First Unitarian Church of Worcester

Sermons, Memos and other writings from the newsletter and worship services of the First Unitarian Church of Worcester. The First Unitarian Church is located at 90 Main Street, Worcester, MA 01608. Our phone is 508-757-2708 and our webpage is A audio CD is produced for almost every one of our regular services. Call our office or send a note to the office at our website to request that one be shipped to you.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"The Taste of Christmas" by Rev. Tom Schade

There is nothing sweeter, more heart - warming, more spiritually delicious than the traditions of my family and my tribe as we celebrate Christmas.

On the other hand, there is nothing gaudier, more tawdry and more soul-deadening than the ways that some other people celebrate the holidays.

The Christmas and Hanukkah seasons, having been now combined into one commercialized “Holiday” celebration of good-natured greed and gluttony, give us a chance to compare tastes on a level-playing field. And by tastes, I don’t mean comparing German Stollen vs Slovenian Potica vs those Swedish anise flavored cookies and all the other varieties of Christmas cookies. I mean tastes, like in good taste and bad taste, as in trees, lights, decorations and gift-giving styles.

Back in the early 60’s my mother caught sight of a neighbor’s Christmas Tree, and since then, I have known that Christmas is a test of one’s good taste. Our neighbor had put up an aluminum tree, with identical blue balls. And was lit by a color-wheel, so that the whole thing turned green, red and gold in ever-repeating order. I thought it kind of cool, in a space age, Jetsons sort of way, but my mother was appalled. It was the talk of the neighborhood, but what was said was not always kind. Around our dinner table, it was proclaimed to be the end of civilization as we know it, and a sign of the impending Apocalypse.

We were of another tribe, the ones that celebrated with fresh cut trees, decorated with the larger multi-colored bulbs and an eclectic collection of pricier ornaments, bought a few at a time each year.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that our Christmas tree décor is considered tacky by the tribe that favored smaller lights that were only white and themed ornaments.

Just so you know, as adults we favor the blinking small multi-colored lights with a collection of ornaments either made or chosen by the children when younger. Our ornament collection includes a lime-green knitted Christmas Octopus, whose exact role in the Nativity story is unclear.

There is the tribe that favors the single candle in each of the windows of the house, and the tribe that favors a Nativity scene in front yard, and the tribe that favors Santas climbing into the chimney. Tribes mix and combine; you can now buy statues of kneeling Santas to place by the manger in your front yard crèche. (Gosh, what’s next? Easter cards showing the Easter Bunny on the cross?) There is even the tribe that favors any sort of cartoon character as a yard decoration at Christmas. Why should Sylvester the Cat and Tweety be left out?

The Boston Globe has been publishing a hot and heavy debate about a family that has decorated their house with so many lights that their electric bill runs $1100 a month during the holidays. Naturally there are many letters to the editor suggesting better uses for that money. But there are also letters from people who are delighted by the display and one letter from a nurse who describes how she looks forward to seeing it on the way home after a long and difficult shift in the hospital.

Some people get up at 5 a.m. to hit the stores on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Others derive just as much pleasure being appalled at such behavior when reported on the evening news. “Would you ever?” They ask.

Even in our most joyous and happiest time of the year, we find ourselves comparing, judging, competing and playing games of moral one-upmanship. We like to leap from differences in taste to making conclusions about morals and values. I suggest that how we decorate our homes for Christmas is not a real measure of whether we have grasped the true meaning of the holiday.

I urge you to do the following this year: Make something beautiful for the holidays with your own hands. You probably already do, but even so, put an extra effort in this year. Be mindful of your effort, your creative process, and your satisfaction and pride at the results. Live for a moment in yourself as an artist, a holiday artist or a holiday crafter, and hold onto that feeling.

When you go out into the world, watch and observe. Everywhere you go, you will the see the results of so many other people’s moments of creativity. The holidays are a huge popular arts and crafts exhibit, the time of the year when more people turn away from their workaday world to create something lovely, witty, beautiful and charming. The more deeply that you can feel yourself as another holiday artisan, the more you could see the same being expressed by others. May you be filled with a spirit of compassion as a result.

Monday, November 27, 2006

"Too Much Religion?" by Rev. Tom Schade

Sermon Delivered on November 26, 2006

First Reading: Isaiah 44:12-20
Second Reading: Excerpts from the Epilogue of "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris.

This morning I have departed from my usual practice around readings. I try not to read readings that are that long. And I generally avoid readings that I disagree with. I don’t like to read something so that I can argue with it during the sermon. Readings, in my mind, should be inspirational.

