Sunday, December 18, 2011

Winter: A Season of Itself and of the Self

Lawren Harris, "Red House"
I have admiration for many things Canadian.  I lived in Canada from 1970 through 1976—a year in Ottawa and five years in Montreal.

Beginning in those years, I have adored the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the CBC.  In the 70s, it helped me acquire a cache of Canadian lore, as well as an appreciation of a Canadian point of view. Back then, while still in my intellectually formative years, I listened to its a.m. programing from morning to night.  (For a couple of those years I was working on my theology degree at McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies.)

Thanks to the Internet and streaming audio, I once again am listening a lot to CBC programing throughout the day. 

I’m glad that our own National Public Radio has adopted some Canadian programs.  Perhaps you’ve listened to one called IDEAS that is a potpourri offering of cultural and intellectual topics.  It’s simply outstanding.

This program, Ideas, has become the venue for one of the major Canadian intellectual events, the yearly Massey lectures.  These lectures were first offered 50 years ago by the CBC.  The lecturers have been distinguished, including Martin Luther King, Jr. who delivered the five talks in 1967. 

The 2011 Massey Lectures were delivered in November by Adam Gopnik, writer, essayist, and commentator, well known for his work in The New Yorker Magazine.  Gopnik, born in 1956 in Philadelphia, was raised in Montreal where his parents taught at McGill.  He titled his lectures, Winter: Five Windows on the Season.  Those lectures have been published as a book.

The central theme of Gopnik’s Winter lectures involves a modern state of mind.  Modern means an era from the beginning of the19th century through the end of the twentieth century.  He says:

A mind of winter, a mind for winter, not sensing the season of loss and life, and with them hope of life and divinity, but ready to respond to it as a positive, and even purifying, presence of something else – the beautiful and peaceful, yes, but also the mysterious, strange, the sublime – is a modern taste.

Now, modern I mean in the sense that the loftier kinds of historians of ideas like to use this term, to mean not just right here and now but also the longer historical period that begins sometime around the end of the 18th century, breathes fire from the twin dragons of the French and Industrial Revolutions, and then still blows cinder-breath into at least the end of the 20th century, drawing deep with twin lungs of applied science and mass culture. An age of growth and an age of death, the age in which, for the first time in both Europe and America, more people are warmer than they had been before, and in which fewer people had faith in God – an age when, at last, the nays had it.

Gopnik contends that in 200 years of a modern era, winter had ceased to be a season to be endured and tested (fated by God) and had become a season of metaphor (for human imagination to find meaning).  He labels this a Romantic vision.

Gopnik further says:

Loving winter can seem, in a very long perspective of history, perverse. Of all the natural metaphors of existence that we have – light versus dark, sweet against bitter – none seems more natural than the opposition of the seasons: warmth against cold, spring against fall, and above all, summer against winter. Human beings make metaphors as naturally as bees make honey, and one of the most natural metaphors we make is of winter as time of abandonment and retreat. The oldest metaphors for winter are all metaphors of loss. In classical myth, winter is Demeter's sorrow at the abduction of her daughter by death.  In almost every other European mythology it is the same: winter is hard and summer soft, as surely as sweet wine is better than bitter lees.

The taste for winter, a love for winter vistas – a belief that they are as beautiful and seductive in their own way, and as essential to the human spirit and human soul as any summer scene – is a part of modern condition. Wallace Stevens, in his poem the “Snowman,” called this new feeling a mind for winter, and he identified it with our new acceptance of a world without illusions, our readiness to live in a world that might have meaning but that doesn't have God.

And Gopnik summarizes:  My subject is the new feelings winter has provoked in men and women of those modern times: fear, joy, exhilaration, magnetic appeal and mysterious attraction. Since to be modern is to let imagination and invention do a lot of the work once done by tradition and ritual, winter is in some ways the most modern season—the season defined by absences (of warmth, leaf, blossom) that can be imagined as stranger presences (of secrets, roots, hearth).

I invoke Adam Gopnik’s lectures and their central theme, because my UU colleagues have liberally engaged in finding the meaning of the Winter Season we’re about to enter, particularly during the high tide of mid-Twentieth Century humanism.  These colleagues, as have I, have looked through the Winter window, perhaps etched with hoarfrost crystals, and have had their religious imaginations respond to the waterscape they encountered.  Adam Gopnik’s understandings have made me realize that UUs have made Winter, not only a season of the mind, but even more a season of meaning.

This meaning-making is no little undertaking/accomplishment, especially in the absence of God, a mark of the modern point of view.  This morning I invite you to repose in the reflections of a few favorite UU meaning-makers.

Lionel Fitzgerald
Look through this window and encounter your own feelings of a winter landscape.  What feelings, what meanings do you find?

Here are familiar words by Greta Crosby, one of my 20th century colleagues and pioneering female minister: 

Let us not wish away the winter. It is a season to itself, not simply the way to spring.
When trees rest, growing no leaves, gathering no light, they let in sky and trace themselves delicately against dawns and sunsets.

The clarity and brilliance of the winter sky delight. The loom of fog softens edges, lulls the eyes and ears of the quiet, awakens by risk the unquiet. A low dark sky can snow, emblem of individuality, liberality, and aggregate power. Snow invites to contemplation and to sport.

