©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
“Love is patient; love is kind…[it] rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (1 Cor. 13: 4, 7-8).” These words were written by an early Christian minister to a very new church in the decades after Jesus’ death, in an effort to help them in their new life as a community together. They were written 2,000 years ago, but they have endured, and have become a part of the Christian scripture read at countless weddings. They were a comfort to the people who received that letter. They have spiritual weight and meaning even today, for they talk to us of the meaning of love.
Our reading this morning was from the book Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Maine. At the time she wrote the book, she was the chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, and her work with them, as well as her husband’s death, make up the subject matter of the book. As chaplain to the Maine Warden Service, she went with the Wardens on search and rescue missions in the woods, available to offer comfort both to the Wardens and to the families of those missing or found injured or dead. Braestrup is a Unitarian Universalist. Most of the people she ministered to were Roman Catholic. She needed to find language that was true to her theology but would still offer comfort to those she served.
She was praying with one man whose sister, overwhelmed by a life of clinical depression made worse after the birth of her child, took her own life in the Maine woods. She assures the man that God will love and accept his sister into heaven no matter how she died, that God does not have the same prejudice against mental illness that befalls us humans. Then she holds the man’s hands in her own, and begins to pray the 23rd Psalm: “Love is my shepherd, I shall not want. Love makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside cool waters; Love restores my soul. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for Love is with me (113).”
Hear the difference?
How many of you grew up with a God who was punishing and angry? How many of you saw in God the worst of what you saw in your parents: frustration, anger, authority for authority’s sake? It wasn’t the God I knew as a child, but that was the God of plenty of my friends. God takes sides, there are rules, you’d better not break the rules or you’ll go to hell. A friend of mine from high school told me recently that she turned toward a more intentional relationship with Christ because as a teenager, the man who would become her husband broke down in tears, expressing his fear that she, as a once-born Christian, would go to hell. That’s a lot of fear and weight coming through an understanding of God. It’s a lot of anxiety that’s God’s rules are probably like our rules, only worse.
So for today, let’s set aside the word “God.” At other times, I’ve preached about how we religious liberals should reclaim that powerful word and help open up its meaning, help reclaim it from proponents of narrowness and hate. But today, let’s leave it be. What if we embrace the word “love”? Love is patient. It’s not in any hurry. It doesn’t demand that you change who you are or that you hurry on your spiritual journey. Love is always with you, waiting, helping. It is something you can settle into and rely on. Love is kind. It does not judge you, or criticize you. It meets you where you are.
I want to tell some stories about this kind of love between people. Not erotic love, which binds lovers together, and has its own wonders and meaning. But divine love–the kind of love the Greeks called agape–the kind of love the writer meant when he wrote, “Love rejoices in the truth.” There is a story from the Buddhist Lotus Sutra about this kind of love between a father and a son.
A young man left his father and ran away. For long he dwelt in other countries, for ten, or twenty, or fifty years. The older he grew, the more needy he became. Wandering in all directions to seek clothing and food, he unexpectedly approached his native country. The father had searched for his son all those years in vain and meanwhile had settled in a certain city. His home became very rich; his goods and treasures were fabulous.
At this time, the poor son, wandering through village after village and passing through countries and cities, at last reached the city where his father had settled. His father had longed to see him, but did not know where to look for him. The father had accumulated much wealth over his long life, but sorrowed that he had no one to share it with, for his son was his only child. He was overjoyed when he saw his son, from afar, back in the city of his birth.
His father, beholding the son, was struck with compassion for him. One day he saw at a distance, through the window, his son’s figure, haggard and drawn, lean and sorrowful, filthy with dirt and dust. He took off his strings of jewels, his soft attire, and put on a coarse, torn and dirty garment, smeared his body with dust, took a basket in his right hand. By such means he got near to his son, to whom he afterwards said, “Ay, my man, you stay and work here, do not leave again. I will increase your wages, give whatever you need, bowls, rice, wheat-flour, salt, vinegar, and so on. Have no hesitation; besides there is an old servant whom you can get if you need him. I am old and advanced in years, but you are young and vigorous; all the time you have been working, you have never been deceitful, lazy, angry or grumbling.”
Then the father became ill and, knowing that he would die soon. Seeing that his own end was approaching, he commanded his son to come, and gathered all his relatives, the kings, priests, warriors, and citizens. When they were all assembled, he addressed them saying, “Now, gentlemen, this is my son, begotten by me. It is over fifty years since he left me and ran away to endure loneliness and misery. At that time I sought him sorrowfully. Suddenly I met him in this place and regained him. This is really my son and I am really his father. Now all the wealth which I possess belongs entirely to my son, and all my previous disbursements and receipts are known by this son.” When the poor son heard these words of his father, great was his joy (quoted in Valea).
In this story, the father, knowing that the son will not return to him as he is, puts on the clothes and manner of a laborer and joins his son in the trash heap. He is willing to give up all the benefits of the wealth he has accumulated and go do one of the worst jobs alongside his son, in order to be with him, in order to spend time with him, in order to rebuild trust and loving friendship between them. A central image in Buddhism is the love a mother bears for her child, even to the point of laying down her own life for her child, and invites each of us to love our fellow beings in this way. Here we have a father who will put aside all his worldly possessions and accomplishments in order to be with his son. There have been moments when we knew this kind of love. We have felt it for our children. There were moments when those who cared for us knew this kind of love for us. It is the best of what we can imagine between human beings.
“Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” The spiritual story that comes to my mind when I think of this love which is hopeful, faithful and enduring is the Jewish story of Ruth and Naomi.
Ruth and Orpah were two women married to two men who were brothers, and the men’s mother was Naomi. Now both men took ill and died, and Naomi saw that the right thing for her to do was to make sure that her daughters-in-law, both childless, got back to their own people safely. She journeyed with them as far as Orpah’s home, and there they all said their goodbyes to her, and cried and hugged, and sent Orpah back to her family.
But when it came time to continue the journey, Ruth turned to Naomi and said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die–there will I be buried. May even death not part me from you (Ruth 1:16-17)!”
Ruth and Naomi did return to Naomi’s people in Judah, and continued their life as a family together. Ruth remarried, and Naomi remained with her. Their love for each other carried them through poverty and homelessness. Their love endured at a time when two women alone would have had no standing in society whatsoever. Their love hoped for a better future, believed in the power of partnership over the power of tradition, and endured many trials.
These human stories, told through human imaginations and human longing for wholeness, describe our greatest hope for our lives together. So if these are the best hopes and longings we have of human beings, they can also be the best hopes we have for that which is highest, that which grounds us, and that which is created among us when we gather together. We all have our different names for that which is highest and that which is grounding. But surely one name can be “Love.” The love of individual humans can fail us. But our imagining of the possibilities of love, our vision of the best of love, this can sustain us and carry us through.
In our reading this morning, the Unitarian Universalist teenager pointed out that if our religious traditions teach love, then love trumps all. Love is greater than heaven and hell, and it’s greater than the differences in faith which keep us apart. It’s greater than the time and distance and hurt between an estranged father and son, and it’s greater than the threat of poverty and homelessness in our society. We know that we humans can’t always live up to this kind of love, but we can imagine it, and it we can imagine it, we can believe in it and strive toward it. Love is patient. It will wait for us. Love is kind. It is with us. Love rejoices in the truth. It is with us as we seek after righteousness. Love bears all things. We bear our burdens more lightly. Love believes all things. Differences in belief will not keep us apart. Love hopes all things. We can see a better tomorrow. Love endures all things. We are not alone in the hard times. Love never ends. Love is with us always.
Please join me in prayer.
In this moment of quiet, we turn our hearts and our beings toward the source of Love in the universe. Let us be still and feel all the love we have been given and are given today. Let us feel the love from our family, from our friends, from the kindness of strangers, and from all who make compassion their lives’ work. Let this love become part of our breath and part of our beings.
In this moment of quiet, help us feel the love in our own hearts. Let us feel love for those we like and those we have disagreed with. Help our compassion expand toward all living creatures, opening up to experience their sacred nature. Help us see where in our lives there is fertile soil for the seeds of love to grow and bloom.
Our hearts and minds turn to that Love which is greater than our own selves, which is the sum of compassion in the universe. Help us imagine a Love which is as great, as wide, and as strong as our world needs it to be. Amen.
All Biblical quotations (unless otherwise noted) are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Braestrup, Kate. Here If You Need Me: A True Story. Boston: Little, Brown, 2007.
Valea, Ernest. “The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Christianity and Buddhism.” A Comparative Analysis of the Major World Religions from a Christian Perspective. Ed. Ernest Valea. Accessed 2 Dec. 2011. http://www.comparativereligion.com/prodigal.html.
By the Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
This summer, Unitarian Universalists from all over the country, including friends of mine among lay leaders and ministers, traveled to Phoenix, Arizona to protest Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, commonly known as Arizona SB1070. They arrived in late July, planning for a day of resistance to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s planned enforcement of the new law. SB1070, as written, would require Arizona state and local police to ask after the legal status of people they suspected of being in the United States illegally. If police had any legal encounter with a person in Arizona, and then suspected that person might not have proper documentation, they were to ask for identification and proof of legal status. Citizens were empowered to sue police departments if officers did not enforce the law. Police were required to arrest anyone who could not produce proof of legal status.
In Phoenix, where Sheriff Arpaio has taken on enforcing illegal immigration as a personal mission, he and his department planned a day of rigorous enforcement of the new law when it came into effect on July 29. Immigrants’ rights groups, Latino and Latina rights groups and progressive allies came together to coordinate a Day of Noncompliance in response. This is what Unitarian Universalists traveled to Arizona to join. They received training in non-violent resistance. They had planned to be allies and witnesses with brown-skinned Arizonans, challenging the authority of the police to question them.