But I wanted to give you a taste of Sam Harris’ book: The End of Faith. Harris’s book is like one of those people who corner you at a party and proceed to yell at you about his or her greatest passion. There isn’t a lot of nuance in what they are saying And you agree whole heartedly about a third of the time, and are intrigued about a third of the time, but the final third seems a little crazy. Sam Harris pushes you, the reader, around.

Harris’ book is of this time, the first five or six years in the 21st century. According to him, the main danger in the world is Islamic fundamentalism. He is also opposed to Christian fundamentalism, details the crimes of the Medieval Catholic church in the Inquisition, and lays the blame for the Holocaust on religious doctrine. But the reader senses that it is Islamic fundamentalism that most haunts Harris now. That is what he spends the most time on and where he has the greatest passion.

And I share his general point: On the one side, Muslim fundamentalism and jihad.

On the other side, Christian fundamentalism.

Both imagine an apocalyptic ending of history in which God intervenes in history to allow the believers to triumph while the unbelievers suffer and die.

Both imagine that the world is moving toward a Clash of Civilizations or a Final Religious War.
Unstated in those scenarios, of course, is that the vast majority of the world’s people, the people like you and me, are to be collateral damage, not just metaphorically, but in actuality, as weapons of mass destruction are now accessible to many more countries and movements around the world.

I believe that this is an accurate description of the peril that the world faces.

And if we are to form ourselves as the C.D.S.L.F. – The Collateral Damage Survival and Liberation Front -- a world wide movement of those of us who do not want to die in somebody else’s Armageddon – we need to diagnose the root cause of this situation accurately and propose the right cure.

Sam Harris believes that the root of the problem lies in religious faith, by which he means belief in religious teachings that have no basis in scientific fact or reason and which are preserved in human culture in religious texts and traditions. Religious faith functions like a portal through which the tribal hatred and narrow views of centuries and millennia past are given entry into today’s world, where they are still unquestioned and unchallenged.

Harris makes no real distinction between “moderate” religious beliefs and “extreme” religious beliefs. Religious moderates still validate the same mental process – taking religious teachings on faith – as do extremists. Once you start quoting the Bible as normative, as being authoritative, even about something so benign as “loving your neighbor as yourself”, you have, in Harris’ opinion, also left the field open for the extremist who will take the harsh judgments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy to heart. Or who want to conduct war in the manner prescribed by Joshua.

The problem with moderates is that they are tolerant.
“Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of Go, but they want us to keep using the word “God” as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world – to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish – is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.”

For Harris, the only hope of human survival and flourishing is that humanity should give up religious faith of all types. Or as he says” An utter revolution in our thinking could be accomplished in a single generation: if parents and teachers would merely give honest answers to the questions of every child.”

And so, here at the first meeting of the Collateral Damage Survival and Liberation Front, we have a motion, a resolution, and a plan of action proposed by Mr. Sam Harris, on how to proceed, in order to avoid the world ending in a religious war between Christian and Muslim extremists.

Whereas, religious believers threaten to end the world in an orgy of religious violence and whereas, religious faith underpins the tendency toward self-destructive violence,
Be it therefore resolved, that humanity will give up religious faith immediately and be it further resolved, that this be accomplished by every parent and teacher telling the truth to their children in all cases.

Can I get a second?
Of course, I can.

My question is “while we are at it, can I get a pony too?”
My question is sarcastic and intended for a laugh, but if the situation is as serious as Harris argues that it is, and I do agree with him there, then his solution doesn’t make any sense. He argues that the greatest threat to humanity is that most people think badly about life, death and religion and that the solution is that we should change our minds.

Anyone whose plans for a better world involve a rapid advance in human consciousness, such as the people of the world giving up their religions, is not being very realistic.

In fact, what becomes clear through the rest of Harris’ book is he believes that war with Islam is necessary and has already begun. He is more than willing to fight the religious war that the Islamic fundamentalists have been trying to provoke us into, and in which our Christian fundamentalists are already enlisted.

Is there another way to approach the problem posed by the rush to Armageddon, toward the apocalyptic religious war envisioned by some?

Would a different diagnosis of the problem we face lead us in a better direction?

Let’s back up and talk about religions for a moment.

Religions are like cathedrals. Religions are ancient on-going collective works of multi-media art, always growing and always evolving. They are collections of music, and art, and literature, and words. The World’s Religions are humanity’s greatest cultural creations. They are giant imaginative understandings of who we human beings are, and what we are like, and what we do that is full of love and wonder. The World’s religions are imaginative understandings of how we fail, and how we recover from our failures, and how the universe is so constructed that we have a place in it.

Religions try to describe a mysterious source of moral authority that seems to order the Universe, even if imperfectly.

And however one describes that ultimate source of moral Authority, the religious imagination draws a picture, creates a model, of how that Authority makes its presence known in the world of men and women. How do we discern the voice of God among the clack and clatter of the world? Where do we find it?

