Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? … There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
Does our religious past matter, or should we focus exclusively on what we want our religion to be, here, now? Robert Helfer will lead the service.
Please Join Us for Worship.
Welcome before prelude
Good morning and welcome to West Fork Unitarian Universalists. I’m Robert Helfer and I feel blessed to serve this congregation as a lay leader. I’m glad to see all of you here today.
Thank you for joining us.
[If guests] I’d like to welcome our guests. Thank you for taking a chance and taking the time to walk through our doors and join us for worship.
Let us use the prelude for centering. We are about to enter sacred time. We are about to make this time and this place sacred by our presence and intention.
Please silence your phones… and as you do so, I invite us also to turn down the volume on our fears; to remove our masks; and to loosen the armor around our hearts.
Let go of the expectations placed on you by others—and those they taught you to place on yourself.
Drop the guilt and the shame, not to shirk accountability, but in honest expectation of the possibility of forgiveness.
Let go of the thing you said the other day. Let go of the thing you dread next week. Be here, in this moment. Breathe, here.
Prelude: End of the Line, The Traveling Wilburys
Welcome: Look to This Day, attributed to Kālidāsa
Hymns for the Celebration of Life, #472
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of beauty;
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.
Let us rise in body or spirit and join in singing “Come, Come, Whoever You Are”
Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, yet again, come
Chalice lighting: Audette Fulbright Fulson
This light we kindle
is set in the lamp of our history.
We inherit this free faith
from the brave and gentle, fierce and outspoken
hearts and minds that have come before us.
Let us be worthy inheritors of this faith
and through our good works, pass it boldly to a new generation.
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.
Invitation to Offering
I shall pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
– Henry Drummond, “Love, the Greatest Thing in the World”
Remember that our being here, together, all of us, in this virtual space, is part of our offering, our sharing and building of this community. Let us use the time during the offertory to contemplate how we can use out time and talents during the next week for this community and for our larger society.
Épitaphe de Seikilos, Petros Tabouris Ensemble
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 Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.
Music: Minyan Man, Shlock Rock with The Maccabeats
Story: But He Reads the Newspaper in Synagogue!,
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, The Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Schneerson was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the chief rabbi of the Lubavitcher sect of Orthodox Hasidic Jews, from the early 1950s until 1994. Some time in the 1960s he responded to a letter from one of his congregants who had moved away.
In case you, like me, are unfamiliar with Jewish tradition, I’ll just add that a “minyan” is a quorum of ten, the minimum number of Jews (in Orthodox usage, adult male Jews) required for certain rituals to take place and certain prayers to be said.
You write about meeting a Jew in the course of your travels who comes to the synagogue to help make up a minyan, yet at the same time reads the newspaper. Everyone, or course, reacts to an experience in a way that is closest to him. Thus, for my part, I make the following two extreme observations: First I see in it the extreme Jewish attachment which one finds in every Jew. For here is a person who has wandered off to a remote part of the world, and has become so far removed, not only geographically, but also mentally and intellectually, as to have no concept of what prayer is or what a house of G‑d is, etc.; yet one finds in him that Jewish spark, or as the Old Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, expressed it in his Tanya: “The Divine soul which is truly a part of G‑d.” This Divine soul, which is the inheritance of every Jew, seeks expression as best it can, and in the case of this particular Jew, it seeks expression in at least enabling other Jews to pray congregationally, and he therefore goes out of his way to help them and at the same time to be counted with them.
My other observation, following from the above, is as follows; If, where the odds are so great against Jewish observance, yet a Jew can remain active and conscious of his Jewishness, it can easily be seen what great things could have been accomplished with this particular Jew if, at the proper time, he should have received the right education in his early life, or at least the proper spiritual guidance in his adult life. This consideration surely emphasizes the mutual responsibility which rests upon all Jews, and particularly on those who can help others.
I will not deny that the above is said not in a spirit of philosophizing, but with a view to stimulate your thinking as to your own possibilities in your particular environment, and what the proper attitude should be.
