Unitarian Universalist Church
  in Idaho Falls
A welcoming religious home celebrating the inherent worth of every person
A view of the falls in Idaho Falls 555 E. Street View of our church from our garden Unitarian Universalist Church in Idaho Falls A view of the Snake River
About Us Our Minister Contact Us Find Us Home

A Sampling of Sunday Services with Rev. Jeffrey P. Lambkin and Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Selle Jones

Prayer as a Means of Coping with Crisis

Memorial Day Reflection

The Church Courageous

Masks

The Incredible Power of Forgiveness

A Reflection in the Mirror

Return to page with links to all sermons


Full Transcriptions of Sunday Services
with Rev. Jeffrey P. Lambkin and
Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Selle Jones

Prayer as a Means of Coping with Crisis
  by Rev. Jeffrey P. Lambkin, January 29, 2006

We often think of prayer as an instinctive cry for help when we feel threatened by danger, crises, or calamity. This cry is native in every human being, regardless of religious conviction or lack thereof. It is an inborn instinct in everyone. But if we only pray when we are in trouble or when we need help, then we are missing the larger dimension of what prayer can be.

For most people, prayer is what we say. It is a human attempt to speak to God. But what I have learned is that real prayer is not just words. It is beyond words, just as God is essentially beyond words. From the Tao te Ching, a classic Chinese religion from the sixth century B.C. comes this teaching: "The Tao (the Divine Way) that can be named is not the eternal Tao." That is, if you can put it into words, you are no longer talking about prayer. That same insight is affirmed in different traditions: God, the sacred, is beyond all words and names. Since God is beyond all our concepts and images, then our language about God is basically inadequate.

The writer of Psalm 139 asked the question, “Whither shall I go from your Spirit? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol (the bowels of the earth) thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me.” It was the psalmist's conviction that wherever we go, God is there. And because God is all-pervasive, there is no place we can go and be outside God. According then to the ancient seekers, the sacred is not out there or up there somewhere, but around us as well as inside of us.

If we are then in God, and if there is no place where we can be outside of God, we might conclude that God is not a Person, not a specific Being, but a Presence that inhabits all of creation, a pervasive and encompassing Spirit. This form of theism is called pantheism, meaning that God is in everything. A new form of pantheism has emerged called panentheism. Pantheism means that God is in everything; but panentheism means that everything is in God. The differences are slight, but important. According to the pantheists, God is an external force out there somewhere, a transcendent monarchy who is lawgiver, king and judge, Panentheism believes that God is right here in all of us. God is nowhere yet everywhere, loving all of us, not just because we have been good but because we are a part of God. Marcus Borg is one of the contemporary scholars who has affirmed this form of theism and encourages us to view God as a compassionate lover as well as a liberator Says Borg, “The religious life is about a deepening relationship with the God who is known by many names, the One who is right here as well as more than right here.”

What then is prayer? It is not just talking to ourselves. It is not begging and beseeching for help from an external God somewhere in the universe? Rather it is simply knowing that we are not alone, that a force greater than ourselves, a divine being outside of all of us and yet also inside each of us, is inspiring us with wisdom and strength so that we can be who we came here to be, and so that we can help ourselves and each other? Each person has to make the decision about who God is (or is not) for himself or herself. We cannot do that for another; we can only do it for ourselves. So what I say today comes from my own decisions about who I think God is, and may or may not reflect the decisions you have made.

The question before us today is how does prayer help us cope with crises? If prayer is not simply the words we speak, how then shall we pray? Mother Teresa said, “I used to pray that God would help me to ease the suffering of the people in Calcutta where I lived and worked. I used to pray that God would do this or that. But now I pray that God will guide me to do whatever I can do. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us, and we change things.”

I remember as a teen-ager listening to lengthy spoken prayers in both the Mormon and Baptist churches, when I was trying to decide which way I wanted to go. I noticed that it was always the bishop or the minister who prayed in the worship service, as though only he (and it was always a male) knew how to do it correctly.

Prayers given by the minister, priest, bishop, or read from a written liturgy—all are efforts to direct the thoughts of the people in the right direction, the inference being that the people apparently do not have the ability or training to know how to correctly formulate their own prayers. The Quakers practice silent prayer, which gives everyone the opportunity to form their own prayers as they wish, as long as they do it silently. Some Unitarians, on the other hand, have solved the problem by omitting spoken prayer for the most part, since there might be dispute over what prayer really is.

I believe that everyone has the ability to pray. It is built into us. But prayer is not what I say. Prayer is who I am. Whether I bow my head and close my eyes, or look upward or outward, I am simply trying to go inside myself where I can hear the divine speaking to me.

I would like to share a critical moment in my life when I prayed and felt divinely led because of what happened. There have been many such moments, but this one was especially significant. I left the church in Oakland which I had served for twenty years and in response to a call from First Baptist in Seattle went there in 1980. It was a difficult decision. I loved Oakland and the congregation I was serving there. I had no desire to leave, but something inside seemed to say it was time to make a change. I had a somewhat rough start in Seattle. A number of people thought I was too liberal and too inclusive so some of them left. As things finally settled down, new people began to come, who more than replaced those who had left.

Then, after a few years, I was approached by another church, Riverside Church in New York City. Riverside may well be the premier pulpit in the entire country, but I was even more torn about leaving Seattle than I was about Oakland. Members of the Riverside search committee flew to Seattle to hear me preach and spend time talking to me. I was then invited to come back to New York City and meet with the full committee. Through all of this I felt conflicted. I was flattered, but at the same time I was uncertain. Riverside Church was then facing some critical issues: a dwindling membership, a serious financial shortfall, a contingency of older members who were uncertain about the growing racial and sexual diversity of the congregation. These were not new issues for me; I had faced them all before in the two churches I had served. But I did not want to exchange Seattle for New York City, and I sincerely hoped they would not call me.

About a week after I came home, the chair of the committee called and said the search had been narrowed down to two people, the Rev. James Forbes and me. I knew then I needed to decide what I would do if they should call me. I was driving home from the church late one afternoon, and as I came to the top of the hill, I saw the waters of the Puget Sound stretched before me, bathed in the golden light of a setting sun. I pulled the car over to the edge of the road and sat there for a long moment. I put my head against the back of the seat and closed my eyes and spoke a prayer that was wrenched from the very depths of my being, "What should I do?" I waited but nothing happened. I opened my eyes and saw a huge tanker plowing its way northward through the waters below. As I watched it slowly disappear from sight, I heard three words. Whether they were clearly spoken or just in my head I cannot honestly say, but the words were unmistakable. "Let it go." Immediately I felt an immense load lifted from within, for I knew with utter clarity what I needed to do.

The next morning I called the chairman of the pulpit committee in New York City and told him I had wanted to remove my name as a candidate. He said to me, “The committee has been in a deadlock over the two of you; although I am personally sorry to lose you, this will clear the way for us to move forward.” I now know that I was meant to stay and finish my work in Seattle.

I hesitate to share an experience like this, because it is not only deeply personal, it can easily be misunderstood. But things of this nature have happened to me enough times that I now firmly believe that when we are in a crisis of any kind, if we can get quiet and spend some time looking inward, and perhaps drawing on a wisdom and a power greater than our own, we will find help and direction.

