The Choices We Make
So many issues in life pull us in so many different directions. But which are the right directions? I’m not sure there is a “right” direction. Instead, there are only different responses to the different forces tugging us in so many directions. In the end, we mainly have to live with the results or consequences of our responses to these forces.
Sometimes we get so caught up in our goals and plans, that we almost subconsciously choose not to see that in order to achieve those goals and plans, certain things must be sacrificed all along the way.
When you find yourself in this situation, a situation where you realize that in order to achieve one goal or plan, you must sacrifice something else, please stop for a while and take one specific action. First stop, and then listen, listen to your heart – not your head – listen to your heart. What does your heart tell you to do? Which direction does your heart tell you to go? It may not be the direction your goals and plans would dictate. Listen to your heart!
Namaste! Rev. John Pepper
We are indeed lucky. We have a new church family member – Maryann Jain Moore. She was born on August 19th and I’m so happy for her safe and loving arrival. But we are also lucky because we have several other children in our church family. Our future depends on our children and because of them, our future looks bright.
Yes we are lucky, but mostly I’m thankful, thankful for the children and their parents who bring them to church, sharing their beautiful young and vibrant personalities with us each Sunday. I’m also thankful for all our energetic volunteers who not only made this very special place possible, but who also keep it running. And I’m thankful that we are growing and that we are meeting some of the spiritual needs within our own church community, but also the broader community as well.
Yes we are lucky and I am thankful, but we should not be complacent. We will continue to grow only as long as we continue to grow as a community of committed individuals. And we will grow only as long as we all continue to contribute, in whatever ways we can. In order for children to grow, they must receive the proper nourishment, along with healthy mental and physical activities. We too as a religious community will only grow when there is adequate nourishment and healthy activities.
So, just as we should all pledge to assist in the healthy development of all the children in our church, we also need to continually rededicate and pledge our support for the healthy development and growth of this our church. Our future depends on it.
Namaste! – Rev. John Pepper
Patience and Acceptance
I believe I have written on patience before, and I probably will again. It is something I am always working on and something I am often impatient with.
For many issues in our lives, we know things will change, they will improve, and that we can endure the difficult times. These hot (and often miserable) days of summer remind us of that type of patience. Fall will come and the heat will subside, we just need to be patient.
But there are other issues where we are less confident that things will actually change or improve and we lose our patience. The reality is, things many not change or improve, at least not in our limited timeframes. At times like these, patience is needed, but there is something else which is different and needed as well – acceptance. In this instance the Serenity Prayer may be called for.
“God God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
That second part about courage is particularly important to me because acceptance does not automatically imply giving up. When times are difficult there are things we can do and we need to look for the courage to keep doing them. But then after we’ve done all that we can do to affect positive loving change, we should let go and hold on to the final thought in the prayer. Some things we cannot change and we need the wisdom and acceptance to know when that may be happening.
Just one more long and convoluted thought. We may not always see the fruits of our efforts and we need to accept that reality. There is a scientific concept which claims that a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa may lead to a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. All that is needed may be just that small incremental additional change provided by the butterfly, which together with other forces leads to the exact combination of energy necessary to initiate the massive and powerful hurricane in the near future. But without a doubt, that tiny little butterfly will never know the impact it had on the world around it. We may never see or realize the affects of our efforts but that doesn’t mean they are useless or meaningless.
Be patient, be accepting, and continue to flap your wings with love!
Rev. John Pepper
At my 9 to 5 job we receive regular emails about seminars and programs on achieving work life balance. The basic theory is too much work and your family life suffers or too many family stresses and your work life suffers. Somewhere there is supposed to be a balance where both your work life and your family life are in some kind of harmony.
It would be nice if we could achieve a “perfect balance” but the reality for me is there will always be a give and take where one aspect of our lives gets more attention, while other aspects are somewhat neglected. Our work life balance really gets distorted when we refuse to focus on the whole and instead focus only on a part.
For me, my work life balance is many faceted: work, immediate family, extended family, health and exercise, relaxation, community and spirituality. Over the past two months I’ve taken a break from the community and many of the spiritual aspects of my life and instead focused more of my time and energy on the family parts. This has been great and I’m glad I took that time. But I’ve missed the community and spiritual aspects, I’ve missed you!
Thanks for being a significant part of my own work life balance!
Rev. John Pepper
May and June 2011
I’m taking a two month break from preaching. I need to recharge my batteries and now is as good a time as any. I plan to read, take a couple of weekend trips with Randy, and generally relax. Hopefully I will return with some fresh new sermon ideas. Please don’t hesitate to call me if you need me. I’m only a cell phone call away.
With much Love and Namaste!
Religion on HuffingtonPost.com
June 5, 2011
Marilyn Sewell: Do Unitarian Universalists Have A Theology?
