Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Tale of Jonathan and Ja'briel: A Graphic and Textual Retelling

      I met Ms. Ja’briel Walthour when we both were serving on a panel discussing LGBTQ issues at Georgia Southern University.  She shared a compelling story about her life before and after transitioning.   I suggested her as a speaker to our congregational program committee at the church where I serve as a minister and we invited her to share her story with us.  In the picture on the left, I’m presenting Ms. Walthour with our congregation’s “Courageous Love Award,” which is given to individuals by our “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. Through these two encounters I came to greatly appreciate Ja’briel’s courage in dealing with the challenges of being a transgender woman of color in southeast Georgia.  Therefore, when the opportunity was initiated in my writing class to creatively retell a story, I immediately thought of her.  J’abriel has given me permission to use her real names for this project.  I’ve shared Ja’briel’s story in two parts using Pixton software for creating comics.  The first part is entitled, “Jonathan’s Story” and the second part is “Ja’briel’s Story.”  Please send any feedback to me at or in the comment section if you prefer.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ultimate Reality: Creating an Honest Theology

Grace Lambie was a wonderful colleague I worked with in the College of Education for many years.  And she would see me in the hallway and say, “Jane – how are you?”  And I’d reply – “Fine.”  And Grace would say, “No—I mean – how are you REALLY?” Grace wanted me to tell her the TRUTH – not just give some canned reply.

And that’s what I’m asking us to think about today in regards to our beliefs – which most us like to respond to with something rather nebulous like – “OH, I believe in life and love.”  Or – “I believe in the goodness of humanity.” Or perhaps—“I believe that God is good all the time.” Or maybe we go in the opposite direction and say – “I believe it’s all a bunch of  ____”(put in your own expletive).   And I hear Grace Lambie in my ear saying – “No, I mean what do you REALLY believe?  Put some thought into it.  Tell me the truth.”

That’s what some of us are doing on Sunday evenings in our “Building Your Own Theology” class.  We are attempting to put some thought into our ideas and tell the truth.  And isn’t it grand that we can do that here at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro – cause you sure can’t do it everywhere. Tonight we are going to be delving into our own personal beliefs – so my sermon today serves as an introduction into that exploration.  We invite you to join us this evening or continue exploring on your own.  Either way --  it is worth examining.

First of all – before I start throwing various names of theologies at you – let me say that these are all categories and words that WE made up – people MADE these things up in efforts to communicate and examine their own beliefs and the beliefs of others.  And some of the meanings of these words are different for different folks – and some meanings have evolved.  That’s what happens with language.  So that’s my disclaimer of sorts.  But we do have the need to communicate about our belief systems so I’m going to share some words that are commonly used to do this. I’m going to share some “theologies” – some ways of thinking about the divine, the universe, life and more.  And I decided to connect it as much with our heart as our head, I’d see if I could find hymns or songs that represented these ideas.  So I may just break out into one – but bear with me or feel free to join in!

“God of grace and God of Glory on thy people pour thy power.”  That’s the song of a Theist – singing praises to God – a powerful, supernatural God of grace and glory and power.  A Creator God who knows the hairs on our head and who keeps his eye on the sparrow.  Now Theism can be monotheism or polytheism – and there are other branches and ways to think about theism as well. Some who identify as theists think of God or the Divine as a being or beings – while others may view God or the Divine as some kind of power that pushes or pulls or influences.  But it’s a real – though supernatural thing – not a metaphor or name for some theoretical concept. 

The Unitarian and Universalist Faiths were initially theistic faiths which evolved and became more inclusive of other views.  Yet there are those among us for whom theism is a powerful framework for  understanding “Ultimate Reality.”  My survey revealed that about 7 percent of us identify as theists with another 10 percent identifying as Christian – usually seen as theists as well.  So that’s a minority, but a minority that perhaps keeps us more historically grounded than we might be without them, and we are grateful for their presence. 

Theists not only think of the divine in powerful ways, they view the divine as a companion and someone to call on in times of trouble.  I think this is especially true of those who identify as Christian theists. 

(Sing)  “When the way grows drear, precious Lord, linger near, when my life is almost gone, hear my cry, hear my call, hold my hand lest I fall; take my hand, previous Lord, lead me home.”
My strong rational self won’t let me go there – but there are times when it would sure help.

Now the word theism wasn’t used much until folks in the Western world began to promote other ideas – and there was a need to differentiate folks like the Deists who were some of our founding Fathers – from the more traditional religious folks.  I don’t know if we have any Deists here – those are folks who believe in a creator God who then sits back and doesn’t get involved.  But we do have Atheists and Agnostics. 

Steve Martin has a comedy skit where he says "Atheists don’t have no good songs."  But I came up with one that I think we all like. 
Imagine there's no heaven
it’s easy if you try
No hell below us
above us only sky
You may wonder why that wonderful song is not in our UU hymnal.  Actually, the hymnal committee wanted to include it.  But they were committed to trying to use language that was gender neutral or that at least was more inclusive.  And they wanted to change the line that read "a brotherhood of man."  Yoko Ono said something like, "You either use it like John wrote it or not at all."  So it's not in there, though we still consider it a UU song.

Atheism is an active disbelief in the existence of God or gods. Theologian Paul Rasor says that for Atheists”Nature alone is real; the divine is either an illusion or an imaginative representation or symbol of some aspect of the natural world.”  And Atheism has a couple of cousins in the theological world.  One is Agnosticism – which is the ultimate uncertainty about the existence of God.  Their song might be “We Laugh We Cry" – especially the fourth verse when it starts (sing)“We seek elusive answers to the questions of this life” and ends with (sing)“And in our search for peace, maybe we’ll finally see; even to question, truly is an answer.” 