As it happened, a United States federal court stayed many of SB1070’s most controversial components on July 28. The police could no longer demand documentation from anyone on the street, and citizens could not take the police to court if they failed to do this. Still, the coalition of progressive groups went ahead with their protest. Some friends of mine, joining others including the Rev. Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, joined hands outside the Phoenix jail, blocking the door. They sang songs of protest and peace. They were arrested. Another friend of mine, the Rev. Colin Bossen, who is the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, occupied a busy corner in Phoenix with other protestors committing civil disobedience. He, too, was arrested, and has written about his experiences in Sheriff Arpaio’s jail.
Colin writes that the arresting officer, from the Phoenix Police Department, apologized to him for his arrest. The officer gave Colin time to hand his personal belongings to a friend and did not cuff him tightly. Colin wonders how much of his “good” treatment was because he is a white member of the clergy (he was wearing a clerical collar to identify himself) and that the media were present (Bossen).
Another friend, the Rev. Melissa Carville-Ziemer, who serves the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent, Ohio, writes about the brutality she saw the Sheriff’s department show to a Latino protestor (a man who was protesting, but not committing any act of civil disobedience). This man was standing in on a sidewalk, chanting, when police ordered the area cleared. Melissa saw that before he had a chance to comply with the deputies’ orders, they grabbed him and moved him toward the jail. He yelled, “I am not resisting arrest!” The deputies insisted he was. Once they had him inside the jail, Melissa writes, “they threw him to the ground and kicked him repeatedly in the ribs while one of the officers yelled racial epithets at him (Carville-Ziemer).” Perhaps Colin’s suspicion that he was treated well because he is white and holds a position of privilege as a member of the clergy was correct. Melissa also reports that she was treated very respectfully by the Phoenix Police Department. Both they and others reported that the local police were much more considerate, professional, polite and–most importantly–law-abiding than the Sheriff’s department officers.
Once in the jail, the protestors were processed with the general population, most of whom were in jail for being drunk and disorderly. Colin writes that there were no windows and no clocks in the jail, so prisoners never knew what time it was. There were benches in the holding cells, but they were divided every two feet by metal bars, so it was impossible to lie down except on the floor. Each cell had a toilet in the middle of the cell; there was no privacy while using it. Dinner consisted of sugary peanut butter, two smooth white rolls, Kool-Aid, cookies and an old orange. When Sheriff Arpaio came to meet the prisoners, Colin writes,
He was able to engage one of the older Unitarian Universalist men in some polite political banter. The subtext of that conversation was clear enough. It was, “Hey, white dude why are you in jail here for all these Mexicans? Can’t you see that you and I have more in common than you have in common with those Mexicans?”…Arpaio is one of these people whose ego fills whatever room he enters. It is sickening feeling to be in his presence and it was clear that he came to us to gloat. It made him feel powerful to have us in his grasp. It was an opportunity for him to try and intimidate us (Bossen).
Colin spent that night in the jail, sharing a small cell with a Latino activist named Tupac Enrique, the coordinator for Tonnatiera. Enrique made the point that the current dispute over illegal immigrants at the Mexico-Arizona border is just the latest battle in a long war between the authority of the United States and the indigenous peoples of the Americas. During the Mexican War of 1846 to 1848, Mexico was ultimately forced to cede what is now New Mexico and California to the United States. It also accepted the loss of Texas, which the U.S. had annexed in 1845, and accepted the Rio Grande as its north-western border (“Mexican-American”). At this same time, the United States was fighting wars against the Indian throughout the west of the North American continent, seeking to expand the United States’ influence and control all the way to the Pacific.
We tend to think of North American Indians and Mexicans as two separate groups, but they have only been separated by the artificial lines of war and colonization. The native peoples of our continent, especially the native peoples living in what are now Arizona, New Mexico and California, are one people. The Mexican War placed an artificial boundary in the midst of families and communities. The attempted destruction of those families and communities is continuing today.
My friends, and all the other Unitarian Universalists who were arrested as they protested Arizona SB1070, were released from prison the following day. They met with their lawyers and were able to return home. Unless they contest the charges against them, they will likely only have to pay a fine. Unlike them, the Latinos and Latinas living in the Southwest continue to live under the thumb of a frightened and xenophobic culture.
It’s ironic that during the recent recession, and current period of low employment, migration northward from Mexico has slowed dramatically. In the early 2000s, an average of 850,000 migrants crossed the border illegally each year. Between 2007 and 2009, the annual average was 300,000. In addition, analysts believe many illegal aliens already in the United States may have returned to their countries of origin, although there is no way to quantify this perception (Olson). Yet just at this moment of slowed migration, white America’s furor over illegal immigration has reached its highest pitch.
Just like our culture’s prejudice against Muslim-Americans or Middle Eastern men, we have a prejudice against people with brown skin, who may be of Mexican origin. The Arizona law clearly assumes that any brown-skinned person may be an illegal immigrant. Illegal immigrants die in the desert as they try to make their way north, and it is illegal in Arizona for anyone to help those immigrants in danger or to leave food or supplies for them. The Obama administration deported more than 392,000 illegal aliens last year, the majority of whom had broken some other law in addition to entering the U.S. illegally (Carroll). The Obama administration deported more than 80,000 more illegal aliens than the Bush administration did during its last year in office. Still, the cry goes up from some communities in the Southwest that the federal government is not enforcing its immigration laws.
Two and three generations ago, the government did not have to enforce immigration laws, because the borders of our country were open. Of course, all Americans of European, Asian or African ancestry come from immigrant stock. We are a nation of immigrants. My own great-grandparents emigrated as children from northern Italy. At the time they came, 1898, the borders were effectively open. Immigration and a path to citizenship were open to all white Europeans.
Alarmed that the waves of new immigrants were mostly southern and eastern Europeans, whose cultures and languages were different from the northern Europeans who had made up most immigrant groups in the nineteenth century, the United States passed the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924. These acts introduced quotas for all European immigrants and banned Asian immigrants altogether. Quotas for immigrants from Germany, Great Britain and Ireland were higher than quotas for Italy and Eastern Europe. In the decade from 1900 to 1910, 200,000 Italians immigrated annually. After 1924, the number dropped to 4,000 (”Immigration“). My great-great-grandparents actually came to the U.S., made some money, and then moved back to Italy. Once back, my great-great-grandmother realized that she had lost her taste for village life, and the family emigrated once again, settling in Albany, New York.
I would guess that many of us here share a story like my great-grandfather’s. Our families–perhaps even we ourselves–came to America to pursue a new life and new opportunities. America provided work opportunities. It provided education opportunities for one’s children. My grandfather, the son of an Italian immigrant tailor, was able to go to college and eventually graduate school in chemistry, a life that would never have been available to him growing up in an Italian village.
Far from taking jobs from U.S. citizens, immigrants help grow our economy and our culture. In fact, they are often the first victims of recession, fleeing–as we suspect hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have done–back to their home countries when work dries up. Our country has become richer with immigration. The birthrate in the United States is flat–we have babies at the replacement rate. Our population has grown, and our economy has grown, because of immigrants. Not just that, but our culture becomes richer, too. In cities in the United States we can experience cuisine, culture and languages from all over the world. We are better off for that diversity.
The truth is, it’s not just that we should oppose draconian and probably unconstitutional laws like Arizona’s. SB1070 does everything it can to sink the teeth of local law enforcement into current U.S. immigration law. The uproar over SB1070 leads to another truth: U.S. immigration law is unjust and unfair. It is harder for brown-skinned immigrants to come to America than it is for white-skinned immigrants. For people from certain countries, it is nearly impossible. Enforcement of the current laws separates families and encourages deadly traverses across the desert bordering the Rio Grande. It encourages illegal residents in America to avoid anything run by the government, from driving tests to parent-teacher conferences. Having brown-skinned illegal immigrants as a scapegoat keeps the minds of working-class white Americans conveniently unfocused on their own loss of job opportunities and real income. “Mexicans took our jobs” is an illusion which covers up the truth: “Rich white people took our jobs.” If Arizona’s law looks ugly and racist, it is only reflecting certain directions in American life, directions which lead to a virulent nationalism and fear of the other.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to push ourselves, always, to be more open, more loving and less fearful of the other. We affirm that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and we hope for the day when all the world’s peoples live as one. Our attitude toward someone different from us is curiosity and respect, not fear and hate. We remember that our families, too, were once wayfarers looking for a better life. We ourselves have experienced the bitterness of exile, and the joy of finding home in a new land. We stand ready to welcome all who seek honest work and a better life in our great country.
Bossen, Colin. “An Arizona Chronology.” The Latest Form of Infidelity. 2 Aug. 2010. Accessed 22 Oct. 2010. http://infidelity.blogsome.com/2010/08/02/an-arizona-chronology/#more-191
Carroll, Susan. “Obama administration touts record-setting deportation figures.” 6 Oct. 2010. The Houston Chronicle. The Chron. Accessed 23 Oct. 2010. http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7235311.html.
Carville-Ziemer, Melissa. “First Thoughts on Protest and Arrest in Arizona.” Standing on the Side of Love. 4 Aug. 2010. Unitarian Universalist Association. Accessed 22 Oct. 2010. http://www.standingonthesideoflove.org/blog/first-thoughts-on-protest-and-arrest-in-arizona-from-rev-melissa-carvill-ziemer-of-kent-ohio/
“Immigration Act of 1924.” Wikipedia. 1-6. 20 Oct. 2010. Accessed 23 Oct. 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_Act_of_1924.
“Mexican-American War.” Wikipedia. 1-11. 23 Oct. 2010. Accessed 23 Oct. 2010. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican%E2%80%93American_War.
Olson, David. “Mexican Immigrants See Signs of Recovery in U.S.” 23 Oct. 2010. The Chicago Sun-Times. Accessed 23 Oct. 2010. http://www.suntimes.com/news/nation/2829184,CST-NWS-mex24.article.