Winter is a table set with ice and starlight.

Winter dark tends to warm light: fire and candles; winter cold to hugs and huddles; winter want to gifts and sharing; winter danger to visions, plans, and common endeavoring – and the zest of narrow escapes; winter tedium to merrymaking.
Let us therefore praise winter, rich in beauty, challenge, and pregnant negativities.

A. Y. Jackson
This phrase, pregnant negativities,  is my favorite expression of the modern propensity to make meaning, finding metaphor in an activity that comes naturally to we UUs.

[This was followed by readings by Henry David Thoreau, Kenneth L. Patton, and Max Coots.]

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Holidays, Liberally

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 Increasingly, we Unitarian Universalists speak of the Holidays rather than using the culturally traditional word Christmas.  The Holidays embrace all Mid-Winter festivals–ancient and modern.  Christmas is one element in a season of diverse celebrations, and observances, a confusion of cultural appropriations.  We honor Hanukkah, working its themes of freedom and light.  We honor the Winter Solstice, reveling in its natural imagery and proclaiming the goodness of the cycles of life.  We honor the African American intentional festival of Kwanza, with its contemporary values and intentions.  Ours is a deliberately inclusive vision, celebrating religious and cultural pluralism, resulting in an easy eclecticism.  Yet we find harmony and common meaning summarized as light, life, and love.

If any religious way can do justice to the many moods and purposes of Christmas/Holiday Season, it is our liberal Unitarian Universalist tradition.  It is elastic enough and encompassing enough to allow each of us the latitude to observe the December Holidays as the spirit moves us to observe them–a little or a lot, with secular joy or spiritual meaning, with excess or responsible consumption, in grand public performances or intimate family circles. [46]

Cosmic Drama

Sunlight grows thinner.
Trees are mostly bare.
Flakes of snow float
            from gray clouds.
Early mornings,
Without calling birds,
Are silent,
Except for sounding wind.

Our houses take on the odors
            of warmth, the pungency
            of domesticity.
In them, throughout the dark nights,
We gather in pools of electric brightness.

So, winter approaches.
And we, creatures of the earth,
Protagonists in the cosmic drama
            of life/not life,
Steel our wills,
Feeling the warmth of our bodies
            against the seeping cold.
And we lift our voices,
Lamenting all form of oblivion,
As we feel the fragility,
            as well as the tenacity of being.

We lift our voices
For our own life,
For all Life,
In return
We are strengthened
            by Life’s undeniable tenacity. [25]


A Christmas Card to You From Us

We live, not by things, but by the meaning of things.
Antoine de St. Exupery

            Ellie maintains the quality of the Christmas card matters.  “We shouldn’t send a cheap card,” she insists.

            I confess.  I found this card in a 99¢ Store in Orange County, California–and that’s not 99¢ a card but 30 cards for 99¢.  (But you knew this wasn’t a 99¢ card the moment you opened the envelope.)

With a little distance from the purchase and the perspective that distance allows, I suspect I was drawn to this card by sentiment, because the design, especially the cheesy gold embossed foil, reminded me of my Grandmother Searl’s decorations from the 1950s–how she garlanded her bungalow with similar cheap cards strung above doorways and windows.  (And there’s nothing wrong with sentiment during the Holidays.)

            In the fever of the biggest shopping day of the year, I thought this card was more than okay and brought two boxes of them home.  That’s when Ellie immediately pronounced them cheap.  “Look at the printing.  It’s off-center.  That’s why they were discounted.”  She paused and added, “But that’s not the only reason.  They’d be cheap with perfect printing.”  She paused again, then asked, “What will we do with 60 of these cheap cards?”  But I’m getting ahead of the story.

            I bought the cards on the Friday after Thanksgiving, when I was out and about for the day with our daughter Katie who lives in Brea, California.  Katie’s quite a shopper, and the 99¢ store where I bought this card is one of her favorite bargain haunts.  (It’s near the Vietnamese sandwich shop Katie had to introduce me to, Lee’s Sandwiches.  By the way, the vegetarian sandwich I had on French bread at Lee’s was outstanding and quite the bargain at $1.49; and the iced Vietnamese coffee was a perfect complement!) 

Following lunch, at the 99¢ store, Katie and I poured over boxes of cards tossed in a bin at the entrance.  Back and forth, we showed each other various designs.  It was like old times when Katie was 10 and not 35–which is a little ironic, because Katie’s making a big transition. 

            Did you know Katie’s pregnant?  She’s going to birth to a boy in January–Brett Michael Bodnar, he’s already named.  (The Dad is Mike Bodnar.)  Ellie and I were in California for Katie’s Saturday-after-Thanksgiving baby shower.

            Back at the Bodnar house, after Ellie “dissed” my Christmas card purchase, and Katie and Mike joined in to tease me about my chronic love of bargains, I surreptitiously began to place the cards around the house: on the entertainment center, on the fire-place mantle, among the photos and notes on the fridge. When Katie or Mike or Ellie found a card, they groaned and removed it.  I managed to stay a card or two ahead of them the whole weekend.  I hid one card a little more deceptively as my parting carte de visite.  Mike and Katie will find it one day.

