Let’s take a moment a pray for safe travels for those heading to Spokane for Ministry Days and General Assembly, for productive meetings and good-spirited companionship.
June 14. Update. A revised proposed amendment has been accepted as a friendly amendment.
The Rev. Sarah Stewart has written a proposed amendment to the UUMA guidelines proposal. I hope this helps shape the discussion in conjuction with A UUMA Guidelines Proposal Response which I posted earlier. Further, she is in conversation with UUMA leaders about the best way to bring it forward.
Reprinted with permission.
The following, prepared in conjunction with UUMA leadership and particularly UUMA president Cheryl M. Walker, will be entered as a friendly amendment.
Be it resolved that the membership of the UUMA shall study the proposed changes to the UUMA Guidelines published on May 1, 2019;
Be it further resolved that the following process shall be observed for the study period:
The UUMA board shall ensure that study materials are available to chapters in time for their fall 2019 meetings;
Study of the above proposal undertaken by chapters will be eligible for continuing education units;
The UUMA board and staff shall encourage robust discussion, including assent and dissent, over the course of the study period;
All comments and revisions shall be recorded and disclosed to UUMA members in an open and transparent way;
Edits and revisions to the current text shall be sent by chapters, individuals or groups of colleagues to the UUMA board by a deadline they shall establish in the spring of 2020;
And be it finally resolved that if these edits and revisions result in amendments which are substantially different from the above proposal, all such proposed amendments shall be enumerated and considered at the Annual Meeting of the UUMA in 2020, which shall choose a final draft a further year of study.
The former version follows:
Proposed amendment to the Code of Conduct revisions
UUMA Annual meeting
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
Brought by Sarah Stewart
Whereas the current Code of Conduct of the UUMA does not recognize differences of identity and social location among ministers, and whereas UU ministers have engaged in conduct unbecoming of a minister which our current guidelines have not been adequate to address,
Be it resolved that the membership of the UUMA shall study the proposed changes to the UUMA Code of Conduct published on May 1, 2019;
Be it further resolved that the following process shall be observed for the study period:
- The UUMA executive committee shall ensure that study materials are available to chapters no later than September 15, 2019. Study undertaken by chapters will be eligible for continuing education units;
- Edits and revisions to the current text shall be sent by chapters or individuals to the UUMA exec no later than March 15, 2020;
- Alternative proposals to the current text shall be signed by no fewer than 100 UUMA members and submitted to the UUMA exec no later than March 15, 2020;
- The various options which emerge from this process shall be published to UUMA members by April 15, 2020 for a straw vote at Ministry Days 2020. The UUMA exec may combine very similar proposals into one for the purposes of this vote;
- If no substantial revisions or alternative proposals have been received, a final vote on the above changes to the Code of Conduct shall be in order at Ministry Days 2020;
- If there is more than one proposal, a vote shall be held among them at Ministry Days 2020, to choose a final draft for a year of study.
The UUMA exec shall provide a process for the 2020-21 year of study. A final vote to adopt or not adopt the final draft changes shall be in order at Ministry Days 2021;
And be it further resolved that while major revisions to the Code of Conduct are under consideration for the study period of one or two years, the UUMA shall not recommend any changes on the connection between fellowship and membership in the UUMA.
June 14. Update: I have updated the signatories list, and here’s a link to the associated resolution amendment proposal, original and today’s update.
I am a signatory to this letter, issued yesterday. You can read the document referenced here.
A UUMA GUIDELINES PROPOSAL RESPONSE
I. Executive Summary
Ministry occurs in a complex landscape of diverse perspectives. We applaud all who are engaged in the vital work of articulating professional ethical standards, including collegial relations; we understand that our polity makes holding each other accountable to those standards particularly challenging. That said, having read and studied the current proposed revisions to the UUMA guidelines, we are moved to respond.
