Thursday, November 19, 2009

Living Beyond All We Know

“In its essential nature religion is not an intellectual speculation about the constitution of the universe or an elaborate ritual by which the priests hypnotize us into the belief that their services are indispensible to our salvation here and hereafter but rather a moral act of confidence in the meaning and purpose of life, a faith that the universe, whose children we are, contains the elements that can satisfy in some way our deepest aspirations.” (Robert J. Hutcheon, Frankness in Religion, 1929)

Unitarian Universalists seem hesitant—even a little uncomfortable—to admit that we are people of faith, perhaps because we are anxious to distinguish ourselves from the excesses that are so often associated with the expression of faith. Or perhaps it’s that we like to imagine ourselves to be on more solid ground than simply standing on faith, which we have been taught to think of as ephemeral and groundless belief. Indeed, there was recently some controversy among us, out on the prairies, because some of our members objected to the theme of the regional fall conference, which was, “Unitarianism: An Evolution of Faith.” Now if you were a Universalist, you might have objected to the omission of that part of our name. Or if you were a fundamentalist, you might have raised your eyebrows at the inclusion of the word “evolution.” But the quarrel was over the presence of the word “faith,” and some, equating faith with uncritical and unfounded belief, argued that whatever else it might be, Unitarian Universalism ought not to be described as a faith. Is that so? I don’t just beg to differ—I insist upon differing!

When we affirm “the worth and dignity of every person,” that is an affirmation of faith, for each of us can surely name many individuals who feel unworthy, perhaps even worthless, or who live in ways that invite the criticism and scorn of others. But we know that even in the worst among us there flickers the spark of the divine and that within each of us, somewhere deep inside, is the faint glimmer of a dignity of purpose.

When we seek to promote “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” that is an act of faith, for the society in which we live is so filled with injustice, inequity and hard-heartedness that we might forgiven for believing that this is necessarily the way of the world. But we somehow feel, in the part of us called conscience, that we are called to live beyond the world’s imperfections and work toward these magnificent objectives which are so precious precisely because they are too rarely achieved.

When we proclaim “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations,” we stand on faith, because in practice, human societies are too often unaccepting of large numbers of people, and too often discouraging of the nurture of the soul that leads to happier, healthier individuals. Yet somewhere in our hearts, we know we must accept others as we long to be accepted and we understand that spiritual growth is sometimes the only thing that makes life worth living.

When we insist upon “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” we do so in faith—faith that a capricious deity doesn’t play tricks on our understanding, but that the laws of nature are reliable even if they’re not always to our liking; faith that we can discover, bit by bit, a little more about the world in which we live and even turn that knowledge to good purposes; faith that the truth will set us free, if we will only open our minds to receive it; and faith that our lives somehow have meaning, not only in joyous times but also in the times that try the human soul.

When we advocate for “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process,” that is a two-fold act of faith, for we know that the conscience is sometimes mistaken and that conscientious people are oftentimes pains in far more than the posterior regions. It is an act of faith because, while we know there are more clowns on Parliament Hill than there are in the average circus, there are many more dedicated and conscientious public servants there who struggle daily to represent the people’s will and create some reflection of the kingdom of heaven through the most unlikely of means—public policy.

When we espouse “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all,” that is a declaration of faith, for in a world in which whole nations greedily seek after their self-interest, it compels us to walk upon the same ground as the prophets of old, and the seers of every age, who knew we must live beyond the narrow bounds of tribe and nation to embrace all people as our neighbours, if not as our kin, and extend to them the same liberties and living conditions which we would claim for ourselves.

And when we pledge our “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” we kneel before the entire world as the altar of our faith, for this dear and pleasant earth is our only certain home and the web of relationships we call life is our only certain immortality.

We cannot prove a single one of these affirmations but we hold them to be true. Not faith? By who’s definition? Call it whatever you want: I call it faith!

More than that—it is a faith worth risking everything we have for the hope it inspires. “We all live beyond our objective knowledge,” wrote Robert J. Hutcheon. “Business, especially in its early stages, is a venture. Radio was at first a venture. So was aeronautics. So is every marriage. We live toward and plan for a future which we never really know until it becomes the present and the past. The element of belief, hope and trust is very large in every forward-moving life and to eliminate this element would bring complete stagnation. We must strive to eliminate risk and to act on objective knowledge as far as possible but to refuse to venture beyond that is to limit the possibilities of life.”

Unitarian Universalists have been too timid for too long. We are reticent to offend, we are reluctant to express our faith to others, and we are so allergic to proselytizing that we find it difficult, at times, even to be proactively welcoming. In that reticence, ours seems almost to be the quintessential Canadian religion. In other aspects of our lives, we’re not nearly so modest—we offend people politically all the time, without giving it a second thought, and we are scarcely reluctant to express our social views. As for welcoming others, I wonder if we simply fear being rejected. At the heart of it all, I suspect that we’re actually risk averse.

This is where we need real leadership—and we need it to come from our strongest, most vital congregations and their ministers. Our faith needs its congregations and adherents to ring out the glad tidings of liberal religion as crisply and clearly as the carillon in the Peace Tower.

In the closing chapter of Frankness in Religion, Robert J. Hutcheon reflected on the hope of immortality, which he came to understand as a quality of living rather than a duration of existence. In the end, any intimations of immortality, any glimpses of eternity, any hints of transcendence that may come to us, will be found in “whether we have the courage and the venturesomeness to live ourselves as though it were true and to treat our neighbors, not as hewers of wood and drawers of water, but as though they were immortal spirits in the earthly stage of an unpredictable evolution.” An evolution of faith, perhaps?