I will repeat what I said several weeks ago in an article in the Idaho Falls Post Register. “True prayer is not what we say but who we are. Instead of accosting God with our demands and giving God instructions on how to run the universe, we should see prayer as simply clearly a path within ourselves, so that the divine can come alive in us.” That kind of prayer might use words, or it might simply listen to silence within, so that the truth and love of God might become known in us and made visible to the world through and by us.

In conclusion, I want to say that I believe everyone prays, whether they have a formal religious affiliation or not. Whenever we go within ourselves and reflect on a situation in our lives or in our world, when we are filled with compassion for someone, when we are in trouble or filled with sorrow and despair over a situation, when we stand before a beautiful place in the world of nature—in these and a thousand of other times and ways, as we automatically reach into our own interior being to express gratitude or to seek comfort, meaning and direction, we pray. If we have a practice of meditation that helps us listen to ourselves and the world around us, even though that practice may have no direct reference to God, we are nevertheless praying.

When I am standing in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho (one of my favorite places), I am often more spiritual than when I am sitting inside cathedral. I am reminded of words of the psalmist, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help. My help comes from the One who made heaven and earth.” Often in the silent presence of those majestic peaks, my cares and concerns drain away as unimportant or non-existent.

In conclusion, I feel awe and gratitude for all that has been given to me during my life and for the prayers that have guided me on my way. Our prayers may take the form of words, but true prayer is more than words, more than a religious exercise. Prayer is who we really are, not only now, but for all eternity.

Top

Memorial Day Reflection
  by Rev. Jeffrey P. Lambkin, May 29, 2005

As a boy, on Memorial Day, my parents would sometimes bring flowers or wreaths to the graves of some of the men and women from our little town who had lost their lives in the wars of the last century. Later there would be a schmaltzy parade down the street in front of our house, some unintelligible speeches in the square downtown and, with all the boring stuff out of the way, we would all head off to the park for a town Bar-b-que with games and nifty prizes for us kids.

There are still picnics, of course, and and Bar-b-que’s around the country this weekend, but these days, this particular holiday is seen by most as simply an extra day off.

It’s a sad holiday. And, I think in order to avoid the profound sadness that permeates us all when we contemplate the debilitating costs of war, most of us would prefer to let the day pass in quiet gatherings of family or friends, or maybe alone, simply enjoying a day off.

I often walk around the Greenbelt of the Snake River. Every time I do, I pass the Veteran’s Memorial on Memorial Drive. The stone monument says “In honor of all veterans of all wars.” And another larger monument nearer the river says, “Lest we forget.” Just what is it that we might be prone to forget? Or to put it another way, what is it that we are being asked remember? Certainly, the men and women who have died in America’s wars. But I think it goes deeper than this.

What I think we need to remember is that, through all the untold human suffering, loss, death and grief of the myriad wars and battles fought by Americans, all of us, in the core of our souls, desperately want peace. This is our true heritage as human beings and, I hope, this is also our destiny, as well. I know that we, as a species, haven’t realized this aspiration for any significant length of time, but we humans do want peace; for ourselves and even more so for our children. And to really yearn for peace in this way means to work to overcome violence.

In 1789, the United States War Department was created to organize and maintain the U.S. army both in times of peace and war. In 1949 the War Department was reconstituted as the Dept. of the Army, which eventually became a division of the Department of Defense. But what about changing the name again? What if this gargantuan federal agency was to be called, for example, the Department of Peace? What might be the implications of that kind of a name change? What would the primary mission and tasks of this redefined organization then become? And what if the Department of Homeland Security was subsumed into this department, but now called the Department of Homeland Relations, not Security?

Would a change such as this immediately signal an end to war for this country? Sadly, no. But it would symbolize that it is our primary intention to work like crazy to ensure that war is the last resort in our panoply of foreign relations approaches. The very last resort, not simply a convenient, if untidy, tool of hegemonic imperialism. When I speak of a Department of Peace, I’m not talking here about the Orwellian doublespeak of political idioms such as Clear Skies and Healthy Forests Initiatives that mean more air pollution and more trees cut down. Or No Child Left Behind that means entire schools and their students left behind. No, I’m actually referring to, what is called in Greek, a metanoia – a complete change of mind and heart; an awareness that we have been going about this task of international relations in ways that are both self-serving and tragically flawed and, in fact, serve to undermine the very peace we seek to find. I’m speaking of a change that sounds, even as I say it, impossible, but I’m also reminded of the powerful and prophetic words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, quoted in our hymnal, who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” It’s the only thing that ever has.

I think of our burgeoning little United Vision for Idaho group more and more each day as Elizabeth and I are serving this Fellowship. I remember the two small demonstrations we recently held downtown, in a city where demonstrations are a rare sight, indeed, aimed at protecting the Social Security program. The first gathering had maybe a dozen adults and one small child standing outside the City Council Chambers on the day of Sen. Larry Craig’s Town Hall meeting. And because it was held in concert with other small demonstrations around the state, it actually received national press coverage. Then the next one, some weeks later, more than tripled the number of marchers, with local television stations eager to cover the event. Some of you may have been there because this congregation was well represented. And that small child was again present with us. And he was able to articulate why he was there. That’s both symbolic and powerful. He is the face of the future of progressive values. These values have not died. They are once again being revived in public life.

Karl Rove started as one man, just one man and, through clever leveraging of some very powerful and wealthy people, and playing on the greed and fear of many, became the “architect” of a neo-conservative empire founded on a disdain for the oppressed and justice for the privileged. One man, one vision. What could we do if we actually leveraged compassion and justice into the cornerstones of a reinvigorated country that would finally live out the dreams, not the weaknesses, of our Founding Fathers and Mothers?

Violence is any behavior that dehumanizes anyone. When we deny the presence of love and truth in another human being we are committing violence. Violence is forgetting that there is an infinity behind every human face.

Woundedness - in ourselves, in others, and in our culture - is entangled within the very roots of violence, and in turn is inextricably enmeshed in the roots of war. We have all, unwittingly, by virtue in our membership in this culture, been enrolled in a class called “Violence 101.” Our teachers have been the media, our societal values of consumerism and exploitation, rugged individualism, and an illusion of superiority. Sometimes we receive extra tutoring from family or friends, bosses or even co-workers. Consciously or not we are being schooled in the logic and practice of emotional, verbal, physical and structural violence. We learn that the world is an untrustworthy place, we learn quickly who are enemies are and, most significantly, we learn that the only ways to deal with violence are to either accommodate it, avoid it, or utilize it ourselves. With every conflict we rehearse and reinforce these scripts by either going along with violence, running from it, or by throwing a verbal or physical punch. Ironically, violence rarely, if ever, ends through any of these means.

Nonviolence is a forceful, gentle and audacious power rooted in an unquenchable longing for the wholeness of the world and its wounded and sacred inhabitants. I personally struggle with the viability of this philosophy, but it keeps drawing me back again and again because active nonviolence, a living and breathing life of compassion, comes face to face with these wounds. Compassion touches a sacredness within each of us that lies even deeper than our wounds. This is the spiritual center where we finally come to our senses, recover our balance and reclaim our humanity. This is the place within us where the woundedness and sacredness of every person is revered and is seen to be capable of evoking the most profound healing.