There are several problems we see with the proposed changes to the UUMA guidelines. We are concerned with the subjectivity of what constitutes “harm,” and the entirety of the “accountability” section. Perhaps most significantly: we, the undersigned, believe there should be a clear boundary between the important work of the UUMA to serve as a resource for improving our skills in ministry, and the important work of the community of congregations (otherwise known as the UUA), which credentials ministers through fellowship.
We know that credentialing serves important purposes. It vets people for psychological wellbeing. It assesses quality of connection and commitment to tradition. It provides external confirmation of vocational call. It assesses potential for spiritual maturity. Credentialing requires people to articulate the call and why they want to pursue leadership. It requires instruction and training in a particular body of knowledge (ie. ethics, scripture, etc.) Credentialing carries accountability to an authorizing body and is the basis for consequences. It carries endorsement from the community of congregations through the UUA, and it allows for portability of professional standing from one community to another. The UUMA does not relate materially to any of these processes.
The UUA is in the process of trying to create a single path for ethical complaints against ministers (and possibly other religious professionals). We would like to see that work continue and develop without the UUMA’s intervention. We would also like congregations to get more training on their responsibilities as employers, including non-discrimination and non-harassment.
The UUMA is not charged with saving congregations from their own weaknesses, but rather with upholding and supporting the standards of excellence of our professional ministry so that we may effectively and responsibly serve congregations and communities.
Here are the principles we see as vital to uphold:
1. Congregational independence and authority are core values of Unitarian Universalist congregations and have been since our traditions’ founding.
2. Congregational interdependence is equally ancient and is now most clearly expressed through membership in the UUA.
3. Every UU, including every minister, has a responsibility to serve the sacred as they understand it.
4. Every minister has a responsibility to speak the truth, in covenant with the congregation or community they serve.
5. The congregation has the sole authority to affirm or reject the call of a particular minister in that location;
6. Ordination is the acknowledgment and solemnization of an individual’s sacred call to ministry, performed by a congregation. Fellowship is the affirmation by tasked and trusted representatives of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, including but not limited to ministers, that an individual is deemed ready and acceptable for ordination, and for serving a call to professional ministry.
In summary: The UUA is an association of congregations. The UUMA is an association of ministers. The UUA advocates for congregations and the UUMA for ministers.
III. Areas of Agreement (with Gratitude)
- We believe that misconduct should be actionable.
- We agree strongly that we need to consistently clarify and strengthen our professional standards against behaviors that perpetuate white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and other systems and structures of oppression.
- We agree that bullying is a form of misconduct.
- We agree that it is important to add language about emotional needs as one of the ways a misconducting minister could exploit others.
- We agree that it is good to clarify the expectation to refrain from contact for two years if a minister wants to begin a sexual relationship with someone they have encountered as a minister.
- We agree that even then, the burden would be on the minister to demonstrate that they weren’t exploiting the partner.
IV. Areas of Disagreement
CONFLICT AND ACCOUNTABILITY
While recognizing that ministers have engaged and will engage in acts of gross or criminal misconduct, the vast majority of ministers are doing good, ethical work. The accountability language in the proposed guidelines is so broad as to make ethical colleagues wary of ordinary behavior and communication.
In order to fulfill their call, ministers must be free to speak the truth as they understand it, in covenant with the congregation or community they serve. Sometimes this will involve unskillful communication. Sometimes folks will need to work through their own biases or failings and be called back into covenant.
Many of the missteps of ministry are easily resolved in healthy systems by simply engaging in good-faith conversation or seeking and offering apology or reconciliation as a matter of course. The breadth of the proposed language threatens to override this healthy form of accountability and replace it with a much more dramatic and anxiety-driven process than is necessary.
We believe that in most circumstances, colleagues are able to work out disagreements between themselves as they see fit. In the vast majority of cases, a minister should be required to speak directly with a colleague with whom they have a disagreement as a first step toward resolving the conflict.