By the Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
Beginning in the 1850s, Weirs Beach became the most popular tourist destination spot in New England. Four express trains steamed in from Boston’s Union Station each day, discharging tourist families all summer long. They enjoyed the cool, country air; swims in the lakes; and they went to their churches on Sundays. By the turn of the twentieth century, Weirs Beach, long a sleepy agricultural town, had seen fifty years of summers bustling with tourists, railroads and resort living (Ames).
In the 1890s, these tourists had a new kind of religious experience at the Weirs. At first a few people gathered, and then more and more, to hear the legendary Universalist circuit preacher, Quillen Hamilton Shinn. For seven years, they gathered in the Weirs Universalist summer meeting to hear him preach. He spoke to them of a God who loved all human beings, even the sinful, even the proud. He recited the Bible from memory, telling the gathered people about the times and places when the Holy One had shown boundless love to human beings. As he did in Sebago Lake in New York; as he did in Saco, Maine; as he did in Ohio and Kentucky and throughout the South, Shinn planted the seed of Universalism in the American countryside (Miller).
Men and women who had no church home, or were Methodists or Congregationalists searching for something different in the Spirit, came to hear Shinn preach. They were drawn in by his reputation, and they stayed for the message they found there. They found a religion that believed in following a moral compass without the threat of eternal damnation. They found a religion set on temperance, on prison reform, on education, and on equal opportunities for all people. They found a religion that definitely preached God–it was not quite as theologically radical as the Unitarian church of the time–but preached a loving God, a parent to all.
Here in Plymouth, Universalism had made its debut in 1850, when the Rev. James Shephard opened a seminary in the Holmes Academy Building. In addition to running the seminary, and eventually buying Holmes Academy, Shephard preached Universalism to the townspeople of Plymouth. Although he was forced to close his school in 1853 and moved to Center Harbor in 1856, he had planted the seed of the church of an all-loving God in this area (Plymouth).
The Plymouth Universalists met in the old courthouse and were served by a number of preachers over the next twenty-five years. Some only preached in the summer months, when they were inclined to be in Plymouth on vacation anyway. The Plymouth Universalists got their next big injection of life when Quillen Shinn settled as the minister here in 1881 (Plymouth).
Shinn was more theologically conservative than the Universalist denomination as a whole. He believed in God and Jesus; he believed in the Bible; he believed we created our own suffering for our sins; and he believed in an all-loving God who would bring everyone into salvation. Socially, he was an enthusiastic supporter of temperance and prison reform, which were also goals of the national denomination. But he decried the Universalists’ move toward liberalism, thinking it took the church too close to the heathen Unitarians.
The Plymouth Universalists, to all appearances, welcomed Shinn and his theology–which just goes to show that some things have changed in Plymouth! Shinn stayed as minister for four years. Under his leadership, the Plymouth Universalists built their church home, the building that is now the sanctuary for the Church of the Holy Spirit on North Main Street. Shinn was an energetic and moving preacher, able to draw crowds wherever he went, but he was never one to be tied down to an institution. Once he had seen his congregation through the task of building a meetinghouse, he moved on to continue his missionary ministry. Over the next twenty or more years, the Universalists in Plymouth struggled to keep their doors open and retain a settled minister. Somewhere we have a postcard identifying the church building as the Universalist church in the 1930s.
Just a century before, when Universalism first emerged in America, it had been a radical religion. Even then, it had its roots in rural America. The first Universalist creed, the Winchester Profession of Faith, was adopted (as its name suggests) in Winchester, New Hampshire. At that time, in 1803, it was so scandalous to be a Universalist that women stayed away from local churches for fear of their reputations. Without the threat of hell, many conservative Christians believed, what would compel people to behave morally? They could see, as we still do today, that many sins and crimes go unpunished during a person’s lifetime. If there were no hell, the conservatives reasoned, then those wrong acts might go unpunished forever. It was not unlike being an atheist today. Universalists found themselves part of a tiny minority in the American religious landscape, trying to convince their neighbors that they were still good and upright people even though they didn’t believe in eternal damnation.
Over the years Universalism grew and changed. Its emphasis on the basic goodness of human beings and the loving nature of God brought them ever more into the realm of social justice and social change. It remained popular in rural areas and what was once the American frontier: Ohio and Kentucky, especially. The Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association tried many times over the years to merge. They recognized their mutual interest and shared values, even if their theologies were slightly different. Finally, in 1961, nearly fifty years ago, the two religious communities came together to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was a merger of necessity, for two of our country’s smaller religious associations to come together. But it was also a moment of faith in the future and hope for what could be accomplished together.
Universalism lasted in Plymouth until at least the 1930s, but by the modern era, the congregation had died. When religious liberals in 1980 decided they wanted a Unitarian Universalist home in the Plymouth area, there was no longer any remnant of that old Universalist church. Thirty years ago, a dozen or so people met in Ruth and Irv Macey’s living room to see about the possibility of starting a Unitarian Universalist gathering in the area. They might not have been meeting in a revival meeting in a wooded grove, and they might not have been waiting on the circuit riding preacher, but they were just as enthusiastic and committed to liberal religion in our area as their Universalist forebears had been. Eighteen people signed their names, in the membership book we still use, to found Starr King Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Eighteen people stepped into the unknown together, relying on their faith in the future: that they could continue the tradition of liberal religion, that they could create a place to rear their children according to their principles, which were the principles of reason, tolerance, justice and love.
In 1985, Arthur Vaeni came to serve Starr King Fellowship as its intern minister. Two years later, the congregation called him to be the permanent minister, first half-time and later full-time. Moving from internship to settled ministry was unorthodox then and now, but for this congregation, it worked. In the early 1990s, the congregation received a bequest of property. Starr King Fellowship, then meeting in rented spaces, sold that property and used the proceeds to buy the land we meet on today. Through a capital campaign, financing from the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the hard work of members and friends, the congregation built what is now the eastern part of this meetinghouse in 1994. This sanctuary was and remains the heart of the building. It opened into the foyer and a kitchenette through those doors. Downstairs, there was an office area, a large religious education area, and one classroom. An elevator had been planned but had to be put on hold because of cost concerns.
In 2006, our congregation began seriously planning for our expanded building. We drafted a strategic plan that focused especially on growth in membership and program strength, and prioritized what we needed in a new building. With a plan before us, we successfully raised more than $400,000 to pay off our old mortgage and build our addition. Then, just when energy was really high, we entered into a difficult period. The cost of our proposed addition turned out to be far out of our price range, in part because of the cost of steel, which was to be the framing material. We ended our church year in 2008 not knowing how we would move forward. The congregation seemed split evenly between going ahead with the larger addition, finishing what we could, or constructing a smaller addition which we could afford but which would not give us everything we needed.
Over the summer, the spirit worked in mysterious ways. The Governing Board planned a series of small group meetings to work through the impasse, and in the meantime, Stu White, our architect, reflected on the barrier of cost and especially on a letter from one longtime member and fellow architect. Stu offered us a revised plan. The new plan proposed wood construction instead of concrete and steel; a lower roof on the addition; and fewer changes to our original building. Excitement began to build again.
In the spring of 2009, we broke ground on this new addition we dedicate today. New donors and new creativity came into the community to continue to support the project, providing everything from paint to artistry, everything from a new sign to a new dishwasher for the new kitchen. I think now of how our children used to meet in an open area for Sunday school, squeezed in among daycare furniture; I think of how we used to gather for fellowship after the services–all of us–in the foyer, unable to move from one end of the room to the other; I think of how the Director of Religious Education’s workspace used to be a desk in a shared area that was also a sort of lost-and-found depository; I think of how wheelchair users used to be able to enter and use each floor of our building but not move between them without going outside and down the road; and I think: we did a good job building this new building, creating the space for ourselves and our children that we have needed for a long time.
This space is for us. But we also stand in the long tradition of liberal religion in central New Hampshire. We stand with Universalists in Weirs Beach, in West Rumney, and here in Plymouth. We stand hand in hand with those courageous Universalists who first gathered to hear the Rev. Shepherd preach in 1850. We stand with that congregation as it struggled to meet and hear the preaching of universal salvation through the 1860s and 70s. We stand with the congregation that, with Quillen Shinn’s leadership, built their first building only to part ways with their minister the following year. We stand with the eighteen men and women who gathered with their children to found a Unitarian Universalist congregation in 1980. We stand now with Unitarian Universalists all over the country who are celebrating almost fifty years of our association of congregations. And we stand with all those people who have yet to come through our doors, people hungry for liberal religion, people who now live far away or are not even yet born, who will come to know a religion of tolerance, love and respect because we are here.
Now that we have expanded our building, our next task is to fill it with our love, our energy, and our spiritual community. I wonder what awaits us, what new adventures we can begin now that we have a larger space. I invite you to dream big, and to let your dreams expand to fill this sacred space. Let us together continue to proclaim the good news of a universal love for all the people. Let us open our doors wide to welcome the world in.
Ames, Robert. “History.” Weirs Beach: Where Lake Winnepesauke Begins. Feb. 2008. Accessed 1 Oct. 2010. http://www.weirsbeach.com/topten/reason9.html.
Miller, Russell E. The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870-1970. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985.
Plymouth Historical Society. “The Universalist Church.” Accessed 1 Oct. 2010. http://www.plymouthnh-historicalsociety.org/MinistersandChurches/universalist_church.htm.
By The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
Dr. Mansoor Mirza is a physician at a hospital in Wilson, Wisconsin, a town of 3,200 souls. Dr. Mirza had lived in this small town for five years. He knew many of the people at the planning commission meeting that Tuesday night. He expected them, his patients and neighbors, to support him when he requested permission from the zoning board to build a mosque in a nearby village, on land he already owned. Instead, one person after another stood up to say that Islam was a religion of violence, that Muslims were using rural America to train jihadi soldiers, and that a mosque didn’t belong in their community. The board even asked Dr. Mirza if any military training would take place within the mosque. Dr. Mirza could barely control his grief and anger during the meeting (Ghosh 1).
