Sunday February 5, 2017: Democratic Process

Prelude: Heyr himna smiður – Árstíðir

[Heyr, himna smiður (Hear, Smith of the Heavens) was written by the Icelandic chieftain and poet Kolbeinn Tumason, according to tradition, on his deathbed in 1208 AD. Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson set the poem to music in 1973. This recording features the Icelandic “Indie Rock” group Árstíðir. For more information, see]

Welcome: The beauty of the whole, By Meg Barnhouse

We gather to worship, our hearts alive with hope that here we will be truly seen, that here we will be welcomed into the garden of this community, where the simple and the elegant, the fluted and frilled, the shy and the dramatic complement one another and are treasured. May we know that here, each contributes in their way to the beauty of the whole. Come, let us worship together, all genders, sexualities, politics, clappers and non-clappers, progressive or conservative, may we root ourselves in the values of this faith: compassion and courage, transcendence, justice and transformation.

Chalice lighting: Afraid of the dark, By Andrew Pakula

In sightless night, terrors draw near
Nameless fears of talon and tooth
Hopelessness yawns before us—an abyss
Alone and unknown in the gloom, longing for the dawn
O sacred flame blaze forth—wisdom brought to life
Guide us—
With the light of hope
The warmth of love
The beacon of purpose and meaning
Because we are all afraid of the dark
Let there be light

Song: Come Whoever You Are (5 times)

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, come yet again, come

Principles of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story for All Ages: The Rabbi’s Gift, adapted by Lisa deGruyter

There was a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, all its branch houses were lost and there were only five monks: the abbot and four others, all over seventy. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving – it was something cryptic – was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

Offering and Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received — and the gifts which we, ourselves, are — may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Reading: from “How Americans Lost Trust in Our Greatest Institutions”, by Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton [The Atlantic, Apr 20, 2012]

[F]rustrated citizens have tried to fill the vacuum. Like-minded “followers” and “friends” feed us news online; people sometimes barter on eBay rather than bow to big corporations; and parents increasingly homeschool their children rather than expose them to failing public schools and unsafe streets. But this is coping, not institutional adaptation. And sociologists say we need the control that institutions provide: It’s how things get done.

When people trust their institutions, they’re better able to solve common problems. Research shows that school principals are much more likely to turn around struggling schools in places where people have a history of working together and getting involved in their children’s education. Communities bonded by friendships formed at church are more likely to vote, volunteer, and perform everyday good deeds like helping someone find a job. And governments find it easier to persuade the public to make sacrifices for the common good when people trust that their political leaders have the community’s best interests at heart. “Institutions — even dysfunctional ones — are why we don’t run amok in the woods,” Hansen says.

Still, no metrics exist to measure life without institutions, because they’ve been around as long as humankind. The first institution was the first family. The tribe was the first community. The first tribe’s leader was the first politician, and its elders were the first legislature. Its guards, the first police force. Its storyteller, a teacher. Humans are coded to create communities, and communities beget institutions.

What if, in the future, they don’t? People could disconnect, refocus inward, and turn away from their social contract. Already, many are losing trust. If society can’t promise benefits for joining it, its members may no longer feel bound to follow its rules. But is the rise of disillusionment inexorable? Can institutions regain their mojo? History offers hope, but Whitmire’s story, and the story of Muncie, say no.

Lesson: The Democratic Process
Robert Helfer

Some time in late October or early November, someone commented on Facebook: “Obama isn’t President because of the Constitution; he’s President because the American people believe he is.”

My first reaction was a kind of disbelief. Such an odd statement, made, in fact, by an Obama supporter. But surely that’s not right; how could he say that?

And then the truth sank in. Of course he was right. If no one believed Obama was President, then he could not act as President. He would not, in fact, be President. The very existence of the office of President depends on our believing in it; believing that it entails certain duties, responsibilities, privileges defined by the Constitution, legal traditions, and customs of the past 227 years; believing that the person occupying that position has a legitimate claim to occupy it.

In short, it’s a matter of faith, not natural law.

Surveys have shown that faith, or trust, or confidence, whichever term you prefer, in institutions has been eroding in the United States, and indeed in the rest of the “Western World”, for at least a decade. According to a Gallup survey, ongoing since 1993, “the average percentage of Americans who have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence across 14 institutions” dropped from 38% in 2006 to 32% in 2007 and has stayed practically level since then. [Gallup]

And 2006 wasn’t a high point: average confidence had been 43% in 2004.