            So you see, our Holiday greeting, though it comes via a truly cheap (3.3¢) card, featuring two geese (why geese?) surrounded by a gold embossed foil border, with printing that is definitely off center, in faded red ink, is nevertheless rich in meaning. 


Ellie and I share this meaning with you this Holiday Season.  So this card carries our wishes to you and yours:

May your Holidays also be full of meaning–old and new meaning–
And lots of Love, too,
Particularly the satisfying, intimate Love of family
And those friends
Who are like family. 
We count you as such a friend.

Along with the usual blessings of health and prosperity,
May your New Year bring freshness and hope.

Most of all:
Now and throughout the year
May you discover and revel in the meaning
That holds our world together–
The meaning of things, yes,
But even more the meaning of those
Who love us
As we love them. [13-14]


A Unitarian Universalist Christmas

A Progressing Doctrine of Incarnation

When it comes to Christmas, we Unitarians have long been of two minds.  True to our Puritan heritage, we demand the truth and meaning of it all.  But we also want to feel IT–to be possessed by the Spirit of the Season.  We want to expose falsehoods; but we don’t want to strip the season bare.

As I view it, throughout the 20th Century, Unitarians developed a consistent way to talk about and experience the meaning of Christmas–the Christian festival.  It was a serious way, because it surveyed the traditional Christian story, interpreting and re-interpreting it in light of world religions.  It involved the Incarnation of the divine and the symbolism of the child.

First, Unitarians and Universalists recognized that the Incarnation of God in Jesus has parallels in the Incarnation of Krishna in Hinduism and the birth of Buddha (and subsequent buddhas), events that recur whenever the world is in need of an infusion of the Divine Spirit.  Among Unitarians and Universalists, the notion of Incarnation became universal.  We came to realize that every child is the Christ child, that every night a child is born is a holy night.  The hope and salvation of humanity became vested in every baby.  In this progression, Unitarian Universalists identified the mythology of the traditional Christmas story, found parallels in other world religions, universalized it, and made it compatible for a naturalistic and humanistic age.

In this serious/critical approach to the Season, literally and figuratively, the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater.  In this interpretation, Unitarians Universalists retained Jesus as a focus and the “true” meaning of Christmas.  In integrity, a good Unitarian could enter into the Christian Spirit of the Season. [45]

The Green Eyed Goddess of Envy

When the Solstice approaches and the wheel of the year turns, memories abound.  In the Season of Memory, I remember the Christmas of 1976 first of all.

That year, I was an intern minister at the First Universalist Church of Syracuse.  We were living in a government subsidized townhouse apartment complex in Fayetteville, NY, a Syracuse suburb.  In particular, I remember the yellow shag carpeting.  (Remember shag carpeting?)  I also remember a canary yellow AMC Pacer owned by an adjacent neighbor.  (Remember AMC and its curious collection of cars?)  And I remember a single parent dad, father to a young boy, whose living room was bare except for a television, reclining chair, and, next to the chair, a life-size plastic Santa Claus illuminated from within–a bleak but beguiling tableau seen through the drapeless patio doors, the dad often in full recline, with a can of beer in his hand, bathed by a soft light of Santa-glow. 

It was our first American Christmas after living in Canada for six years.  Our daughter Katie was nine years old.  Ellie had a make-money job as a chair assistant to an orthodontist.  We had little money, but enough to get by.  We were relatively young, embarking on a new adventure, unsure of what our future would be.  I was an apprentice minister in a remnant Universalist congregation, testing my suitability for the trade.  For reasons of economy but more for the sake of our daughter, we tried to make Christmas hand-fashioned and family centered.   

That year it snowed at least a little for more than forty consecutive days.  We ventured forth on a bitterly cold Saturday morning to cut a crooked little tree at a picked-over Christmas Tree farm.  When I dragged the tree through the sliding doors, from the patio to the living room, a frozen mouse fell out of a bird’s nest that rested in the midst of the tight branches onto the yellow shag carpeting.  (When we left that place six months later, we were still picking out balsam needles from the rug.)

In the afternoon on the Saturday we cut our tree and brought it home, we fashioned ornaments from Styrofoam and chunks of wood, festooning our creations with plastic jewels, glitter, and water paint.  I used the occasion to lecture Katie about the real meaning of Christmas.  As an illustration, I moralized as I created the head of an anti-Christmas spirit that I named the Green-Eyed Goddess of Envy.  Her round Styrofoam head had green acrylic hair and shimmering emerald green eyes.  I told Katie, the Green Eyed Goddess of Envy’s refrain is “Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee!”

No longer a moral lesson, but a symbol of my ridiculous excess, the Green-Eyed Goddess of Envy–sometimes called the Green-Eyed Goddess of Excessmas–appears each year to perch at the top of our tree. 