This story was reported in Time Magazine at the end of August in their cover story, “Is America Islamophobic?” Now, I have been to planning board meetings and zoning board of adjustment meetings here in Plymouth where hateful things were said against erecting low-income housing in our town. Town meetings about how to use other people’s land do not bring out the best in people. But we seem to be at a point as a country where the worst is coming out in us. Since 2002, the number of Americans who believe Islam is more violent than other religions has hovered around 40% (Dart 14). Americans in general are too quick to conflate the terrorists who attacked New York, the Pentagon, and a flight of innocent people over Pennsylvania with all Muslims.
There is something in the human spirit that wants someone to hate. Imagine a time in the future when a Muslim person is a viable candidate for president. Imagine that this person, born in the United States, coming from a political family, gained his or her party’s nomination. Now imagine if a coalition of dozens of ministers representing many branches of Christianity, came together to publish a statement expressing their concerns about a Muslim candidate for president in the United States. Imagine they wrote something like this:
“We know that two-thirds of the area of [Afghanistan] has been “roped off” from [secular] activity and more than 200 [secular] schools in this territory have been closed by police. What effect, we wonder, would the election of a [Muslim] as President have upon governments which practice such suppression with the knowledge and cooperation of [Islamic states]? To ask Protestant and Jewish people to take a light view of this matter, or to disregard it entirely, is to be unrealistic. For us this is a matter of self-preservation (Protestants).”
I have to place our imaginary scenario in the future because it’s hard to imagine a Muslim being a viable candidate for president now. A statement like this, however–a statement like this feels like it fits right into America’s current political climate.
Well, this statement was published by the Protestants and Other Americans Untied for the Separation of Church and State–but it’s not contemporary. This was published by a group of Protestant ministers and luminaries, including Norman Vincent Peale, when John F. Kennedy was running for office. Replace “Afghanistan” with “Columbia”; replace “secular” with “Protestant”; replace “Muslim” with “Catholic” and replace “Islamic states” with “the Vatican,” and you would be hearing a quotation from the group’s statement issued in September of 1960. We might have learned from this moment of anti-Catholic fervor in our country’s history that our fears were unfounded (since Kennedy did not, in fact, usher in Vatican control of the United States). Instead, we are repeating our fears and hatred with a new enemy fifty years later.
There is something in the human spirit that wants someone to hate. It was there in Jesus’ time. When Jesus starts debating with a Torah scholar in Luke’s gospel, he is not, for once, arguing with or trying to upset another Jewish leader. He and his companion are trying to understand what the Torah means. In many Jewish traditions of the time, the Torah was understood to require thought, understanding and debate in order to truly come alive. These traditions were the exact opposite of fundamentalism. They believed that debate made the Torah relevant in contemporary life. Jesus’ companion asks, “Who is my neighbor?” This is a serious question. At the time, the Hebrew word for “neighbor,” rea, was not widely understood to mean “anyone” and certainly not “someone different from me.” “Neighbor” was understood to mean a close friend, a coworker or close companion. Your neighbor was someone from your same ethnic and religious group (Young 100).
In response to this question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells a story. A Jewish man is beaten, robbed and left by the side of the Jericho road. Jewish religious leaders see him lying there and pass him by. Finally, a Samaritan, technically still Jewish but so different that the two sects had nothing to do with each other, stops and helps the man. Not only does he help, he goes over the top–taking the man to an inn, leaving money for his care, and seeing to it that he will recover. Jesus asks, “Who is the good neighbor?” The Torah scholar answers, “The man who helped.”
Martin Luther King gave more meaning to the story when he retold it in his last public address, “I See the Promised Land,” given the night before he was assassinated (King 284). He reminds us that the Jericho road is steep, twisty and treacherous. Thieves would wait around a bend and ambush travelers. King shows sympathy for the two who passed by on the other side: they did not want to become victims themselves. In fact, they may have thought that the man lying in the ditch was part of a con, that he was not actually hurt, and that his accomplices would attack them as soon as they stopped to help. King says that these men asked themselves a very reasonable question: “What will happen to me if I help?” The Samaritan, on the other hand, asked a different question: “What will happen to him if I don’t?”
There is a third question to ask: “What will happen to me if I don’t help?” When we pass by human suffering on the other side, what happens to our own souls? We allow a slow death to creep in, to harden our hearts and make us care less for our fellow human beings. We must ask ourselves these questions about our Muslim neighbors in America today. We must ask “What will happen to them if I don’t help?” and we must ask “What will happen to me if I don’t help?” We are called upon to stand up for the right of Muslims in America to gather peaceably and worship in freedom, just like any other ethnic or religious group.
When we were just beginning the process of planning to raise the funds to expand our building–and this is a good time to remind everyone that we are dedicating our meetinghouse addition in a special service this afternoon at 3 p.m., and I hope you all can come–when we had our first meeting with a consultant from the Unitarian Universalist Association, she offered a way for us to think about the three sources of funding for our building. We had some money from bequests left by members and friends who had passed away–these represented the past. We had the money we would raise in pledges and gifts from current members and friends–these represented the present. And we had the mortgage we would take to finance the rest of the addition–this represented the future. Tamsin, our consultant, pointed out that the mortgage gave members and friends who would come to our fellowship in the future the chance to be part of supporting our larger space.
Tamsin’s words have come back to me again and again as I have seen this fellowship grow since that day. We exist because of our past, we exist in our present, and we exist for our future. We are not here just to make a comfortable spiritual home for ourselves. We are here to create an institution for our future selves, our children, and all the people in our area who will, someday, need a liberal religious home.
It is the same with our country. We should not be in the business of dragging our country backward to a less diverse, less tolerant past. We should not be eager to repeat the wrongs of our European forbears, who exiled, converted or killed their Muslim populations. We should not strive to return to a world where Muslims are a distant other, where we understand nothing about them, and where our cultures are at war. We should be preparing our country for a better tomorrow, a tomorrow characterized by respect, tolerance and mutual understanding.
When our forefathers framed the United States Constitution, there were no Muslims living in our fledgling nation. Today, Muslims deserve protection and inclusion under the First Amendment, just like every other religious group. They should be able to build mosques anywhere public buildings may be built, including in lower Manhattan. They should be free to worship in peace and security, not fearing for their or their children’s safety. Muslims need these assurances and protections under our law now, because they are certainly not getting them from the American culture at large. But in the future, I hope we have more than this. I hope that if enough Americans consider Muslims their neighbors, that in the future Muslim-Americans will not just be tolerated, but respected; that they will not simply expect to be left alone in peace, but will be invited into conversation; that they will not be neighbors in name only but be the actual friends and playmates of non-Muslim Americans and their children.
There is some hope that in the future we will be more accepting of difference and diversity than we are today. Just as with the majority’s increasing acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in America, demographics point to a future where the majority is more accepting of Muslims. People who are more educated and people under fifty are more likely than others to have a favorable view of Islam (Dart 14). I suspect both of these demographic trends are because younger people, and people with more exposure to university settings, have had more opportunity to meet and get to know Muslims. In divinity school, I took a semester long survey course on Islam, the theme of which was that Islam is a diverse religion. Just knowing a little bit about the different kinds of Islam practiced by the millions of Muslims worldwide helps me be more accepting and open to Muslims in America. We can hope that as America becomes more ethnically diverse, and as our children play and learn alongside people of different ethnicities and religions, including Muslims, that the world will grow in its tolerance and kindness toward others. Muslim-Americans are our neighbors in building the America we dream of.
Please join me in prayer.
Spirit of Love, bring us into a world of peace. Release us from our fear. Give us the courage to help those in need. Give us the courage to stand up for what we believe is right. Give us a spirit of curiosity and respect about beliefs and cultures different from our own.
Help us to remember those times in our own lives when we have felt hurt and abandoned by circumstance and ill-will. Help us to recall with gratitude those who stopped by to help us in our times of trouble. We ask the blessings of the spirit on those who came to our aid, and on those who, in the small habits of their lives, make helpfulness a part of their mission in the world.
Forgive us, loving Spirit, for those times when we have not had the personal resources or fortitude to help another person in need. There are times when all of us have left undone something we could have done; times when we passed by on the other side. Teach us through these moments how to come to our best selves again, and help us in the future to reach out to others in love, solidarity and strength.
Bring us ever closer to our fellow human beings. Help us to celebrate our differences and learn from one another. Help us to grow the human spirit which is common to us all. Amen.
Dart, John. “Conflicted Views on Islam.” The Christian Century 21 Sep. 2010: 14.
Ghosh, Bobby. “Does America Have a Muslim Problem?” Time Magazine. 19 Aug. 2010. Time.com. 1-4. Accessed 1 Oct. 2010. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2011798-1,00.html.
King Jr., Martin Luther. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. James Melvin Washington. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.
“Protestant Groups’ Statements.” New York Times 8 Sep. 1960: 25.
Young, Brad. The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008.
By The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
I love my children but I’m not crazy about being pregnant. The sickness, the physical awkwardness, the discomfort–I know there are women who love the physical and spiritual experience of pregnancy, but for me, it’s a necessary nine months, and my goal is to get through them. The real payoff was that I met my wonderful sons at the end. At the end of my pregnancy with my younger son a year ago, I reached the last month without any terrible discomfort. I had even gone camping with my three-year-old the month before with no ill effects, although in retrospect I would have been more comfortable in a cabin than in a tent.
But then, Something Happened. The baby shifted, my bones creaked, and by the end of a day spent taking care of my toddler the pain in my back was so bad I cried. If I sat still or lied down it didn’t hurt. If I moved at all, it was like someone had stuck a knife in my lower back. Since I was spending that summer at home with my toddler, not moving wasn’t an option. I started to live on extra-strength Tylenol, the strongest painkiller I could take. Because I was pregnant, no real diagnosis of the pain was possible. “You’ll have your baby soon,” my obstetrician told me. I tried to hold onto that truth and grind through the five weeks left in my pregnancy.