How many times have I heard people remark, “You can believe anything and be a Unitarian Universalist.” Or someone might say, with no trace of irony, “I go to the Unitarian Universalist church because I don’t believe in organized religion.” Incredulous, I say to myself, “Gee, I try to be organized. And we do have a choir. And choir robes. And ministers. And a building.”
Unitarian Universalism is a religion — and one with a long and noble history. Why are we so often misunderstood? One problem is our public relations gaffes. All too often when Unitarian Universalists have gotten in the national news, it has been because of some P.R. blunder, like the minister who, during the worst of the AIDS epidemic, passed out free condoms during the Sunday service and spoke on the subject, “The Condom Conundrum.” This was not a bad idea — it’s just not what most churches in the nation were doing on Sunday morning. Or the student minister (she never actually made it into our ministry) who had a funeral service, with communion, for her dog and invited all of the cats and dogs in her Berkeley neighborhood to the service. The AP wire photo showed a dog standing on its hind legs, its mouth open for the communion wafer, and the article stated, “The guests neither barked nor balked at receiving the host.”
We are a free religious faith, and so have no creed. And as freedom is wont to do, our faith invites a certain degree of wackiness and abuse. But if that’s the price of freedom, then I still choose freedom.
Our faith, of course, does have requirements. To become a Unitarian Universalist, you make no doctrinal promises, but you are required to do much more. You are required to choose your own beliefs — you promise, that is, to use your reason and your experience and the dictates of your conscience to decide upon your own theology, and then you are asked to actually live by that theology. You are asked to take your chosen faith very seriously.
In a very real sense, all theology is autobiography, is it not? Our experience, real and vicarious, is what informs our sense of reality, our internal picture of the way the world works, what our values are. We believe what we know is true — that is, our felt knowledge–not what we are told is true. In the final analysis, how can a person who wishes to live with integrity do other than this?
Our free faith was hard won. It has a long history, and our religious ancestors died for this freedom.
A Unitarian, King John Sigismund of Transylvania — now known as Romania — pronounced the first edict of religious freedom in the year 1568. I traveled to Romania several years ago and stood in the church in Torda, where that proclamation was made. This was an almost unimaginable act in an age in which people were being burned at the stake for not getting their theology just right.
Francis David, King Sigismund’s spiritual advisor, was the single greatest influence on the king’s theological beliefs. After Sigismund’s death, David lost favor and was finally arrested for his views. I made a pilgrimage to the town of Deva and walked up a long, dusty hill to the dungeon where he was imprisoned. It was actually a deep hole in the ground into which David was lowered, and there he sickened, and died. His famous words still live with us, though. He said simply, “You need not think alike to love alike.” At the center of our faith is not belief, but love.
Many others died for their faith during this period of religious persecution. The Unitarian movement came out of the left wing of the Protestant Reformation, and we were way too far to the left for both Calvin and Luther. The Unitarian scholar Servetus, who wrote On the Errors of the Trinity, was burned in effigy by the Catholics and then burned in fact by Calvin, with a copy of his book strapped to his thigh. It is said that if he had been willing to change just one word of his book — to change “Jesus is a son of God” to “Jesus is the son of God” — he could have saved his life.
So this is our heritage — or at least a little taste of it. It is rich, and we can be proud of it. This is not light or easy stuff that we’re a part of. But because we are a free faith, could our movement be said to have a theology? After all, our contemporary churches are populated with Christians, atheists, humanists of various stripes, Jews, Buddhists, and even Wiccans. Whoever will, may come. Nevertheless, when we look at our history and the practice of our faith, certain theological themes dominate, and so I will argue that, yes, we do have in fact a theology of sorts, a theology that has been relatively clear and consistent through time.
We must begin with the assertion that Unitarian Universalism has always emphasized freedom as a core value. It follows that human beings have a choice. We are not predestined by God before our births, to be saved or unsaved. We are not mired in original sin by the very fact of our birth and therefore have to go through a ceremony called baptism, even as babies, to cleanse ourselves of that sin. We do not have to have someone sacrifice himself by dying on a cross to save us from hell. Yes, human beings have a propensity to do evil, but we also have the propensity to do great good. We have a choice. Unitarian Universalists prefer to think of ourselves as being born into “original blessing,” as theologian Matthew Fox likes to put it. (He was of course ex-communicated from the Catholic Church, for that heresy and others.)
The term “Unitarian” indicates our belief that God is One. As Church doctrine began to be codified in the fourth century, the concept of the trinity was found to be confusing for our Catholic forebears, and they disagreed with their colleagues in the church hierarchy. But when the vote was taken in 325, the Nicene Creed was adopted, and the doctrine of the trinity was established. Note that the trinity is not a Biblical concept — it originated in the power structure of the Catholic Church. Basically, the Unitarians lost the vote.