When she appears, her green eyes are undiminished by ever-increasing years.  Memories flow. We laugh at my moralizing about Christmas meaning, even as I savor the irony of the lesson I learned. [73-74]


A Natural History of
Christmas Customs

In pagan northern and central Europe, straw played a significant part in Winter Solstice celebrations.  It symbolized the fertility of the earth and was a talisman for a good harvest.  Yule straw, preferably from the last sheaf of the harvest, housed the corn spirit.  Farmers spread it on their floors, scattered it in the fields and tied it to tree trunks to encourage fruitfulness.  In Denmark and Sweden, straw from that same last sheaf was used to bake the Yule Boar, a loaf in the shape of a boar that stood on the table throughout the various observances; it also contained the corn spirit.  Norwegians slept on Yule straw so guests who visited at year’s end might sleep in the beds; a dream dreamed on Yule straw would come true.

Scandinavians hung sheaves of oats outdoors for the birds to eat, probably a relic of an ancient sacrifice to the agricultural gods.  Polish people put a sheaf of rye, oats, wheat, and barley in each of the four corners of their homes.  In the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe, a creature name Polaznik visited the house at dawn on Christmas Day, throwing a handful of wheat over those who lived within, an omen of prosperity in the New Year.

Most familiar to us today–we can buy them in artsier specialty stores– are straw ornaments.  Perhaps you’ve seen the Swedish “jublock,” a straw goat to be placed on the Christmas table or beneath the tree.  No, it’s not a symbol of the devil, rather a representation the Norse god Thor, a friend of humanity, said to ride a goat.  And there is a variety of Scandinavian straw stars, crosses, and other figures derived from ancient fertility symbols.  In many areas, the Yule log, when first lighted, was sprinkled with wine and grain, another reenactment of sacrifice to the agricultural gods

In Europe, the Yule Log continues to be a centerpiece of the Seasonal observances.  It is strictly pagan, relating to the Viking Yule (which means wheel and suggests the turning of the seasons) and symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness–the rebirth of the sun at the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year.  Before the relatively recent advent of The Christmas Tree in England, the Yule Log was the season’s central symbol.  It was carried to the great hearth on Christmas Eve, children astride it, pulled by ivy-covered ropes.  A brand from the previous year’s Yule lighted it.  To assure a good harvest, corn and wine were sprinkled on the flames.  In Scotland a female effigy carved out of wood, the Christmas woman (perhaps a link to Freya, Norse goddess of fertility), was burnt in the fire.
Many different European groups beat the burning Yule Log, for example, Northern Italians, Bulgarians, and Spaniards, probably to drive out evil spirits.  Many other superstitions by many other peoples were associated with the great log of the Solstice Season.

The symbolism of evergreens is apparent, even in our contemporary observances, however removed and remote they may be from their sources.  In ancient as in modern times, they represented that which endures the darkest and coldest time of the year, when all else is sear, dormant, or dead.  In pagan days, evergreens of all sorts–mistletoe, holly, yew, bay, laurel, rosemary, ivy, plus firs of all varieties–were cut at the time of the Winter Solstice and brought indoors to help the sun rise again.  Northern Europeans brought branches in to their homes as a refuge for the woods spirits during the worst weather of the year.  Romans, at the January Kalends, gave each other green branches of holly; they nailed laurel to their doorposts.

The Druids held mistletoe in especially high regard.  The called it the Golden Bough and believed it contained the life of their sacred oak tree through the winter.  At the Winter Solstice, a white robed priest would cut it down with a golden sickle, sacrifice two white bulls, place some on the altar, and give the remainder to the celebrants that they might hang it above their doors.  Kissing under the mistletoe today, from a British custom, combines the Scandinavian custom of declaring a truce when under it with the belief that it conveyed fertility and vitality. 

An evergreen plant that bore berries–holly, ivy, and mistletoe–was a seasonal symbol of fertility.  Bound into wreaths as symbols of renewal, peace, and friendship, their round shape kept evil witches and spirits at bay.  Ivy, the sacred plant of Bacchus, was valued as a protection against drunkenness.  Yew protected against witches.  Bay leaves came from a Roman award to poets and conquerors.

Of course, the Christmas Tree has a more ancient history.  St. Boniface, completing the Christianization of Germany in the eight century, cut down the sacred oak of Odin; behind it was a small fir tree Boniface dedicated to the Christ Child.  The custom of decorating a fir tree can be accurately traced back only to the 1600s in Alsace.  In its modern form, the Christmas Tree relates to the universal archetype of the Tree of Life from which springs all goodness and bounty.  The hanging of fruit and other foods, facsimile animals, symbolic treasures of all sorts may well be the most authentic and spontaneous celebration of the season.

To the ancients, straw and grain, the great Yule Log, various forms of evergreen plants were more immediate or vital symbols than they are to us today, removed as we are from Nature and agriculture. 

For us, they are familiar decorations, though their timeless symbolism surely endures on an unconscious level.  They are archetypes of our collective unconscious.

When days grow short and the warmth of the sun grows weak, a vital essence in each of us responds, because we’re of Nature, too.  These natural symbols, allow us to respond psychically, in the midst of the seasonal drama of life ebbing and flowing, assuring us that once again winter turns toward spring. [28-30]


Magic and Miracle
Santa Biker

Last year after the Christmas Eve service, I rushed to O’Hare to catch an eight o’clock flight to Los Angeles to join Ellie and Katie for a West Coast Christmas Eve.  O’Hare had so few passengers, it had the eerie illusion of being deserted.  The only noteworthy activity occurred at my gate, where a sixty-year-old man in a well worn Santa Claus suit sat–long gray hair and beard with a credible pot belly.  He looked so authentic that young children stopped and stared, while flight attendants veered to talk to him.