Well, one week later, I realized that mere strength of will was not going to see me through when I had a toddler to run around after. One of our young people in the fellowship, Leah Hoffman, agreed to be my mother’s helper for the rest of the month, which helped immensely. The other change I made was to start using some support when I walked. I fished my hiking pole out of my closet and began to carry it with me everywhere. If I was faced with a walk of any length, such as shopping at the grocery store or taking my son to the Science Center in Holderness, I made use of an electric cart. Up until the day my back pain started, I had been experiencing an active pregnancy, one in which I made a point of taking a walk every day. All of a sudden, I felt and looked disabled. For those few weeks, I had the privilege of seeing the world from a temporarily disabled point of view.
I use the word “privilege” mindfully. In looking back at that time, my forced immobility was a kind of privilege. Those of us who have the full use of our bodies, hearing and eyesight can slip into the trap of thinking of ourselves as “normal,” while we tend to think of people whose bodies work in other ways as “disabled.” What we lose sight of is that those of us born without disabilities could acquire them at any time. Statistics vary, but those over 65 years old may make up as much as one-third of all disabled people. Fewer than 15 percent of disabled people were born with their disability, which means that the majority of disabled people acquired their disability, and many of us will face disability as we age. It’s not really an “us/them” situation. Those of us who do not currently live with disabilities should welcome opportunities to experience the world from a different point of view.
One thing I noticed during my weeks with a cane and a scooter is that kind people were very helpful. My neighbors were solicitous and asked how they could help. A good friend who is also a devout Christian put her hands on my shoulders and my belly and prayed that I would feel better and have a healthy baby. The Science Center was happy to let me reserve an electric cart, and did not question that a healthy-looking, albiet very pregnant, woman showed up to claim it.
On the other hand, some people were carelessly inconsiderate. I was shopping with Ben, my toddler, one weekday afternoon, as working folks began to crowd the store looking for ingredients for that night’s dinner. I had waited a minute or two to be able to get through a crowded spot, and a man turned to notice me trying to navigate through. He said, “You didn’t pick the best time to come shopping, did you?” I’m sure he was trying to commiserate with me about the crowded store, but he also betrayed an attitude that many able-bodied people have, often unconsciously: people with disabilities are responsible for making things easier for themselves, instead of wondering why our world is not more open and accessible to everyone.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed and signed into law in 1990. It is a civil rights law that protects people with physical and mental disabilities against discrimination when using public buildings, looking for a home, or making a living. Accommodations we now take for granted have come about because of the ADA: cuts in the sidewalk where it meets the street, elevators, ramps, Braille on signs, subtitle options on DVDs, and backdoor lifts on buses are all part of our society today because of the ADA. Sadly, our courts have not chosen to interpret the ADA as a civil rights law, but rather as a law conferring benefits and entitlements. The United STates is much more accessible now that it used to be. Still, disabled people must often prove their disability to be protected under the ADA, instead of living in a world where buildings and opportunities are designed with people of all abilities in mind.
There is a paradox inherent in the way the structures of power treat people with disabilities in our society. On the one hand, our culture celebrates when people with disabilities can “triumph over adversity.” Helen Keller and disabled mountaineers like Mark Inglis and Tom Whittaker are exemplary of this ideal. Their achievements are magnificent (Inglis and Whittaker, who are both amputees, climbed Mount Everest on separate occasions). Yet the able-bodied community in America tends to look at these individuals and say to itself, “If these people with disabilities can accomplish so much, then why do we need to provide special treatment to anyone with a disability?” On the other side of the paradox, people with disabilities are seen as egotistical and selfish for demanding equal treatment and protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Should a company really have to refit its hallways, kitchens and bathrooms just for one employee, the thinking goes? Why can’t that disabled employee triumph over adversity like those heroes in the disabled community? Why should mainstream society have to make any concessions at all?
The challenge is to reach a place of empathy with people with disabilities as individual people, who are entitled to the same right of equal employment and respect as anyone else. Thinking of ourselves as temporarily able-bodied is a step toward that empathy. Any one of us could lose some or all of our hearing or sight, or break a bone so that we must use a wheelchair, and be in a position ourselves of trying to live as equals in a world of prejudice. It is a challenge for our spirits to see that people with disabilities have the same spark of divinity in them that we temporarily able-bodied people have in us.
It turns out that parenting young children has given me some sense of my own temporary able-bodiedness, even beyond the end of my pregnancy. Young children, like adults who use wheelchairs, need wheels to get around. Therefore they need ramps and cuts in the sidewalk. They need accommodations in the bathroom and for sleeping. Our congregation is part of a larger association of congregations, and our district in that association is comprised of the churches in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont. Our spring conference and annual meeting in May was at a hotel in North Conway. My younger son was nine months old and I took him with me. In order to get from our hotel room to the childcare room, I had to open about seven doors, some of which opened toward me and some away. I had to navigate two or three staircases, and sometimes just one or two steps between hallways. The stroller did not always fit comfortably through the narrow doorways. I could only imagine how impossible getting around the conference site would have been to a person in a wheelchair, or a person who relied on a walker, or a blind person not expecting stairs through every door. When I told a conference organizer that this was a problem, she agreed it was regrettable. In my mind, it should have excluded the inn as a location for our annual meeting, and I hope it will in the future.
In the world we hope for, accessibility for people who don’t have perfect vision, hearing and mobility is not a tack-on to an otherwise inhospitable world. In the world we hope for, we recognize that we are all temporarily able-bodied, and that disability in any form could come to us at any moment. Therefore, we strive for “universal design.” Universal design is the concept that our buildings, public locations and workplaces should be workable and welcoming for all people. You can see universal design in some newer city buses–in Boston, for instance, if you’re ever on a bus there. Accessible buses might have a wheelchair lift in the back. This lift makes it possible for wheelchair users to ride the bus, but it requires special attention from the driver and extra time. The wheelchair user, who can neither get herself on or off the bus or choose her own spot on the bus, becomes a passive recipient of good intentions by the transit system.
Buses which incorporate universal design, on the other hand, have a low step keeping the bus up off the curb in normal conditions. By operating a hydraulic system from her seat, the driver can make the bus “kneel” until the floor of the bus is flush with the road. This allows anyone who might have trouble with a step–a wheelchair user, a parent with a stroller, a young adult pulling a shopping cart, or a person using a cane–to enter the bus on his or her own, as a free agent, with almost no slow-down in service. In the old buses, helping a wheelchair-user to board the bus was clearly an irritation to driver and rider alike, and noticeably slowed the bus from its course. In the new buses, wheelchair users ride the bus like anyone else. The new design is much better, because the kneeling buses allow more people in more circumstances to ride more easily and with more dignity than before.
Ability and disability are not either/or, us vs. them, normal/different. “Ability” is a word that describes all of us and the different things we can do, the different ways we interact with the world. We may be able to walk unassisted or not; we may be able to see or hear unassisted or not; we may be fluent in American Sign Language or not; these are all part of who we are and not the definition of who we are. And all of us, whatever our abilities are right now, may see them change in the future. All of us benefit from a world with more compassion and acceptance for all people and all abilities. All of us benefit from practicing kindness, whether at a personal level or a policy level. We hope for a world we will all be seen as complete people, dignity intact, whatever our own abilities may be.
by The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
I hope you enjoyed last week’s service, if you were here. We celebrated the new energy that comes to our fellowship in the fall with our annual water communion, and we tried something different this year. Cindy and I worked to create a service with lots of singing, stories, activities, and movement. We wanted a service that would engage people of all ages in the symbolism of creating our shared bowl of water. When I asked Suzan Gannett to read a Sufi story as part of the service, she had the idea of adding images to it to depict the stream’s long journey to the sea. Cindy and I plan to lead services like this once a month, for all ages. On the remaining Sundays in the month, the children will have their own worship service downstairs and then proceed to their religious education classes (with the exception of the younger teenagers, who will be involved in the Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum from nine to eleven every Sunday in the conference room up here). The hope that Cindy and I have with these family services is that once a month, adults and children can explore a form of worship they can engage in and find the spirit in together. We’re calling them Family Services.
Of course, being a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we don’t want to leave anyone out of a worship service. So I hope that when you hear the name “Family Services,” you won’t think those services are only for young children and their parents. Whether we have children or not, and whatever the ages of the children we may have, we are all part of families. We all understand “family” to mean one or more adults living with small children in the home. Yet our culture has ancient stories telling about the drama, love and difficulty of relationships between adults and their adult children. Even once we’ve grown up, we’re just as much a part of our families as ever.
In our times, the catch-phrase for the special joys and difficulties of being an adult child of our parents is called being the “sandwich generation.” I’m not quite in this generation myself; my kids are very young, and my parents and my husband’s father are healthy. In fact, they help us out with the children, not the other way around. One social researcher, writing on the “sandwich generation” even enumerates different kinds of sandwiches. The most evocative name for me is the “club sandwich,” for those whose young adult children have had their own children, and who are still taking care of their own elderly parents; or those young adults who are caring for their young children as well as their parents and grandparents, both at different stages of aging (Abaya).
I do wonder how our times are different from times past. Is this “sandwich” thing really so new? Haven’t working adults always had to help support young children and elderly parents? Of course, in our country and era, the elderly live longer and longer lives, which sometimes prolongs a period of ill health. At the same time, adolescence has also grown longer, extending the period of time when young adult children may need support–although also, perhaps, putting off their own children. As middle class women have moved into the workforce, families need more institutional support for caring for children and the elderly–support our society has been reluctant to provide. These trends may be new. Yet the basic difficulties facing adult children and their parents are ancient. We heard one such story this morning, an ancient Jewish parable retold by Jesus to a group of Pharisees: the story of the prodigal son.