I define the religious problem facing humanity differently than Sam Harris. He says that problem as religious faith in general. To me, the problem is not religious faith per se, but external sources of religious authority. External sources of religious authority are those which place the final arbiter of religious truth outside the individual – external to the person. The Magisterium of the Roman Catholic church, the Bible if understood as inerrant word of God, the Koran, which was dictated directly by God.

An internal source of religious authority, on the other hand, is within the person: it my determination of what is true and meaningful to me. It is my reading of texts, and my freedom to read them, or reject them, as I see fit. It is my use of reason, and my weighing of the evidence; it is my emotional response to the world around me; it is my own mystic experiences, or reflections. It is my willing submission to a tradition that I have decided is worthy of my life.
Whether one sees the source of religious authority as external, in scripture or hierarchy or tradition, or internal, in conscience, in personal reflection, in private study or meditation, this is not just a philosophical argument. At the heart of any system of religious authority, there are social relationships at stake, there is power. External Religious authority is enforced by people and confers power onto particular individuals and groups. The priest has power in the community.

If your community believes that kissing frogs is a necessary step to salvation, people who own swamps will become rich and powerful. Religious beliefs have political and social consequences. I believe that external systems of religious authority are idolatry, in that they try to capture and freeze God in a human creation, as sure as Isaiah described it. But what I want to stress is that religious idolatry is a social process, which leads to relationships of domination and subordination in the community.

Look at American Protestant fundamentalism. It argues that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, which trumps all other forms of knowledge. Who is empowered by such a claim? People who control the process by which the Bible is read and interpreted. There was a time in American history when the small town minister was the smartest and most educated man in the village. And what he knew was the Bible. Protestant fundamentalism is, in part, an effort to maintain the social power of the Protestant clergyman. He knows the most important form of knowledge that there is.

When you pose the fundamental philosophical conflict in the world today as between Religious Faith and Reason, as Sam Harris does, the future looks dark and grim, a world-wide war unfolding.

When you pose the fundamental religious conflict in the world today as between systems of external authority on the one hand, and systems of internal sources of authority on the other, the future is not so bleak.

On the one hand, there are all the oppressive systems that come from idolatry. But as powerful as those are, on the other is the most powerful force active in the world today, and that is… the accelerating desire of individuals to seek their own freedom, self-determination and happiness. The desire of people to be individuals, to claim their own authority over their own life.

We see it in the world wide growth of secularism and the world-wide shrinkage of the religious realm. People pursue their own happiness. We also see it the growth of what Harris dismisses as meaningless moderating forms of religion. We ourselves are evidence of that: Unitarianism and Universalism emerged out of Christianity, a religious culture that looked as closed and totalitarian as anything before or since. We grew to believe that God is present in this world in the thoughts, words and actions of the inspired individual; that God is not present in books, or the bread and wine, or in any sacred text, but as the Holy Spirit speaking directly to the solitary human soul. And from that insight, we developed the covenanted democratic religious community. And from that insight, we came to understand the need for tolerance and interfaith respect, and interfaith dialogue.

Where shall we place our hopes for our own future? In war and religious conflict, and Armageddon – and believe me, a war between the Secular Rational and Scientific West against Muslim fundamentalism is just as much an Armageddon as any proposed Rapture – or in the process of interfaith dialogue, tolerance, and personal liberation?

The latter is our only hope.

"Opening Spam" by Rev. Barbara Merritt

No matter how many filters our church programmer / server employs, no matter how many filters I create on my own computer, no matter how carefully I screen my incoming e-mail messages, every day I find myself inadvertently opening some UCE (unsolicited commercial e-mail.) Called by the acronym spam, the name actually refers to the Army issue luncheon meat. A sketch in the British comedy Monty Python series had all the patrons at a restaurant shouting for Spam . . . and thus evolved the idea of flooding the market with stuff you don’t want. A more popular understanding states that the letters of spam stand for Stupid, Pointless, Annoying, Messages. All I know is that every time I open one and find an unwanted solicitation, I hear a little voice saying “gotcha.”

It is a simple enough task to send such messages to the trash. But so much of it goes through the system, that lately I have started paying attention to what incoming messages are able to fool me, intrigue me and unfortunately, entrap me into wasting my time by opening them up.

In the Hindu tradition, sinfulness and error is placed in five categories: lust, anger, greed, attachment and ego. Much like Dante’s circles of hell, or Catholicism’s seven deadly sins, the purpose of any categorization of how we human beings get lost or distracted is to turn us in more productive directions. What I find fascinating is how easy it is to place almost all my Spam messages in the five Hindu classifications.