I wondered if he were working the airport, the City of Chicago’s Christmas Eve ambassador.  What a beguiling possibility.

When the flight to LA boarded, he was first in line, carrying not a sack of presents but a scuffed briefcase.  Passengers joked with him, of course, asking him what had happened to his reindeer and sleigh.  Up close, he was the most convincing Saint Nick I’d ever seen.

Cruising over Kansas at 30,000 feet on Christmas Eve, it was enchanting to have that red and white, right jolly old elf sitting forward.  The quarter-full cabin was transformed.  Usually blasé attendants were charmed by his presence; one produced a camera for group photos.  He produced a press kit from which he took eight by ten glossy photographs.  He autographed a head shot for each of the attendants.  Because of the press kit and our destination, I was thinking this was not a Chicago but a Hollywood Santa.

I’d stashed my bag in the overhead, two seats in front of Santa’s seat.  When we could walk about, I went through the pretext of looking for something in a bag.  In the process, Santa and I struck up a conversation.

Here’s the skinny:  He worked for a Santa Clause agency that contracted major malls and stores through the US.  He was in special demand and commanded greater pay, because he was a “natural beard” Santa.  For the past fortysome days, he’d worked in a Connecticut mall.  He’d come directly from work, without time to change (so he claimed), to catch a flight back to his LA home.  The rest of the year, he worked for the Navy making model ships and planes that were used in gunnery practice.  He hoped to become a movie actor and already had a couple of bit parts in major movies–hence his press kit from which he produced a resume.

As a young adult, he’d been a biker–not a Hell’s Angel, but another bike club.  As he talked, he removed his red Santa’s tunic to reveal a black, biker’s club tee shirt with a club logo.  Fading blue tattoos etched thick forearms.

His insights into being a good Santa fascinated me.  He related how he comported himself for both children and parents.  This man, who in civilian garb surely looked menacing–particularly on the seat of a thundering Harley wearing club colors–had internalized a complex Santa Clause code of behavior–a persona that was palpable. 

He had just enough of a menacing glint in his piercing blue eyes to make me suspect he was a markedly different man when not wearing that costume, a costume and persona he obviously relished, because he chose to wear it cross-country.

It was Christmas magic what that costume did to an elder, bona fide California biker, rendering him a curiously serious but still right jolly old elf.  It was Christmas magic to be flying to LA on the night before Christmas with Old Biker Santa.  

Magic of the Season

The Holiday Season is magical.  Think of the stories we love, though we know them romantic fictions:

  • the Hanukkah miracle of the oil that occurred when the defiled temple of Jerusalem was rededicated in 165 BCE.
  • the traditional Nativity Tale of a guiding star, an angel speaking to shepherds, a virgin birth, a promised child, magi bearing gifts, and a cruel king.
  • Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” with three ghosts and redemption of the archetypal curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge.
  • Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” with a guardian angel and excursion to what-might-have-happened-if land.

They all respond to a common impulse and touch us with a similar message of hope and transformation.


If Only for the Season

If only for the Season…
Let us banish cynicism
            and welcome wonder.

If only for the Season…
Let us downplay our differences
            and discover bonds
            of common origin and continuing cause.

If only for the Season…
Let us deny apathy and indifference
            and truly live by loving.

If only for the Season…
Let us set aside worry
            and smile and laugh and sing.

If only for the Season…
Let us subvert greed and jealousy
            and be good gift getters and givers.

If only for the Season…
The brief season
            of light,
            of life,
            of love,

Let us be wise enough to be a little foolish
            about candlelight and children and matters
            of the heart…
If only for the Season. [12]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving for Our Four Homes

What Is Ours

I have one daughter, now an adult living in Brea, CA with two young children of her own.  One of my great pleasures is watching her being fully embedded in the timeless art of being a nurturing mother—providing physical care yes, but more passing through the generations love and guidance, while taking joy and satisfaction in her 7 year old son Brett and her 2 year old daughter Bridget.

The year Katie was 9, I was intern minister in Syracuse NY.  We lived in a government subsidized housing complex of town house packed together in a little complex.  The complex was atumble with kids.  I remember most of all the sound of plastic tires—Big Wheels—racing over the asphalt pavement at all hours of the day.

Katie had a lot of playmates in that confined and family-packed place, including several girls her age.  Some were nice and some weren’t.  One girl, her name was Becky I remember, lorded it over Katie throughout the year we lived there.  Becky took every opportunity to tell Katie that whatever she had or did was better than what Katie had or did.

This irked Katie to no end.  However, Katie, even at 9, was able to process Becky’s ways.  Once Becky blurted out, “I like my Mommy, better than your Mommy.” 

Now think of all the possible responses -- different ways of tearing down Becky’s mother and lifting Katie’s own Mom.  But Katie gave a response that is among the wisest responses possible, which I’ve processed among the best insight/advice I’ve ever heard.