We must never despair of any Jew, and at the same time we must do all we can to take the fullest advantage of our capacities and abilities to strengthen the Jewish consciousness among all Jews with whom we come in contact. For one can never tell how far-reaching such influence can be. To conclude this letter on the happy note of the beginning of your letter relating to your marriage, may I again reiterate my prayerful wishes that you establish and conduct your home on everlasting foundations of the Torah and Mitzvos, and thus enjoy a tally happy and productive life, both materially and spiritually, which go hand in hand together.
A much shortened version of this story is also given in the Youtube video “Minyan Man” by the Jewish Learning Institute, (https://youtu.be/WZxCp3rNKbM)
Lesson: Does Our Past Matter?
Robert Helfer, Lay Leader
As usual, there’s a lot going on in the world. Some of it is just noise, but some of it does, or will, affect us, this tiny community. And some of it should just be noted.
Yesterday, 15 January, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have turned 92. His life and work will be commemorated tomorrow as a federal holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, and we will hear many pious tributes. I hope that within all the ceremony we can also manage to remember the man himself, flaws as well as strengths.
And today, 16 January, is National Religious Freedom Day, marking the 236th anniversary of the adoption of the Statute for Religious Freedom by the Virginia State Assembly in 1786, which five years later became the model for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The text of the statute was written in 1777 by Thomas Jefferson, who described himself as “a Unitarian by myself.” For all his flaws, he was instrumental in making the United States into a fabled land of peace and freedom, that attracted, and continues to attract, immigrants from the whole world, and has affected the quest for freedom in many countries. May all of our flaws be so productive.
Perhaps not totally coincidentally, we should note that 28 January will mark the 454th anniversary of the Edict of Torda, a declaration of religious liberty enacted in 1568 in Transylvania by John Sigismund, the only Unitarian king to rule any country. This Edict, too, was flawed, and partial, and it remained unknown outside the eastern edge of Europe, but it nevertheless represents a significant moment in the growth of religious liberty.
And a potentially major winter storm is expected to be soon upon us. And let’s not forget that COVID-19 is still around. We are always in the midst of history.
I suppose it’s not too surprising that I would start a talk about Unitarian Universalist history with comments about history, and I suppose no one really thought that I might argue that our past does not matter.
The word History, like so many words, means more than one thing, and we easily confuse at least two of those meanings. History, first of all, is what actually happened in the past. Unfortunately, this can never be known fully, nor, probably, to any large extent. There is always something more that we cannot see, for which there is no record, for which the record is obscure and difficult to understand.
History also means the ongoing effort of humans to understand what happened in the past and how it affects the present. New information about past events is discovered, old records can be clarified, reinterpreted (or misinterpreted), possibly found to be false or forged. The past is constantly reexamined against the knowledge, beliefs, prejudices of the present. History in this sense is a dusty window through which we try to see something important, and one of our difficulties understanding it is that we tend to judge it all according to our own current morals and culture.
Lisa and I have recently watched reruns of Bergerac, a popular British detective program, on Britbox, the streaming service by BBC and itv. The series was produced in the 1990s, but nevertheless, some of the episodes are flagged with these words before the episode begins:
Bergerac is a classic programme which reflects the broadcast standards, language and attitudes of its time. Some viewers may find this content offensive.
Note that “its time” is only some 20 years ago. The world and attitudes can change very quickly. Now I suggest that we all take a moment to think about what we currently accept as “language and attitudes” of our time, and speculate which of these will be considered possibly offensive in the future.
But that’s just an aside. Our history is what we understand it to be now. And our history, as it is currently understood, contributes to our sense of community, or perhaps to our sense of isolation; it shows us that we’re not alone, or maybe that we’re totally on our own.
Community is an important factor in our lives, and for that to exist we need shared values and shared history. We need heroes, and we need crises, and we need to see how the past has shaped — continues to shape — our present. And we need to know that we are not totally alone.
A little while ago I read a letter written by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, The Lubavitcher Rebbe. I think his comments are of interest to me because of what they tell us about the importance of traditions within the Lubavitcher community, and, by extension, to any religious group. The Minyan Man song and story strike a chord with me in their quest for community. Such traditions have contributed to the survival of many communities in a hostile world.