The concept that God is One goes beyond the controversy over the trinity, however. If God is One, then the God of the Jews and the God of the Muslims and the God of the Christians is One. God is One. I remember a tragic incident that occurred during my ministry. One evening I was called to the hospital to be with the mother of a two-year-old child who was brain-dead after choking on a piece of chewing gum. The mother, a Unitarian Universalist, was estranged from the child’s father, who was of another faith. Leaving the hospital, I found myself in the elevator with the father’s minister, and I said to him, “Well, we can do the memorial service together.” And he responded, “No, we can’t. We don’t worship the same God.” His comment made my sadness deeper still, and the estrangement of these families seemed ever greater. What other God could he have been thinking of?
As Unitarian Universalists, we respect other religious traditions — we don’t think we have the market on the truth. I like the way my late colleague, Dr. Forrest Church of All Souls in New York, put it. He said that truth is like light shining through the windows of a great cathedral, in different colors and shapes. The light comes from the same source. But it looks different, depending upon which window it shines through. So it is with the various religious traditions of our world. In conducting worship, I regularly use readings from a wide range of sources, including Native American, ancient Chinese, the Hebrew Bible, Rumi, as well as a lot of contemporary poetry. Truth is where you find it. There is no single scripture that holds all the truth.
And there’s another theological perspective that Unitarian Universalists have concerning truth: we believe in evolution — not only evolution of life forms, but evolution of thought and evolution of moral and ethical understanding. So the truth that I embrace today may not be the truth I embrace tomorrow. Revelation is not static, but is ever unfolding. More and more will be revealed. Our part is simply to be open, and thirsty, thirsty for the truth that would be ours — but just for the time being. Such a stance keeps us humble — and awake. When we venture into the Mystery, we are entering the ground of the infinite with the powers of a finite mind. An awe-filled agnosticism is perhaps the better part of wisdom.
Unitarian Universalist theology is of this world, not of the next. Jesus, in fact, taught that the Realm of God is within and, contrary to most Christian practice, his teachings were centered on relationship, not salvation. Unitarian Universalists do not emphasize an afterlife. For one reason, we simply don’t know anything about it. No one as yet has come back to report. But we do know about suffering and injustice on this earth, and so we try to create the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, with real people.
Back to Francis David — our faith is focused not on what we believe, but how we love. It is a fact that people with the most fervent and orthodox beliefs have been known to engage in some of the most dastardly acts. Christopher Hitchens and other prominent non-believers take great pleasure in pointing out this discrepancy in religious faith. I would agree with Hitchens that the rise of fundamentalism in various parts of our world is one of the most frightening of contemporary social and political developments. When we place another beneath us, set apart from us, we tear out a part of our human heart, and then anything goes, for that person has become Other. For Unitarian Universalists, the question is never “What do you believe?” but rather “What kind of person have you become? What are the fruits of your living?”
The significance of love and tolerance in our faith is even more strongly a dimension of Universalism. The Universalist movement began in our country in the late 18th century, about the same time as did the Unitarian movement, both being imports from England. The American Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou told his followers that heaven and hell are not found in any kind of afterlife, but simply in the life we create on this earth. He also rejected the idea that Jesus’s death on the cross saved us — he taught that what saved us was Jesus’s embodiment of love and justice. Historically, paradise for the Universalist was a place where people struggle with injustice and where they are called upon to develop wisdom and our capacity to love.
The universalism in Universalist refers to universal salvation, a very radical theological concept that emerged in an age in which revival preachers were riding through the countryside telling people that they were going to burn in hell unless they repented of their sins. I remember the time I was speaking at a conference on Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and at lunch one of the Christian presenters, a noted academic, said to me, “This doctrine of Universalism, that’s a pretty silly notion, don’t you think?” I was taken aback, and I said no, that actually I thought it was a step in the right direction at a time when hell and damnation sermons were giving God a bad name. And then I paused, and I said to him, “Do you believe that God loves everyone?”
“Yes,” he said.
“So did God love Hitler, too?”
Reluctantly, he agreed. “Yes, I suppose so,” he said.
And then I said, “And so it’s not that much of a stretch, is it, to believe that a loving God could somehow in the end, reconcile all things to Himself.” And we let the conversation end there.
The Unitarians and Universalists talked for many years about merging, and although their theologies were close, they were kept apart by class differences. The Unitarians tended to come from the educated, upper-middle class, and tended to be more cerebral in their worship style than the Universalists, who were mainly rural and less well educated. They decided in 1961, at last, to merge and now the faith is known as Unitarian Universalist.
In summary, we Unitarian Universalists do have a theology:
- We believe that human beings should be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.
- We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.
- We believe that God is One.
- We believe that revelation is ever unfolding.