Lust? Welcome to the world of pharmaceuticals, and pornographic sites, and strangers who want you to visit their chat room. I become very annoyed with myself when a message asks, “Can you help me?” and then my mind is subjected to a brief, but still very sad and desperate pitch from someone in the commercial sex trade.

Anger? There are political tirades from both sides of the aisle. Both the right and the left are assuming that outrage and money are the best ways to change the political process.

Greed? From Nigeria and dozens of other countries, all are asking me as “a good Christian clergy person” to help them transfer millions of dollars.

Attachment? Attachment in Hinduism is defined as excessive selfishness and a desire to be in control and to possess. The spam that tells me that I have ordered something I didn’t order, or that my credit card account has been used for an unauthorized purchase play on my fear. The chain letters that are sent to me use a carrot as well as a stick. If I will only forward the message to ten friends I will be blessed, ealthy, have unlimited good luck and will be healed of all illness. If on the other hand I don’t forward the message, there will be hell to pay.

Ego? Here’s the one I fall for constantly. If the message says “Thank you,” I want to know who is grateful. If the message line says “Good Job,” I want to know who’s noticed. I have opened “in appreciation” and “eloquent words” and “question?” all with the expectation of a genuine communication. None of them were. This week, in my inbox, I succumbed to opening messages entitled “Dante”, “mistake. . .”, “Thanks for your support” , “Question” and “Being of Service.” Gotcha! They were all trying to get me to buy something I didn’t want. And the spammer’s knowledge of human frailty gets past all my filters. If you currently get e-mail, spam is pretty much a given.

As we approach the holiday season, there is another “given.” There is realnourishment. You can participate in life giving interactions. And there are endless opportunities for us to be generous with one another.

You’ll have to find a diet that works for you, but mine would include the following:
*Spiritual practice. Find the meditation, the prayer, the reflections, the disciplined exercises that allow you to listen, to pay attention and to be a part of something larger than you understand.

*Worship. Be in the communities that speak to your better nature, that return you to your focus, that remind you of what you know is true, but which you continually forget.

*Physical labor and exercise. Especially as winter approaches, your physical body needs work and attention and care. Do it!

*Family and friends. Find the people who make you laugh, who help you relax, who know your faults and love you anyway. Time spent in good company can restore your soul.

*Beauty in nature (even in November and December) and at the art museum and in music. (Sometimes the best moment in my week is when our choir sings an especially glorious anthem.) Appreciating what is harmonious makes it easier to get through all that is not.

We can wish for a spam-free holiday, but we won’t get it. This is a complicated creation of good and bad, real communication and calculated disinformation, sincerity and cynical manipulation. But in the midst of it all, may you hear the messages that love keeps sending. “You are a beloved child of God.”

"To Be Counted" by Rev. Tom Schade

The affirmation of my ministry at First Unitarian Church, as expressed in the resolution to “promote” me or to “designate” me as the eleventh minister of the Church is very gratifying. When I started on my path to Unitarian Universalist ministry in 1995, it felt like a risky adventure. To have the congregation I serve tell me that they have appreciated the work I have done feels good.

The act, “promoting me to be the 11th minister” is symbolic. It brings no
change in responsibilities or rewards. It is not a new office in the church, and it makes no presumptions about the future. I did not think it to have by-law implications, but some wondered about that question.

What the action says to me is that I am now to be counted as among the
ministers of this church, and not just listed among the numerous assistant ministers and associate ministers that have come and gone, usually quite quickly, over the 225 years of our history. I entered into the ministry with a long view; I wanted to do what I could to preserve and to advance the ways of the free church. To be counted as one of the line of ministers at one great church of that tradition tells me that I am reaching toward my life’s goals. Is it vain on my part to be concerned about where I will be listed in the as-yet-unwritten second volume of First Unitarian Church’s history? Probably. I am not immune to the sin of pride.

Not counting interims, and associates, and assistants, First Unitarian
Church has had just ten ministers in its history. None were perfect.

#10. The Rev. Barbara Merritt, 1983-present. The first female minister of
the church now presides over a period of great growth and orderly change. The church has become more theologically broad than ever, and she encourages a deep commitment to personal spiritual practices. Ms. Merritt has done what few UU ministers in this era have been able to do: to successfully maintain an intergenerational church as the baby-boomers come into its leadership.

#9. The Rev. Christopher Raible, 1976-1982. Ministering during a period of
intense cultural, sexual and moral questioning, Mr. Raible was a civic activist. He divided the church. In the midst of personal crisis, he left after our shortest ministry.

#8. The Rev. Wallace Robbins, 1956-1976. Our minister during tumultuous 60’s
and 70’s, Mr. Robbins was a traditionalist and a committed Christian. While Unitarianism and Universalism merged in 1961 and headed in an atheistic and humanist direction, Mr. Robbins resisted that trend. He preserved the theistic worship tradition of our church, including its seriousness, prayer and scripture. As our church is different than many other UU churches, much of the credit is due to Mr. Robbins.

