Welcome to the Emerald City
Rev. Douglas Taylor
“Why, then, oh why, can’t I?” The lingering question with which the movie begins is the sort of question that could lead many people into transformative spiritual journeys. Folks recall the Technicolor and great songs from the movie, the one-liners, the characters. The movie is amazingly fun. Yet there is a deeper level to this movie that starts with these lyrics. “Why, then, oh why, can’t I?” The song asks, ‘why can’t my life have happiness and dreams that come true?’ “Some day I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me.” So, if these happy bluebirds can get away from the clouds, how about me? There is something plaguing me, some dark cloud hanging over my life. I’m not settled in here, this is not quite my place; something is missing. I yearn for something more. “Why, oh why can’t I?”
I don’t think MGM planned for this to be a deep movie about spiritual searching, they were just bringing to the silver screen a delightful children’s book by Frank Baum. And I don’t think Frank Baum was intentionally creating children’s books that had mythic heroes and journeys as the frameworks. Maybe that was his intent, but I don’t think so. In the end, however, this 1939 movie, which the AFI (American Film Institute) continues to rank among the top ten films of all time, has a deeper mythic connection that comes out if you are willing to notice.
Certainly, there are other movies that have been suggested as models the spiritual journey, even other movies and stories that have been suggested as particularly apt for Unitarian Universalists. Perhaps you identify with the story of the Ugly Duckling: growing up, you didn’t fit in to the world around you until you discovered that indeed you are a terrible Catholic because in fact you are a Unitarian Universalist. Or you may find yourself in the annual televising of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a denizen of the Island of Misfit Toys: here we all are because we didn’t fit in anywhere else, but together we can make do. These are motifs from stories that seem to work particularly well as mythic stories or motifs for Unitarian Universalists. There are many, many possibilities of characters or scenarios that lend themselves to this sort of spiritual comparison.
The Wizard of Oz is on a different order from these other examples because I’m not talking about just one scene or one character. The whole movie is a model for a Unitarian Universalist spiritual life. The Wizard of Oz is an epic journey. And, again, there are other amazing movies that are based on epic journeys: think Star Wars, think Narnia; but what I lift up about the Wizard of Oz is that it seems to show this epic journey of spiritual searching in a Unitarian Universalist style. The Chronicles of Narnia are a delightfully entertaining children’s story with a deep and recognizable undercurrent of Christian theology. I think the Wizard of Oz, not intentionally of course, does this for Unitarian Universalism.
What stands out most is that this is the story of a person going on a journey to find her home, or at the end of the movie Dorothy says she was looking for her heart’s desire. As the opening song also indicates, there is a longing, a desire, a hope for something more in life. That is how many of us begin our own spiritual journey. And as Glenda the Good Witch told Dorothy, it is best to begin at the beginning. So we begin with the delightfully obvious metaphor of the yellow brick road.
The Yellow Brick Road is the path you follow in your journey to find the wizard who will help you reach Kansas. In Unitarian Universalism we speak of each of us being on our journeys to find wholeness or peace or enlightenment or Kansas which is home. We’re all trying to get home. The yellow brick road is the path. When Dorothy in Oz, Glenda the Good Witch doesn’t say, “Here is a holy book that will explain your situation;” she doesn’t say, “Trust and believe in the wizard and he will take care of all your problems;” and she doesn’t say, “There is no such thing as Kansas, you need to let go of your delusion.” Instead, she tells Dorothy that to get what she wants she must take a journey. Glenda the Good Witch tells her to begin at the beginning and “follow the yellow brick road.” In this mythic story seen as a spiritual search, you are Dorothy and your work is to be on the journey. The yellow brick road is not a dogma or a creed. It’s a path. This fits quite well with our Unitarian Universalist understanding of spiritual deepening.
Along the way, Dorothy meets many different people. In a way, everyone Dorothy meets in Oz can be seen as an aspect of Dorothy’s inner life as she follows her journey on the yellow brick road. Likewise for us: as we walk along our paths of spiritual deepening, enlightenment, and understanding, the characters in the movie can be seen as aspects of our inner selves. And, equally important, most of the time the characters also represent external aspects of life for us. Most obvious, perhaps, are the three characters that travel with Dorothy: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. On your spiritual quest you’ll need your brain, your heart, and your nerve. Being spiritual, especially the way that is meant in Unitarian Universalist circles, can’t b done without thinking, feeling, and courageously acting. My colleague, Tom Owen-Towle has claimed that UUs are “Freethinking Mystics with Hands,” meaning our faith involves the intellect, compassion, and a willingness to engage in the work of the world. There are many ways to lay these three characters out. But they all join Dorothy because they are each missing something – or they believe they are, at least. Dorothy is missing her home, but if you will recall, she left home because she was missing something as well – but it is difficult to say just what was missing. That is the trouble with spiritual yearning, half the job is figuring out what you’re after.
Two other characters that represent aspects of our inner and outer lives are the witches. The Good witch represents our guides, those around us that offer wise council. Your Good Witch may be a particularly good friend, your parents, or your minister. The good witch is also our own inner encouragement. Have you every said, or heard someone else say, “I think the universe is trying to tell me something”? That would be akin to the work of the Witches from this story. The Wicked Witch is pretty much the polar opposite of the Good Witch. You’ve got things in your life that help you out and things that drag you down. You have one or two people who look out for you and others that go out of their way to be snarky. You’ve good burdens and blessings, ups and downs, joys and sorrows, Goods and Wickeds. That’s life, that’s just the way things are. Of course, the Wicked Witches are always more prevalent that the Good Witches, but there are ways of getting rid of Wicked Witches.
Of course, the Wizard deserves a comment or two. Dorothy gets started on her journey with a goal in mind: to get home; and in order to do that, she has to go see the Wizard. The Wizard is the one who will fix all the problems, solve all the dilemmas, and to give to you the things that are missing. You’re missing something, remember? That’s why you started on this journey. So you go to your Wizard to find answers. Guess what kind of answers the Wizard gives you! Well in the movie, the Wizard gave our friends an outrageous task: go deal with that big thing you’re afraid of first, and then I can help you. “Bring me the Wicked Witch’s broomstick.” It reminds me of the story of the Lions Whiskers. The stepmother in this Ethiopian folktale is heartbroken because her stepson rejects her. She seeks help from a wise medicine man, who tells her to bring him three whiskers from the ferocious lion that prowls in the black-rock desert. Over many months, she tames the lion through and discovers that she ahs the patience and courage to handle the situation. In the same why she dealt with the lion, she works to tame the boy and make him need her and love her. So the Wizard says to them when they get back from the adventure: you want brains: didn’t you find that you had them when you needed them on this task I set for you? Did you not find your heart and your courage by yourselves: what you needed was already there inside you?!