One of the jokes some folks tell about UUs is that they are Agnostics with children.  But that’s not so – we are far more diverse.  Now neither atheism nor agnosticism was included in that survey I sent out because these two categories were not on the UUA survey – and I wanted to be able to make some comparisons.  The cousin that WAS there was Humanism – and I assume that any of you who may be related to this naturalistic area checked that one – but maybe not.  Humanism focuses on the belief in humanity as central without divine beings.  It’s a “naturalistic and non-theistic interpretation of religion, emphasizing humanly significant actions and experiences.”  (Rasor).  I searched for a hymn in our hymnal that exemplifies humanism – and the one that I really feel does this is #113 by Edwin Henry Wilson and it goes like this:

Where is our holy church? Where race and class unite as equal person in the search for beauty, truth, and right.
Where is our holy writ?  Where'er a human heart a sacred torch of truth has lit, by inspiration taught.
Where is our holy One?  A mighty host respond; the people rise in eery land to break the captive's bond.
Where is our holy land?  Within the human soul, wherever free minds truly seek with character the goal.
Where is our paradise?  In aspiration's sight, wherein we hope to see arise ten thousand years of right.

I call myself a religious naturalist – but I checked humanism because that’s close.  I usually don’t use that terminology because of its focus on humans.  And I’m afraid our dog Windy might feel left out. 

You may note that in the survey or our congregation, this was the category that more folks checked – though not a majority.  Almost as many checked Earth or Nature Centered.  Now I used the categories from the 1998 survey, but I almost wish that this one was a bit more divided – because it probably includes both more traditional naturalists as well as those who may identify as pagan, or neopagan, or perhaps Wiccan.  I do know that we have had a growing number of folks connected with us who participate in rituals regularly which could be identified as pagan – sometimes in the woods behind my house.  And I participate too—though I do not take on this label as my primary theological identity.  Of course, I enjoy participating with all of you in your various rituals – especially when there is food and drink involved.  Rasor identifies neopaganism as “an earth-centered and often polytheistic tradition that sees divinity in everything and emphasizes ritual practices and participatory experience.”  Its cousins are pantheism which equates God with nature and panentheism which is the belief that God is both immanent (or active within us) and a divine being.  Basically all these folks are going back to that old time earthy religion that honors the seasons and the earth itself.  And this religion pays a whole lot more attention to the feminine divine than more traditional western theologies.  My favorite hymn to celebrate these theologies is #51. (sing)  “Lady of the seasons laughter in the summer’s warmth be near; when the winter follows after, teach our spirits not to fear.  Hold us in your steady mercy, Lady of the turning year.”

A few of you identify as mystics and there are mystics within all the world’s great religions.  That’s why the categories are sometimes difficult.  And definitions of mysticism change with various religions, cultures, and times.  But I think most of us would perhaps accept a definition similar to the one advanced by McClenon who said that mysticism is“the doctrine that special mental states or events allow an understanding of ultimate truths. Although it is difficult to differentiate which forms of experience allow such understandings, mental episodes supporting belief in 'other kinds of reality' are often labeled mystical [...] Mysticism tends to refer to experiences supporting belief in a cosmic unity rather than the advocation of a particular religious ideology.”

Folks – basically, you get the spirit in you – which is a little of what we attempt to do when we sing:  “Gathered here in the mystery of the hour, gathered here in one strong body, gathered here in the struggle and the power, Spirit draw near.” 

Some Unitarian Universalists identify with specific world religions – other than our parent religions of Judaism and Christianity.  We have a few folks who identify as Buddhists – probably because they practice meditation and attempt to adhere to some basic Buddhist principles.  Many of us who may not identify primarily as Buddhists also study and attempt to follow these teachings including this one attributed to Gautama Buddha: (Sing) “Be ye lamps unto yourselves.  Be your own confidence.  Hold to the truth within yourselves as to the only lamp.”

We didn’t have anyone identify primarily as Hindu – but I know that many do lift up the Hindu gods and goddesses and other avatars of the divine in some of their pagan practices.  And with them I sing:  “There are many strings in your lute, let me add my own among them.”

Does our theology matter?  Wars have been fought and people killed over differing beliefs.  And even when the violence isn’t physical the arguments and various proofs for a God or against a God are excruciating.  We don’t spend much time here at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro doing this.  In our Building Your Own Theology book, Richard Gilbert says that "today we are increasingly less concerned with answering the question of the existence of God or responding to proofs of God and much more concerned that religious liberals of all ages have experiences that may be called divine.  Many are today more comfortable articulating the experience of the sacred than the existence or non-existence of a divine being.” However Gilbert still encourages us to ask questions about Ultimate Reality – whatever that is.  Is it benign?  Does it intervene in human affairs?
Does the divine make any difference in our lives?  Gilbert says we may not achieve success in answering all of these questions – but perhaps we will be confused on a higher level – and about more important things.  

We encourage you to keep coming to UU – so that you too may be confused on a higher level.  But most of all -- come for the community.  As Mary Daly suggests:  “The word ‘God' may not refer to any being up there or out there or even in there, but to a divine process of which we are a part.  It may be that we experience the divine in relational power—that it is created out of the gathering of people in worship or in the pursuit of a noble cause.”  

SO… whatever your beliefs or non-beliefs -- (sing)
“Let it be a dance we do.  May I have this dance with you?  In the good times and the bad times too, Let it be a dance!” 

Amen and Blessed Be!