Katie said simply, “Of course you like your Mommy better.  She’s your Mommy.”

Now think about that inborn wisdom – that whatever is ours we like the best, whether it’s our political party, or our sports team, or our school, or our whatever…  (Notice that we claim so many things as ours.)

Just because something is ours and we like it the best, doesn’t mean it’s categorically the best, but from within our own experience we tend to like it better than anything, anywhere, else.

This Thanksgiving service we’re going to talk about Home.  Actually I want to talk about our several Homes, because we have many different kinds of Homes, beyond the home in which each of us lives, nurturing and sheltering us.

Church Home

Our church’s first minister William Channing Gannett was famous for writing an essay in the 1890’s in which he described ordinary graces that made a house a home -- what he called the House Beautiful.

This building designed by William Channing Gannett is unique.  From its beginning it was called a Church-Home.  It combines the elements of a Church and a Home in one building.  The room with the fireplace represents The Family, with a hearth (or fireplace) around which a 19th century family might have gathered.  There is a fireplace in the Auditorium to show that the family’s hearth flows into the Auditorium, where our congregation’s services have taken place since 1889, when the building was dedicated with a special hymn written for the occasion by Rev. Gannett– “Here Be No One a Stranger.”  The words were heartfelt then and I believe are still heartfelt now. For nearly 125 years, this congregation has intentionally opened its doors for whosoever seeks a religious home of reason and freedom of belief and conscience.  Not only Welcome, but Welcome Home is our greeting to all visitors.

Whenever I think about the intentional meanings of our Church Home, I remember a famous poem by Robert Frost in which a husband and wife, Warren and Mary, have a conversation about the meaning of home.  

First Warren speaks, then Mary:

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in."

"I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve."

Our City Home

Our family home and our Church Home are in Chicagoland, meaning that we live in the orbit of the city of Chicago.  Chicago is world class, meaning that it has a host of features that only a city of vast resources and concentration of culture can offer.  Think of all the things that Chicago offers: colleges and universities, a symphony orchestra and a civic opera, theaters, museums (the Field Museum, the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Oriental Institute  are among the finest of their sorts in the world), two important zoos, beaches, boulevards, and parks, an Arboretum and Botanic Garden, professional sports teams – football, baseball, soccer, hockey, basketball, no end of restaurants, research hospitals, airports, public transportation, including the El and Metra….

I remember when I first came here in 1983, when Ellie, Katie, and I were part of a springtime, Saturday throng of people flowing and eddying  along the upper part of Michigan Avenue known as the Miracle Mile with its tony stores—a canyon of glittering prosperity towered by great buildings, including one of the tallest skyscrapers of the world.  The surviving Water Tower in the midst reminded me of the momentous history of the city that had risen from the ashes to erect architecture that led the world in the 20th century.  How I felt a surge of pride in my newly chosen home.  I was glad to be here, in this place—my recently adopted home.  It became more and more my home.

I became familiar with Chicago history (and has a rich history) and acquired what I call lore–stories, anecdotes, images.  I haunted neighborhoods and had firsthand experiences that filled my days.

Many years ago, I acquired a poster from the 1933 World’s Fair – The Century of Progress.  Whenever I look at it, all that I know to be Chicago is imagined—the idea of our city, the city that is our home.  Sweet home Chicago!

Our Heartland Home

Our world class city of Chicago is here because of Nature.  A frequent word we use in talking about the region in which we live is Heartland. Heartland evokes a variety of responses:  Heart evokes love. Heart evokes center—and we are in the middle of the country, indeed continent.  Heart evokes the muscle that keeps the body alive. 

For me, Heartland reminds me of the great living organism—the Nature—of our country, indeed continent.  I have been influenced by two great books:  Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon and Sacred Sands by my colleague Ron Engels.

Nature’s Metropolis explains Chicago’s pre-eminence by virtue of being the likely center where the resources of the Midwest were concentrated and processed, not only to build a city, but to build a country.  The past and present greatness of Chicago is a matter of location, originally the course of the Great Lakes and river systems, later enhanced by canals, railroads, and highways.  And the Nature around Chicago is incredibly abundant.

My greatest revelation of our Heartland’s Nature came via Ron Engel’s study of the significance of region known as the Dunes, what he aptly called Sacred Sands, at the bottom of Lake Michigan, sweeping from South Chicago around the lake into Northwest Indiana to and beyond Michigan City.  In this incredibly varied ecosystem all of the nature of North America converges. 

Ron Engel used terms like Axis Mundi (world center/pivot) and God’s Navel to try to describe in mythic language the sacredness of this part of our Heartland Home.

The Ancient Greeks spoke of the spirit of a place—their phrase was genius loci.  For me the spirit of where we live is the spirit of a great, abundant, varied, and beautiful continent.  We live in the ecological center of it, and it is the reason for Chicago’s existence and greatness.

For me the physical representation of the resident spirit of Chicago is an ancient Greek grain goddess.  Ceres stands in Art Deco serenity, atop the Board of Trade building, 40 stories above La Salle Street, the central street of the financial district.
Gladness for Our Several Homes

Let’s be thankful for the several homes I’ve spoken about:

·               --our individuals homes where we make meaning and find deep sanctuary;
·               --our Church Home where we meet  kindred spirits and create community;
·              -- our city home, Chicago that is world class;
·               --and our Heartland home where the Nature of a continent converges. 