Your wizard is the minister, guru, rabbi, or teacher who becomes the focal point for you. Your wizard is your external focal point. You show up here with questions and find bigger questions, or find that what you thought was lost is there inside you and has been all along! There is a great quote for a wayside pulpit: “Seeking Enlightenment? Inquire Within.” Certainly if you think I am your Wizard I will tell you I am only a Humbug! Oh, I know how to put on the show with the smoke and the pyrotechnics, if you will. But I hope when I am saying, “Pay no attention to that man behind the pulpit,” it is not because I want to dazzle you into submission. Rather I how to get out of the way so you may better see God or at least yourself more deeply.
Now, I want to point out a very important distinction, one that most folks notice, but forget if they don’t watch the movie every year: The Wizard did not give anything to Dorothy, did not solve her problem. His one attempt to help her is spoiled at the last moment as he flies away in his balloon without her, which necessitates Glenda the Good Witch to put in another appearance. But it is not Glenda who saves the day either. Glenda doesn’t give anything to Dorothy, does not solve her problem for her. What was it in the end that got Dorothy get back to Kansas? The Ruby Slippers, right? Wrong!
Listen, when the Wizard floats off with the balloon at the end, everyone is crestfallen. Suddenly Glenda’s bubble appears and every one is hopeful. The first words out of Dorothy’s mouth are “Oh, will you help me? Can you help me?” Glenda says, “You don’t need to be helped any longer. You’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas.” Over the years that has been a most frustrating answer. Well, why didn’t you say so earlier, Glenda? In fact, the Scarecrow asks that very question and Glenda says Dorothy wouldn’t have believed it at the beginning; she had to experience it for herself. Experience what? That the shoes had the power to take her home? No, it’s not about the shoes! Glenda doesn’t say, ‘it’s the shoes.’ She talks about the shoes later, but it’s not the shoes that do it. I wonder if the Shoes are like Dumbo’s Feather: just a prop to help you see what you can accomplish. “She had to learn it herself,” Glenda says. It is the experiences Dorothy went through that allow her to use the shoes to go home. What takes Dorothy home is her own lived experience of the journey.
What you need has within you all along. This is what we mean when we put so much emphasis on your path, your journey, in Unitarian Universalism. One of the regular jokes about us is how much we are interested in the journey and not so interested in the destination. The Wizard of Oz gets it! The journey is the whole point; without the journey, the destination is meaningless.
Now, I could go on. I could tell you all about what the Munchkins and the Winged Monkeys could represent. I could talk about what Oz and Kansas are meant to represent in spiritual terms. I could go on. But I want to mention only one other aspect of the movie this morning and how it might relate to the spiritual search as we Unitarian Universalists know it. I want to talk about Toto. Really, when you think about it, if it weren’t for Toto, there wouldn’t be much of a movie! Several of the very significant events were advanced due to Toto’s actions. From the whole beginning of the movie with Mean old Almira Gulch taking him away and then Dorothy deciding to run away to save Toto, up to when he runs away from the witch’s castle to bring help for poor Dorothy and sneaks over to pull back the wizard’s curtain, all the way to the very end when he leaps from the balloon as the wizard is about to take Dorothy back to Kansas, Toto is a great literary device. When some part of the script is stuck, have Toto do something and suddenly everything is moving again. Toto is also a great spiritual device – and for the same reason. Toto can be seen as an extension of Dorothy. If each of us is Dorothy, we all have an adventurous little Toto inside us as well. Toto is that adventurous aspect of our spirit, he is our spiritual whim. I encourage yourself to let your Toto off his leash more often and hold on to your red shoes – for your inner Toto of spiritual adventure may very well dash off to wonderful lands.
That’s what life is like sometimes: you find yourself on a journey, you are given guidance and there are companions to walk with you; but there will also be roadblocks and hurdles to overcome. Quite likely your will not find quite what you are looking for, or what you expected; and more mill be asked of you than you imagined when you started out. But in the end, the road will lead you home. Through perils and joys, blessings and great trouble, this road will lead you home.
In a world with a Kansas and an Oz without end
May it be so.
Honoring Our Elders
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Have you ever built something? Have you ever worked with other people to create something new? Last week at the 24-hour Spirituality Retreat we began two communal art projects on Friday evening which lasted through until Saturday evening. One project was a collage, or rather a series of collages. We cut out pictures and words, pasting them onto three large boards with the loosely defined goal of creating communal artwork. The other project was a Sand Mandela or Sand Art picture. Using various bold-colored sands and beans along with small shells, pasta wheels, and little plastic lizards – we built layer upon layer of designs. The big lesson for these two communal art projects centered on the shared nature of the project: one could not get too attached to anything in the collage or on the sand design because it could be changed, altered, overlaid, or amended by the next person. The big lesson was in making your contribution and letting go of the results. Have you ever taken part in a project like that? Have you ever been responsible to create something which others would finish – and likely finish it in ways you had not foreseen as possible let alone desirable? Have you ever taken part in a project like that? Of course you have! You are a part of this church, are you not? Our congregation is like a shared work of art in which each contributes.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetimes; therefore we are saved by hope. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished along.” Ours is a communal project. This congregation is as a work of art upon which each person pastes a new picture to fit among those already present. We each add a layer of color or texture to what has come before. This is what is meant by the phrase “the living tradition.” Our current hymnal is titled Singing the Living Tradition. It is meant to suggest an ongoing spirit to our community which “reveres the past, but trusts the dawning future more.” So this morning I take a moment to revere the past. To peel back a few layers to see what the project looked like during an earlier incarnation.
This is our Auction award sermon. Susie Ravage outbid everyone else during the Service Auction last year to win the chance to select the sermon topic. You still have a chance at the same honor for the coming year if you wish; the sermon topic is cast as “A Sermon Topic and Lunch with the Minister” in our Dining for Dollars fundraising event going on in our social hall this and next week. But Susie won it last year and Susie wanted to hear about the people who built this church, the people who were here when this current building went up. She wanted to honor those individuals in particular, but also in general to honor all the folks who have put in their time, who provided their share, who did their work when it was their turn and now are taking their ease or bearing their age as gracefully as they may while these young whippersnappers come along and pour new sand over their designs or paste new pictures and words overlapping the previous things. And so we take a moment to recognize and honor our elders.
The congregation held the open house for this building on a Sunday in November, 1958 – and it felt like the beginning. There are few among us who can recount the experiences preceding our time in this current building. The congregation, however, was already one hundred twenty three years old by the time we moved in. Allow me, please a brief digression, for it will help frame what comes next.
In 1835 the first organization of Universalists met and began forming a church society. On April 17th, 1843 they met for the first time in the Court House and were incorporated as the First Universalist Society. Almost a year later they purchased a lot on what is now the Court House Square. This location served them until the 1968 fire at which point there appears to have been no formal worship services held for the next twenty years. In 1889, however, the energy was revived and a small group of thirty or so Universalists responded to the call for reorganization. A few years later they purchased a lot on Exchange St and Congdon Pl. which, interestingly, was almost directly opposite the site of the original 1840’s church. Prior to purchasing this lot, the church had been offered a lot on the corner of Oak St. (near to where the current Binghamton High School now sits) but they declined on the grounds that it was too far out of town. Within 25 years they were kicking themselves for not taking the Oak St. lot. In 1929, the Binghamton Savings Bank offered to buy the land; thus the congregation left their second church home and migrated across the river to the old Smith Mansion at 131 Front Street.