These, of course, are Gallup’s numbers based on Gallup’s research. Others have reported different numbers, but none that I have seen have been any cheerier. In a 2012 report, Twenge, et al., for example, reported that “Between 1972 and 2012, Americans became significantly less trusting of each other and less confident in large institutions, such as the news media, business, religious organizations, the medical establishment, Congress, and the presidency.” [Twenge, Campbell, & Carter]

Maybe I should say that again: “Between 1972 and 2012, Americans became significantly less trusting of each other and less confident in large institutions, such as the news media, business, religious organizations, the medical establishment, Congress, and the presidency.”

And, of course, faith in opinion surveys has fallen considerably since November 2016, so, maybe these observations don’t mean anything. But I think they do. I think we, all of us, our neighbors, our kinfolk, the people in other states, see the world through much darker lenses than we used to. Or, perhaps, darker than we thought we used to.

Of course, there has always been some lack of confidence in institutions in the United States; there have always been elements in the population who saw through darker lenses. There will always be some people who are poorly served by some institution; institutions, after all, are just people working together, and people don’t always get things right. In the 1950s, Pete Seeger sang “the banks are made of marble, with a guard at every door”, protesting the banks’ economic exploitation of workers, while the John Birch Society and the House Un-American Activities Committee sought to weed out such “unAmerican” characters as Pete Seeger. Not much trust there.

But assuming that there was a time when trust was high and most people had rosy lenses, what happened?

Earlier this month Leonid Bershidsky, writing in BloombergView, contrasted the level of trust in Western democracies and in the Soviet Union and its satellites.

“Communism destroyed trust in every country it touched. An all-controlling, mistrustful state set the tone for social interaction and practically invited people to fight it or cheat it. Trust nested in families and small communities of people who knew each other well, but even inside these units there was sometimes a snitch.” [Bershidsky]

He went on to note that this lack of trust has continued after the fall of Communism. And this is understandable. Rebuilding trust is very difficult.

Western democracies have historically been places with higher levels of trust. But this has changed in recent years. In the United States, there’s “less trust in some key institutions than in Russia, one of the world’s most distrustful societies.” [Bershidsky] But the lack of trust is mixed, not uniform across the population. Unlike the former Soviet block countries, there’s a “trust gap” between two parts of the population, between the “informed public” and the “mass population.” College-educated Americans have far more confidence in our institutions than does the rest of the population, a disparity that could illuminate, if not explain, the events of the 2016 Presidential campaigns and election.

Okay, but how did that happen?

One possibility is very sophisticated propaganda. Hannah Arendt, in her major work The Origins of Totalitarianism, based on observation of the rise of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, describes as an effect of propaganda “a curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism with which each member … is expected to react to the changing lying statements of the leaders.”

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true … The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” [Arendt]

Well, that’s one story, but maybe not the full story. It doesn’t quite explain the disparity between the college-educated and the “masses”, nor the fact that this growing lack of trust affects Western Europe as well as the United States.

In their 2012 report on Muncie, Indiana, (known as “Middletown” in the classic 1930s sociological studies of Robert and Helen Lynd) Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton presented a different story. They saw the loss of faith in the failure of institutions to provide for ordinary people, such as the Whitmire family, in the 21st Century:

“[P]eople have lost faith in their institutions. Government, politics, corporations, the media, organized religion, organized labor, banks, businesses, and other mainstays of a healthy society are failing. It’s not just that the institutions are corrupt or broken; those clichés oversimplify an existential problem: With few notable exceptions, the nation’s onetime social pillars are ill-equipped for the 21st century. Most critically, they are failing to adapt quickly enough for a population buffeted by wrenching economic, technological, and demographic change.” [Fournier & Quinton]

I’m a product of a small, rural community built around agriculture and small industry. It was a community where at least some people never locked their doors; where children were cared for, and about, by their neighbors as well as by their parents; where neighbors helped neighbors when there was need – “neighborly”, I learned, was a verb among the farm families. I know this spirit still lives there because of the way the community responded to a devastating tornado in April 2015. I believe that I am not alone in carrying this background – I thought it was normal. It’s hard for me to accept this loss of faith.

So, no matter how we got here, what does all this mean?

Bershidsky pointed out that “low-trust countries often readily submit to strong-handed rule”.

Arendt elaborated:

“The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world — and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end — is being destroyed.” [Arendt]

And what now might happen?

Bershidsky offered three possible outcomes.

