently, and she began to cry. I’d had enough. “I’m going to the library,” I snarled as I stomped out the door.
I headed for the library, in the mood for some Nietzsche, with NPR on the radio. I roared into the parking lot and ran up to the big glass doors…they didn’t open. The library was closed.
To this day, I believe that a Higher Power was looking out for me that night.
As I sank to the ground clawing at the unfeeling glass, whimpering for Zarathustra, a poster caught my eye. “Friend, is heavy thinking ruining your life?” it asked. You probably recognize that line. It comes from the standard Thinker’s Anonymous poster. Which is why I am what I am today: a recovering thinker. I never miss a TA meeting. At each meeting we watch a non-educational video; last week it was “Porky’s.” Then we share experiences about how we avoided thinking since the last meeting.
I still have my job, and things are a lot better at home. Life just seemed…easier, somehow, as soon as I stopped thinking.
An integral part of my recovery has been your show. I regret, however, that your show has occasionally caused me to have a thought. Sometimes even two. I have found myself wanting to ask my car mechanic…to ask him…questions! Yes, questions–a sure sign of the presence of thinking. But I have work to do. I regret that unless you stop answering callers questions in meaningful ways, I will be forced to discontinue my participation in your, until recently, completely mediocre show.
I’d be glad to take you to a TA meeting, when you’re ready. Good luck,