We appreciate the caveat in Footnote 2 regarding egregious misconduct. However, much of the language in this section is confusing at best, and seems to indicate a breathtaking level of overreach. Lines 122-196 outline a process that includes deliberate triangulation with regional staff, congregational staff members and lay leaders, clusters, and “accountabila-buddies.” That such a right relations process can be forced on a colleague for conduct as broad as covenant that is “broken, violated or even bent” is punitive and unreasonable.
CONCERNING LEGAL COUNSEL
We are concerned that this section of the proposal is not only problematic, but possibly illegal:
185 14. “The restoration of our covenant is a collegial process, not a legal one. Using legal counsel, insurance
186 agents, or similar outside bodies to prevent repair or frustrate accountability is itself a violation of this code.12
187 If a member employs these tactics to avoid accountability and healing the RRG may refer the
188 matter to the Common Ethics Panel for review and appropriate action, which may include removal or
189 suspension from membership and/or fellowship.”
In many union contracts there is an agreement to work through legally binding arbitration, or to pursue mediation as a first course. But those are both within legal practices. What we find deeply problematic about this section is surrendering our legal rights, and signing ourselves over to volunteer-run processes that have no established codes.
STAFF SUPERVISION AND CONGREGATIONAL POLITY
Many ministers are called by the congregations they serve to be staff supervisors within their congregational structure. It is wholly possible for these organizational models to express healthy collaboration while not exactly reflecting the UUMA’s preferred culture. We are concerned that the proposed guidelines would put an undue burden on ministers to serve a UUMA culture that may be in direct opposition to congregational expectations and established employment practices.
If a minister is unable to function as a collaborative, respectful, good supervisor then the onus is on the congregation, not the UUMA, to address the minister’s professional deficiencies and to deal with any fall-out from their bad behaviors — just as it is the congregational leadership’s role to address any fall-out from other staff’s misconduct or professional failures.
RIGHT RELATIONS GUIDES
The Right Relations Guides, as conceived, are a large group (“we may need 25-50 of these RRGs”, Accountability Guidelines Team Report, page 16) and a significant change in the collegial ecosystem. At first glance, they appear to hold a parallel role to the long-existing Good Officer program, which already helps mediate conflicts between colleagues as well as between our colleagues and other religious professionals and congregations. Good Officers often help their colleagues discern whether a conflict with a colleague needs one-to-one conversation, a mediated conversation, or if the conflict rises to the level of a formal complaint.
However, unlike Good Officers, Right Relations Guides would hold considerable power to recommend the suspension of UUMA membership which, if required for fellowship, presents a credible and predictable risk of abuse. This has the potential to create within the ministerial college an atmosphere of suspicion, effectively chilling relationships between colleagues.
We have witnessed colleagues and non-colleagues in social media settings, often in mixed groups, attempt to insert themselves into what we see as simple differences of opinions between adults. With this proposal, if these interlocutors were RRGs, they would be empowered to initiate processes that are disproportionately strong, even coercive, and threatening to the professional standing and livelihoods of colleagues.
Compelling participation in a process under threat of loss of professional standing by definition takes away the possibility of it being voluntary. Instead, it will likely bring some participants to the table with resentment, under duress, and utterly lacking the kind of goodwill upon which an effective reconciliation process must depend.
COMMON ETHICS PANEL
We appreciate the reasons why the guidelines committee has proposed a common ethics panel. But we submit that the UUA already has a common ethics panel: the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. The MFC has members appointed by the UUA and UUMA. It has lay people, UUA staff, ministers, DREs, psychological professionals and student liaisons. The MFC is accountable to the UUA board, and staffed by the Department of Ministry and Professional Leadership.
The MFC should be supported with additional staffing and resources to do effective work, rather than creating a new group to do their work for them. The UUMA can offer volunteers, ideas, and encouragement to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, but we should not create a separate team that decides who is accountable to whom while being accountable to no one.
V. Proposal/Action Plan
Complaints against all religious professionals for egregious misconduct should continue to go through the appropriate UUA channels (which definitely can be improved). There should also be a way for religious professionals to report egregiously misconducting congregations to hold them accountable and let it be known to ministers and others that they have a record of abusive treatment of religious professionals.