“Three different outcomes are possible. One is a version of Putin, Orban or Kaczynski: Ignore the mistrust, use the institutions to push an agenda and keep people in check. Trump may harbor such plans, though American institutional checks and balances are designed to resist usurpers. Another is relative chaos, something the U.K. Brexiters seem to have created in a country whose institutions seemed too strong to allow it. Ukraine occupies a more extreme point on that continuum. No country has successfully walked the third, most difficult path yet, and the one that is an imperative for the West — that of rebuilding universal trustworthiness in its major institutions. As Fukuyama pointed out, it’s far easier to destroy trust than to rebuild it.” [Bershidsky]

Fournier and Quinton’s view of the future formed the reading earlier in the service. Their thought is slightly rosier, perhaps, than Bershidsky’s, but they also concluded rather darkly: “Can institutions regain their mojo? History offers hope, but Whitmire’s story, and the story of Muncie, say no.”

But even if the course we’re on is not toward totalitarianism, the loss of trust is troubling. It has been demonstrated that societies with greater levels of trust tend to enjoy better economic conditions. And, perhaps more importantly, they are more comfortable places for people to live. If you can trust the people around you, you, and they, will live better.

But what can we do about it?

Last week, Anthony Makar of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, in a sermon aptly titled “Now What?”, and posted to his blog “Soul Seeds”, presented a path for us to proceed, individually and collectively. He calls on us to abandon both optimism and pessimism, and proceed in a spirit of hope, by considering The Love and Justice Pledge.

The Love and Justice Pledge is about using our Unitarian Universalist power toward the ends of healing, resistance, and positive change. It staunchly affirms freedom, truth over propaganda, science in the service of humanity, diversity, and liberalism of heart and mind. It is fundamentally an expression of hopefulness and a rejection of despair. It is an expression of divine love’s restlessness.

The Love and Justice Pledge also acknowledges that the work before us is a marathon, not a sprint. That’s why it invites people to do practical things over the course of an entire year. It also acknowledges that we don’t exactly know how things will evolve as the new presidency unfolds and what the particular needs at any given time might be. For this reason, the Pledge incorporates both specific actions as well as more general ones that can be adapted to the concrete needs of the moment. [Makar]

The Love and Justice Pledge states:

In the coming year of 2017, I pledge to do six things that will truly make America great again:

1. AFFIRM TRUTH: I will seek out the truth and speak the truth in a spirit of nonnegotiable civility;

2. AFFIRM AWARENESS: I will explore three different kinds of injustice that the new administration wants to reinforce, and, for each kind of injustice, I will engage in at least one action that seeks (in one way or another) to get us back on track;

3. AFFIRM DIVERSITY: I will reach out to at least five people who are significantly different from me (in terms of race, class, political affiliation, ability, and so on) in a spirit of curiosity and friendship, to find out about the life experiences that have made them who they are, and to share mine;

4. AFFIRM SERVICE: I will get clear about the personal strengths that are uniquely mine, and I will find ways to offer them up in the service of humanity;

5. AFFIRM SPIRIT: I will memorize a prayer or poem that grounds my practical actions in a spirituality of love and justice;

6. AFFIRM SUSTAINABILITY: I will strive to balance work for peace and justice with enjoyment of the things in life that are good and beautiful.

As Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale once said, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”

I, ______, pledge to do these six things as my way of contributing to the ongoing work of love and justice in 2017.

It’s something that we can at least try. No one claims it will be easy, but as a friend of mine has recently reminded me of Martin Luther King’s words, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”


Music: Die Gedanken sind frei – Rundfunk-Jugendchor Wernigerode

[Words in German and English are displayed in the video. Pictured in the video are Sophie & Hans Scholl with Christoph Probst, Summer of 1942, members of the White Rose (die Weiße Rose), which actively, but non-violently, resisted the Nazi regime in Germany until their arrests and executions in 1943. For more information, see ]

Joys and Sorrows
(Please save announcements and comments until the end of the service)

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.


Reading: from The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius, translated by H.R. James

[Dame Fortune speaks:]

This is my art, this the game I never cease to play. I turn the wheel that spins. I delight to see the high come down and the low ascend. Mount up, if thou wilt, but only on condition that thou wilt not think it a hardship to come down when the rules of my game require it.

Thou hast resigned thyself to the sway of Fortune; thou must submit to thy mistress’s caprices. What! art thou verily striving to stay the swing of the revolving wheel? Oh, stupidest of mortals, if it takes to standing still, it ceases to be the wheel of Fortune.

Silent Meditation
Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: Cherish Your Doubts, by Michael A Schuler

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the servant of truth.

Question your convictions, for beliefs too tightly held strangle the mind and its natural wisdom.

Suspect all certitudes, for the world whirls on — nothing abides.

Yet in our inner rooms full of doubt, inquiry and suspicion, let a corner be reserved for trust.

For without trust there is no space for communities to gather or for friendships to be forged. Indeed, this is the small corner where we connect — and reconnect — with each other.

The chalice has been extinguished.
Go now in peace.

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