From that time until they left the building in 1958, the little congregation grew and dreamed and struggled and experienced setback after setback. They labored through the Depression and the Second World War with disappointments and disagreements. At one point they considered merging with their next-door neighbors, the First Congregational Church which still sits on the corner of Front and Main today. Finally with the work of a few notable ministries, the congregation pulled itself toward the ambitious project of moving to a new location. In 1954, with the newly ordained Richard Woodman, the congregation chose a five-acre site on Riverside Drive leading all the way down to the Susquehanna River.
This history (the preceding two paragraphs) is described well in a little booklet written by a member of the congregation, Charla Hull, in 1966 called The History of Liberal Religion in Boome County. Charla was mentioned to me several times as I spoke with people over the past few weeks. Charla Hull was a powerful and well respected attorney. Her history booklet has a special note of thanks on the front cover to Mr. Lynn Smith, another character I was referred to a lot. Lynn Smith was a one of the deep pockets of the congregation – one of those folks who funded a great deal of activity and thus held considerable power and authority. Well, Charla and Lynn would go head to head at times. In looking through the records I could find over this past month, Mr. Smith and Ms. Hull were on the same committees over and over again. I can well imagine how these two powerful characters left such an impression on the institution. I regret not having the opportunity to talk with them.
There were, however, several folks I was able to talk with – not nearly enough people or all the people I could have talk with. I spoke with Velma Taft, Evalyn Seaver and Alda Kleske, as well as June and Roland Austin – although the Austins came after the church was built. I also spoke over the phone with Rev. Dick Woodman who served the church from 1954 to 1963. And indeed I also spoke over the phone with Lillian Gaffney. Lillian Gaffney has been a member of this congregation for a little over 68 years and holds the longest membership among us, having joined the congregation on April, 6th 1939. She remembers being a teenager over at the Smith Mansion on Front Street. The teens held dances in the carriage house behind the mansion. There was a catacomb in the basement where they had their Halloween party each year. Of course, she was quick to add, they had Sunday school classes too. Sunday school classes were before church; she and the other youth sang in the choir. She told me about wearing the black robes with white collars and sitting up front next to the minister facing the congregation. Ah, it was a different era! Lillian made a point of telling me about how wonderful the older women were with the young people. They always made her and her friends feel comfortable and welcome. This obvious carried Lillian forward, she described for me how she and Marilyn Gruber had kept the Children’s Religious Education program going after moving into the new building.
The ‘new’ building! This new building is nearly fifty years old now. The ‘new’ building was first occupied in the summer of 1958. The open house was held in November of 1958. The timing of this sermon topic from Susie is fortuitous! If not for my research to put together this sermon, I might have missed being able to plan for a fiftieth anniversary celebration. We’re all so excited with our own work in the congregation now, so wrapped up in today’s programs and plans that we might have missed the upcoming 50th anniversary of this building! Happily we now have all of next year to prepare for a celebration in November of 2008 to mark the occasion.
Indeed the first “official” gathering was not the November open house; it was a wedding in the summer of 1958 – the wedding of Janet Greenwood and Herbert Landow. The Landows and the Greenwoods were both prominent families in the congregation over the years. Herb and Janet have recently moved back to this area – rejoining the church. When I spoke with Dick Woodman about the event he told me that Herb and Janet specifically asked to be married in the new building and asked when it was likely to be ready for an event of this sort. Rev. Woodman told them it was scheduled to be usable by June of 1958, so they set their wedding for July. Well, construction schedules being what they are, Herb remembers painting the lounge, what we now call the Fireside room, the evening before the wedding. His father Bernie was a force to be reckoned with as he moved through the rooms over the preceding weeks, preparing and painting each of the rooms around the building.
Bernie Landow is also remembered for inventing and building along with Chuck Seaver the first sound system in the building. Janet’s mother, Gertrude Greenwood has quite a few stories that can be told of her. Gertrude’s Garden by the parking lot is in honor of the years she spent landscaping and beautifying the outside and inside of the building. One delightful story from her later years sums up Gertrude quite well. She was out working in the garden as usual and Marcel Duhamel, the minister who served here during the 1990’s, came out and said, “Gertrude, I know it is none of my business, but I’m concerned about you working out here like this at your age; aren’t there younger folks who can do this work?” Gertrude looked up and said, “Marcel, you’re right. It is none of your business.”
Did you know that our ‘new’ building was originally planned as a split level with the offices and lounge directly below the sanctuary. Because of the slope on the original lot, the front door would have opened into the sanctuary and the back door would have opened into the offices one floor below. Then the Religious education wing along with the kitchen and social hall would have been on the split level in between. But that was the plan when the architect designed the place for the original five-acre lot that Lourdes Hospital had sold us roughly 200 feet to the east of here at the corner of Riverside Drive and Beethoven. The plan for a number of years was to build on that lot, but at some point in the early part of 1957 Lourdes approached the congregation with a desire to buy back the land as the hospital had new plans for growth. Well, the congregation was not interested in selling unless we could get a comparable site! Does this sound familiar? We’ve been talking with Lourdes like this for fifty years! Well, eventually a swap was suggested and settled. The architect said it was even a better plot of land for our building because we could stretch it out on all one floor which is what we have now (except, of course for the basement rooms at the end of the hall, but you see those rooms are from a addition that happened in 1968. But that’s another story for another time.)
Dick Woodman and all the people of the congregation worked hard to make this dream come true. The years spent in the Smith Mansion on Front Street had been troublesome. They made the best of it, of course. They had spotted problems almost immediately in 1929, but with the Depression they could do nothing about the problems. The time on Front street in our third building was generally thought of as a 30 years of temporary housing.
The new building may have solved some problems for the people, but it inspired new ones to be sure. A year and a half after moving in, Woodman worried that we were becoming splintered into separate interest groups with no center. Another major concern Woodman noticed was in worship. Specifically he felt a need to increase the dimension of beauty found in the service. He called for more art, drama, song, and poetry. And third, he noted a need to rise to the challenge of action implied in our message. “More than courageous talk,” he wrote in his 1960 annual report to the congregation, “we must increasingly find avenues and channels for constructive action.” Summing up his concerns, Woodman wrote “We must build fellowship, creatively celebrate, and significantly act – that we might live into our future.” Reading this I can see why we are so intentional about quality of our fellowship, our worship, and our justice work. It is interesting to me that Rev. Woodman did not mention the need to keep an eye on Religious Education. Perhaps we’ve never been in danger of shoddy quality in that area!
I wish I could tell you more of the stories I heard, but you have picnics to attend. I heard about the Antique show and sale and the crafts sale and about the Rummage sale that came along next. I learned about Candlelight dinners and the Couples club, the wild youth, the making of this pulpit with its matching chancel table, the beginning of the “beacon” newsletter and the various teams of editors over the years, the Hog Farmers incident and many, many other good stories. But I needed to focus myself this morning, to narrow myself just to the late 1950’s; and I left those other stories for another time. So we will call this a good start – perhaps we shall monthly story telling evenings sharing the history by the decades beginning with the 1960. We’ll talk about the merger with the Unitarians as well as the civil rights movement and so much more.