By facing our woundedness and acknowledging this sacredness, active nonviolence prepares us to address the conflicts we face in our lives and in the life of the world. We can begin to trust ourselves to be fully present to others. We can creatively interrupt the cycle of retaliatory violence. We can acknowledge and safeguard the humanity of the opponent as well as the ally. We can identify and struggle for an agreement that respects all parties so we are then able to transform what divides we humans from ourselves, from one another, and from the Earth. The goal of nonviolence is not to win. It is to gain greater understanding of the truth, and then to encourage all sides act on that more encompassing truth. And to find mutually acceptable and sustainable solutions to conflicts.

Jesus, St. Francis, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others have declared with their lives an alternative to the treadmill of violence. They preached and practiced active nonviolence as a way to resolve conflict humanely and effectively, to become genuinely human.

Pace e bene, the brief quotation at the top of your Order of Service this morning, means “peace and all good to you” and was used by St. Francis and St. Clare in 12th century Assisi as a greeting and as a means of proclaiming the way of nonviolence in the midst of a violent world.

Strangely, it is not that anger, or even rage, disappears in learning nonviolence. Gandhi declared himself to be “the angriest man of the 20th century.” Rather, it’s making the choice again and again to not act on that first impulse for revenge, for retribution. This is not easy stuff. It is a lifelong and generation-spanning process. But there are tools to help us do this work. And people trained to help us learn. And to unlearn. Arun Gandhi, for example, is carrying on his grandfather’s legacy in teaching non-violence all around the world.

The most intractable conflicts we humans seem to face are those described as identity-based conflicts. These are the racially, ethnically, culturally or religiously-based conflicts we are most familiar with around the world – in Israel and Palestine, in Darfur in the Sudan, some years ago in Cambodia, and during the Nazi Holocaust.

If we want to make sure atrocities such as these don’t continue, we need to stop the downward spiral of conflict before it reaches anything like those dimensions.

In proposing nonviolent alternatives to war, the hypothetical question is almost always asked, “What would you have done about Hitler?” But the question is always asked too late. What happened in the 1930’s? Where was international diplomacy and pressure? Would it have stopped that juggernaut? Maybe.

People often used such hypothetical questions to try to derail Gandhi from his path of satyagraha or “soul force.” When pressed, time after time, even Gandhi developed 5 criteria for the use of what he called “injurious force,” which, firmly grounded in empathy for the Other, he distinguished from violence. These precepts were:

1. It is a last resort.
2. You engage it with deep regret.
3. You are doing it only to protect “life.”
4. You accept the consequences – physical, emotional and spiritual; and
5. You vow to never let this type of action happen again. Never again!

“Who is a hero?” the rabbis ask of the Talmud. Their answer: “One who changes an enemy into an ally.”

We humans can actually learn to develop a sense of compassion and open-heartedness for "the Other side" and even to tell the other side's story in a sympathetic manner. Jay Rothman, an international mediator, says in his book Resolving Identity-based Conflict, “Transforming conflict is about finding that even the bitterest of adversaries share common human needs. Such conflicts may be creatively transformed when adversaries come to learn, ironically perhaps, that they (can) fulfill their deepest needs and aspirations only with the cooperation of those who most vigorously oppose them. Even while cooperating, adversaries may still wish the other side would just go away; (but) peace prevails when they understand that this just will not happen. Through in-depth encounters, even the angriest of enemies may come to learn that just as their own needs for expression and fulfillment of identity, safety, dignity, and meaning are like a thirst that must be quenched, the other side’s identity needs are equally compelling.”

What would truly honor those men and women who have died in our nation’s wars? Wouldn’t the journey toward lives of non-violence and a just peace be a fitting memorial for a new Memorial Day?

It has been said that, “Everything good has to be done over and over again forever.” There is a community of people working tirelessly to bring into being the “Kingdom of God” that Jesus spoke of so often, because, ironically, the Kingdom is already among us, but as yet largely unrecognized. We are all called to be a part of this community, most of whom are still unknown to us, but who are following the call into a world that does not yet exist. Let’s join them.

May it be so.

Top

The Church Courageous
  by Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Selle Jones, February 6, 2005

As she left the small, barely furnished room in the Massachusetts jail where she had been teaching about 20 female inmates, Dorothea Dix heard “an eerie kind of wailing, loud and sad.” The jailer told her with an amused smile that that was “one of the mad ones. No keeping them quiet.” That was the night Dorothea Dix discovered that the indigent insane were kept in the same jail as convicted criminals only the conditions for the mentally ill were much worse.

That bitter cold night, she found six figures huddled on straw smelling of feces, with no heat and only rags for clothes. It was in 1841 that Dorothea made this shocking discovery of how fellow human beings, mad, poor or both, but still humans, were kept. She immediately changed her focus from public school teaching to teaching the public and legislators about the atrocious condition she consistently found in jails and the inhumane way the poor and mentally ill, in particular, were being treated or rather mistreated. She was an exemplar extraordinaire of what one person, dedicated to change and justice, can accomplish. Stephen Kendrick in “A Faith People Make” tells the stories of Unitarian Universalists who, because of their UU beliefs, changed all of our lives. Dorothea Dix’s incredible story of dedication and caring is one of these. If you are ever in doubt about what one person can do, read about Dorothea Dix. Pope Pius IX called her a “modern day St. Theresa.”

Abraham Lincoln, recognizing her great talent and compassion, named her head of the U.S. Army nurses during the Civil War. Single handedly, she shocked and then educated America into taking care of its neediest citizens, the poor, the mentally ill and the imprisoned. Hers was a great personal victory but her work was an even greater victory for those she helped save from such misery. She is one of the greatest figures in our UU history because she won a courageous battle in the long struggle on behalf of mercy and deep human compassion.

Another of our Unitarian Universalist exemplars who served our denomination with uncommon courage was Thomas Starr King. He was a second-generation New England Universalist minister but made his name most prominently as the Unitarian Minister of the fledgling Unitarian Society of San Francisco. He was just over 5 feet tall but had the mind, wit, heart and voice of a giant. It was 1860 when he traveled to San Francisco from his home in Boston. Tragically, he was in California only 4 years before he died of pneumonia brought on by exhaustion.

But in those four years, he changed the life of the church and the politics of California. Not only did he raise enough money to build a beautiful new church for the San Francisco congregation but simultaneously, he became famous throughout California for his high ethics, his superior oratory prowess and his influence on Public policy. He traveled the state during those four years working to keep the state of California on the anti slavery Union side in the Civil War, a history altering accomplishment. One wonders what marvelous things he might have done for Unitarian Universalism and for this nation if he had lived past the age of 39. He was another one-person courageous force for compassion, justice and Unitarian Universalist values.

The Oxford dictionary defines courage as: 1. “The quality of character which shows itself when facing danger,” 2. “Acting despite fear or lack of confidence.” Courage is demonstrating integrity and character in face of danger. The word courage comes from the old French and Latin root meaning “heart.” Courage is doing what we know in our hearts is right, even when we feel afraid. That is why when we say to someone “ I really admire the courage it took to face that difficult situation,” they often say, “I didn’t actually feel brave at all.” Courage has little or nothing to do with bravery. It has to do with heart. It has to do with values. It has to do with deeply held values; the kind Socrates called “beautiful values.”

If we were each to make a list of our values, they might very well be similar lists but our ranking of their importance might be different. I might think Justice is the highest value where as you might consider security more valuable. Someone else might hold peace as the most important value while another would choose freedom. Justice, peace, security and freedom most likely would be on the list of important values for nearly everyone here but the one you would give up for another reveals your priority of values.

