Gathering on the lawn:
Welcome home! Whether this is the first time you’ve come to the Unitarian Church in Westport, or the first service of re-dedication; or you’ve been here for decades…it’s a new beginning.
We’re here to re-dedicate ourselves to the purposes, both stated in our covenant and constitution, and those purposes that are assumed…the deeper personal purposes: to heal old wounds, to renew strength after feeling drained, to rethink the emerging meanings of your life, to strengthen family life and personal relationships, to nurture the spirit…to learn how to stop the fear, especially in this age when fear is stressed and even used for political purposes.
We begin this new year with some salted staff as well as some brand new staff:
Ed Thompson, our Minister of Music and our dean is generously salted and he’s in fine tune and spirit.
Margie Allen, our Associate Minister has been lightly salted, as she begins her second year with eyes wide open, eager to continue the projects she got started with last year.
David Vita enters his third year as Director of Social Justice, having survived his honeymoon year then his settling in year, as he challenged us to live up to our responsibility to insert ourselves into the world, and all the while he has been inserting himself into hearts. His beard is salt and peppered!
Jamie Forbes is more sugar than salt–a familiar face in a newly created position of Youth Outreach Director; continuing to work with our young people, helping them to feel a sense of responsibility to give something back to the world – a lesson we hope they will carry for the rest of their lives.
Perry Montrose is salt-free, so far. He’s our newly-minted Director of Religious Education, diving into an expanding pool of children, working with teachers and other volunteers to carry on a strong R. E. program – getting started with a lot of help from Jamie.
Jason Kiska is our new Youth Group Coordinator, soon to be salted by working with the high school youth group, and helping to create programs in addition to the youth group, both to expand the programming of the youth group and to provide activities for youth who aren’t involved in the youth group.
Debra Haffner is our Endorsed Community Minister; she’s Executive Director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality Justice and Healing; she serves our congregation and ministers in a supportive and advisory role while we support the important work she does in the world, about which we’re entitled to take a certain amount of pride even though we don’t pay her salary! She writes salty books!
Our congregation began in 1949 as a Unitarian Fellowship—a small, all volunteer group, with no minister, no staff, no meeting place, but with big aspirations. As I thought about introducing our staff today, I couldn’t help but reflect on what that group of pioneers would think to see the growth of the tree they planted back then; and I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of appreciation for them and for those who followed, who built this beautiful, multi-purpose building so that we could have a religious community that suits our needs and a place to which we come home and feel at home not only in the building, and with this wonderful group of people, but to feel a sense of being at home with ourselves, in the depths of our hearts.
This is our homecoming celebration and re-dedication; as to help us think about the many purposes to which we put this place and this staff and all the volunteers, we distribute some of the sacred symbols…members of the staff will help with the distribution as I read the list; those carrying our symbols will lead us into the sanctuary for our service.
Opening Words: We’re here to celebrate this place and the freedom it represents, and the responsibility that is inherent in freedom. Without responsible, disciplined, structure there can be no freedom—there’s only chaos.
We maximize the freedom aspect of our faith, so sometimes we neglect and even deny the aspect of responsibility.
We’ve inherited the structure – this beautiful structure — but in a more general sense, we’ve inherited the structure of this faith. It comes to us from the struggles and sacrifice of pioneers of faith, over thousands of years of human evolution, from the primitive times of our earliest ancestors, through the development of language and the refinement of science and the arts.
Now it’s our turn to carry on, to live a good, decent life, enjoying the fruits of our own labor, while appreciating our inheritance.
As we sing the hymn, rank by rank, we’re reminded that we need one another so we can feel the comfort of comrades who are here with us today, and remember those who have come before us but who are no longer here. We’ll sing: ‘honored days and names we reckon.’
And we’ll sing: ‘guard we well the crown they won; what they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes and seal them true.’
Reading: I Am Running into a New Year by Lucille Clifton
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty six and thirty six
even thirty six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
“The Human Dilemma”
Homecoming, September 9, 2007
We have a dilemma: here we are, conscious beings who realize that we are involved in a long evolutionary chain, in a universe that is, as far as we can tell, unconscious.