Today I want to specifically honor a handful of our elders, those who were members from back in the Smith Mansion on front Street. We honor Lillian Gaffney (’39), Velma Taft (’55), Mary Diegert (’56), Evalyn Seaver * (’56), Claire Burkhardt (’57), Janet Greenwood Landow (’57), Herbert Landow (’57), and Anna Helisek (’58). And for all those who are not among us anymore, the Hibbards and Hebbards and Hulls, the Smiths and the Deckers, the Sweets and the Lambs, and so many others beyond count through the years; for all these who did the good work in the fields and the vineyards that we might have life more abundantly: we give thanks.
And I ask you, have you ever built something? Have you ever worked with other people to create something new? You are welcome to add another layer to what this church is all about. You are welcome to paste your picture and add your words into our collage. You are welcome to join with us in creating this work of art we call our religious home.
In a world without end,
May it be so
The Fruits of Our Challenge
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Almost six months ago I offered a challenge to the people who happened to show up for church that Sunday morning in October. The challenge was quite simple. I had nine sealed envelope (I gave three out at first service and six at second service). All that was required for a person to accept the challenge was the willingness to make a difference and to write a one page about the experience. That’s all the information people had. I was amazed by how many hands went up that morning. It was a powerful experience for me to hand out the envelopes.
I later revealed the challenge in a newsletter column. The contents of each envelope were identical. Each contained a slip of paper with the parable of the sower and instructions to ‘make a difference by being a philanthropist with someone else’s money.’ Each envelope also contained a one hundred dollar bill. I want to share with you the response I received from these amazing people who accepted my challenge. I have edited for length, and have left their names out – but perhaps some of you will be able to guess anyway.
First, [I felt] a rush of adrenaline – being trusted with a $100 (nice crisp bill, no less) for the church with which to do good deeds. Huge, huge ideas formed, in the initial phase they were mostly superhuman feats spun to really do right by the church. After the flights of fantasy calmed down, I started scanning our local paper. I often do not read our local paper, as I have found I am much less depressed without this daily peruse. This, [however] was an affirming use of the paper as a source of connections in our community.
Then came the most important piece for me: I opened it up to my friends for suggestions. This aspect is truly a growing experience for me. My life has been so much about surviving on my own. [It] has been my ‘job’ as of late, to change this aspect of myself. So this [challenge took me away] from my instinct to ‘do it on [my] own.’ [It was great] to ask [my] friends what they think. This think-tank approach did produce the idea of the New Years’ brunch.
The New Year’s Brunch was a great success. This person used the seed money plus fifty dollars of her own money to pay for the food. She selected three local organizations that were important to her: The SOS Shelter, the Addiction Center of Broome County, and The Animal Care Council. Not only was the New Year’s Brunch an enjoyable, memorable, and meaningful event for everyone involved, (which in itself is a fabulous accomplishment); it also raised over $250 total for the three charities. And, as this respondent wrote, “The huge reward for me was the outpouring of energy and help that came from more people than I can say. I was blessed with healing.”
One person who took the challenge struggled to use the money in some way that was not connected to her work. But her work has been a compelling way for her to make a difference in the lives of others; she eventually gave up and invested her challenge there – but in a delightfully unique fashion.
In the latter part of October I took a new position as an after school childcare provider [at the YMCA]. In talking to my coworkers at a Holiday Program for the children we began to talk about the need for resources for the teachers so that we could provide a quality program for the children. At the YMCA we teach the children four basic values Respect, honesty, caring and responsibility. Finding ways to teach these things in such a way that would be fun and easy for them to understand was something that we all found difficult.
Finally around the holiday time it came to me to put together a lending library for the teachers at the program. It was quite a treat to be able to do something like this because at the holiday time there is always the feeling of why am I doing this, do they really need this, will it be liked. I had actually found something that I was able to give that answered all of those things in a positive way. I found myself teary behind all of that. It was great fun to put together a selection of books on character education, conflict resolution, and non-competitive games for children as well as craft books that were needed. Those books are now in place and are being used by all the teachers.
One of our respondents was an eleven year old.
When I heard about the UUCB challenge, I didn’t know if I should do it or not. But I did because I like surprise challenges. When I read what the challenge was, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. [I would use the money to help the Ross Park Zoo.]
In the mail every winter, the Ross Park Zoo sends out a wish list. Every year the list is the same because nobody buys the items, I thought it would be a good idea if I bought some of the items on the list for them. Because I was raising money for animals, I thought that it would be nice if I made something that was related to animals too. I decided to make homemade dog biscuits. After buying the supplies, I made the biscuits and sold them. I sold every one of them.
My mother and I decided that I should get a banking account and a checking account. I did. Altogether with interest and the challenge money included, I had about $117. My mother and I went to Lowe’s and we bought a baby gate, a 3 drawer plastic organizer, and a welding kit. After that, we went to the dollar store and A.C. Moore to spend the rest of our money on kid’s scissors and markers that they had on their wish list also. It worked out perfectly. I felt really good that I was able to donate $117 worth of supplies that they wanted all by myself!
Our next respondent found several ways to creatively double, then triple, and then even further multiply her seed money.
Needless to say I was very surprised to get home and find a $100 bill in my envelope. I came up with all sorts of ideas. My thoughts went to how children are really the future of the world and I found the web site for Save the Children. I decided that I would like to raise enough money to sponsor at least one child for a year thus making a difference in their life and most likely mine as well.
[To begin with,] my grandson helped me raise an additional $150 by trick or treating for the cause on Halloween. I was touched by people’s generosity and extremely proud of my grandson for his willingness to help. My second effort involved getting donations from area businesses to hold a raffle. This entailed a lot more work that I bargained for but I’ve pulled it off. The raffle [was] held February 26. I raised $320 on the raffle. Add to that $150 from Halloween, the initial $100 seed money and another $102 of my own and I was able to sponsor two children thru the Save the Children organization. I was appalled to learn of the poverty/illiteracy in the US so I sponsored a young boy in Kentucky. However, I also know that our money goes further abroad so [the second child] I sponsored [is] a girl in Africa.
In retrospect, participation in this project has made me look at my life differently every day. I’ve realized that we can make a big difference just by being compassionate and aware of the needs of others. Sometimes even something as simple as a smile or a kind word can change a person’s day.
One respondent was caught in the middle of moving to Albany when she accepted the challenge. She dreamed up several possible ideas for the $100, but writes that “The envelope sat in a drawer for a couple of months. It wasn’t forgotten per se, but rather was left to grow and manifest an answer to my prayer of finding a meaningful way to use [the challenge].” Eventually the answer came when one of her students returned from South Africa excited and energized. This student organized a large community fundraiser in the Albany area to help the Community Hospice Africa Partnership, a support program for HIV positive patients where they are taught to create crafts for sale. “You will be please to know” this respondent writes, “that your generous donation is on its way to South Africa right now and will make a real difference in the lives of many women.”