Before I go farther, let me stop here and say that I’m talking this morning about parents and adult children who have some kind of relationship with each other. Some people have chosen not to have children, and that is a choice we honor. Like I said at the beginning, “family” means everyone, whatever shape your family may take. But “family” does not always mean happiness, and it is not always marked by healthy choices. Some people don’t have a relationship with their parents or children–because of past abuse, because they are estranged from one another or never knew one another. Others have wished for children who never came. Some of us have lost our parents by the time we become adults, and some of us have lost our children before their adulthood. All our families have been touched by these sorrows over the generations. If you have trouble finding yourself in the adult child-parent relationship this morning, I invite you to reflect on who is your family now. Our families are not limited to those linked to us by blood. Whether we have families of birth or families of choice, our close relationships change and grow into new joys and new difficulties as we grow older.
Two things stood out for me when I reread the parable of the prodigal son. When we are children, we treat our parents as very different from other adults in our world. When we are babies and toddlers, our parents are safe and trusted adults, two of a very small group with whom we feel safe and at home. When we are older children, our parents become the authority figures against whom we rebel, the enforcer of rules–but they are still a source of safety, comfort and love in a healthy home. When we become adults, however, we’re faced with a new relationship with our parents–and our parents are faced with a new relationship with us. We are called on to treat our parents and children like our parents and children, with love and respect. And we are also called on to treat each other like fellow adults, who deserve respect and compassion just because we are human beings. Problems arise between adult parents and children when we forget one of these relationships.
The prodigal son has asserted his rights as his father’s son and as an adult. “Give me my share,” he asks. “I’m striking out on my own.” He goes off to a foreign land and spends his money on intoxicants and prostitutes. Meanwhile his brother stays at home, becomes a partner in the family farm with their dad, helps make business decisions and shares in the profits. One day the prodigal son comes to his senses–the Bible says “comes to himself,” as though he’s woken up from a terrible hangover–and realizes that his menial work barely brings him enough money to buy food to eat. “My father is a better man than my boss,” he thinks to himself. “I’ll appeal to his decency. I’ll admit what I did wrong, ask his forgiveness, and see if he’ll hire me as one of his men on the farm.” He starts out home, thinking that he no longer has a relationship with his father as his father, and planning to appeal to his father simply as a compassionate human being.
Biblical scholars point out some details of this story that we, as modern readers, may miss. The father is completely over the top in his expression of love for his son, and his willingness to do whatever the son asks. According to the family values of the ancient Near East, a father would not have divided his estate before his death, and would not have run to greet his son. The father in Jesus’ story is shown as only interested in his son as his son, and shows no interest for his own status.
The older brother’s reaction to his brother’s return is more understandable to modern readers. He has to learn of his brother’s return from a servant; he is angry and resentful. Yet the father reminds him that their relationship is full and complete in that they treat each other as family (“all that I have is yours”) and as adult business partners (something the older brother himself alludes to when he says, “For all these years I have been working…for you”). The father tries to tell his older son that their relationship is complete, and that now both of them have a chance to rebuild their relationship with their son and brother. The older brother is left outside, with Jesus’ listeners, with us, deciding whether or not to go in.
The story of King Lear is another ancient story about the difficult relationships between adult children and their parents. This story is different from the parable of the prodigal son because in this case both Lear and his elder daughters behave badly, and the youngest child is the virtuous one. I learned recently that the story of Lear (which Shakespeare took from earlier English or Welsh myths) is a version of the story of Cinderella, which, if you think about it, is another story about the problems between adult (or perhaps adolescent) children and their parents. In the story of King Lear, Lear’s tremendous pride is bruised when his youngest and best-loved daughter, Cordelia, refuses to publicly declare her love for him in order to receive her share of his kingdom. He disowns her (the King of France finds himself moved by her virtue, and sweeps her off to become France’s queen–the entire Cinderella part of the story is then over with).
Lear had planned to retire, in a way. His faculties are slipping away from him, a truth of which he is dimly aware, and hopes to spend his elder years living with his daughters and their husbands and going hunting with his men. He wanted what many elders want: a peaceful time at the end of his life. His elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, have other ideas. They reduce the size of his retinue; they treat him rudely and tell their servants to treat him rudely. When Lear leaves Goneril’s home in a huff and tries to go stay with Regan, his middle daughter tells him she’s not ready for him yet, and refuses to give him hospitality. Lear finds himself turned out of doors on a wild and stormy night, accompanied only by his fool and a loyal courtier in disguise. He is full of rage. Why, when he stopped being king over his daughters, did they stop treating him like their father? He rails against them and shouts into the storm:
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children;
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure. Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man;
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engender’d battles gainst a head
So old and white as this. Oh! Oh! tis foul (III.iii.14-24)!
Lear thought his daughters would treat him like an honored member of the family, or at least as a respected old man, but he finds that only the daughter who refused to show off her love for him is truly loyal. Goneril and Regan saw Lear as nothing more than a stepping stone to power.
The play has wisdom about adult child and parent relationships. Lear’s daughters know him better than he knows himself. They know that he is beginning to lose his mental faculties, They know what will anger him and what will please him. Because they do not respect Lear, Goneril and Regan use this special family knowledge to manipulate him to their own ends. Their insight, however misused, tells us a truth about our relationships as adult children and parents. We know each other better than perhaps any other people do. We have seen each other at our worst and at our best. The challenge is to remain in relationship as adults, carrying all that past with us, allowing it to inform our adult family without defining it.
As we grow up, and our parents age–or, for some in the congregation, as we find ourselves cared for more and more by our adult children–our challenge is to allow our relationships to transform and grow without souring. I wonder who you identify with in this morning’s stories. Are you the prodigal son, whose relationship with his parents soured long ago? Are you wondering how to come home? Are you the father, running to meet your children on the road? Are you Cordelia or Kent, loyal and true to your parents even when their decisions harm them? Or are you Lear, finding that you no longer know yourself or your children as you age? I find myself just beginning to navigate the waters of being a fellow adult with my parents, even more so now that I have my own children. Sometimes I interact with my children, and can remember so clearly when I was on the child’s end of the same moment, and my mother was me. It’s eerie to realize we now inhabit lives our parents have lived, even while we make them our own and our parents continue into the future.
One character we all perhaps identify with is the elder son in Jesus’ ancient parable. We wait outside, the party beginning within, wondering how we will forge new relationships with those we love as we grow older. There are parts of our relationship with our siblings, our parents and our children which we cherish, and parts we resent. Every moment makes the relationship new, and forces us to change to meet it. We share responsibility for the relationship as adults, and we are free to cherish it even more than we did when our children were young, or when we were children. We ask only for the wisdom to remember that our adult family members are basically human, and specially ours to cherish and respect. We carry the future of our families together.
Please join me in prayer.
Spirit of connection and love, bind us together with those we love, with bonds strong enough to hold us in hard times, and loose enough to allow us to find our own way in the world. Help us to understand our own love for our families and their love for us.
Let us see a face of the divine love in the love we feel for our families, and which they feel for us. Help us seek the other’s point of view in our own, and help us act out of respect and understanding.
Where we have known pain and harm in our families, we ask for healing. For members of our families who may have hurt us or those we loved, we ask for self-knowledge and compassion. We know there are times when we must not strengthen our ties with some family members. We ask for wisdom to recognize these relationships, and strength to find the familial love all of us need in our friends and loved ones.
For family members who have left us too soon, we hold their memories in the love of our hearts. We honor their names and keep their spirits with us. We ask for the healing of grief and the persistence of love. Amen.
Abaya, Carol. The Sandwich Generation. Accessed 17 September 2010. www.sandwichgeneration.com.
Shakespeare, William. King Lear.
Comments are disabled on this blog for the timebeing. When I return to the office later this summer, I will be looking for help on managing comments and spam. If this sounds like something you’d enjoy working on, let me know!
The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
Sometimes it seems like it’s hard to see clear examples of classism. We try to avoid looking at the markers of class, try to pretend that differences in class don’t exist, that while there may be poor people or rich people “out there,” everyone we know is just like us. But class differences are all around us, and we confront them at a personal level and a societal level all the time. We confront a diversity of family incomes and personal financial backgrounds in this congregation alone. Apart from diversity of belief, diversity of class may be the way in which Starr King Fellowship is most diverse, but we may not even be aware of all the differences among us. Class differences can be covered up and ignored if we wish to.
As you probably know if you have been reading, watching or listening to the news at all lately, New Hampshire’s legislature has been working to close a budget gap of nearly 300 million dollars (Fahey). Our state makes almost all of its money from a very few sources. We pay property taxes to the state–all of us, since those of us who rent have landlords who pay property tax, and landlords presumably pass that cost on in rent. If you’re a business owner, you pay taxes on your real business property as well. Individuals can be subject to an interest and dividends tax. There’s a rooms and meals tax, a gasoline tax, and a business income tax. The current budget is trying to extend the business income tax to limited liability corporations. The state liquor stores make money off the sale of wine and the exclusive sale of hard liquor. There are fees on everything–fees for parks, for hunting licenses, for car registration. We don’t have sales tax or a personal income tax.
Much of the budget gap has been closed with cuts and new revenue sources in the tens of millions. Services will be cut by thirty-two million dollars. The state will seek private development of the rest areas off I-93 in Hooksett in order to bring in more revenue. The government will sell bonds and sell some other pieces of property . The two biggest items, however, which could have brought in more revenue, are the most controversial: an income tax and expanded gambling (Fahey).
I’m not going to talk about an income tax this morning. I support a broad-based, progressive, fair tax structure for our state, and I personally would be willing to pay more in taxes in exchange for more services from the government. But the possibility of a new broad-based tax is far from the legislature’s mind and will right now, in part because they have been seduced by another possibility: expanded gambling.