#7. The Rev, Walter Kring, 1946-1955. This Presbyterian Army chaplain,
turned Unitarian, ministered during the postwar years and into the 50’s. Walter was a theist. He helped found the Worcester Center for Crafts. The author of the first volume of our history, an accomplished potter, a Melville scholar; he left First Unitarian for All Souls, in New York City.

#6. The Rev. Maxwell Savage, 1919-1946. One of the most successful of the
ministers, Mr. Savage led the First Unitarian through a period of great growth and vitality. During his ministry, First Unitarian merged with the Church of the Unity, built Unity Hall, and became the largest Unitarian church in the country. In 1938, the sanctuary portion of the church was destroyed in a Hurricane, and rebuilt.

#5. The Rev. Edwin Slocomb, 1912-1919. During his relatively short ministry,
Mr. Slocomb led the church through a transition to the modern organization of the church, as a democratic voluntary association: with by-laws, an annual canvass, annual meetings of the congregation and formal membership. Mr.Slocomge was an agent of change.

#4. The Rev. Austin Garver, 1882-1910. Mr. Garver ministered during one of
the Golden Ages of the Church. First Unitarian was large and composed of socially prominent persons at this time. Mr. Garver was instrumental in founding numerous Worcester institutions, including building the Art Museum.

#3. The Rev. Edward Hall, 1869-1882. Mr. Hall served in the post Civil War
era. He was a popular preacher and quite active in national denominational affairs. He answered the call to the First Parish of Cambridge after 13 years here in Worcester.

#2. The Rev. Alonzo Hill, 1827-1869. Rev. Hall started as the assistant to
Aaron Bancroft, our founding minister and served for 42 years. For twelve years, both he and Mr. Bancroft were active ministers. It was during Mr. Hill’s ministry that the present church building was built. Mr. Hill served for 25 years on the Worcester School Committee.

#1. The Rev. Aaron Bancroft, 1786-36. Mr. Bancroft was our founding
minister. He was the first minister called to a church created for the specific purpose of hearing “liberal” (as opposed to Calvinist) preaching in the United States. The first President of the American Unitarian Association. Served for 50 years, although much of his duties in the latter years were carried by his colleague, Mr. Hill.

Of course, these ten ministers were called to serve one congregation, which
is a continuous body, whose members live with and remember many ministers. There are members of our congregation who joined while Mr. Savage was minister. Congregations and ministers co-create each other, for both our shared accomplishments and shortcomings. To be counted as among these ministers is a great honor, and a great responsibility and a great calling. I pray to be worthy to be among that number, and to be a worthy steward of your trust.

"The Right Thing at the Right Time" by Rev. Tom Schade

Last week, I preached at the Church of the River, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Memphis Tennessee. Sunday was their version of the Commitment Sunday that we had a couple of weeks ago, when the Rev. John Weston preached here, and where they bring forward their pledge cards at the end of the service.
The Church of the River has a beautiful modern sanctuary, with a sloping floor. And the sanctuary faces a broad expanse of windows that look up the Mississippi River, which flows toward them, like Time itself.
They are a future oriented congregation, choosing to look at what is coming toward them. I suppose that on the same piece of land, they could have oriented their building to watch the river of time flowing away from them, leaving them behind.

My message to them on Sunday was about generosity, and commitment to our religious work. My title was “Covenants or Coercion?” It was my point that as humanity looks to balance freedom with some authoritative institution, the choice is whether that institution will be democratic, voluntary and covenantal, or will it be based on some authoritarian coercion.
I got so excited about the need to build up the network of free, democratic and covenantal religious institutions that are sprinkled throughout our culture that I gave them back their honorarium check.
They have absorbed, into their congregation, some people from New Orleans who have started a catering business in Memphis, so the lunch afterwards was excellent.