“I am sure I am not the only one to tell you about the shock and slight sense of horror at finding a hundred dollar bill in that little white envelope,” begins another one of our respondents.
What have I gotten myself into?! Although I felt I ought to do something right away, I had no idea what to do. So I thought about it a lot. How to make the most of this money? I thought about the myriad of ways to reach out into the world and touch others. It did not take me long to decide to do something to support the Heifer Project, which, as I’m sure you know, is focused on providing resources to people and communities in order to help stimulate renewable growth. I wanted to involve the overlapping communities of my life in helping people around the world, like the concentric circles rippling out from a pebble thrown into a pond – the church – my broader connections – out to the unknown world. I just wasn’t sure [yet] how to do it.
Life went on and as Christmas time approached I was involved in other projects – one of which was to compile some of my favorite poems and readings into a little chapbook. That first hasty project really captured my imagination. [It reminded me of a favorite quote] “If I had but two loaves of bread, I would sell one of them and buy white hyacinths to feed my soul.” (Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) rephrasing Muslihuddin Sadi, 13th century Persian Poet) For me, that collection was a white hyacinth – it fed my soul and that was when I realized how I would respond to this challenge. I would write to those people who have touched my life, tracking down many with whom I have not spoken to in a long time. I would let them know what they have meant to me and that I had not forgotten them.
The $100 was finally spent in producing 60 copies of my little chapbook, envelopes and enough postage to send a 2 page letter, the chapbook and a stamped self-addressed envelope for these far flung members of my community to take an easy opportunity to reach back. Within the letter, I have described the challenge given me and have invited these wonderful people to send out contributions to the Heifer Project either on their own or in the return envelope with a note to me. I offered a direct connection to the Heifer Project – so each person could give or not give guilt free and not necessarily a part of their reply to me.
So I have little to report to you on the return on your investment in me; except to say thank you. It has been and will continue to be a great gift to me and I hope to many others as well. I continue to write letters and send out packages a few each week. Generosity flows and the project continues.
And here I must break confidence, though I do so at the request of this respondent. Kate Thorpe wrote that she did not include anyone from church on her list, difficult though it was to do that. There may, however, be people here that would like to take part in her project. An Incomplete Collection of Favorite Poems and Readings is available this week (or by request) for a donation to the Heifer Project. Kate will be in the Social Hall after both services this week if you are interested.
Here is what another respondent offered:
The UUCB Challenge came at a time in my life when I was really feeling the need to examine my spiritual life more closely and to make some significant choices. “Am I making any difference with my time here?” I took a lot of time to ponder the meaning [of this challenge.] I really wanted to use this $100 to make a difference in our local community, something grassroots and geared toward a population I knew to be underserved. I thought a lot, spoke to trusted friends; it turned out that going out to lunch with a friend provided the answer for me.
Portfolio’s Café is a Catholic Charities program which serves as an employment program for young adults with a history of mental health issues. The Café opened in 1987 and since that time has employed over 300 individuals, many of whom have established a successful job history for the first time and gone on to successful competitive employment. I have been lunching there for years. Tips are pooled and when they get enough they use the money (at around $200) for a special night out such as dinner and an activity.
I picked this organization (and added $100 of my own) because I believe those with mental health issues to be an underserved population in society. Portfolio’s is local, grassroots, and it fosters future independence of the [employees]. Hopefully many lives will be positively impacted by the continuance of this unique and creative program in our area.
Finally, we hear from one more respondent.
So There I was. It was late in the afternoon of October 22, in the final throes of a birthday party for my oldest son, Daniel, now 25. Family…friends … all helping us celebrate this milestone in our wonderful son’s life.
At church that morning, I had raised my hand when Douglas offered a challenge. I don’t normally do that … raise my hand first when I don’t have a pretty good idea what I’m in for. But with my own birthday soon upon me I had already promised myself I would do at least one … new … slightly scary thing each week. Raising my hand to take on Douglas’ challenge seemed to fit right in.
So there I was, late in the afternoon of October 22, in the final throes of the party. I suddenly remembered THE ENVELOPE [Douglas had slipped into my raised hand earlier that morning] and I knew it would be the perfect time to open it and have fun doing group-think. Mind you … I still had no idea what was in the envelope, only that it presented a challenge.
In front of about 20 or so remaining friends and family, I set the stage (such as I knew it at that point). I opened the envelope. OUT FELL A ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR BILL! I was outrageously proud of my family that no one grabbed for it! I listened, fascinated, as [my friends and family] dreamt about what they would do [with the challenge. However,] nothing trumped what had slowly been percolating in my own mind.
This past summer I gathered with my Vestal High School classmates to celebrate our 40th class reunion. A month later, on August 3, one of our classmates became the victim of a worksite, steam explosion at the IBM Huron Endicott campus. You [probably] read about it in the newspaper. Ron Walter, my classmate, was severely burned. His colleague was killed in the blast. Because I had just seen Ron at the reunion, it was very real. Ron was released from Upstate Medical Center on September 22, seven weeks after the explosion, [one month before I sat around my living room with friends, family and a one hundred dollar bill imagining how I could make a difference.]
I learned of a fundraiser being planned for Ron of December 9. He had already racked up substantial medical bills, had no use of his hands due to the severe burns and was looking at a future filled with physical therapy and more and more bills. His medical insurance would end on December 31. I had already bought a ticket to the December 9 event and donated a few dollars beyond.
But with the ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR BILL, Douglas’ challenge moved me to a different place. I realized that with it, I could make [my seed money multiply like] loaves and fishes. It was fun and incredibly gratifying to plan it out with [Ron’s] daughter. We selected raffle items which included gift certificates to restaurants and the Oakdale mall. We figured that winning a $50 gift certificate to the Oakdale mall – just two weeks before Christmas – would be pretty compelling for people, encouraging them to buy more and more raffle tickets. By my ‘ponying’ up some funds toward other gift certificates, I convinced two other local businesses to double the dollar amount.
The fundraiser did occur on December 9, and hundreds of Ron Walters’ family, friends, and total strangers attended. The gift certificates I had gleaned were among [the] many to be raffled. But they were included among [the larger $5-per-ticket items.] Trust me, that paper-bag with entries for the $50 gift certificate to the Oakdale Mall easily had at least a hundred tickets in it.
At the event I purposely did not introduce myself to Ron’s daughter – she and I had only communicated via e-mail; she didn’t know who I was. So [that day] I was just one of the many event planners, workers, and well-wishers [among the crowd.] In the end I realized that my contributions were really to and for her. I so admired the way she had shouldered her family troubles. She was incredibly gracious, but funny with her dad at the event. She has earned more than my respect … she has won the love and admiration of a total stranger. And that is her gift to me. One hundred dollars worth of giving? No … priceless.