We are called to live beyond all we know. We are called to embody in our very lives the best of this liberal religious tradition we hold dear—its teachings and its truths, its principles and its practices, its faith and its fortitude. We are called to strive to achieve its highest aspirations—of a world more fair, a society more just, and a nation more compassionate and kind. We are immortal spirits on an earthly journey—brimming with faith, motivated by hope, and inspired by love. And through this, we can surely live beyond all we know.

Excerpted and adapted from a sermon delivered at the installation of Rev. John N. Marsh as minister of the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa on Monday, November 16, 2009.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Taverns and Tabernacles

On an autumn day in 1857, Henry David Thoreau confided to his journal, “One wonders that the tithing-men and fathers of the town are not out to see what the trees mean by their high colors and exuberance of spirits, fearing that some mischief is brewing. I do not see what the Puritans did at that season when the maples blazed out in scarlet. They certainly could not have worshipped in groves then. Perhaps that is what they built meeting-houses and surrounded themselves with horse-sheds for.” As the most noteworthy resident of Concord ever to resign from its First Parish, it is somehow comforting to think that he simply preferred the blazing forest groves of autumn to the clean lines of the meeting house as a suitable place to worship. Nearly seventeen years had passed since he had sent the town clerk a note indicating that he did not wish to be considered a member of the church, an act which today might lead someone to quip, “he’s just not that into you,” but at least he never said of the Unitarian church what he said of its more orthodox neighbor, after lecturing in the basement of its meeting house: “I trust I helped to undermine it.” While the Transcendentalists in Concord were institutional gadflies in their own day—sometimes something of a nuisance to the church—it’s plain that, a century and a half later, Thoreau and his philosophical companions have long since won the hearts and minds of religious liberals, laying the foundation for the dominant tendencies and expressions of Unitarian Universalism as we know it today.

Now, to my knowledge, there are not many churches around which happen to have taverns located on their campuses, as does the First Parish in Concord, although I do recall reading a newspaper story some years ago about a church in Florida which acquired the bar next door through a bequest from its deceased owner. Unlike Wright Tavern, which I’m told was originally acquired by First Parish so that the taps could be turned off, thereby preventing some of the men-folk from lingering there over a pint or two while the town’s more respectable residents attended worship and meetings, this Florida church continued to operate the bar next door, keeping the spirits flowing freely—but not for free!—under the watchful eyes of its priest, who no doubt saw this as an expansion of his mission field rather than an unseemly conflict. The article left me with this frightening picture of “communion on tap” and pretzels that were actually disguised wafers sprinkled with the salt of the earth. Of course, this arrangement did provide this hitherto declining congregation with a revenue stream that pretty much solved its financial difficulties.

I have no way of knowing whether Henry David Thoreau ever stopped by Wright’s Tavern before it was subject to a hostile takeover by the tithing-men of First Parish, but I do know that he seems to have viewed taverns more positively than meeting houses, perhaps because there were fewer Puritans and town elders to be found in taverns. In other words, he considered the company more respectable and congenial. He himself envisioned a day when, “The tavern will compare favourably with the church. The church is the place where prayers and sermons are delivered, but the tavern is where they are to take effect, and if the former are good, the latter cannot be bad.” Of course, Thoreau neglected to say just how he imagined the goodness of those prayers and sermons would make their way into the lives of tavern patrons, in the absence of their actually showing up at church, which leads me to think that he felt that the tavern bore a greater kinship to the high colors and exuberant spirit of the forest grove than it did to the stayed environment of the meeting house.

The words “tavern” and “tabernacle” share a common Latin root, taberna, which was the diminutive form of the word tabernāculum, which was simply a tent. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to visit many homes in Concord and they are overwhelmingly beautiful and substantial, but in the end, whether we recognize it or not, human beings are forever dwelling in tents. In time, nature will reclaim the essential elements of even our most substantial homes, just as nature ultimately reclaims each of us. No less is true of the temples we build to our highest values. We dwell in tents—and we worship in tents, too.

In biblical times, the tabernacle was the portable sanctuary that the people of Israel carried with them as they made their way through the wilderness, en route to the Promised Land. The book of Exodus goes into some considerable detail about the size, shape and layout of the tabernacle, the dimensions of which have led more skeptical biblical scholars to question whether Exodus can be trusted in its description of this mobile wilderness sanctuary, which sounds like a backward projection of Solomon’s Temple. Then again, it doesn’t sound any less plausible than a circus tent to me, albeit with greater refinements. It’s said that the furnishings of the tabernacle were of the finest quality and the most costly of materials, as you would expect from a nomadic people who were erecting a place of worship that reflected their lifestyle and practices. Whether or not the details of Exodus can be trusted, it seems abundantly clear that ancient Israel maintained a collective memory of a time when its people worshipped together in a “tent of meeting,” which would have been entirely natural in a desert tradition.