How fortunate and blessed we are. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Our Enlightenment Tradition


I truly love a bargain.  My consumer passion is dress shirts. 

Before there were outlet malls I shopped manufacturers’ stores. When I was in college, I travelled 80 miles from Newark, DE, to the Eagle shirt factory in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Ellie’s New York home was across the lake from Burlington, Vermont, where there was a Hathaway Shirt outlet;   when I was in graduate school UVM, I shopped at Burlington's Hathaway store at least once a week. More recently, I bought shirts at the Bachrach outlet at the North Riverside Mall.  Sadly, it’s been closed for a couple of years.

Not only do I not like to pay full price, I loathe the markups that branding and advertising create. Over the years I shaped an occasional sermon about the role of advertising as the slippery slope of deceit.

I preached one of my all-time favorite sermons in the early 1980s. Do you remember when so called generic products first reached the grocery stores? Visually, generic products had a similar look: white packaging and industrial – stencil lettering. No illustrations. Nothing but the generic name, ingredients, nutritional values, and a bar code. 

Thanks to my daughter who lives in Orange County California and who was born to shop, I've developed a fascination with what are called $.99 stores there and dollar stores here. I often visit the dollar store off of La Grange Rd. in Countryside. Typically, I'll buy every day sundries there, including rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and even deodorant and toothpaste.  It’s all a buck.

It takes a little energy to sort the good and substantial from the merely cheap, but the process for me is a little adventure – something of a consumer’s meditation about the meaning of stuff – at least that's how I rationalize it.

I've even bought a few books from that Dollar Store – books I hadn’t known about.  I practice discernment. The Dollar Store’s little pile of books usually contains a bunch of unsuccessful self-help guides and a cache of Christian orientated pap. Now and again there's something worthwhile. A couple of years ago I purchased an outstanding book by a Vietnamese woman, a doctor, who kept a personal diary during the war against American invaders; she died in service to her cause.

The basis of this sermon comes from another book I found in the Dollar Store, Garry Wills Head and Heart: American Christianities, published in hardcover by Penguin Press in 2007, originally selling for $29.95.  I bought a first edition this summer for a dollar.

Having once been remaindered by Penguin press, I had considerable compassion for Garry Wills and what I estimate to be a noteworthy and valuable book.  Consigned to a dollar store is heart wrenching for a Pulitzer Prize winning author. 

Enlightenment Religion

Wills, once professor at Northwestern University, is one of my favorite authors of popular history.  He also is an interested commentator on Roman Catholicism. Wills is sympathetic to Unitarians. One of my favorite monographs is his remarkable Lincoln at Gettysburg, which attributed famous Unitarian minister/abolitionist Theodore Parker as an influence for Lincoln’s memorable phrasing:  “of, by, and for the people.”

In Head and Heart Wills charts the scope of the American experience from the Pilgrims to the present day, relative to two opposing religious points of view: A rational or enlightenment point of view (the head) and an evangelical point of view (the heart.) 

I have all sorts of thoughts regarding the remaindered fate of this well considered and important book. The one that keeps coursing through my mind relates to my general impression that the populace prefers their prejudices to substantiated fact – in this instance, well-researched and well-reasoned fact.  At the heart of Wills’ analysis is the religious foundation of the American Republic.  And yes, Wills confirms there is a religious foundation.
Here's what he wrote in the Introduction. He pulls no punches.

Without the 18th century Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, benevolence, tolerance, and secular progress, there would be no Disestablishment of religion in America. Without it, there would have been no escape from the theological monopoly that governments had always imposed, no rapid proliferation of sects that multiplied as soon as this Disestablishment occurred. Without the Enlightenment, Franklin's humanitarian efforts and Jefferson' s intellectual projects would have had no purchase on the citizenry. Without it, Quakers could not have challenged the Bible' s sanctioning of slavery. It was a great stroke of fortune that the American Republic was shaped at the moment when the Enlightenment was having its full effect on the men who did the shaping. Political freedom and religious freedom arrived together, nudging each other forward. Before then, it had been assumed that a national throne and national altar must be an alliance, to command the necessary ad hoc quiescence of the rule. The United States rid itself of the throne and altar in one inclusive gesture.

Though there was no official religion for the nation, the framers had an enlightened religion. Those who have a different kind of religion said in the past and say now that this is no religion at all, simply a cult of reason. It is true that some leaders of the Enlightenment in France were hostile to religion, but that was not true of the main and most numerous followers in enlightened America. They were friendly to religion and were religious themselves. Even the most secular of them, Tom Payne, believed in a personal God, in divine providence, and in the afterlife.

Enlightened religion was such a strong force in all the founding period that it might also be considered the typical American religion. It is true that this form of belief has assumed the moral leadership of the nation at certain crucial times, and one of its forms – Transcendentalism – set much of the intellectual tone of 19th century. But it has rarely been the religion of the mass of Americans. One reason Enlightened religion had such unchallenged sway the late 18th century was that the other characteristic form of American religion – Evangelicalism – was at its lowest ebb in just that. It came roaring back in the early 19th century, and has been adhered to by most Americans in succeeding ages.