While it is difficult to calculate based on a few of these, I can confidently tell you that those who accepted this Generosity Challenge raised over $2000 for worthwhile causes both locally and globally. They thought long and hard about their choices, and many drew on the resources of friends to meet the challenge. While a great many strangers have benefited from the generosity here displayed, those who accepted the challenge also benefited, being spiritually deepened by this work. I am now in their debt for they have taught me much. And each of us today, hearing these stories, are now challenged to find new and creative ways to make a difference in the lives of friends and strangers around us. Until our next challenge, may we each find the means to live well.
In a world without end
May it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
There was a man who was stranded on a desert island for many, many years. One day, while strolling along the beach, he spotted a ship in the distance. This had never happened in all the time he was on the island, so he was very excited about the chance of being rescued. Immediately, he built a fire on the beach and generated as much smoke as possible. It worked! Soon, the ship was heading his way. When the ship was close enough to the island, a dinghy was dispatched to investigate the situation. The man on the island was overjoyed with the chance to be rescued and met his saviors as they landed. After some preliminary conversation the man in charge asked the man on the island how he had survived for so many years. The man replied by telling of his exploits for food and how he was able to make a fine house to live in.
“In fact,” the man said, “you can see my home from here. It’s up there on the ridge.” He pointed the men in the direction of his home. They looked up and saw three buildings. They inquired about the other buildings next to the man’s house and he replied, “The far one, that’s my church – I go there to worship on Sundays.”
They were greatly impressed by the man’s obvious piety. When they asked about the middle building the man’s face clouded over, “That’s where I used to go to church.”
Charlie Chaplin has said “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” I have come to see laughter as a vital part of life. I don’t mean life should be a laugh a minute and that I feel ready to give up my day job for the life of a stand up comic. Simply that life is full of tragic suffering and hardship that can overwhelm a person. Laughter makes life sweet. And life should be sweet. Life is full of bitterness, laughter is a balm, a balancing mechanism to keep you steady. “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” Certainly laughter can be an escape, but as such it can also serve as a release – a liberation from pride, arrogance, heartache and pain.
A Unitarian Universalist went on vacation and arranged for his mother to stay at his house and take care of his cat. And, just to be sure, he asked his minister if he would look in on them every day and make sure they were all right. “No problem,” said the minister. The man flew off to Mexico and after a couple of days he called the minister and asked how things were going.
“Well,” the minister said, “your cat died.”
“Wow! You call yourself a minister? Do you have to come right out and tell me like that? Couldn’t you have a little more consideration? I’m on vacation. Couldn’t you have broken it to me a little more gently? Like first telling me that the cat was on the roof, then that the cat fell off the roof, then maybe the next day telling me you had taken the cat to the vet-like that, not BOOM all at once! By the way, how’s my mom doing?”
“Well, she’s up on the roof. . .”
One professor, in an evaluation of me, wrote: Douglas has a well developed sense of the absurd, a quality that will be put to good use in his ministry. Granted, humor and holiness are not always seen as compatible. Faith is serious business after all and much of what passes for humor these days is far from holy! But consider: one of the goals of religion is the sorting of priorities; of putting first things first. Humor has a delightful way of poking at misaligned priorities. In some ways, there has always been a deep connection between laughter and my own call to ministry.
There is a story of a young boy who suddenly announced to his mother after church one morning, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be a preacher when I grow up.”
“O, my darling boy,” the mother gushed, “Tell me what made you decide to be a preacher.”
“Well,” the boy replied, “I’ll have to go the church on Sunday anyway, I figure it would be more fun to stand up front and yell.”
I’ve been overheard to say, “If we’re not having fun, why are we doing it!” And I mean that not as a rhetorical question only. Perhaps the answer will occasionally be that we are doing something that is not fun because it is really important. But I think it also suggests that just because it is important and serious work we do need not always approach our work with an absence of humor.
Laughter has not always had a good rap among theologians and philosophers. The early Greek philosophers saw laughter as a mixture of anxiety and pleasure – part of that old slippery-slope into immorality. They saw it as a great moral danger and potential weapon. As if to laugh is to succumb to some great inner flaw or at least as a temptation toward vice. Plato held the perspective that laughter arises from our desire to feel superior over other people. Aristotle was a little more sympathetic claiming laughter to be the cathartic potential of both tragedy and comedy. However, he further believed that laughter was intimately related to ugliness and debasement.
The early Christian church was a fair mix of both Jewish thought and Greek thought. Jewish thought has always held a valued place for joy. One commentator noted that while professional comedians make up 5% of the population in the United States, something like 80% have been Jewish. Clearly the Greek thought won out on the question of humor in Christianity for a long time. The Early Christian Church denounced laughter on the grounds that Christ wept but never laughed….so weeping alone led to unity with God. Recent Biblical commentators have released Jesus from such dour friends citing the subtle irony found in several parables and sayings. “Let me help you take that speck out of your eye while I walk around with the large beam in my own!” Come on, that’s funny! Much of humor is a sudden juxtaposition of what you expected and another unexpected reality.
A little boy was walking down a dirt road after church one Sunday afternoon when he came to a crossroads where he met a little girl coming from the other direction.
“Hello,” said the little boy.
“Hi,” replied the little girl.
“Where are you going?” asked the little boy.
“I’ve been to church this morning and I’m on my way home,” answered the little girl.
“Me too,” replied the little boy. “I’m also on my way home from church.”
“Which church do you go to?” asked the little boy.
“I go to the Unitarian Universalist church back down the road,” replied the little girl.
“What about you?”
“I go to the Catholic church back at the top of the hill,” replied the little boy.
They discover that they are both going the same way so they decided that they’d walk together.
They came to a low spot in the road where spring rains had partially flooded the road so there was no way that they could get across to the other side without getting wet.
“If I get my new Sunday dress wet my Mom’s going to skin me alive,” said the little girl.
“My Mom’ll tan my hide too if I get my new Sunday suit wet,” replied the little boy.
“I tell you what I think I’ll do,” said the little girl. “I’m gonna pull off all my clothes and hold them over my head and wade across.”
“That’s a good idea,” replied the little boy. “I’m going to do the same thing with my suit.”
So they both undressed and waded across to the other side without getting their clothes wet.
They were standing there in the sun waiting to drip dry before putting their clothes back on when the little girl finally remarked, “You know, I never did realize before just how much difference there really is between Catholics and Unitarian Universalists.”
It is the sudden juxtaposition of what you expected and another unexpected reality.
But those early Greeks are not to be completely discounted. All humor does contain an impulse, however faint, of anxiety and aggression. Which is why much of humor depends on context. What is the setting and who is hearing the joke? Ethically speaking, it is fair to make a joke about yourself or your group – any group you feel strongly connected to. It is good to be able to laugh at yourself. It is, conversely, unethical and offensive to tell a joke that makes fun of another person or group. For example, I, like most Unitarian Universalists love Garrison Keiler and enjoy his occasional jokes about Unitarians. Technically, however, we are serving as a favored whipping boy for his wit. Having noticed this a little while ago, it has not stopped me from enjoying his program and I’m not suggesting anyone should make a fuss about it. But rather I think it is a fine opportunity for me to pause and notice who do I make fun of? What do I laugh at? What does that say about me? I try to be aware of it. I also try to use humor in the pulpit with care, striving to poke fun at myself and at my own groups.