As it happens, taverns and tabernacles are both gathering places—and gathering places of the spirit, no less! Sociologist Ray Oldenburg has suggested that most adults orient their lives around three places—their homes, their workplaces, and some “good third place,” which offers them an informal but public place wherein they round out their lives. Unless we’re reclusive or workaholic, we all have need of some third place which is neither our home nor our workplace, but rather a gathering place where we can find companionship and meaning—a place where we are identified as the unique individuals we are, not by our occupations or by our kinship ties. The “good third place” is that venue “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came,” to quote a couple of lines of the theme from Cheers. So it won’t surprise you to know that the neighborhood tavern is a classic example of a good third place. But so is the tabernacle, which is to say those places where we gather to worship together in community and explore the deepest of life’s questions and concerns. We are not, as Thoreau suggested, fleeing the high colors of the forest grove, fearing that some mischief is brewing, seeking a safe haven in worship. No, our temples and tabernacles grow out of the very exuberance of spirit that he found in the woods, which others find in the local tavern, and which many of us still find in those sanctuaries where we gather to worship.

Adapted from a sermon delivered at the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, on Sunday, November 8, 2009.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Why Not a Health Care Revolution?

If the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay were alive today, he would undoubtedly devote a chapter of his landmark book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, to the current health care debate in the United States. Between the failure of the news media to report honestly and the deliberate manipulation of politicians and corporate interests, it seems that many—perhaps most—Americans have succumbed to cultivated ignorance about how their health care system compares with others around the world, while they seem paralyzed by fear at the thought of meaningful health care reform, which is demonized as socialism by those who would rather suffer than change. I don’t know which delusion is worse, many Americans’ allergy to government or their fetish for private corporations, but taken together they border on madness when it comes to health care.

Beyond Representative Dennis Kucinich and Senator Bernie Sanders, I wonder if there are enough American politicians committed to universal health care to fill a minivan. Both Kucinich and Sanders have expressed a preference for a single-payer system and both have been working to preserve the ability of individual states to implement single-payer systems, even though federal legislators lack the courage to go there. At first I was amused by many people’s reaction to a single-payer system but, after several months of freely-expressed ignorance, I’m troubled by the proliferation of misinformation and fear-mongering.

Living in Canada, with a single-payer system, I’ve always been able to choose my own doctors and no medical procedure has ever been denied me in a timely manner. No government official has ever interfered with my medical treatment. Those who naively believe that Americans are somehow freer to choose their doctors, or that insurance companies aren’t more like George Orwell’s “Big Brother” than governments, are living in a fantasy world. American health care is the most bureaucratically-driven health care system anywhere in the industrialized world. The negative aspects of bureaucracy have never been the sole preserve of government and the private insurance industry has been far less accountable to the public than any government agency.

Canada’s health care system isn’t perfect, but it’s decent. I don’t mean decent in the sense of merely acceptable or average—I mean decent in the sense that people are treated decently when seeking medical care. Our medical practitioners are able to treat us as individual patients without worrying about whether or not they’ll be paid for their efforts. Yes, we Canadians have our complaints about health care in our own country. But if you listen to us closely, our complaints are, more often than not, those of people whose basic care has already been well provided for, but whose sense of personal entitlement exceeds real and reasonable needs. We Canadians don’t choose between keeping our homes, or our jobs, and caring for a sick family member.

One significant measure of Canadians’ satisfaction with our public health care system can be seen in the fact that even most Canadian conservatives support its basic principles and practices. Most of its critics support refinement and amendment, not fundamental change—even though a few of us may sometimes invoke the words “fundamental change” as a grandiose gesture! Public health insurance is as “natural” as public roads, public libraries, and public schools.

Is there room for private insurance? Yes, but not when it comes to the provision of basic medical care! Private insurance is valuable precisely in those areas where an individual’s sense of entitlement or privilege exceeds reasonable standards for public health care. My wife and I carry supplementary insurance so that we can enjoy the privilege of being in a semi-private room in the event of being hospitalized. This coverage also reimburses us for the deductible amount on prescription drugs and covers certain cosmetic procedures. And since I travel extensively, both for work and pleasure, our supplementary insurance covers any medical charges I incur which might exceed the normal rates here in Manitoba. After all, why should Canadian taxpayers pay extra for my privileged travel habits? So even under a so-called single-payer system, there can be room for private insurers—just not at the expense of providing everyone with basic medical care.

I worry that the opportunity for meaningful health care reform in the United States has already passed. It’s unfortunate that health care reform wasn’t pursued under the banner, “Medicare for everyone,” since the competing proposals for reform have become a race to the bottom, as even a watered-down version of the public option is in jeopardy. That’s often the way it is with reforms: they favor tinkering with worn-out parts over creating new mechanisms, or utilizing established mechanisms for new purposes. It’s got me thinking that maybe what’s really needed isn’t health care reform at all—perhaps it’s time for a health care revolution!

In the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers of the United States correctly observed that, “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” The health insurance industry is counting on the truth of this observation, aided by timid elected officials masquerading as leaders. But too many have suffered too much and for too long! Since Theodore Roosevelt first proposed a national health insurance plan in 1912, vested interests have succeeded in defeating virtually every initiative to move in the direction of universal health care. Instead of tinkering with incremental reform, perhaps the time has come for Americans to let their most progressive leaders in Congress take charge of the agenda, “abolish the forms to which they are accustomed,” and embrace Medicare for everyone. Now that would be a revolutionary and transformative change for the better!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Michelle, Please Take Barry to See "An American President"

Unlike many cynics, I was touched to learn that the Obamas have continued to enjoy “date nights” since moving into the White House. It’s good for their marriage and that’s good for America! I was especially heartened to discover that the Obamas went to the movies on one of their date nights—in Paris, no less. I envy them. You see, I wish my wife and I went out on more dates—it would be good for us after a third of a century together—and, in particular, I wish we went to see more movies together. (She was the popcorn lady at a city theatre when we began dating, so the cinema still sparks a sense of romance in me, while I suspect it just reminds her of work!)