It took me a while to figure out what I thought about expanded gambling. Then I had a personal moment where I came face to face with my own classism, and I began to figure it out. I was stopping in the convenience store at one of the gas stations on Holderness Road, by the entrance to the freeway. Standing in line to buy my drink, I saw two women come in, talking to each other about what they were making for dinner. I made two assumptions about them right away, as soon as I saw them and heard their conversation: they were coming from office jobs (judging from their clothes) and they were native New Englanders (judging from their accents). Then they headed to the lottery ticket side of the counter, and I added one more assumption: unlike me, in my enlightened state, they didn’t understand the futility of the lottery.
Not entirely futile, as it turns out: one of the women had won 40 dollars on a scratch ticket, and had it with her to turn in for her prize. She didn’t even take the money from the clerk. She waved him off when he reached to open the cash drawer and used her winnings to buy more lottery tickets instead. I couldn’t believe it. Forty dollars! Once you’ve won forty dollars on the lottery, you should stop playing forever. It will never get better than that. I began to think of all the things I could do with forty dollars, paid for my soda, and left the store feeling very self-righteous.
It didn’t take long to deflate that sense of righteous indignation. I told the story to my husband that night, and I began to think out loud about what I would do if I won forty dollars. Let’s assume that I don’t need to spend it on necessities like housing or food. I might buy a book or two. I might buy a board game. I might go out to eat. I might buy yarn for a knitting project. In other words, I would spend it on entertainment. I assume the woman in the convenience store didn’t need the forty dollars for necessities, either. I had already made the assumption that she had a job she was coming home from, and she didn’t hesitate to spend her winnings on more tickets. So it stands to reason that I should see her lottery purchase in the same way I would see my own purchases: entertainment. She had forty dollars to spend, and she spent them having a good time. Who am I to judge what she does with her entertainment dollar?
Now, as entertainment goes, it doesn’t matter to me if one person spends her money on yarn and another spends it on lottery tickets. Learning this has been part of getting rid of one piece of my class blinkers. It is easy to deride the choices of different groups simply because they are not the same as our choices. More lower-income people play the lottery than higher-income people. This doesn’t mean that I should look down my nose at options other people choose.
That is not to say that there are not problems with gambling. The kind of gambling New Hampshire already has–a state-run lottery, horse-racing, and bingo–and the type that senators, especially Senator Lou D’Allessandro, are proposing to close the budget gap–video slot machines–are favored by poorer people. In addition, video slot machines prey especially on lower-income groups. Video slot machines are more likely than other forms of gambling to promote addiction, and, according to a study on the relationship between demography and gambling addiction, disadvantaged neighborhoods are ten times more likely to experience gambling addiction than wealthy neighborhoods. In the poorest, most disadvantaged neighborhoods the researchers studied, ten percent of the residents were found to be problem or pathological gamblers, compared with less than one percent in the richest, most advantaged neighborhoods (Welte 418). This same study found that a person’s chance of being a problem or pathological gambler was more than twice as high if a casino was located within ten miles of his or her home (419).
Still, as a society, we condone making some forms of discretionary behavior available to everyone, even though a minority abuses those behaviors. Alcohol and cigarettes are legal, for instance–and much like the proposed expanded gambling, the state regulates and benefits from the sale of liquor and wine, and taxes the sale of cigarettes. Coffee, a substance much more addictive than alcohol (although much less harmful in its addiction), is not only legal–we build temples to it on street corners all over the country. Non-addictive, but potentially dangerous, activities are also legal: riding motorcycles, using chainsaws, climbing Mount Washington, hunting, eating raw fish, even driving a car. So it’s clearly not in the state’s interest to ban all potentially addictive or all potentially dangerous behavior.
The difference here is that Senator D’Allessandro and others are proposing to balance the state’s budget on the back of expanded gambling. Instead of considering a broad-based tax, whether a progressive tax like income tax or a regressive one like sales tax, expanded gambling would create a tax base dependent on compulsive and addictive behavior, used more by poor people than by rich people. Our state, the place where we all live and contribute to the welfare of the whole, would be saying that it was willing to finance its shortfall on the backs of the poor and the addicted. This would be in addition to the thirty million dollars in cuts already made to state services, including the Department of Children, Youth and Families and the state child care subsidy. My yarn and my books–the ways I spend my entertainment dollars–would continue to go untaxed. As a non-gambler, I would not be asked to make any greater contribution to the state’s welfare than I do now.
Understanding the dangers of expanded gambling asks us to look at class difference clearly and without prejudice. It is easier than ever for households to acquire the trappings of a middle-class life. Consumer goods once thought to be luxuries, like DVD players (or even televisions), cable service, and electronic gadgets of all kinds are now easier and easier to purchase. Ironically, these “luxuries” are priced within reach of people living on a tight budget–or perhaps, are priced within the credit limits of their credit cards. These consumer goods make poorer people feel like they are part of the next class up, part of the America they see represented in commercials. They allow many people to “pass” as a member of a higher income bracket than they are.
In the meantime, investments in a secure future and a future for one’s children are increasingly out of reach. In 1960, minimum wage was one dollar per hour, or two thousand dollars per year (U.S.). A color TV cost $500, or 3 months’ wages (Genova). In-state tuition at University of Minnesota was $213 per year, or only 1.2 months’ wages (“University”). (I’m using the University of Minnesota as an example of a state university because their tuition information is available on-line.)
In 2009, minimum wage was $7.25 per hour, or $14,500 per year (U.S.). A LCD HDTV, a state-of-the-art TV comparable to a color TV in 1960, still costs about $500, or two weeks’ wages. In-state tuition at the University of Minnesota, however, has risen to $10,320 per year, or two-thirds of a minimum wage worker’s gross annual salary (”University”).
When I preached on class a year and a half ago, I framed this problem in terms of a society that did not reward frugality and good choices. But now I see our problems go beyond that. A person used to be able to pay for college with a summer job; now it takes debt and the sacrifice of an entire family for one person to get an education. Consumer culture is built on the idea that you can get what you want. Credit is easy and toys are cheap. Businesses don’t profit if people say to themselves, “Nah, I can’t afford that.” But our state is not in the business of making a profit. Our state ought to represent the best interests of the people who live here, rich and poor alike.
We must recognize that whatever a person’s standard of living looks like from the outside, there are real differences of means between the lowest and highest earners in our society. For high earners, college for one’s children is a foregone conclusion, and gambling is likely to be an occasional entertainment. For low earners, valuable goods like college may be completely out of reach, and gambling may be seen as a form of investment, however unlikely the payout. We cannot, as a state, balance our budget on the backs of the least fortunate among us. Gambling as entertainment is a personal choice. Gambling as public policy is predatory and unfair. We owe ourselves better than that.
Please join me in prayer.
Our hearts are charged with the spirit. We reach out in thought, and love and warmth to those around us, sharing our spirit with others. Together, we extend the spirit of this community beyond these walls and out into the world.
We ask for the courage to see those struggling in poverty as our kindred, not as a nameless “other,” but as brothers and sisters to our own hearts. We ask for help with our own financial worries and struggles, that we may be freed from the cycle of want and debt, and that we may find the means to pay for the necessities and investments in our lives. We ask for a spirit of generosity, that we may give out of our abundance of wealth or spirit to those who have less. We ask for strength as we continue our various works for justice and equality in our communities.
We ask the leaders of our nation and our state to feel this same compassion when they exercise their power and make choices for us all. We ask that the fire in our own hearts burn brightly for justice, helping us to do our civic duty. We ask that they, and we, have strength to remember our sacred calling: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Eternal.
We ask that this community remain united in its zeal for justice beyond the divisions of politics. Let us work together in common cause for the good of all the people in our community, our country, and our earth. Many things seek to divide us: politics, class, race and geography. May we ever seek to overcome these divisions and live as a more complete humanity together. Amen.
Fahey, Tom. “Deadline Approaches for Budget Negotiators.” Unionleader.com. 26 May 2010. Accessed 28 May 2010. http://www.theunionleader.com/article.aspx?headline=Deadline+approaches+for+budget+negotiators&articleId=da82e104-8240-48dd-b9ef-1b407ecacb05.
Genova, Tom. “TV Selling Prices.” Television History–The First 75 Years. Accessed 29 May 2010. http://www.tvhistory.tv/tv-prices.htm.
U. S. Department of Labor. “Federal Minimum Wage Rates, 1955-2009.” Infoplease. Pearson Education. Accessed 29 May 2010. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0774473.html.
“University of Minnesota Annual Tuition Rates: 1960-61 to 2009-10: Twin Cities Campus.” University of Minnesota, Office of Institutional Research. 22 July 2009. Accessed 29 May 2010. http://www.irr.umn.edu/tuition/.
Welte, John W., et. al. “The Relationship of Ecological and Geographic Factors to Gambling Behavior and Pathology.” Journal of Gambling Studies 20.4 (2004): 405-423.
Over the next few days, I’ll post the responses we had to the invitation we had on Celebration Sunday, March 21:
Make three wishes for the future of Starr King Fellowship.
Everyone who was at the service had the chance to respond in an interview with another member or friend. Some who could not attend the service answered the question during a stewardship visit. These answers come from members, friends, youth, newcomers–anyone who was with us in the service that morning.
Have more wishes? Leave them in the comments. I am screening comments because of the amount of spam, but rest assured–if you comment, it will appear after filtration.
- More racial diversity. Paint the sanctuary and change and altar decorations. (Shorter moment for all ages, tighten up service so it’s one hour, cross-services with other churches, teach us how to explain UUism to others.)
- Finishing off landscaping and building to make SKUUF more complete. Continue our growth with new families and people. More recognized voice in the community and the state.
- That we never lose our spirit of togetherness that makes Starr King so great. That we continue to grow. That we expand our outreach to the greater area that we draw members from.
- As we grow, that new folks interact with long-term members–inter-generational connections. Continue to be a place people are comfortable being themselves and growing. Continue to be a force for social justice.