In the depths of our minds we struggle with the natural questions: ‘how did we get here, and why are we here.’
Relief comes when we stop asking and engage ourselves in the process of living out our mortal lives, aware that one day we will no longer be here, and without a satisfactory answer to the ultimate mystery of existence.
The dilemma is that we find ourselves in this human situation that seems to require a choice between equally unfavorable, or mutually exclusive options: to believe things our minds tell us are impossible, or not to believe and to feel bereft of meaning.
The soon-to-be-published private journals and personal letters of Mother Teresa provide a particularly poignant example of a very public person’s struggle with this human dilemma.
The book is titled: Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. The big story is that she felt herself to be in the dark for most of her adult life, much of which she lived under the probing spotlight of a saintly believer.
The subtitle, Come Be My Light, is what she said was her ‘call to ministry,’ which she believed, at the time, (when she was thirty six) came literally, and directly as a revelation from Jesus. “It will be hard to let go of what I told myself about myself when I was 16 and 26 and 36, even 36!”)
Previews of the book reveal Mother Teresa’s decades of despair, the spiritual darkness in which she lived, but which she kept hidden from the eye of all that public scrutiny.
The journals and letters are seen as another, very human kind of ‘revelation,’ the dark night of the soul is revealed; the truth about her inner struggle and the human dilemma that is universal is revealed.
Her expressions of doubt and despair are a shocking, painful surprise to millions of true believers who watched and admired her ministry.
On the other hand, her expressions of doubt and despair are a welcome revelation to recovering Catholics and former born-again Christians—a new kind of confirmation that they’re not alone in their struggle with old beliefs. Anti-believers are, of course, delighted by what they see as a prime example of exposing religious hypocrisy.
Newsweek referred to the collection of her writings as ‘scrawled, desperate documents that came to light as part of the investigation into her suitability for sainthood.’
She wrote: “So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them—because of the blasphemy—If there be God—please forgive me—When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.—I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”
She wrote: “In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me – of God not being God – of God not existing.”
Some thoughtful theologians suggest that her deep doubts–her sense of being abandoned by God—are, paradoxically, the clearest indication of her spiritual depth and authenticity. They say those doubts helped her to be in deeper spiritual sympathy with all who feel abandoned by God; that her dark night of the soul helped her to understand the inner workings of the poorest of the poor, who feel abandoned not only by God, but abandoned by a cruel, heartless economic and social system that condemned them to a living hell.
They say that her doubts and despair allowed her to identify with, in a more compassionate way, the people she served because she understood what it feels like to be abandoned; she understood the agony behind the cry of her Christ on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Like the human, down-to-earth Jesus, she found her meaning and purpose in service to suffering humanity, which led her to create the Missionaries of Charity, for which she was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize.
I’ll be interested to read the book; I’ll be interested to see if she reveals the contradiction of being rewarded for selfless service, the contradiction that those of us in ministry become aware of and must struggle with: we’re here to serve, not to be seen as saints, but humble servants.
Being told how good we are for doing the work we’re called to do feels like a contradiction, but it’s very seductive. Mother Teresa was accused of using those she served for her own inner, conflicted needs.
I assume she found a depth of meaning in her service to the poorest of the poor, the neglected and despised of the earth, who Jesus referred to as ‘the least of these,’ when he said, “As you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
Each of us is intimately and intricately involved in an evolutionary process; we experience the loss of our old beliefs and ideas about ourselves, as the poet said. Most of us we can say, with Paul in his letter to the people in Corinth: ‘when I was a child I spoke as a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, but when I became an adult I gave up my childish ways.’
Many who walk through the doors of this sanctuary feel that sense of evolution by taking responsibility for our inner life, realizing that change is inevitable, being encouraged to continue to grow, not expecting someone to give us the answers, being willing to embrace the questions and the endless quest that is built into the fullness of life.