It is in defense of the value or values we hold highest that we are most likely to display courage. TSK literally gave his life for the values of justice, equality and the inherent worth and dignity of each person. Dorothea Dix displayed her courage in the cause of compassion, justice as well as the ideals of our first Unitarian Universalist principle.

Theodore Parker devoted much of his adult life to the abolition of slavery as well. He listened to his heart as his father had counseled him to do. It told him slavery was wrong. Courage is doing what we know in our hearts is the right thing to do according to our values.

Even though the examples I have given have to do with individual courage the foundation for group or communal courage is the same- hope, trust and a strong sense of values. Our values are how we discern what is right and what is wrong. The Religious Right does not have a monopoly on determining what is right and what is wrong. We have our own seven foundational Principles of right living as well, including those of compassion and justice. They call us to be respectful of each other and of the natural world.

In the passage by Yann Martel, which was read earlier, the effects of fear are described in graphic terms. The situation that caused such fear for the hero of this book, was a 450-pound Bengal tiger in the opposite end of his lifeboat, a situation dangerous enough to fill any of us with fear. The counsel given is that while we often foolishly throw away our reason in the face of such fear, we should never throw away Hope and Trust. If we can hang onto reason also, so much the better, but this does not often prove to be the case.

Rarely in our lives does fear actually come in the form of real 450-pound tigers, but fear is still present in all of our lives. Many of us have regular bouts of fear about our ultimate death. Some of us fear embarrassment or humiliation; some fear conflict or confrontation; some fear the loss of power, some the loss of money or other possessions. The potential or actual loss of a spouse or partner can result in fear as well as grief.

We fear for our children’s safety and for our own. If we have a loved one in Iraq, that generates fear and rightly so. Sometimes fear is real but it does not need to be real, rational, physical, or imminent for it to lessen our ability to function. Fear in some form may actually ride in many personal life boats as a daily companion. Fear lessens our ability to function effectively as individuals or as a group.

Therefore, for this Church to be courageous, its members need first to feel and be as safe as possible. That means adults and children are physically safe in this building and safe from emotional and verbal abuse as well. We all need a safe place in which to explore and follow our spiritual path, and to be able to respectfully express our beliefs and opinions and have them honestly heard and considered, whether they are commonly held or different from the majority. Safety also means that others will hang in there to solve a conflict and not walk out on the discussion. Trust means that we will not be abandoned even in times of chaos, illness, mistakes or fear.

On this day when the Super Bowl takes center stage, I will allow myself a sports metaphor. We all need to know that the whole team is behind us. That there is not just a star quarterback or a world class tight-end who gets all the acclaim, and like the World Champion New England Patriots, we are a team on which each player knows that the rest of the team is here to support, encourage, forgive, and to make a space through which we can run for our own touch down, what ever that may be for us, and cheer when we make a good play or even when we simply give it our best try. We each need to know that there will be teammates protecting our backs or throw a good block if we step out into dangerous territory.

At the same time it is good to remember that in the same sense that doctors and lawyers practice their professions, we are practicing Unitarian Universalists. That means two things: first, we are living our principles and values daily and, second, that we are not perfect in these skills. We are all still practicing.

It is not just imagined fears that get in the way of being courageous. Some of you were hurt or poorly treated in some ways in the past. Maybe here maybe somewhere else. You may feel that someone was rude to you or acted unfairly, judged or, even worse, misjudged you. There may be feelings that this Fellowship has not always been run openly and democratically. All these events, and more, can inflict wounds and until we help them heal, they may cause us to feel less supportive of this team, in our hearts, than we would like to be. This is a time of new beginnings.

It is the responsibility of each one of you to make this a radically safe church in all the ways about which I have just spoken. It is not the responsibility of a few highly dedicated folks to make this happen. If this Fellowship is to prosper, everyone must do his or her own part to ensure that this is a safe and courageous Church. This includes old-timers, newcomers, those older in years, and the younger ones, too.

And by the way, speaking of the younger generation, I believe that if there were a genuine role, not a made up job, but a real service that our teenagers could be responsible for in this congregation they would feel more like it is their church too, and want to come and participate fully on a regular basis.

Although the repeated use of his statement has made it sound trite, the wisdom in JFK’s admonishment to “Ask not what the country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” hits the mark and if altered to apply to this Fellowship and refocused on what we can do to sustain the health, nourishment, and bounty of this beloved community, it would indeed cause this Fellowship to be transformed. This would become a Courageous Church out of which would flow a myriad of personal and communal acts of justice and hope.

You might even become known in the broader community as that exciting, even “dangerous” congregation that Jeff spoke of two weeks ago. It would be a place where you could delight in bringing friends, relatives and neighbors, Mormon or evangelical, not yet churched or previously churched. It would be a place alive with energy, unbridled trust, radical hope and transforming courage.

Oh, May it be so.

Top

Masks
   by Rev. Jeffrey P. Lambkin, October 24, 2004

"A fiery horse with a speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty ‘Hi-Yo, Silver!’. . .The Lone Ranger rides again!" On Saturday mornings, in the early 1950’s, I sat glued to a green round television screen to watch the Lone Ranger and Tonto bring desperados to justice. Set sometime in the 1880’s, the tale essentially went like this. A Texas Ranger unit on patrol is ambushed by the notorious Butch Cavendish gang. The lone survivor, John Reid, is nursed back to health by a passing Indian. To hide his identity while he pursues Cavendish, Reid dons a mask. Thus concealed, The Lone Ranger sets out to bring the gang to justice, and after them, a host of other outlaws who prey on honest, simple folk. In every episode there was someone who mistrusted him because of his mask but the Lone Ranger was always able to convince them by the end of the show that he was one of the “good guys.” After the villains of the story are caught, the selfless, anonymous Lone Ranger leaves behind a single silver bullet, a reminder of his steadfast vigilance against evil.”

Many years later I have come to see this simple story as the archetypal journey of the seeker of wisdom and truth. The villains represent ignorance, both within us and all around us. The silver bullet is the reminder of the way of truth. It is not the truth itself, but a reminder to stay on one’s chosen path.

As a young boy, after the show was over, I would often don my own Lone Ranger mask and head outside, eagerly searching for playmates to recreate what I had just seen on TV. Sometimes, the fantasy worked. I would find someone to play Tonto and other boys to be the bad guys. Other times, I would be ridiculed, usually by the bigger boys. You see, as a child, I was one of the fat kids, one of the kids who endured the taunts of “Lone Ranger, Hah!” Often followed by a simple, but cutting, chant of “Fatty fatty two-by- four, couldn’t get through the bathroom door, so he did it on the floor, fatty fatty two-by- four.” I would always put up a tough front, not wanting them to know how much they were hurting me, but what I desperately wanted was to just lay down a silver bullet, both to end the taunting and also to let these kids to know that I was really one of the good guys, too.

As I grew older, I abandoned my Lone Ranger mask, but my mask as a fat kid never left. Even after years of therapy, exercise, and dieting into someone who I think appears to be quite fit, that fat kid mask still survives. This was, of course, only one of the almost limitless ways a child can be the object of derision or scorn by both adults and peers. We all have our masks – the ones that aspire to hide from us the pain of times past, and attempt to cover over the feeling that we are, somehow, deep within, just not good enough. But to the extent that we mistake the mask for the being within, to that extent do we subvert the realization of our deepest longings for personal fulfillment and human intimacy.