Rev. Burton Carley from Memphis had invited me to meet with the Prairie Group, a UU ministers study group that meets near St. Louis, and I had accepted. The Prairie Group was studying the life and influence of Abraham Lincoln this year. So, I went and studied Lincoln with them.
Abraham Lincoln is such a key figure in American history, and such an unusual person as well that he will be studied for a long time. One reason he will be studied is that he is one of the finer writers of that 19th century bible-flavored prose that he favored.
This summary of him was made by William Lee Miller, in his book “the Virtues of Abraham Lincoln”:
In a society of hunters, Lincoln did not hunt; where many males shot rifles, Lincoln did not shoot; among fishermen, Lincoln did not fish; among many who were cruel to animals, Lincoln was kind; surrounded by farmers, Lincoln fled from farming; with a father who was a carpenter, Lincoln did not take up carpentry; in a frontier village preoccupied with physical tasks, Lincoln avoided manual labor; in a world in which men smoked and chewed, Lincoln never used tobacco; in a rough, profane world, Lincoln did not swear; in a social world in which fighting was a regular male activity, Lincoln became a peacemaker; in a hard-drinking society, Lincoln did not drink; but when a temperance movement condemned all drinking, Lincoln the nondrinker, did not join it; in an environment soaked with hostility to Indians, Lincoln resisted it; in a time and a place in which the great mass of common men in the West supported Andrew Jackson, Lincoln supported Henry Clay; surrounded by Democrats, Lincoln became a Whig; in a political party with a strong nativist undercurrent, Lincoln rejected that prejudice; in a southern-flavored setting soft on slavery, Lincoln always opposed it; in a white world with strong racial antipathies, Lincoln was generous to blacks; in an environment indifferent to education, Lincoln cared about it intensely; in a family active in a church, young Lincoln abstained; when evangelical Christianity permeated the western frontier, Lincoln raised questions-and gave different answers than his neighbors.
The great question always raised about Abraham Lincoln is how did he came to the position that that slavery must be abolished and the slaves freed, and that further, the slaveowners should not be compensated for their supposed loss of their property. Indeed, for much of the his life, he explicitly said that freeing the slaves was not his goal. On the other hand, we find statements of his going back to young adulthood which make clear that he thinks slavery an abomination, a wicked system of injustice.
So there are two schools of interpretation about Abraham Lincoln.
One sees Lincoln as a crafty anti-slavery Westerner who was driven by loyalty to the first principles of the nation as laid out in the Declaration of Independence, namely the equality of all, and the inalienability of our rights. But for all of adherence to principle, Lincoln was first of all, a politician who masked his views to maintain his political viability, knowing that to take a New England style abolitionist stance in Illinois would be political suicide.
The other school of thought about Lincoln is that he was a man of the West, one a large population who saw the westward expansion of the country as their opportunity for advancement. But they did not want to compete against slave labor in the West. And so they opposed the expansion of slavery into the West, and denounced slavery in principle, because they saw it as a threat to themselves. The Westerners saw the Southern planters as their adversaries, and hence, themselves as allies with the slaves. The Abolitionists on the other hand, saw themselves as the benefactors of the slaves. In addition, the Westerners needed the federal government as the power that would keep slavery out of the West. Lincoln was, it is thought, first of all, a party man, dedicated to building the new Republican Party. The new Party brought the Free Soilers, like Lincoln, into an alliance with the Abolitionists of the East. And when the Republican party won in 1860, and the South seceded, Lincoln fought, therefore, to save the Union, and then when it became clear that freeing the slaves would cripple the Southern economy and bring a large number of recruits to the Union army, Lincoln then freed the slaves.
So what was Lincoln’s “real” attitude toward slavery? We find it very difficult today to tell what a politician really thinks and intends by looking at his speeches and positions. And we are familiar with the political culture of today. So of course, it is next to impossible to know what Lincoln really thought.
But I have come to be drawn by the picture of Lincoln as someone whose positions kept evolving as time and the river flowed toward him. Adherence to principles matters a lot, I know, but I think it more important to be able to see what is the right thing for this moment in time. After all, I identify with this. I have not been consistent all of my life, and have flipped-flopped on more than one occasion.
One of my mentor ministers used to say on occasion about life in the church, “Sometimes, you have to put aside your principles and just do the right thing.”
To be responsive to the present moment, and the present situation.
Abraham Lincoln had a pragmatic, yet tragic, understanding of history. Again and again, he makes clear that he sees the unfolding of a divine Providence at work in the nation’s agony. But rather than a faith that God is on his side, or that even that he is on God’s side, Lincoln possesses an open-ended wonder about the final purposes of God. Hear these words from his sublime Second Inaugural:
“Fondly do we hope – fervently we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was written said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.” With malice toward none; with charity to all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in.”
In other words, Lincoln does not claim to know God’s purpose. Indeed, he speculates that God’s purpose may be harsh: that all the wealth created by slavery will destroyed in battle and that all the blood shed in slavery will be repaid by the blood of the Civil War, and Lincoln can imagine that such an outcome would yet still be just and righteous. And even in that condition, Lincoln struggles to rise to the occasion with the right thing at the right time. “With firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in.”
This is not an easy assumption that God is on our side, nor is it the happy faith that God guarantees us a happy ending. No, this is sterner stuff, a faith that each of us must stand firm for the right as have been given to see it, and still recognize that we may only see our situation dimly. I Indeed, we may not have been called to be the good guys.
Unitarians, especially Unitarians here in New England, spend a lot of time agonizing the actions of our ancestors in the era before the Civil War. Generally, we like to think that all of our forebears were abolitionists, and of course, they were not. And we tend to think that those who were Abolitionists earlier were more morally advanced than those who came later.
The problem is, of course, that none of that actually seemed to matter in terms of freeing the slaves. The Southern planters were not going to free the slaves because of Abolitionist pamphlets and editorials. There had to be a war, and they had to be losing that war, before it was possible to free the slaves over their objections. They had to be forced to free the slaves.
So, from that point of view, and it is one that I think we need to take on this Veterans’ Day holiday, the 9 men, whose names are on the plaque downstairs as having died in the Civil War, gave more to end slavery than any Abolitionist preacher.
We may wish that it were not so humanity chooses its future by wars and violence, but that day has not come yet. Without glorifying war, we honor the warriors who fight them, and commend them that stood firm in the right, as God gave them to see the right, doing the right thing at the right time.