- Develop a structure to invite college students to: dinner, activities, picnic, barbeque, dances, concerts. Car-pool committee, invitations to domestic/foreign college students for dinner and other “American” activities (need: a list of volunteers, facilitator to find students needing the social life). Help for senior citizens: (4th largest population among U.S. states): rides, shopping, socialization, conversation partners (connection with students above?). Like other UUs, should we charge for RE? ($5 per child each month, when they can–scholarships.)
- Continue to attract a mix of all ages to SKUUF and continue to expand membership. Continue solid financial stability (especially with new loan for addition). Become more involved with community.
The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
I have the privilege of serving on the New England Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy for the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Subcommittee meets once a year and interviews people who are hoping to become Unitarian Universalist ministers. Ideally, we see them after they have completed about one year of seminary.
Students have to see a subcommittee like the one I serve on before they may prepare to see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which confers fellowship. Seeing the Ministerial Fellowship Committee is the last step before becoming a professional minister. That body makes sure that candidates know their material about our tradition and the practices and ethics of ministry.
The Subcommittee I serve on, one of four around the country, is looking for something different. After only one year of school, and often no parish or chaplaincy internship yet, students are not expected to know a body of information. Rather, the Subcommittee checks in with the student about their progress, areas of attention before proceeding with seminary, and gives caution where needed. In a very few circumstances, the Subcommittee has the power to tell a student she or he is unsuited for the ministry and may not proceed toward fellowship, with the hope that they might reconsider their career before spending any more money or time on divinity school.
When we met last month, we happily did not have to give any such negative decisions to any students. To my great pleasure, I got to meet with and learn from wonderful future ministers. I met a woman who has already spent fifteen years working for women’s reproductive choices and health, and who has come to understand that work as a ministry. She envisions combining the social justice work of advocacy with a pastoral ministry to women and men who face the challenges of parenthood, from losing pregnancies to rearing children.
I met a man who is entering the ministry as a first career, as I have done. He has studied the history of Unitarianism in Germany. I can see his ministry taking him into the parish or into the academy.
I met a woman approaching ministry as a second career, after long and successful service as an administrator in universities and government agencies. She was so competent, clear and organized. In her I can see a future district executive and builder of institutions. As much work as the three days of interview were, they were also joyful and deepening for my ministry.
The interviews were an occasion for me to recall my own path to the ministry. I had always been a church kid. When I was young, my father was a church musician in an Episcopal church and I always went to church with him, even as my mother lost interest in Christianity.
When we became Unitarian Universalists when I was eleven, I transferred my loyalty to my new congregation–in large part because I was instantly welcomed by the other kids in my Sunday School class. I kept on going to this new church, now with both my parents and my younger brother. I explored goddess spirituality with our pagan-leaning minister. He left when I was thirteen, and we hired a woman as our interim minister–the first time I had personal experience of a woman minister, although it had never occurred to me that ministry might be an all-male profession.
It was with Anne that I first began to think about being a minister. I joined the church when I was fifteen so I could vote to call our new settled minister, also a woman–and a lesbian, opening one more barrier before it had even had time to form in my mind. When I was sixteen I got the idea that being a minister was a job people could have–a job I could have–something I could point my life toward like a blaze in the thicket.
It would be easy to say that I have always wanted to be a minister. I remember, however, that when I went to college I hoped to be a poet–perhaps the only career less practical than the ministry. But I kept going to church, and stayed active in the continental youth movement–and it was at a youth conference that I realized something in me was, in that ancient language, called to the ministry. I was eighteen years old.
I studied philosophy, the Bible, the Qur’an, history; I went to divinity school; I still think I only had a vague sense of what ministers actually do, and what might make a person suited to that work. As I prepared for fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association, I was introduced to much of that real work in my parish and hospital chaplaincies. From having a very vague and glib sense of the work of ministry, I became convinced of the enormity of the work, and wondered how I would ever get good at all of it. With time, I figured, a person could learn to do everything that was required.
Of course, a secret of ministry is that one never learns how to do everything a minister could do. I am just lately coming to realize that, as a minister, I don’t have to do it all. I don’t have to be the perfect minister for every situation. I don’t have to run an abortion clinic, or write about German history, or administer a district–because for every moment and every calling, there is a person who loves that work and will take it on with vigor. The work is not all mine to do. I stand in a tradition of religious leadership stretching back thousands of years. Even now, I stand in a community of colleagues all working together for the health and strength of our Unitarian Universalist faith and institutions.
That community of colleagues includes many who do the work of ministry in our movement apart from the path to ordination. Many people do their good work for the good news of liberal religion in other paths, no less important or valuable for their choice not to pursue ordination. Others begin their work as laypeople and eventually enter the ministry, even while continuing their original mission in life.
Sophia Lyon Fahs is an example of a woman with a non-traditional path to her ministry. Fahs was born in 1876, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. She, too, wanted to be a missionary, and married an aspiring Methodist missionary. She began her professional religious career close to home, however, as a Sunday school teacher in a Presbyterian church. She was a freshman in college. She wasn’t–at first–put off by the Christian theology of the Ten Commandments curriculum she was teaching; she was more dismayed by the manner of teaching the children. Religious education in those days, for Unitarian and Presbyterian children alike, involved drilling the Bible into impressionable young minds. Fahs knew their must be a better way. And as she began to explore children’s faith development and pedagogy, as well as modern Biblical scholarship, her theology began to change, too.
She continued her education and continued to teach Sunday School, including an experimental Sunday School during her days as a student at Columbia Teacher’s College. She waited until her children were grown, however, to enter Union Theological Seminary. As we heard in this morning’s reading, she was forty-seven years old. I can hear in her letter about starting seminary in mid-life her own doubts and wonder about her life’s path.
Fahs writes to her mother that first, she needs her ministry degree so that she will be seen as an equal by the male parish ministers she will work with when she is the head of the Sunday School. Secondly, she says, she may someday get a parish–Fahs qualifies it by saying it would be a “small” parish. She also wanted it to be a congregation open to the possibility of a worship life centered on the interactive style children respond to so well, and not to preaching–so we do not know whether she felt herself limited to a “small” congregation because of her gender or because of her worship leadership style (Hunter 130).
I find it fascinating that although Fahs already had two degrees, one in education, she felt that in order to make her mark as a religious educator she needed a professional ministry degree as well. As it happened, she did not seek ordination. She joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary and promoted her vision of children’s religious education that began with the experiences of the children themselves.
In 1937, with Unitarianism in decline, the American Unitarian Association hired Fahs to be the children’s editor of an entirely new Sunday School curricula. In 1945, Fahs became a Unitarian herself. Of her work for Unitarianism, Chris Walton, editor of the UU World, writes:
Drawing on anthropological and psychological research, the children’s books were dedicated to one goal: “We wish children to come to know God directly through original approaches of their own to the universe.” The series’ child-centered approach appealed to many young “baby boom” parents, and the curriculum’s popularity in the fellowships that sprang up across the continent was one leading factor in Unitarianism’s post-war resurgence (64).
Fahs was ordained in 1959, at the age of 83, as a recognition that the work she had been doing all her life, was, in fact, a form of ministry.
Religious education has long been one of those areas which we, as a movement, don’t exactly know how to relate to ministry. We now have the umbrella term “professional religious leadership,” meaning ministers, directors of religious education, music directors, seminary professors, and denominational administrators–anyone who has prepared, through experience or education, to lead our movement professionally.
Our movement has tried, over the years, so many different paths for lay religious educators: to allow directors of religious education to apply their years of professional experience toward a Master of Divinity equivalent and become Ministers of Religious Education; a while when we had a profession called Minister of Religious Education but it still required a seminary degree, even if the possible jobs were not much different from being Director of Religious Education; and now, when the Minister of Religious Education label has faded and we have a credentialing process for religious educators, which is once again going through review and change. We seem to have trouble recognizing that the challenging and rewarding work of religious education, just like the challenging and rewarding work of other kinds of lay leadership, is its own profession with its own skill set and preparation, and that it is a form of ministry even if many religious educators are not ordained.
The truth is, in our faith tradition, ordination is not a sacrament. Ministers don’t get sacred powers that laypeople don’t have. Ordained ministry is one path for people who hear the call to service within themselves. Professional religious education leadership is another; congregational music leadership is another.
Yet to some extent or another, every person who walks into the doors of a worshiping community because they hear a call of some kind: a call to community, a call to service, a call to caring, a call to deeper faith. The work of all of us is the work of ministry. Participating in a Sunday service, chairing a committee, visiting a fellow member in the hospital: these are all aspects of the ministry of our congregation.
When you feel supported by Starr King Fellowship and your own personal beliefs to carry your truth into the wider world, that’s ministry, too. Standing up at your town meeting to speak against a narrow and bigoted definition of marriage: ministry. Working to organize your community for a lower-carbon, greener future: ministry. Speaking up for the minority point of view: ministry. Congregations are sustained because of the ministry of the membership to each other and to the larger community.
You may be considering professional ministry as a career. If you’d like to learn more about two paths to professional religious leadership, I invite you to the discussion of this sermon at 11:00 a.m. today. Cindy Spring, our Director of Religious Education, will join me as co-facilitator of that discussion. But whether your path will take you to seminary or not, whether your path will take you into professional religious education, I encourage you to make of your “vocation and avocation” a united whole. The fellowship consists of the people, not the minister. The ministry is all the work we do together to support our community, our values, and the good of the world.
Please pray with me.
We pray for our congregations. We pray for Unitarian Universalists across this country and around the world. We pray for religious educators. We pray for ordained ministers, for those who have gone before, for those who serve now, and for those who are yet to come. May we see ourselves in the other, the other in ourselves, and God in all.
Hunter, Edith. Sophia Lyon Fahs: A Biography. 100th Birthday ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976. (This book is available from the Starr King Fellowship library.)
Walton, Christopher L. “Sophia Lyon Fahs: Revolutionary Educator.” UUWorld March/April 2003: 64.