How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a lightbulb?
None. We believe it must change by itself. We’re not in the business of telling anyone they HAVE to change.
How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
Eight. One to do it, seven to make sure that the power doesn’t go to his or her head.
How Many Unitarian Universalists does it take to Change a light bulb?
We’re not in agreement as to whether the Lightbulb really exists or if it just another myth.
How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a lightbulb?
We strenuously object to the term ‘lightbulb.’ We believe there are many ways of darkness dispersion and so would not want to participate in an activity validating the lightbulb as the exclusive light source.
How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a lightbulb?
We choose not to make a statement either in favor or against the need for a lightbulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that lightbulbs work for you, that’s fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your lightbulb and present it next month at our annual lightbulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of lightbulb traditions including incandescent, florescent, halogen, three-way, and even candle light all of which are equally valid paths of luminescence.
Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein said “One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.”
Two Unitarian Universalists were debating their knowledge of Christianity. One said, “I bet you don’t even know even know the Lord’s Prayer!”
“Oh really,” the other responded, “I bet you ten bucks I do!”
“You’re on. Let’s hear it.”
The second man began to recite: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. … ”
The first man cut him off saying, “That’s not the Lord’s Prayer, that’s the 23rd Psalm. The Lord’s Prayer goes, ‘Now I lay me down to sleep and pray the lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take’”
The second man looked him in the eye and said, “Alright, you win.”
Researchers have been studying the effects of laughter on the immune system. To date their published studies have shown that laughing lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, increases muscle flexion, and boosts immune function by raising levels of infection-fighting T-cells, disease-fighting proteins called Gamma-interferon and B-cells, which produce disease-destroying antibodies. Laughter also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and produces a general sense of well-being. Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center conducted a significant study of this and concluded that “The recommendation for a healthy heart may one day be exercise, eat right and laugh a few times a day”
The poor country pastor was livid when he confronted his wife with the receipt for a $250 dress she had bought. “How could you do this!” he exclaimed.
“I don’t know,” she wailed, “I was standing in the store looking at the dress. Then I found myself trying it on. It was like the Devil was whispering to me, ‘Gee, you look great in that dress. You should buy it.’”
“Well,” the pastor persisted, “You know how to deal with him! Just tell him, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’” “I did,” replied his wife, “but then he said, ‘It looks great from back here, too!’”
Life is too serious to be taken so seriously. Humor challenges pretentiousness, pokes fun at pomposity, negates preconceived notions. In this way it is a risk. Any time an opening is made in our expectations and our fixed ideas of life there is a risk that we will uncover the dangerous opportunity of growth. I believe that a religious community such as ours, at its best, presents a radical perspective that is different from the standard accepted perspective on life. Humor is a wonderful tool not only to boost your blood pressure, it can also heal your heart and give you the wherewithal to face the serious work we have before us of making our world a better place and as well as making our own lives and the lives of others sweeter.
A visiting minister was leading the service began the morning’s prayer saying “Dear Lord,” with arms extended and a rapturous look on his upturned face, “We know we are but dust”
During the dramatic pause, one obedient little girl (who was listening carefully for a change) leaned forward and asked quite audibly in her shrill little girl voice, “Mommy, What is butt dust?”
Church was pretty much over at that point.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
The Fundamentalists Love My Cousin
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Every now and then during one of the Newcomer’s events we host here at the church a new person will say with a sigh of relief, “I like this place because you practice what you preach; you really live out what you say you stand for.” And I’m quick to say, “wait around a little, …” I’m quick to point out that we’re a bunch of hypocrites here just like every religious community you’ll bump into because every faith community worth its mettle calls its people to be more than they are. Every religious community holds out ideals by which the people measure themselves – ideals that are like the North Star that we can point to but can not reach. In this respect we’re no different. We fail to live up to our ideals just like every one else. What I think Unitarian Universalism does have that perhaps fulfills something of what these newcomers see in us is our commitment to self-evaluation and self-critique.
We say we believe in diversity: racial, economical, and theological; and yet we must regularly look around at one another and ask how we are doing on those counts. We say there is not a litmus test to membership. There is no creed you must subscribe to and neither is there a political or social issue that you must accept before you are accepted. And yet we need to call ourselves on that count from time to time. We say we honor all faith perspectives and encourage one another to find the valuable truths contained within all the world’s religions, and in particular we honor all people who strive to live as their faith or philosophy calls them to live. But sometimes we need to look around and listen to the way we talk to find out if we are perhaps not living up to this ideal, to check if we are perhaps being hypocrites in this regard from time to time. And it is toward this last illustration of the pattern that I have been steering. Now and then I see we are not as respectful of certain other religious perspectives as we claim to be.
Many individual Unitarian Universalists tell a story of breaking away from an old set of beliefs; a rejection that echoes the broader story of Unitarian Universalist history. The pattern for our tradition began by breaking away – rejecting old ideas and practices, casting out useless and worn out creeds – breaking away, then struggling with a new identity based on a minority opinion of conscience, followed by eventually joining together with others in a community based on religious freedom, acceptance, and shared discovery. This story of how Unitarianism and Universalism began is similar to the story numerous individuals go through to reach our doors today. Many Unitarian Universalist came to this faith after leaving the religion in which they were raised. Of those who fit that experience, most of them by far have left Christian roots behind to join with this community. One impact of this is that Christianity, among all other faith tradition, holds a unique relationship for us. Unitarian Universalists have been accused of secretly (and sometimes not-so-secretly) harboring an anti-Christian sentiment.
For a variety of reason the Fundamentalist Christians carry the greatest portion of this sentiment, it seems. Fundamentalism has been described to me by colleagues and congregants as ignorant, brain-washing, evil, and/or dangerous. Fundamentalism is defined in the dictionary as any movement, though usually a religious movement, characterized by “a return to fundamental principles;” it is also marked by rigid obedience to these principles and typically an “intolerance of other views.” (The American Heritage Dictionary) By this definition, any faith tradition can have a fundamentalist streak within it. Or any political, social, or academic philosophy can take on the ‘fundamentalist’ label provided it is a return to fundamental principles, strict obedience to said principles, and intolerance of other perspectives. Technically, there could be a Unitarian Universalist fundamentalism by this definition. It could happen; and, arguably, has been attempted. There recently was a group calling itself the American Unitarian Conference, which listed as its primary mission a return to Unitarianism as expressed by William Ellery Channing. But that is a tangent from my point which merely was to illustrate that it could happen.