The Civil War was the greatest crisis in our history, but not the only one. Since September 11, 2001, the nation has been involved in a war about which there has been much disagreement and dissent. The election results of Wednesday will not unite the nation in a new era of bi-partisanship and good feeling. Indeed, I predict that the next two years will be even more contentious. Now that we have divided government, the checks and balances envisioned by the founders will begin to work. It will be healthier, but it will not sweetness and light, either.
Each of us will have face upstream into the future and stand firm for the right, as God gives us to see the right. Try to do the right thing at the right time. This congregation, composed as it is by good and loving people who have deep passions for justice and peace, will be neither a partisan community, nor a secluded retreat where the news of the outside world never troubles our spiritual musings. Gathered here by a democratic and voluntary covenant, we try to discern together what is the right thing for this time, and can try to remind each other to act with charity toward all and malice for none.
We do not know the fullness of the present, nor the eventual outcome, nor even what final role we are fated to play.
Indeed, all of us are fishing in the river of time, which tumbles from the far future and swirls around us and then rushes away.
Indeed each of us will someday lose our footing and be carried away. We cling to those we love, and yet sometimes they, too, are swept away, gone from our grasping hands.

How are we to live?
How can we be sure that we are doing the right thing?
That we have chosen the best path?
How can we be guaranteed that we are not causing greater suffering than we know?
We have no such guarantee.
We do not know the role that we play, but can only choose to do right thing at the right time, as God has given us to know the right.
As Paul says, Honor and dishonor, praise and blame are alike our lot; we are the imposters who speak the truth, the unknown people the whole world might know, dying, yet still living, suffering yet not dying. In our sorrows, we always have cause for joy, poor ourselves, to bring wealth to the world.

Have faith, good people, have faith.

“The KWH Challenge” by Vivian Shortreed

Vivian Shortreed, the chair of the Environmental Committee advises us of an important challenge to our community.

It was a mid-October Sunday morning. The sun was streaming through the lovely clear windowpanes in the sanctuary. Tom was preaching. Did you notice? The electric lights were off during the entire service. Our beautiful sanctuary lighting brings comfort and inspiration on dark days and nights, but we have been in the habit of turning on the lights during the service every Sunday. On that day, we just enjoyed the sunshine.

The next time you enter the dining room, look up. The 300-watt light bulbshave been replaced by energy efficient bulbs.

The Building and Grounds committee, working together with staff and the Environment Committee, has initiated an effort to bring down the amount of electricity used in the church. This is, in part, because our bills for electricity are huge, and the cost per kilowatt hour (kwh) promises to get much higher. It is also because the members of the Building and Grounds Committee are acutely aware of the need to conserve energy because of the cost of its production to the environment.

This effort to conserve has been joined by one couple, concerned members of the church, who have pledged to double the amount we save by conserving electricity during the coming year. Each month the kwh used will be compared with the same month in the previous year, and the cost savings recorded. At the end of the year, these generous donors will give the total amount, in addition to their annual pledge, to the church. (And they have offered to start the challenge in November, to take full advantage of the change in the lighting in the dining room.)

This is a challenge we all need to take up. It’s up to each of us to help the church conserve, to turn off lights when they are not needed, to use appliances efficiently. We’ll start a labeling project, to identify lights that need to be left on for safety. Give us your suggestions for labeling, and for other possibilities for conserving.

This is a challenge we need to take home. One of the real advantages of working with the Environment Committee is that over time our discussions have given me ideas about saving, and raised issues I hadn’t even thought of. Conserving electricity has become a game, like my daily game of Spider Solitaire. Can I fill the oven and avoid using the top of the stove, or using the oven again later? Will cold water do the job as well as hot? Etc.

The family plays, too, of course. Prompted by the KWH Challenge to the church, I checked our National Grid bills for the past year and found our kwh usage has been consistently smaller. Our current bill shows a savings of 61 kwh, about 10%. Since we changed to low energy bulbs long before the year I checked, surely our daily game counts for much of the reduction. It’s not big, but the little stuff counts.