- We believe that the Kingdom of God is to be created here on this earth.
- We believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, and that other prophets from God have risen in other faith traditions.
- We believe that love is more important than doctrine.
- We believe that God’s mercy will reconcile all unto itself in the end.
Now this piece about God’s mercy — I confess that I don’t know how that could be true. How could God’s love be that encompassing, that forgiving? I can’t even forgive my neighbor who consistently gets out his leaf blower while I’m trying to write a sermon. How could everyone be saved? Surely some of us should go to hell! Surely the guy with the leaf blower.
No, not one. Not one, in God’s infinite mercy. And we are asked to stretch ourselves large enough to take that in. I’m not there yet. But that’s the great thing about my faith. It’s evolving. And so am I. May God have mercy upon my soul. And yours. So be it. Amen.
A Note from John Pepper – April 2011
The first worship service of April is titled “Partners in Justice” and we will explore that then. But partnerships are a crucial part of our interactions one with another. They help make the church operate effectively, but more importantly, they help make it run on the power of joint effort and the love we give to that effort.
In the spirit of those thoughts, I’d like to suggest a new partnership for the church. Flowers are beautiful this time of year and thanks to modern transportation, they are beautiful all year round. Many churches have a flower fund to purchase flowers for the church each Sunday but other churches rely on a partnership with their members. Members purchase and bring flowers in honor of a birthday, an anniversary, a death, or just because they want to bring them. Sometimes theflower arrangements are elaborate and stunning, and just as often they are simple yet equally beautiful. This is the first part of the partnership.
The second part of the partnership is at the end of the worship service someone volunteers to take the flowers to someone else who will enjoy them, usually someone in the hospital, in hospice, or who just needs cheering up. And they don’t have to be members of our church. If no one happens to fall into that category, the person who bought the flowers can take them home and enjoy them or just give them away.
So in the spirit of partnership, I’m going to bring flowers the first Sunday hoping to start a new tradition. My Dad’s birthday is on April 3rd which is the same day as the first service in April. So in honor of my Dad who will be 83, I will bring flowers. I hope one of you knows someone who will enjoy the flowers for the remainder of the week and that you will volunteer to take the flowers to that special person.
Rev. John Pepper
“You Can Do It!”
I’m not sure what “It” is, but I’m sure you can do it. You may not do it perfectly, but you can do it. And by the way, I don’t believe in “Perfect”!!! But that will be the premise behind an upcoming sermon so I won’t go there now. So for now, let’s get back to “It.”
I know there is something you want to try or something you want to do or something you want to help out with and instead of going for it, you often claim you don’t have the experience or the skill to do what needs to be done or you are just afraid you won’t do “it” perfectly. And yes there may be some things you simply physically can’t do, like I can’t pick out colors because I’m color blind. But I often say even though I’m color blind, I’m not ugly blind. I still know what I like and don’t like, I just leave the matching of colors to someone who has good color vision.
So even though you might not be a chef, you probably can make cookies or cakes for bake sales. You may not be a professional writer, but if you have a computer you can probably put together a pretty good News Letter. You may not be a general contractor, but there is no reason why you can’t seek bids from service providers in the Yellow Pages for asphalt or concrete work. If you can shop for an inexpensive dress or suit, you can shop for contractors. You might not be able to write a sermon but once again if you have a computer or if you can get to a library, there are millions of sermons out there and you might like one of them enough to share it with the congregation in the future. You might not be able to carry a tune but you might know someone who sings beautifully and who would love to be invited to sing at our church. You might not be able to afford to buy flowers, but you could walk outside and pick flowers to grace our altar from time to time. You might not be able to heal the sick, but you could offer to drive them every once in a while to the doctor.
There are a million things we can do for the church and for each other. Being a part of a church community should inspire us to do more for the church and for each other. Remember, a church runs primarily on the voluntary support of its members. You CAN do it. I know you can.
It is hard to believe, but we’ve been in our new building for almost a year. Soon, you might want to ask the question, “What do we want to be when we grow up?” I say this metaphorically of course. We are all grown up, but a church needs a purpose or purposes. In reality my idea is always relevant whether you are a relatively new congregation or an old one. In Houston at the Fellowship, I’m on a Covenant Task Force and we are asking a very similar question of our members. That is the backdrop for my sermon the 6th which I will repeat on the 13th in Houston. I will mostly be asking questions which only you as a congregation can answer for yourselves.
My second sermon in February relates to a belief of mine that the UUA could much more effectively harness and utilize our individual talents in order to make a positive difference in our world. It’s going to take much more than clever sermons. Using my idea each one of us could participate in that process, only in different ways.
There are no perfect answers to what we should do or how we should go about it. But together, working together, we can do much more as a group of committed individuals than any one of us can alone.