I’d like to suggest a movie for the Obamas to watch on their next date night. It’s An American President with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. (And it’s not just because every time I see Annette Benning in a movie, my wife whacks me and says, “She’s not talking to you, you know!”) I realize this is a lot to ask for, since going to see a movie about a fictional president when you’re the real thing would be like me, as a minister, going to see another tedious portrayal of Elmer Gantry. Yawn. But this movie should be required viewing on the presidential training curriculum.

I think President Obama could learn a lot from An American President that would help him to better focus on his own stated priorities and even make it easier for him to be president (though not as “easy” as the previous guy seemed to find it). If President Obama doesn’t have time to watch the whole movie, perhaps his staff could give him an executive summary and arrange a screening of a few of the more poignant scenes.

In one memorable scene, White House staffer Lewis Rothschild (played by Michael J. Fox) admonishes the president, Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas), “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand. In real life, it’s arguable that President Obama inherited the biggest mess ever faced by an incoming president, save for Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He inherited a sinking ship of state, plugged its holes, bailed it out, and has it chugging forward slowly. However, his Republican opponents and certain ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats have spent this past year feeding the people sand and the president has been much too reticent to respond with the leadership needed to counter their pernicious influence. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the debate over health care, in which the president, striving to embody a bipartisan spirit, has mostly compromised only with himself.

In the climax of An American President, Andrew Shepherd, having seemingly lost the woman of his dreams, recognizes that, somewhere along the way, he had also lost his nerve. He chooses to change course and return to his original, courageous vision—no compromises, because he remembers that he was morally right in the first place. At a hastily-called news conference, President Shepherd declares, “Being President of this country is entirely about character. … We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” After announcing that he intends to send two bills to Congress, while withdrawing watered-down measures, fashioned to appease his opponents rather than do what is needed, he promises, “I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right …” Well, it’s time for the real-life president to do the same. President Obama needs to remember and reclaim the passionate vision that carried him to the White House in the first place and present to Congress his original plan for health care reform. Let Senators bellow and moan all they will, it’s time for the president to offer decisive leadership. He must know that his original vision for health care reform is far superior to the parody of reform that’s brewing in Congress. If Americans have been nibbling on sand for much of the past year, then the president needs to go door to door, or at least state to state, to convince them that his vision for reform was right in the first place. Mr. President, tell Congress that you expect them to pass a comprehensive health care reform bill, complete with a public option, or that they will be ones to answer to the voters for the failure to deliver universal health care.

Many people have suggested that President Obama is the most intelligent and eloquent president in a generation, perhaps longer. I agree. I have a feeling that he’s also one of the most decent men ever to occupy the Oval Office. That’s why I’m pretty confident he’d get the message of An American President—and understand that pulling out all the stops to win universal health insurance for Americans, even if he fails, will be the one act that convinces Americans that their confidence in him a year ago today was well placed.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Painting Canoes with Martha Stewart

My neighbours must imagine that the house where I live is full of night owls, since the lights are often on long past midnight. They’re sometimes still on as the sun rises in the eastern horizon, accompanied by the flickering light of the television. While I’m sometimes still awake deep into the night, engrossed in a good book or watching a classic movie, more often than not everyone in my household is sound asleep, even when the house is aglow like an all-night convenience store.

If anyone peered through the window, they might see one or more of us snoozing in the living room, with only the faint rumble of snoring to confirm that we were asleep and not actually dead. Last night, my wife fell asleep watching the Food Channel—not that cooking seems to interest her particularly—while I stretched out on the sofa. I had intended to switch to the news but, after settling in comfortably, I noticed that the remote control was not on the coffee table and I was simply too lazy to get up and find it. She who had the remote next to her was not to be roused, so in a few minutes I fell fast asleep. The television continued to beam its messages to my unconscious self.

Much to my surprise, Martha Stewart appeared, demonstrating how to create elegant, antiqued shelves on which to display ornaments and mementoes. I watched carefully as she revealed techniques for creating different effects on a variety of materials. Then suddenly, as if by magic, we found ourselves painting canoes—Martha, me and a small group of unfamiliar disciples.

I was separated from the group, finding myself alone at one end of the vessel while Martha took charge at the other. It was obvious that they needed her careful guidance, whereas I was competent to work alone at my end. Martha had us paint the gunwales bright red using bristle brushes and, finding myself far ahead of the slow group, I continued painting down the side of the canoe. I heard Martha utter a muffled instruction or two but I just kept painting and, in short order, my end of the canoe glistened like a water-borne fire-truck.

That’s when I noticed that Martha had her crew painting the canvass a deep green. Oh my God! There I was painting canoes with Martha Stewart and I had gotten the colour wrong! Not only that, but she was looking in my direction. I grabbed a paint roller and began slathering green paint over the red layer but everything was turning brown, so I kept applying more and more until green paint was flowing down the side of the canoe like wax on an overactive candle. By then, Martha was headed in my direction while I kept working frantically.