This challenge is about saving kilowatt hours, yes, but more importantly it is about mindfulness. It is about the dailiness. It is about doing the small things in our lives with awareness: awareness of the extraordinary gift of electrical power, awareness that using it more conservatively will make a difference. It is about reducing the size of our footprint on the earth.

We are beginners, as Denise Levertov says so eloquently in the poem we read responsively, in the practice of loving the earth. We read these lines together: “We have only begun to know the power that is in us if we would join our solitudes in the communion of struggle.” Take up the KWH Challenge with us. It’s about the daily stuff, and the joining.

Vivian Shortreed

"Holy Ground" by Rev. Barbara Merritt

(A memo purchased by Vivian Shortreed at the spring church auction. The subject is “Groundswell”: the new lay lead initiative to reflect upon the relationship between our environmental policy, and its practical application for the outside church property.)

On Saturday, October 21st, I was officiating at a wedding at Strong Mansion on the side of Sugar Loaf Mountain in western Maryland. We never really went indoors. It was a glorious, crystal-clear fall day with the foliage at peak color. (Surprisingly wonderful for a non-New England setting.) Besides the beauty of the bride and groom and their family and friends, what took my breath away were the formal gardens. The wedding ceremony was held in a grove of tall and stately evergreens that had been tended for at least 50 years. The reception afterward gathered around a lovely reflecting pool with stonewalls and golden light streaming from the untouched forest directly behind the garden. But the view that will stay with me was the one to the south: a long lawn extended down a steep hill, ending in three large classical Greek terraces. And then rising up from these terraces, as far as the eye could see, were rolling hills, and green farmland and untouched woods. The view was a natural quilt of color. The vista stated in quiet eloquence that it was possible for human beings to live in complete harmony with the natural world. The classical Greek terraces were framed by the wilderness. The farmland and horse pastures nestled next to unspoiled forests. While standing among 200 wedding guests, you were able to gaze into wide-open spaces and imagine the blessing of solitude. And when the wedding was over, we all went back to the crowded city of Washington, DC.

I know of no place where the gifts of nature are more needed than in a city. A simple rose blooming against a brick wall (like they are currently doing in the church patio) can cheer you up on a cold day in November. A small garden, even in a window box, can make you smile. (There is just such a window box on Joy Street near our UUA headquarters in Boston. It never ceases to delight, no matter the season.) A pocket park in the midst of a tangled complex of office buildings can provide the best place to enjoy some relatively fresh air, along with a bag lunch. In the midst of urban and suburban living, we often spend an inordinate amount of time raking leaves, and preparing flowerbeds and planting perennials. One of the reasons is that this relationship between nature and ourselves feeds our souls. What lives and blooms and changes with the seasons, and comes back in the spring, holds our finite lives in a way that nothing else does. The natural world, incarnate in a houseplant or in a formal garden, can comfort us and remind us that beauty and a vital life force are real, and constant and close at hand. Even the flowers for sale at the grocery store can improve your home, your meal and your mood.

The First Unitarian Church of Worcester has one very beautifully maintained garden surrounding the patio on the south side of the church. Since Nancy Wilson and her loyal team of volunteers adopted this corner of our property, their hard work and concern have produced healthy plants and graceful benches. Unfortunately, the garden is hidden from the public by bushes.

What drive-by and pedestrian traffic sees from Main Street and State Street is the rest of our grounds: a front lawn eaten away by salt and neglect, that is rarely mowed; weeds and essentially an abandoned hillside to the west; several broken-down parking lots; and lots of overgrown bushes. Would it surprise you to know that the total amount in the yearly church budget allotted to the church grounds over the last 20 years has been usually $0, and never more than $400? In other words, it is our lowest priority. Unconsciously, someone might have thought that our shabby landscape was a sign that all of our discretionary money was going to feed the hungry or house the homeless. Practically, after the 2000 fire there was only so much energy, and it all went to restoring the building. Or was it just that we didn’t care what the community thought about First Unitarian, or what downtown Worcester needed in terms of natural beauty or revitalization?

But there are members of our church who do care very much about our place in the neighborhood, our civic responsibility to keep up the property and our desire to model good environmental stewardship. The name of their project is “Groundswell.” Next Sunday after worship, the first of a series of outdoor tours of the property will be conducted, followed by indoor discussions of what is possible. Whether you have a green thumb or a black thumb, whether you are a landscape architect or just someone who wants Worcester to look like a city where human beings and the natural world can live in harmony, you are invited. Help us envision a future where the beauty of our sanctuary and the beauty of our grounds announce without words that we stand on holy ground.