Many of us begin by turning our back on old beliefs, former religious systems in which we were raised, but we often end up realizing the depth of meaning in many of those old theologies and mythologies which we can only understand when we look at them from the distance of time, years, experience…life.
In his book Without Apology, Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies writes, “We are the consummation of thousands of years of religious history… we have stripped off superstition and…tyranny.” I don’t think he’s referring to Unitarians as much as he is referring to enlightened humanity.
Mother Teresa struggled with what she believed was her heresy—that struggle was made all the more painful by the praise, living a lie, which happens to so many who get caught up in the spotlight of public scrutiny. It happens to religious leaders who have been taught, and then teach things impossible to continue to believe when you are ‘no longer a child.’ If you are to be free, you can grow and mature in your spiritual life.
There’s a wonderful anecdote about Emerson who, in the middle of a sermon he was delivering at Follen Church in Lexington, paused, and said, “I no longer believe the previous statement.” Preaching, like a good conversation, is, in part, the process by which we look at what we think and believe by hearing ourselves ‘say it out loud.’
Mother Teresa couldn’t say things ‘out loud,’ so she suffered quietly and even secretly; but she did make use of ‘confessors.’ She revealed her ‘dark night’ to several of them over the decades, saying, among other things, that the praise she got for her service to suffering humanity was empty or even worse—a sham.
She wanted the revelations in her journals and letters to be destroyed after her death, so as to avoid calling attention to herself, she said. I’m glad they were preserved and I look forward to reading them, not to bring her down but to bolster those of us who reveal our doubts, and who find support in building a faith that does not require final answers, a faith that is sustained without superstition, a spiritual life that does not demand that we give up our rational minds, a faith that dares to be free, that throws off the tyranny that tells us to say we believe things we’ve long since stopped believing.
With Lucille Clifton, we’re running into a new year. Like Mother Teresa we know that ‘it will be hard to let go of what we told ourselves about ourselves when we were 16 and 26 and 36—even 36…the precise age Mother Teresa was when she believed Jesus spoke to her and said ‘come be my light,’ and further instructed her to go and serve the poorest of the poor. That’s what she told herself, but later came to doubt.
As an innocent little girl named Agnes, she was told she was a sinner simply for being human; that she inherited sin from Adam and Eve, who, she was told, were actual people who lived on the earth; she was told that Jesus died for her sins.
She never shook off that terrible accusation; she could never free herself from that tormenting idea that she wasn’t worthy, in spite of her devoted service to the poor.
We want to teach our children something different, and have it be age appropriate so they can begin by seeing God as ‘goodness,’ and grow to see God in the Natural world, and feel loved…feel God’s love as it comes to them from loving, caring parents and others who love them and encourage them in their growth and development.
We want our children to respect themselves and one another and to see God revealed in every act of kindness and love. After all, the Bible says, “God is love.” (1 John 4)
We want our children to be able to be able to let go of things they told themselves about themselves when they were three years old, and 6 and 16…and 36, even 36!
We want our children to be encouraged to question even while they learn to respect the religious ideas they hear around them, and to be able to set limits on their tolerance when confronted by religious ideas that lead people to kill in the name of God; religious ideas that divide families; or claim that God loves only the true believers and sends everyone else to some man-made hell. There’s a limit to tolerance.
We want our children to have the strength to change, to let go of old ideas when necessary–the strength to embrace the mystery and accept, with a sincere humility, the limits of our human knowing.
We want our children to see that they are living in the midst of a miracle, participating in it, and to assume some sense of responsibility for the fate of the earth.
Mother Teresa got stuck in an impossible theology.
Emerson said: “That which shows God in me fortifies me; that which shows God out of me makes me a wart or a wen, there is no longer a necessary reason for my being.”
Mother Teresa’s idea of God didn’t evolve. She was told that God was outside of her, so she came to feel like ‘a wart or a wen.’
May we each find ways to grow in our inner, spiritual lives and to contribute to the life of this religious community, taking what we need and finding ways to give back what we’re able.