I awoke to see Rachel Ray on the television, stirring some vegetarian dish and commenting on its deep green hues. Thank goodness! Rachel Ray had saved me from Martha Stewart. I’d rather paint canoes with Rachel anyway, because she would understand it if I made a mistake. She would forgive me. Then we would have a good, hearty laugh together and eat a tasty snack.

I am generally inclined to think of dreams as random thoughts or the organic equivalent of a computer memory dump. I know that my dreams often seem to be influenced by what’s being said on the radio, which is usually set to come on some time before my alarm rings. At other times, I think our dreams offer us profound insights about who we are—our fears and concerns, our values and delights. Painting canoes with Martha Stewart reminds me that too often I am inclined to perfectionism and that, when I get things wrong, I try to correct my mistakes on my own, before anyone notices, rather than simply admitting to them and then seeking help from others. But none of us is perfect and when we pretend as if we are, fashioning ourselves into idols for all to see, we inevitably find ourselves ankle-deep in green paint. Wouldn’t it be better to let the first coat dry, have a good laugh, and then paint over it another day? And what could be better than enjoying a tasty snack while we wait?

Monday, November 02, 2009

To a Church I Love at the Beginning of a New Ministry

The Unitarian Church of Winnipeg was my spiritual home during my youth, where my development was nurtured and my call to ministry was inspired. Founded as the First Icelandic Unitarian Society in 1891 and now known as First Unitarian Universalist Church, presently located on a lovely ‘new’ campus across the river from its earlier homes, this church stands in unbroken line with its earlier incarnations. Individuals from five generations of my religiously promiscuous family have found a haven here, at differing times, when we weren’t otherwise hanging out with the Lutherans. So it was a genuine pleasure for me to be present at the installation of the congregation’s new minister, Rev. Millie Rochester, and it was a distinct privilege to be asked to deliver the Charge to the Congregation. This is what I said …

It is a delight to be with you this evening and join with you in celebrating the beginning of a new ministry and a new era in the life of First Unitarian Universalist Church. After Millie asked me if I would offer the Charge to the Congregation, I fretted about what to say for some time, as ministers are wont to do. As my anxiety grew, I awakened in the middle of the night several weeks ago—one of those measurable marks of middle age—having dreamt about this very evening! It was a classic ministerial panic nightmare: I arrived at the church late, couldn’t find my robes, and lost my way in the building. When I realized I hadn’t prepared anything to say, the words flowed as if from somewhere outside myself. Sitting on the edge of the bed that night, it struck me that what I had dreamt was exactly what I would have wished to say to you this evening, so I hurried to my desk and wrote down the essential points. “I was not looking for my dreams to interpret my life,” Susan Sontag once wrote, “but rather for my life to interpret my dreams.” It is my fervent prayer that the ministry to which you have called Millie Rochester will interpret this dream, so here is my charge to you, the congregation of my youth and the people of my dreams:

Acknowledge your minister’s rightful authority. Unitarian Universalists sometimes display an almost allergic reaction to authority, which is both unhealthy and unproductive. The minister is a servant-leader. Too many congregations emphasize the “servant” part while minimizing the minister’s role as a leader. If you are to thrive together, you will encourage and welcome your minister’s leadership in both spiritual and temporal matters, offering her the tools and support she needs to nurture a healthy spiritual community while building a strong and vital institution. You should expect to be challenged as much as you expect to be comforted.

Forgive your minister for whatever may be her human frailties and shortcomings. One of the real difficulties when a congregation calls a minister who is warm and wonderful, insightful and inspirational, earnest and energetic, is that they may expect her to be perfect, too. Millie is magnificent but beneath the superhero’s cape we call vestments is a human being—fundamentally good but not necessarily perfect. Since I know just how pernickety the members of this church can be at times, I would admonish you to get over it. Just get over it! Churches don’t need perfect ministers; they need human and humane ones. If your minister is doing her job well, she will sometimes disappoint you and, if she’s doing it exceptionally well, she may even offend you. Grant her a wide margin of forbearance whenever your feelings are a little bruised, or whenever you discover that her viewpoint is different from your own. In so doing, you will both grow in spirit. There will be times when she’s too busy or distracted or overwhelmed to give you the amount of time or attention you may crave. When that happens, remember her humanness and that she is struggling to serve the needs of this community with just two hands, however nimble; one mind, however wise; and one heart, however loving.

Compensate your minister as generously as you can. Although it is common to hear people speak of a minister’s salary, there is, in fact, a tradition of long-standing—as old as the institutions of church and synagogue themselves—which says that clergy do not receive a salary at all. That is to say, they are not paid for services rendered and they do not track billable hours. Instead, churches are called to assure their ministers a living—a decent living, I would emphasize—so that they may be freed from so-called worldly pursuits in order to seek spiritual ends and render service to the community. This may seem like a hair-splitting distinction to some, but it’s an important one. A minister who is free of worry about her material welfare will be free to serve the community without distraction, for the love of the Holy and the good of the people alone. Your generosity in providing your minister with an abundant living will enrich you more than it will ever benefit her.

Remember to mark your milestones and anniversaries together and to celebrate them lavishly. You could do a lot worse than following the customary gift sequence for wedding anniversaries. At the end of your first year together, the paper anniversary, send her notes telling her what you like about her ministry with you. If you can’t think of anything to write, send banknotes. For your second anniversary, the cotton one, send her on a shopping spree and pick up the tab. For your third, which is leather, a fancy executive chair would be a nice way to confirm the managerial authority you will have entrusted to her, while for the fourth, flowers, you might plant an even more spectacular garden than usual, below her office window, to remind you all just how much you will have grown together. On the fifth anniversary, which is wood, she’ll be so much a part of the furniture that you’ll likely need to work at reminding one another what a comfortable fit you have become. The next anniversary after that is the sabbatical anniversary. Start planning now.