Wills's analysis is a mythbuster, reaching a conclusion that a preponderance of today’s Evangelicals don't want to accept. Their common contention, a popular, perhaps even default mode of the culture, righteously contends that the founders were Evangelical like them, Bible-based, Trinitarian believers of a personal and involved God. 

The Founders Were Deists

Accurately, Gary Wills describes the founders as preponderantly Deists. Their God had set the world in motion, then removed Himself from its operations, including human agency.  The Deist God was essentially disinterested. 

Furthermore, at its founding America was hardly a religious culture as we know it now.  In fact, during the founding of the American nation, Americans were largely unchurched; in 1776 only 17% of the population held to a formal religion.

Now, we UUs are interested in Garry Will’s argument, because we are heirs to Enlightenment Religion – a religion centered in reason that is the head.  Ironically, our way has been marginalized in a popular culture whose religion is of the heart.

You may have heard, and Garry Wills mentions it, that Thomas Jefferson among other Deists of his era proposed that Unitarianism, circa 1800, would become the American religion. Now that obviously didn’t and won't ever happen.  
As a consequence, we modern Unitarians have been by default charged with the task of continually reminding the larger culture about values and principles.  These values and principles have allowed for a lively arena for many religions to flourish, including the Evangelical sects. And so we continue to lift up reason, as well as freedom of belief and conscience, while maintaining the Disestablishment of religion with the notion of strict separation of church and state. Not only were these and the like founding values, they are the components of the best soil for Religion to flourish.  The American Experience testifies to this.
This assertion regarding the American experience and the flourishing of religion is not well understood, nor is it often spoke to. It answers an obvious question. Among all the Western nations in the beginning of the 21st-century, why does religion in America remain so vital, so much a part of so many people's lives?             

The answer, repeat after me, is the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment … as it was institutionalized by a generation of Enlightenment geniuses who head the list of those we call our founders. Without a doubt, this is the greatest generation.

As I said earlier, in Head and Heart Garry Wills looks at the sweep of the American experience, from 1640 through these early years of the 21st century. It is an overview, of course, but also dense with particulars he assumes the informed readers have an acquaintance with.  It’s not so much a book for the uninformed.

He does pause to focus and elaborate on a few of the key Enlightenment-besotted players who shaped the American Republic: Thomas Payne, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and George Washington. These individuals were Deists, or strongly influenced by Deist thoughts. These men and their like were, after their own fashion, were religious; but they were not religious from the perspective neither of their contemporary Evangelicals nor of Evangelicals today.

These American Deists did not walk in lock-step, though they generally advocated reason, Disestablishment, and freedom of belief when it came to Religion. 

Wills takes a particular interest in George Washington. He wrote:

One founder is often thought of as “something more than a Deist, “ though there is nothing in his writings to indicate that this is the case. The director of Washington's home in Mount Vernon, James Reese, told me that people often inquire why there are no marks of religion in the building – the crucifix, or holy picture, or prayer displayed, or any religious symbol at all, though  Washington was very shrewd of symbolism and carefully chose signs of peace, Republicanism, and agrarian virtue for his home. Jordan has to tell them that Washington was not a devout man in the way they want him to be. The famous 19th century engraving of Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge is fiction, though bloggers on the religious right protested when it was removed from the classroom. …

The same people who think Jefferson was not religious contrast him with Washington, though Jefferson thought and wrote about religion far more than Washington did. The reverence toward Washington as reverent is not based on history or scholarly treatment but on the early myth mongering including the extraordinary popular (and fanciful) biography by Parson Weems, which ran through 29 editions during its author's lifetime, and extended to many dozens more after he died.…

There is a heavy investment by some modern conservatives in the idea that Washington was devout. This belief has endured despite the work of scholars showing it to be groundless. Washington never himself invoked the name Jesus or Christ in prayer – he referred to Jesus only once, speaking to some Indians. He normally used terms for God that were common parlance of other Deists – “governor of the universe," or the “architect of the universe," or "author of the universe," terms that Thomas Payne would have been quite comfortable with. … There were no clergy called for or prayer said as Washington was dying. "There were no ministers in the room, no prayers uttered, no Christian rituals offering the solace of everlasting life… He died as a Roman stoic rather than a Christian saint."

Furthermore, Washington went to church with his wife, but he always left before communion was served.  When his minister challenged him on that, Washington thereafter conspicuously didn’t attend services on communion Sundays.

In Head and Heart Garry Wills does a commendable job in setting the record straight: doing decent history and a fair job of demythologizing popular misconceptions. That's what a reputable historian tries to do, to set the record straight according to the best evidence available, while providing a compelling narrative. But such history is a hard sell in American culture embedded in its prejudice and righteousness.

We Are Charged

Here's your take away. We Unitarian Universalists are the heirs of an Enlightenment religion that joins reason and freedom of belief, as embodied in the first amendment freedom of religion. We are scrupulous in maintaining the separation of church and state, the result of the doctrine of Disestablishment in which our founders saw wisdom and made America a model for the world. 

In this Enlightenment scheme, all religions flourish.