We understand that these guidelines are partly proposed to mitigate situations in which a colleague offends against another colleague, and is therefore out of the bounds of the congregation’s reach and scope. A mature resolution would look like the offended and offender talking one-on-one to each other, and/or offer options for supporting engagement with one another with a skilled facilitator if needed, allowing for an outcome that acknowledged the complexity of the situation, and responsibility all around. If egregious misconduct has occurred, it should be referred to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.
A professional association expects its members to nurture a growing awareness of complex interpersonal dynamics; the ability to listen and speak openly and mindfully; and the regulation of one’s anxiety. These practices promote the ability to make thoughtful, principled choices. These expectations are expressed through equally clear and principled guidelines that depend on its members’ robust support.
The history of Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist ministry is replete with stories of fierce disagreements between colleagues. With a modern eye, we look back at some of these disagreements with disdain for opinions that no longer would be considered acceptable. But we always are in a present position of seeing through a glass dimly. Those who were most reviled in their time by their colleagues are often the ones whom time has shown to be most prescient and wise. We dare not silence the prophetic voices of those in our time, it is through their uncomfortable (and even painful) conversations that we may grow. A humility is needed for us to listen to each other, and bear the difficulties of withstanding opinions which we may most vehemently disagree with, affirming that freedom of conscience is still a supreme value of our ministry association.
We appreciate the hard, painful work of our dear colleagues on the guidelines proposal team, but we cannot support the proposed UUMA guidelines as written.
Yours in faith,
Rev. Neal Anderson, Senior Minister Elect, UU Church of Greater Lansing, MI
Rev. Robin W. Bartlett, Senior Pastor, The First Church in Sterling, MA
Rev. Darcy Baxter, Minister, UU Fellowship of Stanislaus County
Rev. Chris Bell, Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa
Rev. Wendy L. Bell, Interim Minister, Unitarian Church of Sharon, MA
Rev. Peter Boullata, Unitarian Fellowship of London, London, ON
Rev. Tricia Brennan, Interim Minister, First Parish Dorchester, MA
Rev. John A. Buehrens, retired, San Francisco, CA
Rev. Dr. Andy Burnette, Senior Minister, Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Chandler, AZ
Rev. Roger Butts, Staff Chaplain, Penrose St Francis Health Services, Colorado Springs, CO
Rev. Cynthia Cain, in transition, Mackville, KY
Rev. Brian Chenowith, UU Church of Lexington, KY
Rev. Frank Clarkson, Minister, Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, MA
Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford, Minister, Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Church, Cedar Park, TX
Rev. John T. Crestwell, Jr., Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, MD
Rev. Rick Davis, Minister, UU Congregation of Salem, OR
Rev. Gregory DuBow, Captain, Chaplain Corps, United States Air Force
Rev. Dr. Leon Dunkley, Minister, North Chapel, Woodstock, VT
Rev. Dr. Todd F. Eklof, Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane, WA
Rev. Claire Feingold Thoryn, Minister, Follen Church, Lexington, MA
Rev. Seth Fisher, Minister, First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
Rev. Emily Gage, Minister of Faith Development, Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Oak Park, Illinois
Rev. Daniel Gregoire, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton & Upton, MA
Rev. Michael F. Hall, Minister, Keene Unitarian Universalist Church, Keene, NH
Rev. Dr. Lucas Hergert, North Shore Unitarian Church, Deerfield Illinois
Rev. Lara Hoke, Minister, First Church Unitarian, Littleton, MA
Rev. Dan Hotchkiss, Dan Hotchkiss Consulting
Rev. Richard Hoyt-McDaniels, Interim Minister, Long Beach, CA
Rev. Stefan M. Jonasson, Gimli Unitarian Church, Gimli, MB
Rev. Cynthia L. G. Kane, Commander, Chaplain Corps, United States Navy
Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Kanter, Senior Minister/CEO, First Unitarian Church of Dallas, TX
Rev. Elea Kemler, Minister, First Parish Church of Groton, MA
Rev. Brian Kiely, Minister, Unitarian Church of Edmonton
Rev. Dr. Maureen Killoran, Minister Emerita, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, NC
Rev. Tera Klein, Pastor, Throop Unitarian Universalist, Pasadena, CA
Rev. Sadie Lansdale, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Greensboro, NC
Rev. Michael Leuchtenberger, Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church, Concord, NH
Rev. Gerald E. “Jay” Libby, Melrose, MA
Rev. Anthony F. Lorenzen, Hopedale Unitarian Parish, Hopedale, MA
Rev. Ian White Maher, Minister, First Parish in Ashby, MA
Rev. Anthony Makar, Senior Minister, UU Congregation of Atlanta, GA
Rev. Brian Mason, Minister, First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau, WI
Rev. Dr. Kelly Murphy Mason, Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, Wellesley, MA
Rev. Robert W. McKetchnie, Minister, First Parish in Cohasset, MA
Rev. Jim McKinley, Unitarian Universalist Church of Hendersonville, NC
Rev. Diane Miller, Minister Emerita, First Church in Belmont, MA. Retired, Salina KS
Rev. Joel Miller, Interim Senior Minister, First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY
Rev. Craig Moro, Minister, Wy’east UU Congregation, Portland, OR
Rev. Jake Morrill, Lead Minister, Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church, Oak Ridge, TN
Rev. Peter Newport, Retired
Rev. Janet Newton, Minister, First Parish Church of Berlin, MA
Rev. Dr. John H. Nichols, Minister Emeritus, Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, MA
Rev. Parisa Parsa, Cortico Local Voices Network, Arlington, MA
Rev. Carolyn Patierno, Sr. Minister, All Souls UU Congregation, New London, CT
Rev. Hank Peirce, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading, MA
Rev. Sue Phillips, How We Gather/Harvard Divinity School, Tacoma, WA
Rev. Jessica Purple Rodela, Grand River Unitarian Congregation, Kitchener, ON
Rev. Jason Seymour, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield, MA
Rev. Oscar Sinclair, Minister, Unitarian Church of Lincoln, Lincoln NE
Rev. Erin Splaine, Minister, First Unitarian Universalist Society in Newton, MA
Rev. Ellen Spero, Minister, First Parish of Chelmsford, MA
Rev. Sarah Stewart, Minister, First Unitarian Church in Worcester, MA
Rev. Dr. Adam Tierney-Eliot, Pastor, The Eliot Church (UUA/UCC), Natick, MA
Chaplain (Major) George Tyger, United States Army, Fort Bragg, NC
Rev. Rali M. Weaver, Minister, First Church and Parish, Dedham, MA
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lynn, Swampscott, MA
Rev. Margaret L. Weis, Minister, First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, NY
Rev. Scott Wells, Washington, DC
Rev. Aaron White, Associate Minister, First Unitarian Church of Dallas, TX
One thing I didn’t get into today was Zamenhof’s ideas about an neutral auxiliary religion, which he first called Hilelismo (after the Jewish sage, Hillel) and later called Homaranismo: a philosophy of humanity. I mentioned this to a minister friend this afternoon and regretted that there’s so little about it in English. Now that my Esperanto reading is getting better, I can at least survey what’s available.
I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on June 9, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of John.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for asking me into the pulpit again, and thank you for welcoming me back.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost, also called Whitsunday: so, a little bit of background. Feel free to take notes. If pressed, I’d say it’s the third most important holiday in the church year, after Easter and Christmas. (And yet somehow Hallmark forgets it.) It is symbolized by a dove descending, representing the Holy Spirit, and — as you know, I like to point out church fixtures to illustrate a sermon — this symbolism is found in the center of the chancel cross. (It’s hard to see, so you should come up and look for yourself after the service.) It is also in the second of the lower windows; the lower windows recount the history of the Christian church, and the Universalist church in particular.