Finally, strive to live into and up to your potential as a congregation. First Unitarian Universalist Church is the heir to three vibrant liberal congregations: the First Icelandic Unitarian Society, which advocated an unfettered faith among the early Icelandic immigrants; the Winnipeg Tabernacle, which emphasized the spirit over the letter in religious matters; and All Souls Church, which strived to live up to its name by welcoming a breadth of people and labouring for a society characterized by justice and goodwill. It time, these three came together as First Federated Church and, through changes of name and generations, along with an evolution of mission, stands today as First Unitarian Universalist Church. Along the way, there have been remarkable accomplishments and achievements, along with some follies and failings, but the congregation has always managed to find a way to live into its promise and its possibilities. This evening I am here to tell you that the most exciting chapter of your history began this fall, and that the promise of this new chapter is sealed here tonight. It is up to you to fulfill the promise of your unfolding future.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hanaye (Bunny) Nagamori

Hanaye (Bunny) Nagamori, died peacefully at St. Boniface Hospital on March 25, 2009, surrounded by her family.

Bunny leaves to cherish her memory her loving husband of 58 years, Tadashi; children Jerry (June Hawkes), Beverly, Holly (Art Cain), Candy (Darren Cooper), Cindy (Stefan Jonasson), and son-in-law Peter Lehmann; grandchildren David Nagamori (Toni Gilchrist), Jesika Nagamori, Melanie Storvick, Arthur Cain, Robert Cain, Leah Cooper, Brandis Jonasson and Heather Jonasson; great-grandchildren Zoe and Brooke; sisters Grace Granger, Sally Lambert, Sue Teramura, and Pat Ariza; and numerous in-laws, nieces and nephews.

She was predeceased by her parents, Mankichi Eyemoto and Haruyo Muramoto; her daughter, Kathy; sisters Fumiye, Haruko Ooto, Jackie Keates, and brothers Shinichi, Shigeru and Harry. She was also predeceased by a sister Sayono and an unnamed brother, both of whom died in infancy.

Bunny was born on March 3, 1925 at Pitt Meadows, BC, the daughter of pioneer fruit growers in the Fraser Valley. In 1942, they were displaced from their family home and relocated to Manitoba, where the family worked as farm labourers south of Winnipeg. When her parents were returned to Iwakuni, Japan in 1946, Bunny and several of her siblings joined them, working as interpreters for the British Commonwealth Occupation Force before returning to Manitoba in 1948 following their parents’ deaths.

Bunny married Tadashi Nagamori on November 18, 1950 and remained his companion and helpmate to the end. Together they raised six children with affection and concern, welcoming their partners into the family and delighting in the arrival of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Bunny lived for her family and was unsparing in giving them her help. “Bachan” was always home and available to care for her grandchildren, whatever the circumstances, and she developed a unique relationship with each one as they grew. She best expressed her love through food, nourishing our spirits as she fed our bodies. Once described by a reporter as “petite and ageless,” she was a truly beautiful person in every respect.

Bunny loved to garden, both indoors and outdoors, and for many years she and Tad maintained plots at the community garden along Silver Avenue, supplying fresh produce to family and friends alike. She also loved mushroom picking and was fearless in searching them out. She was a voracious reader who delighted to share her books with others when she was done with them. For many years, Bunny worked in the children’s department at Eaton’s Polo Park store, where she was much appreciated by both her colleagues and customers. She was a member of Manitoba Buddhist Church and its women’s association, Fujinkai, and also active in the Manitoba Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, April 11, at 2:00 p.m. in the Neil Bardal Funeral Centre, 3030 Notre Dame Avenue (across from Brookside Cemetery), with Rev. Fredrich Ulrich and Rev. Stefan Jonasson officiating. Interment of the ashes will take place at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the charity of your choice, if family and friends so desire.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Groundhogs, Prairie Dogs ... and Synagogues?

I. Groundhog Day

There’s an old joke that’s been floating around for years about the public school teacher who strayed into religious matters one day when Easter was approaching. This was no doubt in the days before public schools became circumspect about such things, in deference to the constitution, or it may well have come from a rural community, where it has been easier to ignore the secular sensitivities of the national consensus about public schools as “sect-free” zones. In any event, the teacher noted that Easter was just around the corner and inquired of her students, a gaggle of bright-eyed first-graders, whether they knew what Easter was about.