The founder of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls, described the human psyche as metaphorically consisting of layers, the first two being the everyday layers, the ways in which we, as children, learn how to get along in society, win approval and placate others. The third layer covers up a feeling of being empty and lost, that feeling we try to counteract by building up our character defenses, by donning our masks. Under this layer is the fourth and most baffling layer, the layer of our basic human anxieties. Perls calls it the “terror we carry around in our secret heart.” While most of us stay stuck in the first two layers, it is only when we explode this fourth layer, Perls suggested, that we arrive at our authentic self. I agree with Dr. Perls that, as human beings, we do deeply yearn, although it also terrifies us, for the freedom that comes from self-revelation, from allowing ourselves to be revealed in all our warts and all our glory.

And so I wonder, how do we penetrate through these layers? How do we remove our masks? Or should we even try? Is what lies beneath simply too frightening? Is the attempt to heal really worth the risk of discovery? Or, is there somewhere a silver bullet that will somehow assist in this journey of self-revelation?

I have no definitive answers to these questions but, as sometimes occurs during a search, a few clues do appear. Sometimes our unmasking happens completely unwittingly, through crisis or trauma. We are catapulted into the depths of our being by a situation out of our control. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, a divorce, an accident or illness, menopause. I described one example in a Sunday service here a few weeks ago where, at 16, I experienced a spiritual emergency, one that changed me in some ways forever.

Elizabeth and I had one of these catapulting experiences this summer while traveling in Costa Rica. We had rented a double kayak to paddle around on a mirror smooth tropical river. We began to paddle upstream and came upon some small rapids. This seemed intriguing, so we continued on and soon came to a place where the rapids were too fast for us to paddle against. Suddenly our kayak became wedged between two rocks, began filling with water, and we capsized into the now swiftly moving river. This was a Costa Rican jungle, there were no life jackets to be found and we were fully clothed. I was a lifeguard as a teenager, but Elizabeth is not the best swimmer. When we both simultaneously surfaced and gulped for air, I despaired as I watched all our belongings being washed down the river and I began to swim after them. Then I turned and shouted to Elizabeth, “Can you swim?” She said, “No.” In that instant, everything changed. I held on to her and maneuvered us both to a nearby rock where I hauled us out of the water. At that moment, as we looked at each other, there were no masks left between us. No barriers. Just raw adrenalin-pumping relief. We had survived and we were alive. That experience still lives within both of us. We occasionally speak of it. But mostly, it just sits in a warm place of intimacy, deep gratitude, and a heightened appreciation for life.

Another very different experience. On a pilgrimage to some of the ancient sacred sites of Europe two years ago, Elizabeth and I both stared in wonder as we walked through the multi-chambered hunting age sanctuary of the caves at Font du Gaume in France, the last caves in the Aquitane Basin still open to the public. We had waited for an hour and a half for the tour to begin. As it turned out the only tour available was given in French, a language neither Elizabeth nor I could speak, other than the most basic survival phrases. At first I was disappointed that I wouldn’t hear the history and interpretations of these paintings, but upon entering the caves I became aware that the theories might actually be a distraction from the power of the art, itself. As with the simulated cave at Lascaux we had just toured, termed “the Sistine Chapel of the Paleolithic” – it struck me that we were viewing an experience of divinity from over 15,000 years ago. The paintings mostly consist of a variety of leaping bulls, herds of stags and trotting ponies. But one image has stayed indelibly imprinted in my mind. It was the only human figure to be found in the caves, a man wearing a bird mask, with birdlike hands, and an erect penis pointing like a finger toward an eviscerated bull. Next to this man is an apparent wand, also bearing the image of a bird on its tip. While I know which aspect of the painting may seem the most intriguing, I’ll save my speculations about that penis for some other time.

It is possible that this scene merely represented a hunting accident. But to me, and certainly no one knows for sure, this seemed to be a painting of an early hunting ritual, maybe one of the first ever recorded. And the bird costume and the transformative ritual it may have represented are, indeed, consistent with what is now known about shamanic rituals of indigenous peoples throughout much of the world, rituals often conducted wearing the masks of animals and composite creatures.

In the world of our ancestors, the function of the mask was to bestow on its wearer and his or her people the all-important power to enter into and maintain a kind of mystical union with fellow creatures. This was often accomplished through stylized and prolonged dances that released the mind and enabled the shaman to enter a world beyond this world, where the ego dissolved and there was nothing left but pure life, itself, everywhere present. The Zen masters of China and Japan later called this a state of “no-mind.” The classical Indian terms are moksa, release; bodhi, enlightenment; or nirvana, a transcendaence of the winds of passion. Pure and simple presence of being. And without using religious language at all, writer James Joyce later spoke of this kind of experience as a “luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

It appears that, even in Paleolithic cultures, there was a deep psychological cleavage between the tough-minded practical hunters and their often feared, yet indispensable tender-minded shamans. Yet at that time both were needed, one for physical sustenance and the other for spiritual sustenance. The timely and the timeless. Two types of mind, surprisingly quite complementary.

This brings to mind a more modern day fissure in worldview in our own Unitarian Universalist movement, that between humanists and mystics. I think back just a few weeks to our after service potluck. I chanced to speak with one of the members here, a man who I believe would describe himself as a rational humanist, maybe more accurately a skeptic. Since I might describe myself more as a “grounded mystic,” this man and I hold rather different theological worldviews. He tried to explain his to me. I was, in the confusion of this brand new gathering of people, completely unable to explain mine. Mysticism doesn’t lend itself to a nifty definition under even the best of circumstances. But we chanced to switch to the topic of nature, a love we both share. I heard the words “awe” and “wonder” tumble out of one of our mouths and, for me, in that instant, the masks of our worldviews dissolved. We met in a place beyond the mask of theology, that meeting ground that seems to transcend boundaries. We crossed a bridge of human commonality without sacrificing the integrity of our beliefs and experience, a challenge we are called to rise to daily as Unitarian Universalists.

Joseph Campbell suggests, in his book, The Masks of God, that the ends for which most humans strive may be broken into three sets. They are: first, love and pleasure; second, power and success; and third, lawful order and moral virtue. But there is also a fourth way chosen by some: the way of the seeker of wisdom. This path in search of human and spiritual awareness, of deep and profound meaning, is one increasingly being undertaken by people of faith around the world, including some of us here today. A journey of unmasking, if you will.

In our searching, the dimension of meaning often emerges as a primary modality. Gestalt psychology explains this “meaning” response as a confrontation with the challenge of becoming whole. In asking such questions as, “Who am I?” or “What is the meaning of my life?” the very questions themselves provoke our feelings of brokenness or fragmentation. And often, in our questioning, and in the lack of clear answers, we are left with simply our own beingness. Zen master, Bernie Glassman, speaks of the lack of energy derived from answers, but of the animating power of living a life of questioning, what he calls a life of “unknowing” and of simply bearing witness to our lives and the lives of those we touch.

We open each of our Seven Plus Two groups with Thich Nhat Hahn’s radical assertion that “The most precious gift we can offer (each other) is our presence.” In these small groups, that we hope each of you will participate in, we are encouraging you to begin to unmask the truth of the history and experiences of yourselves, as members and friends of this wonderful Fellowship.