The first window, with the menorah, recognizes the Jewish roots of the church. Which is perfectly sensible and today uncontroversial, but its installation follows the Leo Frank lynching, the publication of anti-Semitic screeds by Henry Ford and the resurgence of the Klan. And that’s just the terrors in the United States. So it’s good to know what side of history you want to stand on, and then put it in stained glass. Pentecost, today’s holiday, also rests on a Jewish existing holiday: Shavous, to use the Yiddish name, which is both an agricultural festival, and to commemorate the giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. Hallmark missed that one, too.
Pentecost’s name comes from the Greek, meaning “fifty days” and Greek-speaking Jews in those days would have called Shavous Pentecost, also. Pentecost (as we know it) is described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Pastor Gatton read a part of that in the opening words. A multi-ethnic and multiracial group of Christians came together — Shavous was a pilgrimage festival — and God’s spirit descended upon them and gave them a common speech that they understood. But this wasn’t a linguistics symposium: people on the outside looked at this congregation and thought that they were drunk.
They were filled with the spirit. The godly kind, not the distilled kind. Conventionally this coming of the Spirit is identified with the birth of the church. A bit more exactly, it is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that his people would not be left helpless; that he would send an advocate for us: the promise that we heard in the lesson today in the Gospel of John.
And those gifts given to that congregation on the day of Pentecost is what gives the Christians called Pentecostals their name. For they are distinguished for signs of Spirit dwelling in among them, most distinctive of which is the ecstatic speech known as tongues. Similarly, charismatics who have some of the same ways of the Spirit but in other churches get their name from charism, the Greek word for “gifts.”
And this is the way you usually preach about Pentecost. I could stop here, if you like. And if Pastor Gatton or next year’s Pentecost preacher mentions some of these themes that’s perfectly fine; I’ve done the same myself.
But I wanted to look at the charisms — the gifts — the Universalists have, and what we add to the story, so I’m going to assume a Universalist approach (or at least my Universalist approach) from here on.
And I wanted to look at the Genesis text, the Tower of Babel story. This is the last of the stories in Genesis that seem like pure legend, along with the Garden of Eden and Noah and the Ark. Stories that you can’t pin to a particular place and time, and seem universal in scope.
You can imagine the questions people had. What caused there to be different human languages? Why don’t we understand one another? Why do we fight one another? Did we do something wrong?
If those are your worries, then the add in the image of a Babylonian ziggurat, and you have this story. Indeed, the image of the Tower of Babel that Laura Dely sent out with the newsletter this week is the standard image of human hubris in the face of divine majesty, which we pay the price to this day.
But it also reminds me of one my strange habits. I have a confession to make: I am an avowed Esperantist.
Esperanto is a constructed language meant to be a universal second language, a common language.
I first started studying it back in college, but picked it up again in 2010 when the national meeting was to take place in Bethesda, and this time it stuck. I study it every day.
It was invented by Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, a Yiddish and Russian speaking Jew, born in 1859 in Bialystok, now in Poland, but then in the Russian Empire. He introduced the language to the public in 1887 under a pseudonym, Doktoro Esperanto — Doctor Hoper — and the pseudonym gave the language its name.
Nobody knows how many people speak it. Estimates suggest tens of millions have taken lessons like I did in college. There are a few thousand native speakers of the language, the controversial financier and philanthropist George Soros being the most famous. So the number of Esperantists is somewhere in-between.
Here’s what Esperanto sounds like:
Sur la tuta tero estis unu lingvo kaj unu parolmaniero.
. . .
Kaj la Eternulo malleviĝis, por vidi la urbon kaj la turon, kiujn konstruis la homidoj.
. . .