One young fellow put up his hand and said, “Easter is when people dress up with funny hats and buckles on their shoes and eat turkey and pumpkin pie and stuff.” “Don’t be stupid!” called out another child, “that’s Thanksgiving.” The teacher nodded but told the child that “stupid” isn’t really a very nice word to use, while encouraging her to go on. “Easter,” this child declared, “is when we get together in the summer to shoot off fireworks and eat hot dogs and stuff.” Well, this went on for a while, each successive child making another mistaken identification and the teacher was becoming discouraged. Perhaps this interactive little piece of pedagogy hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

Finally, a young girl who attended Sunday school at the Unitarian Universalist church put up her hand. “A long time ago,” she said, “there was a good man named Jesus, who taught people that they should love their neighbors as themselves. Many people followed him and he got into trouble with the law, so he was arrested.” Well, the teacher realized that this precocious girl knew the story she wanted her pupils to learn, so she encouraged her to go on. “The rulers killed him by hanging him on a cross,” the girl continued, “but his friends came and buried him in a cave.” The teacher was getting excited by this point and she asked the child, “What happened then?” “Well,” she said, “after three days in the cave, Jesus stood up and walked out.” While this may seem like an unlikely comment by a little Unitarian Universalist, the teacher was understandably delighted—that is, until the little girl went on to say, “And if he sees his shadow, there’ll be six more weeks of winter.”

Well, you don’t need to be a first-grader to be confused about the holidays—even the important ones. Many years ago, now, I managed to show my astonishing ignorance by saying to someone “Groundhog Day falls on Candlemas this year. I think I’ll preach about it.” Unimpressed by my failed attempt to show how intelligent I imagined myself to be, my friend wryly responded, “Stefan, Groundhog Day always falls on Candlemas.” She spared me the indignity of asking, “Just who are you trying to impress?”

For centuries, the second day of February has been marked as Candlemas. Deriving its name from the custom of processing with candles, Candlemas was a feast day first associated with the purification of Mary and later with the presentation of Jesus in the temple. The weather on Candlemas has long been thought to presage the progress of winter:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight;
But if the day be shower and rain,
Winter’s gone, not to come again.

Northern European lore has attributed the ability to predict weather to a number of animals: bears, badgers and groundhogs, to cite the most common trinity. So it’s not at all surprising that Candlemas and Groundhog Day fall together. I think I prefer Groundhog Day, if only for its greater spiritual depth.

You know how the ritual is supposed to work: crowds of people with nothing better to do stalk some poor groundhog, waiting for her to emerge from a long winter’s nap. If the day is sunny and she sees her shadow, she goes back to her bed and sleeps for another six weeks. If it’s cloudy, this is thought to predict an early spring—even though the groundhog will likely still go back to sleep for six weeks!

Now if there’s anything at all to the tradition of Groundhog Day, then we Canadians are in for a better spring this year than you folks.* In Nova Scotia yesterday, Shubenacadie Sam came forth from his borrow amidst blaring bagpipe music—a clear indication that groundhogs’ hearing is not as acute as their eyesight—and failed to see his shadow, no doubt because it was pouring rain. An hour later Wiarton Willie in Ontario came out of his burrow and didn’t stop moving, which means either that he didn’t see his shadow or else that the shadow he saw scared him so badly that he high-tailed it in the opposite direction! In between these two sightings, Punxsutawney Phil poked his nose out at Gobbler’s Knob, saw his shadow and quickly retreated. Woe unto Pennsylvania!

II. Groundhogs and Prairie Dogs

Groundhogs are solitary creatures, for the most part. Better known as woodchucks where I come from, they keep company with a few close relations, become rotund and stocky during the foraging months and then diet through hibernation. They’re quiet and conservative, as far as animals go, so they make rather good neighbours, unless you happen to be a vegetable gardener—you see, groundhogs are by their very nature “cereal killers.”

Groundhogs are the most introverted species of the marmot family, yet their burrows are sometimes inhabited by several individuals. They retreat to their burrows when threatened, if they can, and will defend their burrows when necessary, which leaves me feeling grateful that they are armed only with teeth and claws. Outside their burrows, groundhogs are alert to danger, often standing on their hind feet to survey the terrain. And when alarmed, groundhogs let out a high-pitched whistle.

They mostly dwell at the forest edge, or in open country, and are not inclined to stray too far from the entrance to their burrows. While it’s reported that groundhogs can be sociable creatures when raised in captivity, they nevertheless remain prone to aggressiveness owing to their nature. (See the Wikipedia.) They typically hibernate for between three and six months, depending on the climate of the area in which they live.

Now, just in case it’s not already obvious to you, I see the groundhog as an apt metaphor for a certain type of person, found both in our congregations and in society at large—but only barely visible at times, since groundhogs shy away from society, whatever the weather may be. In the land of metaphor, there are spiritual groundhogs and political ones, temperamental groundhogs and intellectual ones. Henry David Thoreau was something of a groundhog, it seems to me, dwelling along the shore of Walden Pond in his squared log burrow. “I love to be alone,” he once observed. “I have never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

And poets are often inclined to be groundhogs, such as the reclusive Emily Dickinson or perhaps Mary Oliver. Although groundhogs are, in fact, much shyer than the curious little chipmunk, Ogden Nash was moved to write:
My friends all know that I am shy,
But the chipmunk is twice as shy as I.
He moves with flickering indecision
Like stripes across the television.
He's like the shadow of a cloud,
Or Emily Dickinson read aloud.

Back home on the northern plains, where I live, any groundhog foolish enough to bare its nose yesterday would have quickly frozen to death. I suppose that’s why we don’t have many groundhogs there, and then only in isolated places. In their place, we have their odd cousins, prairie dogs. Prairie dogs do not hibernate but remain active throughout the winter, living in complex underground burrows. These burrows are interconnected, forming something akin to a human “borough,” which can cover hundreds of acres. They are social animals, relying on one another to make it through the long winters. According to one source, “their cohesiveness is maintained by the cooperative activities of raising young, constructing burrows, grooming, playing and defending the coterie territory.” In 1901, scientists in Texas identified a single prairie dog settlement that covered 25,000 square miles and included upwards of 400 million residents! “Prairie-dogs are abundant,” wrote Teddy Roosevelt—himself something of a prairie dog—“they are in shape like little woodchucks, and are the most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable. They are never found singly, but always in towns of several hundred inhabitants.”