There is a Zen koan in which the roshi asks of his student, “Show me your face before you were born.” To comply with this seemingly impossible request, the student must find a way to enter her “original mind.” It may be that the deepest meaning of the mask has to do with finding “our faces before we were born.” The search for identity, for meaning, and for a place in this universe are intimately bound up with healing. And healing is the path of our individual faith journeys as we walk them together. Maybe this is our silver bullet.

As we find the courage to reveal to each other, and to hear from one another, the truths of our lives, we begin to come into a heightened feeling of aliveness and a fullness of being and in concert with fellow seekers, begin to create a more engaged and committed community. In the words of religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs, “The wonder of being together, so close yet so apart – each hidden in our own secret chamber. Each listening, each trying to speak…” And, as we engage this formidable task, may we then be able to say with great passion, borrowing words from Ralph Waldo Emerson, undaunted by the cold winter winds outside our doors, in these refulgent times, “it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.”

Top

The Incredible Power of Forgiveness
   by Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Selle Jones, October 17, 2004

Forgiveness is a human act, a human quality that raises many questions for me: moral and ethical questions, questions of limits. Forgiveness like non-violence is a personal goal, a standard for daily living for which I strive. So, I think a lot about forgiveness especially in this interim time.

There are often angers, frustrations and deep hurts in a congregation when a minister leaves. These hurts and angers are sometimes caused by something the departing minister did or didn’t do or in some cases what other congregants did or didn’t do. The departing minister may have unresolved hurts, angers and frustrations as well.

We know there are some hurt feelings surrounding Lee’s ministry and/or departure. Besides anything to do with Lee there are probably simmering hurts and angers in your personal lives and in the congregation regardless of comings and goings of ministers or other changes. Forgiveness is a human endeavor we need to talk about often.

Forgiveness, as I said, raises lots questions, not only in our personal lives but in the political world as well. For example are there limits to forgiveness? What about people who commit or order others to commit atrocities like Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Omar Hassan al-Bashir or those who were involved in the abuse at Abu Ghraib. How about those we think of as ordinary people who rape, abuse, torture or kill children or adults? Should they ever be forgiven, and what would that mean?

What would it be like to live in a society in which accountability and forgiveness instead of retribution and vengeance were the law of the land and the measure of our humanity? What would the world be like? Would there be anarchy and chaos? Would there be universal violence? More than now exists? Chaos, violence and anarchy were what many predicted when, one hundred years ago, the Universalists preached Universal Salvation- the belief that God would, does forgive every sin and all are saved, that there is no Hell. Chaos did not reign. So maybe it is time to add the belief in the practice of forgiveness to our personal as well as religious lives? Ah, but can we give up vengeance, retribution, anger, hate and even pettiness?

I believe that part of our problem with embracing forgiveness, comes from the Old Testament image of God where he is portrayed as the vengeful angry father punishing his sinning children. An eye for an eye has become the rule of life for many people, including our own US president, however what the practice of an eye for an eye leads to, results in, is not peace or comforted people but a world where everyone is blind.

In the world-view of retribution, the only honorable way to respond to an act of violence, a threat or a wrong done to you or a member of your family, is revenge. Hatred, anger, resentment and the desire and justification to pay back or exact revenge seems to be taken as part of human nature and has now become an accepted and honorable part of our culture. But there is also a parallel but almost forgotten tradition that calls us instead to forgiveness. This tradition that is strongly connected to the teachings of Jesus is also a part of other religious traditions, including Islam, and Buddhism. Jesus encouraged the practice of forgiveness. Compassion and forgiveness were the central message of his teaching, as in the quote printed in this morning’s order of service. ( not 7 but 70 times 7)

Even though our secular culture generally views the principles of forgiveness as laughable and impractical, are they? Are vengeance and retribution such a success? Have they brought us peace and prosperity, eased our grief and soothed our anger? Made the world a safer and saner place?

The attraction of revenge and violence are easy to see. We can vent our hatred. Hurt those who hurt us. Satisfy our anger and grief. We can show the world, we are not wimps. To respond with vengeance and over whelming power, instead of forgiveness or peacemaking, is the way to restore our honor and place in the world or community according to this tradition and practice. But our dedication to revenge and punishment takes a very high toll in material resources, suffering and human lives in the world today. It devastates individual lives and communities. Read the papers. Look around you. Look inside yourself. Would, could forgiving, heal your hurts and restore good relations in the world community or closer to home with someone who has hurt or abused you as well as or better than revenge or getting even in some way? Or holding a grudge?

In his book, Forgive and Forget, Lewis Smedes speaks to many of my questions and quandaries about forgiveness. He says, “Forgiving is love’s toughest work, and love’s biggest risk If you twist it into something it was never meant to be, it can make you a doormat or an insufferable manipulator. Forgiveness seems almost unnatural. Our sense of fairness tells us people should pay for the wrong they do but forgiving is love’s power to break natures rule.” He asks these good questions. “What do I do when I forgive someone who has done me wrong?” “Who is forgivable? Have some people gone beyond the forgiveness zone?” “How do I do it? Why should I even try? Is there a pay-off? Is it fair?” (p. xii)

The idea of forgiveness raises a week’s full of questions. Because forgiveness is a huge issue, we need to narrow the field. Today, we are not talking about forgiving corporations, systems, or acts of nature, or God for that matter, though these are all well worth pondering. This morning, we are talking about us forgiving other human being, ordinary people. It is my experience that the people who can hurt me most easily and deeply are those with whom I have some kind of relationship.

In Churches and Fellowships, sometimes it is the minister who hurts our feelings or causes us to be angry. It also could be a congregant or someone who is a friend, or we thought was a friend who wounds us verbally in some way. Of course strangers and casual acquaintances can hurt or anger us as well. People can disappoint us by their disloyalty or what seems like their insensitivity to our feelings. Breaking a promise can hurt deeply and feeling betrayed is a very deep wound. Can we bring ourselves to forgive the person who has hurt us in any way?

When someone wounds, offends or disappoints me in some way, even in a small insignificant way, like a sharp word, maybe spoken in anger, I feel hurt and sometimes angry. I carry the anger and hurt around with me for a while and then I realize it was not important, it is O.K., and I just forgive the person, silently and forget about it, then nothing more needs to be done. But if that hurt is not dealt with and is deep enough and I hold on to it then it can turn into hate, or permanent anger, which are much harder emotions to deal with.

Just a word about forgetting in the process of forgiving. Most small incidents are best forgotten at the same time they are forgiven but in the case of very large wounds or transgressions, the act needs to be remembered and forgiven. The transgressor needs to be held accountable and forgiven. Forgetting does not heal the wound only forgiving does that. Hurts, angers, grudges and hatreds undealt with can make us sick. The Time for All Ages story that Jeff told, What If Nobody Forgave?, illustrated this truth. In real life, people get sick, sometimes even bent over from the weight of their angers and hurts. Forgiving is our only sure cure.

Smedes says in his book, “Hate can be fatal, when we let it grow to enormous size inside of; us the best people can get their bellies full of it. And it is just as real whether it involves a nasty little scene between friends or a question of international immorality. Sometimes your hate, (or anger) only nibbles at the edges of the heart; it does not always burn out the lining of the soul…. …but whether your hate or anger is a carcinoma growing hell-bent for death inside your soul, or only a pesky heartburn, it will hurt you if you do not use the right remedy. Your healing may take heroic surgery of the soul. Then again, you may get by with a quick cauterization. But eventually, unchecked hate (anger) will do you in. Such hate can be healed.” (p.25-26)

As with any change that might be made in our lives, if we are going to learn to forgive, first we must want to forgive. That does not mean finding excuses for the person’s actions or waving it off if the hurt is still there. Forgiveness begins with the recognition that I need to forgive so that I can get on with my own life. To do that, gradually I must get a new insight about the person who has wounded or wounds me. This is not easy.