And our Unitarian Universalist history shows us heroes. It shows us Michael Servetus, and Francis David, and Joseph Priestly, and John Murray (and the unnamed young woman whose simple arguments confounded Murray and led to his conversion from Calvinism to universalism), and all those who persisted in their beliefs despite attacks and threats of death. It shows us James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, who died while supporting the rights of others. We’ve talked about Reeb in the past, but we should also talk about Liuzzo, an apparently ordinary, White, 40-year-old mother of five from Detroit, who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while driving protesters between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, during the Selma Voting Rights March of 1965. I certainly don’t deny the importance of James Reeb, but we need to talk more about Viola Liuzzo.
The stories of such heroes may help give us hope and courage to persist when our beliefs and values are rejected by the world around us.
And our history shows us models for thinking, models for beliefs, models for behavior that we might incorporate into our own lives. Sometimes the models revealed illuminate, make us wonder about the world or help us find a way to make sense of it all.
But after saying these things, I remember Emerson’s words: “There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.” And I wonder whether we should be abandoning a past that might not apply to our new thoughts, “our own works and laws and worship.” Is it time to forget?
Identifying closely with a community is not invariably a good thing. As the economist and peace activist Kenneth Boulding has said, “One of the main purposes of national education is to distort the image of time and space in the interests of the nation … It is the history teachers above all who create the image of the Englishman, the German, the American, or the Japanese.” And adds, “This also is an important source of war.” While Boulding didn’t continue that thought, it’s clear that religious community, too, can become a source of prejudices and conflict. Could it be the religious education teachers who create the image of the Lutheran, the Catholic, the Unitarian Universalist?
A few years ago a great protest arose against remembering Thomas Jefferson as a .., well, as a semi-Unitarian, I guess. He never became a Unitarian formally, although he did attend Joseph Priestly’s Unitarian church in Philadelphia, and even described himself as a Unitarian in some sense, while maintaining his connections to the Episcopal church in Virginia — he sounds a bit like a number of people I’ve known over the years, who attended UU churches while remaining close to their religious past, often retaining old memberships.
But the protest wasn’t really about whether he could be claimed as a Unitarian, but about whether UUs should claim him. He was judged and found lacking, not up to the standard of a good Unitarian Universalist.
But in my opinion, the flaws are part of the story, part of what we need to learn and remember about how we got here, where we are now, and possibly where we are going. I don’t think we need unflawed heroes. And if we decide to purge our history of anyone who can’t be shown flawless, then we’re not likely to have any heroes at all.
One thing about Viola Liuzzo, actually, is the scandal her murder revealed. Liuzzo was a middle-class, white housewife from the north who had been inspired by stories of the Mississippi Freedom Summer project in 1964, and answered Martin Luther King’s call in 1965 for people to come to Selma in support of those who would march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to carry their protest to the state capitol in Montgomery. When she was noticed by four Klansmen, she and another volunteer, a young black man, were alone in her car. They shot her, but didn’t realize that the young man had not been killed.
The four Klansmen were arrested and indicted within 24 hours, but nine days later one of them, Gary Thomas Rowe, was revealed to be an FBI informant, and all charges against him were dropped. And then, the smear campaign started, reportedly driven largely by the FBI director himself. She wasn’t perfect, she wasn’t pure, she wasn’t squeaky clean, and it wasn’t hard for those who wished to to find scandal in her life, to reinterpret simple facts of her life into reasons to accept her death as in some way justified. But we, here, now, cannot let any possible flaws prevent us from honoring the greatness of her life.
And here, for me, is one of the most important lessons we — I — should learn from our history. Our heroes were — are — human, not saints or angels; they — we — are flawed. And those flaws and falls from grace are often enough key to what makes them great. We honor them poorly, and serve our own history poorly, if we forget that.
Music: Garden Song, Dave Mallet
Joys and Sorrows
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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.
Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation
Song Go Now In Peace (3 times)
Let us rise in body or spirit and join in singing Go Now In Peace
Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go
Closing: Through our temporary lives, Carl G. Seaburg
Through our temporary lives the great currents of history run.
Let us keep the channels open and free so not to obstruct purposes greater than our own.
Let us keep our minds set upon the high goals that here bind us into one sharing fellowship of loving hearts.
The chalice flame is extinguished
Until once again ignited by the strength of our communion.
Go now in peace.
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