Ni malleviĝu do, kaj Ni konfuzu tie ilian lingvon, por ke unu ne komprenu la parolon de alia. (Londona Biblio)
That was some of the Genesis lesson in Esperanto. Maybe you heard a word or two that you could kind-of make out. If you speak English or German or one of the Romance languages, Esperanto has the sound of words seeking understanding. A craving for understanding that’s just out of reach, but approaches you. I’ll leave that as a metaphor for the work of the Spirit itself.
As for Esperanto, what Zamenhof had in mind was a practical, alternate way of relating to one another.
It’s like he wanted to undo the curse of Babel. Not literally, but spiritually and politically, even though to accomplish this he insisted on a policy of complete neutrality. And for good reason. He grew up in that Babel. (And if like biographies and you’re looking for an interesting figure to read about, he’s your guy.)
In a letter (1895) Zamenhof wrote:
The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies.
His own home bridged two of those communities, after a fashion: his father was a Yiddish censor in Imperial service. He knew the power of language. There was already international interest in a language that could be used alongside one’s mother tongue; that is as an auxiliary language. But everything proposed to that point was too complex, or obtuse, or hard to pronounce. Zamenhof’s language was easier to learn and had a simple and regular grammar. Anyone could use it, but no one person could own it, including Zamenhof itself.
In the words of the Esperanto hymn — yes, there’s a hymn, and we’ll be singing it later in Esperanto. (No, we won’t be singing it later.)
In the words of the hymn,
On a neutral language foundation, understanding one another, the peoples will make in agreement one large family circle.
And perhaps, even a bit more to Zamenhof’s project. It’s a optional piece, a spiritual thread that some who are drawn to the language accept, and others reject. (Forcing the point wouldn’t be “neutral.”) That is has an “internal idea” — a hopeful spirit that will draw us together, friend by friend, across miles and cultures.
To tell you the truth, when I think of Pentecost, I think of Zamenhof.
And when I think of the church, I think of the internal idea.
But no good dead goes unpunished. And I don’t mean the fatal persecutions that Esperantists faced under Hitler and Stalin. (In fact, most of Zamenhof’s descendants died in the Holocaust.)
Rather, I mean the indignity of having a good idea turned on itself, again maybe a metaphor for the church: when Esperanto touches popular culture, it’s used to represent “the other.”
Long before television and film producers commissioned linguists to develop realistic “alien” languages like Klingon (for Star Trek), Na’vi (for Avatar) or Dothraki (for Game of Thrones) Esperanto stood in for European languages when it was politically inexpedient to use a natural, national language.
So, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a parody of Nazi Germany, signs in the ghetto of oppressed people were in Esperanto, not Yiddish.
In the 1939 Clark Gable/Norma Shearer anti-war comedy, Idiot’s Delight, Esperanto stands in for the language of a belligerent country that’s borders Switzerland, but is absolutely not Italy or Germany. Members of an Esperanto club were used as extras.
But the strangest stand-in use for Esperanto isn’t on film but from the U.S. Army.
After the Second World War, the United States feared a rise of right-wing power in Europe: the smoldering embers of Fascism plus Franco’s Spain bursting back into flame. And so created a simulated army opponent to fight in war games. As late as the 1980s, the Army simulated a country known as Aggressor — subtle that — and the people of Aggressor spoke Esperanto.
Judging by the surviving public information films, they spoke very bad Esperanto. So it comes out as one of those little ironies of life that thirty and forty years ago people were learning Esperanto — a language of peace and mutual understanding — from surplus army manuals describing it is the tool of war games.
But the longer you live, the more that kind of thing happens. As a Christian, I’ve had to live with rotten people using its spiritual, economic and political power to reinforce terrible things, and we’ve talked about them at length there. I didn’t see them at the Capital Pride Parade yesterday, but then I don’t give them my time.
I suppose the best thing you can say about the diminishing power of the church in American life is that it can’t be used like that as much any more. Those rotten people — in Esperanto, we’d call them fiuloj — will leave the husk of the church behind and find something else to exploit for their purposes.