One of the reasons we bury the hurt instead of dealing with it, is because it is very painful to recognize the reality of the hurt. Forgiving does not mean that all of the terrible or petty but painful things in my past are going to be transformed like straw into gold as in the fairy-tale, they are going to remain as ugly as they ever were, but I am going to see them in a different way. I have to have a new insight. I have to see the person who hurt me with new eyes. I, not the other person, have to be transformed. I will have to see the object of my anger and hurt in a different way. To see that person as a human being like myself with needs and shortcomings. One who can make mistakes, get tired, frustrated and be fearful. Then I can begin to see this person as more than just the hurtful act.

This often takes a long time but I will know that whenever even a tiny part of me has the power to wish that person well, the forgiveness process has begun. This can and must happen even when, even though I may not tolerate, or see as acceptable in any way what that person did, accept the person, not the act. This is love’s toughest work, love’s biggest risk. Still the hate needs to be transformed.

Forgiveness is a severe test. It calls us, every day, to actually live out in daily life our Unitarian Universalist principles, that affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, compassion in human relationships and acceptance of one another. Sometimes a covenant nudges us to a higher vision. For some of us, it may call for a tough personal transformation, some very hard work.

Remember that forgiving is not for the other person, the transgressor. Forgiving is for the victim, for the one who has been hurt, you and me, the one who hates or is angry. Sometimes the hardest part is not the forgiving but giving up the anger, the hating. It is so self-righteous and satisfying. Sadly, we can become addicted to the idea of being a victim. We can become hooked on the pain so that it is hard to give it up. But we all need to be forgiven. More important we need to forgive each other. Each one of us has at sometime or other hurt another person. Maybe even someone who loved and trusted us. Few of us could cast the first stone if to do so would mean we had never hurt anyone. We are both the victim and the victimizer, the abused and the abuser. Which in itself is an important reason to forgive.

But the most important point is that forgiving one another is vital to our health. It is essential to our sense of well-being and joy. It is necessary if we are going to be fully alive and whole and essential for the building of a healthy and flourishing religious community. But forgiving deep hurts is one of the most difficult things we have to do; some of us find it almost impossible to do no matter how often we try.

We seem not to be able to forgive but not forgiving and carrying the hate or hurt is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. Hear these words of encouragement from Lewis Smedes, Who says, “If you are trying to forgive; even if you forgive today and hate tomorrow, and have to forgive again the day after, you are a forgiver. Most of us are amateurs at forgiving. So what? When it comes to forgiving, nobody is an expert. We are all beginners.”

This interim transition time, actually anytime, is the right time for forgiveness, a time for reaching for wholeness and health. It is a time for forgiving past hurts, forgiving mistakes or errors we made as well as forgiving others who fell short of our expectations or hurt us in some way. It is a good time to make another attempt at healing wounds by our forgiveness. In that way we can we ready to make a whole new start at living and re-energizing, renewing this Fellowship. When we do so, we will experience the incredible power of forgiveness.

Top

A Reflection in the Mirror
   by Rev. Jeffrey P. Lambkin and Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Selle Jones, October 3, 2004

Part 1. A Reflection in the Mirror
   by Rev. Jeffrey P. Lambkin

It was not, as they say, “business as usual.” I was 16 years old in the early months of 1964, living with my parents in upstate New York, struggling for grades good enough to be accepted into a decent college, cherishing a few good friendships, and awkward about my emerging sexuality. The 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district, and all that it symbolized, was still a few years and a leap in consciousness away.

I was sitting on my bed reading a book on that clear spring afternoon. Suddenly I felt as if my heart was being pried open and my head was being tightly squeezed. I was panicky, but couldn’t move. I was overtaken by a wild array of emotions, but abject fear and spiraling confusion were paramount. It seemed that most of what I thought I knew had just exploded out of my head and lay scattered on the floor all around me. But as time wore on that afternoon, another feeling began to take over – a sense of being held in a loving embrace by some unseen power.

In the ensuing days and weeks, I tried to describe this experience to my parents and a few friends, but I soon concluded that whatever had happened to me I would have to deal with on my own. It was not “business as usual.”

Some years later, this type of experience would be referred to by psychologist, Stanislov Grof, as a “spiritual emergency.” He later reframed this description into something much clearer and actually more affirming – he called it “spiritual emergence.”

I began looking in libraries and bookstores for books that might help me to understand this strange experience, to help me assimilate the fact that my entire world had changed, and as it turned out, had changed forever. I came upon the works of Alan Watts, an early Western practitioner of Zen Buddhism. I devoured his books. He somehow captured my experience, or something very much like it, and contextualized it within a tradition of spiritual exploration. I discovered others – the writings of Hindu and Christian and Jewish mystics. I began thinking I might be a mystic, as well, for the world I now inhabited seemed to hold dimensions I had never before known, all contained in a grand and mysterious interwoven matrix, what we Unitarian Universalists call the interdependent web. Thus began my lifelong quest in search of that illusive Holy Grail.

In the meantime, since childhood, I had been an active member of the Reformed Church, a denomination that evolved out of Calvinism. But I was soon to resign from the church of my youth over the Viet Nam War controversy and was struggling with the place Jesus would hold in my life, if he had any place left at all.

Ironically, I had been accepted into Hope College in Holland, Michigan, a school devoted to the preparation of religious leaders in the Reformed Church tradition and, although I was struggling in religious confusion, I was, as I followed this path, also answering my first calling into the ministry.

I did not pursue my ministerial calling after college. Instead I chose a career in health care administration. It was not until a transitional time after my mother’s death in 1999 that I decided finally to answer the calling and complete my seminary education.

My questing has been as much a part of me as my blood and my bones. To that end, I have immersed myself in an array of religious and spiritual paths – Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, Native American (my children and grandchildren are part Lakota Sioux), New Age, Old Age, and religious humanist, to name a few. Ironically, it was the humanist aspect of Unitarian Universalism, and a fellowship of engineers, that eventually drew me into this movement. But that’s a story for another time.

Today, in The Idaho Falls Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, it is also “not business as usual.” Your Fellowship’s first called minister, the Rev. Lee Greiner, with you for some 8 years, has departed. Lee’s indelible imprint is now a significant part of your history. Elizabeth and I already know Lee was loved and respected. We also know her time here was not without conflict and controversy. Of course. We’re Unitarian Universalists. And beyond that, we’re human. Building community, authentic community, inherently engenders conflict. We promise, as your Interim Ministers, we will also do our part to create conflict. Not for conflict’s sake, certainly. But in the process of helping you discern more clearly who you are now and where you want to go, of demonstrating other ways of doing ministry, of making changes, and of experimenting, conflict will arise. During our time here we will help you to participate in healthy conflict engagement, and hopefully to experience the process as one of creative possibility, rather than fracturing division.