Fundamentalism is not limited to the American phenomenon of Christian Fundamentalism. Our own Dick Antoun has written a book about Fundamentalism, a book I might add that appears as an authoritative source cited on the online encyclopedia, Wikapedia, under the topic of Fundamentalism. Antoun lifts out the parallels among Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Fundamentalisms such as the quest for purity, scriptural inerrancy with selective modernization, and the reverence of a mythic past. It is an excellent comparative guide. This morning I wish, however, to compare not the different forms of Fundamentalism, but one specific form of it compared with our own faith tradition.
Christian Fundamentalism is the brand of Fundamentalism which was the first to adorn itself with that moniker. Other groups that are given the label ‘Fundamentalist’ have rebelled against the tag due to its negative connotation. Fundamentalists are viewed as backward-thinking, ignorant, extremists who are prone to fanaticism. This is an unfair caricature. As one historian writes, “Fundamentalism looked implausible to everyone who stood outside it. But within the movement there were dedicated and intelligent people who provided highly informed arguments for their case.” (Marty, Martin. Modern Religion Vol. 2: 1919 – 1941, p161)
Historically, Fundamentalism is an American Protestant Christian phenomenon from the post-WWI era. As a movement, it started among conservative Evangelicals. The purpose was to reaffirm traditional conservative Christianity and to “defend it against the challenges of liberal theology, German higher criticism, Darwinism, and other “-isms” it regarded as harmful to Christianity.” (Wikapedia: Fundamentalism) Martin Marty, author and religious historian, defines Fundamentalism as a response to modernity.
If you recall Unitarian Universalist history, you may note that Unitarianism and Universalism are both specific Liberal Religious responses to Orthodoxy Christianity. What I’m pointing out now is that Fundamentalism is a specific Orthodox Christian response to Liberal Religion. In one sense Fundamentalism and Unitarian Universalism are doomed to an adversarial relationship as each is the embodiment of what the other exists to refute! Sadly, this mere fact occasionally results is wildly hypocritical statements against fundamentalists from our corner.
Now, I am not suggesting that we have no right to offer critique to the Fundamentalist movement. Indeed I have done so myself from time to time. What I would like to suggest is a thoughtful critique. For that we need to have some understanding of the perspective of a Fundamentalist.
From where I sit, it looks to me like all Fundamentalism offers its people is rules and fear. It asks them to be obedient first and to think about things second. It teaches them that doubt is a weakness of faith. When there is an apparent conflict between Life as it is experienced and Life as it is described in scripture, Fundamentalism demands that its adherents trust scripture first. At least, that is what it looks like from where I’m sitting; which may not tell you very much about Fundamentalism beyond why I am not part of it.
So what is the lure? What does it offer that is so attractive that all these critiques I level against it mean little to nothing for those who call themselves Fundamentalists? One thing it offers is certainty. To have the answers! That is unquestionably a draw for countless believers.
It offers a crystal-clear certainty that cuts through all confusion and anxiety. It offers security and comfort. Life is hard; there are troubles and pitfalls galore. To know with iron-clad conviction that there are bad people out there causing this trouble that will be punished by God’s divine justice is very comforting – especially when you have suffered. And what’s more: to know that there are bad people out there and that you are not one of them is an immense relief – offering a profound security and comfort. The simplicity, the pure simplicity of the message is a powerful draw. But I think the biggest attraction is not the certainty, the simplicity, or the security: it is just belonging. The one thing that matters is that you are a member of the saved and all you had to do was accept the Fundamental beliefs! Nothing else matters. You can be rich or poor, Caucasian or Latina, educated or a high-school drop-out. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you believe; everything else is secondary.
In my reading I stumbled across a cleverly imagined dialogue between a Fundamentalist and Liberal written by Walter Lippmann, a prominent philosopher from the early 1900’s when Fundamentalism was forming. Lippmann worked hard to be objective so as to achieve a better understanding of the dynamics at play. Back at that time the terms for the two sides were Fundamentalist and Modernist. The Modernist begins characteristically saying to the Fundamentalist:
“We can at least discuss it like gentlemen, without heat, without rancor.” The Fundamentalist then would ask: “Has it ever occurred too you that this advice is easier for you to follow than for me?” The Modernist would be put off: “How so?” Then the Fundamentalist would reveal his involvement. “Because for me an eternal plan of salvation is at stake. For you there is nothing at stake but a few tentative opinions none of which mean anything to your happiness.” It is hard to picture either Modernists or liberals recognizing their own side in that point, but for Lippmann this was an accurate rendering of the circumstance. His Fundamentalist went on, revealing the emotions of at least one side. “Your suggestion that I should be tolerant and amiable is, therefore, a suggestion that I submit the foundation of my life to the destructive effects of your skepticism, your indifference, and your good nature. You ask me to smile and commit suicide.” (Marty, Martin. Modern Religion Vol. 2: 1919 – 1941, p162-3)
For a Fundamentalist the stakes are very high. To be true to their faith they need to try to convert you, to save you. It is part of how they live out their faith; it is the logical response to the principles of their faith and the fact of their love for you. As a Unitarian Universalist, to be true to your faith you need to be open and tolerant even of Fundamentalists. There is no way for this to be other than a conflict – if we each strive to be true to our principles. And Unitarian Universalists are always telling everybody to be true to their principles!
From the perspective of the Fundamentalist it is as if you and I are leaning out of the window of a burning building asking if they would kindly come in and have a cup of tea. Or we ask them to simply tolerate our views and leave us alone. What, however, are they to do if they truly love us? What if you saw your sibling, your child, your very dear friend leaning out of the window of a building on fire? Would you not shout in alarm? Would you not scream at them to get out? And if they said to you, “There is no such thing as fire, you’re belief that my building in on fire is not my problem, it is yours; can’t we talk about something else?” while the fire crackles and sputters voraciously around them! That is what it is like for them! And from a Fundamentalist’s perspective, this illustration is not a metaphor, but a fundamental reality.
The world according to Fundamentalism is almost diametrically opposite from the world according to Unitarian Universalism except in a few important regards. One exception is that for both groups it is important to live your life with integrity to your principles. This commonality is largely why we end of on opposite sides of many social and theological issues, but it is a basic commonality nonetheless! Both traditions expect their members to put the faith in action and to live with integrity to the basic principles. Another major trait both groups share is a commitment to love. The basic statement of any brand of Christianity is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This trait in Unitarian Universalism is one simple indication that that we do still today have traces of our Christian heritage. The Fundamentalists and the Unitarian Universalists have different ways of showing that love, but both groups share love’s commitment. And, both groups are populated by regular people who fail to live up to the high principles and the call to love. Both faith traditions are populated by hypocrites.
I trust that for a significant number of us here this morning this topic is not merely academic. I trust that many of us have a dear friend or a relative who is a fundamentalist or at least a conservative evangelical. (If such is not the case, I suggest you may need to get out more.) My hope for each of us is that when we do fall into an adversarial conversation about faith with a fundamentalist friend or cousin that we will remember to be humble and loving. We are allowed to respectfully disagree, but we’re not allowed to be mean. Conversation does not equal conversion. And if it helps, remember they are our brothers and sisters in faith; they love us and only want what is best for us. And I trust the same could be said of what we want for them.
In a world without end
May it be so.