Groundhogs are spiritual libertarians, whereas prairie dogs are spiritual communitarians; groundhogs are introspective, while prairie dogs are extroverted; groundhogs are temperamentally shy, while prairie dogs are gregarious. And just as most human beings are a curious blend of both tendencies, I suppose that a vibrant religious community needs both its groundhogs and its prairie dogs—and the qualities they represent—among its members. Both sets of qualities, in a delicately-woven balance, are necessary to the health and wholeness of any congregation. As James Russell Lowell rightly observed, “Solitude is as needful to the imagination as society is wholesome for the character.”

III. And Synagogues?

Groundhogs and prairie dogs. But “why synagogues?” you may be wondering. Well, what I really wanted to talk to you about this morning was the value of religious community and “church” doesn’t rhyme with the names of those critters, while synagogue does. So you might think this poetic licence is simply gratuitous. Well, not quite.

The Greek word for the church, ecclesia, was simply the Greek variation of the word for synagogue. And everything the early church became—and which we have inherited through force of history, if not habit—was modeled after the synagogue. But that’s an aside and I don’t want to stray too far from my main point, other than to justify my apparently gratuitous employment of the word synagogue. Suffice it to say that both words mean simply “assembly” or “house of assembly” … and that’s as good a preliminary description of church as any.

When it comes to religious community, I would observe that, over the past generation or two, Unitarian Universalists have leaned in the direction of playing the groundhog. So I come down on the side of the prairie dog. We would do well, I think, to come out of our burrows—and on more than just one day a year—or at least get back in touch with our inner prairie dogs. Groundhogs have their day, that’s for sure, but we prairie dogs have the rest of the year to flourish.

Eliot Chapel is a simple but elegantly appointed room on the second floor of the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. The chapel is decorated with portraits of such figures as Samuel Eliot, busts of William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as Channing’s pulpit from the old Federal Street Church. Through the windows, one has a splendid view of the Massachusetts State House and Boston Common. But for many years, the most interesting element of its decor was cleverly hidden from view. At one end of the room, beyond four French doors, is a storage closet. Behind the tables and chairs and paraphernalia found there, was a portrait of Jozsef Ferencz, former Bishop of the Unitarian Churches in Hungary. It is an impressive image of Bishop Ferencz, stretching from floor to ceiling. It is unfortunate that such a committed, public figure from our past should be found hidden behind a door.

A few years ago, several of our churches periodically ran newspaper ads asking the question, “Are you a closet Unitarian Universalist?” The inspiration for these ads came from the often-heard cliché, “I was a Unitarian Universalist for years without knowing it!” Like all such utterances, this statement contains a kernel of truth, but it neglects an important aspect of what it means to be Unitarian Universalists –fellowship. If you’re a Unitarian Universalist in the fullest sense, then you will most certainly know it. Far too many of us, it seems to me, have the mistaken notion that Unitarian Universalists are only to be found lingering by themselves around the shores of New England ponds, frolicking in the waves along California beaches, scribbling in poets’ garrets, or it seems, hiding in suburban closets. But our faith is not a solitary pursuit. So, unless you find yourself in Eliot Chapel, closets are not the best places to look for Unitarian Universalists.

It is true that many people in the world share our ideas, our values, our aspirations, without belonging to one of our churches. They may be kindred spirits, but they lack the companionship and stimulation to be found in one of our congregations. One becomes a Unitarian Universalist only when one somehow becomes connected with our larger religious community—even if that community consists of little more than a handful of the faithful gathered in an awkward meeting place. Only when people come together in a religious cooperative do we find faith incarnate, for the religious life must bring together both contemplation and community. We would fashion for ourselves a communal burrow wherein both our groundhog nature and our prairie dog nature find sustenance. For Unitarian Universalists, religious community is not only desirable, it is essential. We are not found in closets, or isolated burrows, but in community halls!

“Those who accept the Unitarian belief,” claimed James Freeman Clarke, who was writing a full century before the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist traditions, “should openly profess it and should unite in Unitarian churches. ... Wherever Unitarian churches are established, they become centers of movements in behalf of education, philanthropy, and social reforms.” Clarke understood the importance of religious institutions. We too must come to appreciate that religious faith is made real when we come out of our closets, or poke our noses out of our burrows in the wintertimes of the spirit, to share it; when it is the possession not only of an individual, but the integrating spirit of a community of memory and hope. When it comes to religious community, I am with the prairie dogs! As Frederick May Eliot observed, “the whole point of religion is that it takes [people out of themselves] and reveals to [them] the vast network of human and cosmic relationships which alone give meaning to individual lives. Religion can never be a matter of private concern, because by its very nature it is social in the fullest sense of that word.” So let us come out of our closets, out of our burrows, to share the blessings of religious community amongst ourselves and with others. And if you must cling to your groundhog ways and February gets you down this year, like poor Punxsutawney Phil, may you at least find comfort in the fact that, even in leap year, it’s still the shortest month!

* The contents of this blog post were originally delivered as a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, Indiana on Sunday, February 3, 2008.