During the next few months, we will want to pay special attention to your past, mostly the last 8 years, but also going back to your inception, years that have served to powerfully form and guide this fellowship. To borrow the title of an old Clint Eastwood film, we want to know “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!” We want to hear your many stories and we want you all to know the story of the Idaho Falls Fellowship. We want you to be able to speak, in safety, about the skeletons, secrets and sacred cows of the past and present in your fellowship. We want to learn more about your relationships with Lee. This is all part of the process of grieving and healing. It’s purpose is never to blame, but for you to move on, building capacity and health as a religious body during the next two years and, in the spring of 2006, to joyfully call your second settled minister. But before you can do that, you must look back on the past, not just with your intellects, but with your hearts, feeling all the emotions this process will trigger.

These are liminal times in your Fellowship. Victor Turner, in The Ritual Process, describes the attributes of liminality as being “necessarily ambiguous…betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, (or) convention…As such, their ambiguous… attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols...frequently likened to being in the womb, to darkness, to the wilderness.” And Michael Cunningham, in The Hours, writing about Virginia Woolf, says, “At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead. Her mind hums. This morning she may penetrate…the clogged pipes (and) reach the gold...” Can you feel the possibility here? Last Sunday, in your “Bridging” worship service, your worship committee spoke again and again of hope and anticipation.

These are also times of potential transformation, an experience that can enlarge you and expand your presence in the world. There is a lot of work to do – inner spiritual work, and community-building work. We know some of this will not be easy. It entails polishing your mirror so you can see yourselves clearly, maybe for the first time. But there is also a wonderful foundation you have already established here on which to build – a bedrock of love, compassion, service, and community. Elizabeth and I can feel these qualities, though we have only recently arrived. And we know you are up to the challenge and we believe you have the inner and outer resources you need.

As a community, you have endured to nurture each other’s spiritual and human journeys for over 50 years. You celebrated a glorious 50th anniversary not long ago. And for this we commend you. You have an important story to tell and you are a part of an even grander story. You belong to a remarkable faith tradition whose roots go back to the middle of the 16th Century, one that has spoken out prophetically for religious freedom time and time again.

We plan to explore with you some of the many possible shapes your emerging Fellowship might take, some of the myriad of paths you might follow. And hopefully, by the time we leave, through your hard work, a clearer vision will emerge; and a growing sense of purpose and commitment, not only to the well-being of this Fellowship, but to our larger movement of Unitarian Universalism and, even further, to re-creating our world in an image of justice, freedom and love.

May it be so.

Part 2. A Reflection in the Mirror
   by Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Selle Jones

Like many Unitarian Universalist ministers, this is a second career for me. In the first period of my life I raised four children and a husband. I volunteered in school and youth activities. I was dedicated to this career of wife, mother and community citizen. It filled my hours and felt rewarding and honorable. But like many of you, as my children grew up, and although I worried as much, they needed me less, an emptiness in me rose to the surface.

In my case this void took the guise of questions, “what will I do when I grow up?” And “what is the meaning of this life I have been given?” So I returned to the University looking for answers and got my BA in Anthropology. But school was only a preparation for me not the destination. However, it was through a connection at UCSB, actually the minister’s wife, that I found the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. And so began my slow but growing interest and connection with my spiritual self. I discovered Starr King School for the Ministry, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, and attended a summer session there. I was intrigued. But could not at that time envision myself becoming an actual minister. Later I did apply to be a student at Starr King.

However, life does not run smoothly, as you may have noticed, and within a few years we discovered that my husband had cancer and he died within the year.

My application to the Seminary was accepted and the question of what I was going to do with my one wild and wonderful life got a radical answer. I still had four loving and grown children but all else changed in my life. It was my own radical reformation.

If I had had the courage or taken the time to look in a mirror and do some serious and needed reflecting, I would have been terrified at what I saw there, and rightly so. I was in for some major deconstruction, before the rebuilding could begin. I was grieving over the loss of my husband, moving to a new place, and starting on a totally new life-path. Actually it was a time for me personally, similar to the one this Fellowship is in right now, in its process of change and growth. Stressful, exciting but not easy.

Seminary. My theology has always been a struggle. The concept of an over arching deity, outside of but also permeating the Universe, boggles my mind. On the other hand, the opposite idea of the universe creating itself and whatever is in it, by error and chance, including the fantastic life here on earth and maybe else where, is for me equally unbelievable. My search has been to find a God that I can believe in. I do not want to believe that all of creation, including me, exists just by happenstance or is some cosmic joke. I want there to be meaning and yes, of course, something after death besides annihilation. I have not yet found permanently that God but there are times now when I feel a divine embrace. I, and my theology, are most certainly still in transition and formation. When I have to, I describe myself as a Mystic Humanist and a seeker. I seek wisdom, inner and outer peace, meaning and balance, and of course lots of fun, travel and pleasure.

Marcus Borg, one of my favorite theologians, because I can understand him, says that one of the basic tools of a seeker is perception. That is, we really see not our projections or what we want to see, but what is really there, what is really going on. Mirrors sometimes help us do that. They show us that our hair is thinning or that we still look pretty good. When our self-images have told us otherwise. Mirrors reflect what is there. Sometimes we don’t like or we misuse the truth we see, as with the Stepmother/witch in Snow White who called on her mirror to tell her the truth. But she was angered by the truth she saw, that Snow White was more beautiful than she. The mirror told her where Snow White was and so she set about to kill her. Narcissus, on the other hand, saw his own reflection and fell in love with himself and that led to his self-destruction.

So what is all this about mirrors and perception. Well for the next two years, Jeff and I are going to act not as Moses coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments or even as regular settled ministers who tend more to flow with the Status Quo but as human mirrors reflecting back to you what we see. You may sometimes get angry with us for what we are showing you but we hope you will not want to kill us before the 2 years are over. On the other hand neither do we want you to blindly fall in love with what you see in us. S. Ansky says, “There is glass in the window and in the mirror, but in the mirror the glass is covered with a little silver; now lo and behold, no sooner is a little silver added than you cease to see others and see only yourself.”

In case it entered you mind, as it has ours, we are not just inanimate pieces of glass plated on one side with silver, impartially reflecting the images projected on it. We are human beings with ideas, minds, souls, prejudices, and pre-conceived notions just like all of you so every reflection comes with that caveat but we do hope to act like that bit of silver that helps you get a clear, or at least clearer, reflection of who you are.

So the first and most important phase of this two year interim process, is to begin to reflect back to you what we see, what we hear, paint a picture of who you are as a Fellowship right now and to deal with any grieving about the past including Lee’s departure.

In an interview in Parabola Magazine, Helen Luke is asked if the essence of reflection is attention. And she replies: Reflection or reflecting is attention that…

“… is not a rational thinking effort. It is living in the moment: past and future become one. The basic meaning of the word attend is to be present. It is not equivalent to the being present in nature—there is a specifically human content. Attention (and therefore reflection) involves seeing, listening, caring, and courtesy, which arise from the inclusion of the human act of intention and concentration beyond thought. Thus, the subject and the object are one. In those moments the mirror is clear.”

So we are here to be mirrors. We hope the reflection of who you are and who you want to be as a Fellowship, as a church, will gradually become more clear. We will do this together by paying close attention, by seeing, listening, caring, asking questions, all with courtesy and respect. In addition we hope we will all grow and have fun along the way.

So may it be.

Top

Return to page with links to all sermons

 

© Copyright 2000-2008 Unitarian Universalist Church
in Idaho Falls. All rights reserved.