So, instead of worrying about them, let’s flip the script. Let’s see what opportunity there is in a smaller, leaner, tighter church world to make some good for ourselves, our friends, our enemies and the world.
For one thing, at its best, the church is a place of temporary liberation and not just an extension of society. We don’t have to wait for the great hereafter to experience what God has in store for us. That’s the reason Esperantists host so many conferences, to create if only for a few days an Esperanto-speaking, perhaps even an Esperanto feeling place. Places called by convention, and in English translation, “Esperantoland.”
We need a place of the spirit that remembers the rest of the world, cares about the rest of the world, loves the rest of the world, but is not confined to it.
The spirit gives people, and people in the church a kind of freedom and an arms-length distance from the everyday.
A place, at least, temporarily escape the roles were assigned, the limitations we suffer, the dreams we have to defer. In church, at least, we should be able to live in our full lives and anticipate with joy and courage what that means for the rest of our lives.
That’s why prayer and the communion table are such powerful signs. In prayer — deep, sincere prayer — we present ourselves to the Source-of-all-that-is without pretending that we can or should hide anything. And there, we ask for link between the everyday, the workaday, the unimportant and forgettable — a link between that and that which is eternal, just, gracious and true. We ask for that spirit to come and help us remember forgotten dreams and shape new ones. We ask for that spirit to let speak in new words, and shout out new ideas.
And that’s what I hear in the gospel when Jesus says,
This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you.
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:24-26, NRSV)
This Spirit pleads with us to be free.
The spiritual gifts have to be nurtured, even though they are not ours to hand out. Paul described the “fruit” of the spirit, in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 5), in contrast to the vices of attending only to one’s own desires. The spiritual fruit are
love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. (KJV, vv. 22-23)
Each of these need support, and they need to be developed. Some other time (trust me) we’ll talk about what we need to cultivate them.
But until then, listen for that Spirit from God which “goes where it will” and makes all things new.
May God bless you now and forever. Amen.
I’m going to spend the long weekend not writing about the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
- I have a newsletter for the Universalist Christian Initiative to write instead (sign up here if you like).
- I also have sermon to write for Pentecost.
- There’s paperwork to catch up on.
- I just got a used copy of E. Brooks Holifield’s Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War at good price.
- Of course, I’ll listen to Sufjan Stevens. The songs from Call Me By My Name are in my head.
- And so I might read the passes about Gideon, in the book of Judges.
- And I’ll pray a communion service “dry” (without bread, wine or communicants) as a devotion, dedicated to the increase of the ministry. Using Fredrick Henry Hedge’s 1853 service, to be exact.
- I will buy a watermelon if I can find one that looks edible.
- I might even go outside.
I won’t be writing about the following, which is in no way exhaustive:
- Proposals that confuse and conflate congregational and ministerial interests;
- Plans that will embolden cranks to make specious or ideologically-driven charges against ministers (and sucking away energy to find genuine misconductors);
- How this will cause ministers to self-censor, withdraw from public life, grow suspicious and adopt other damaging habits;
- How UUMA membership should not obligatory, and if it produced something of greater value, it wouldn’t have to lock ministers into it;
- Or how “hard cases make bad law.”
I will write about the UUMA and the UUA proposals next week, and in weeks to come. Unless other ministers speak my mind before me, in which case I’ll link from here.
I’m convinced that God is not done with the Universalists when I find Christians of differing traditions and charisms professing God’s complete love to us. Tonight, I came across another.
The Universalism, as a theological point, comes through a bit clearer in what appears to be an earlier version of the jurisdiction’s website, and in any case I may be misreading it. The inclusion and leadership of LGBT persons is front and center.
It’s a young (coming together in 2016) jurisdiction, and small with two or three parishes (one the cathedral) and falls with the Independent Sacramental Movement, which I think has a lot of lessons to teach the rest of us. I pray them and their Archbishop Olga many blessings.
I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on May 5, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Revelation of John and the Gospel of John.
I extemporize parts of the service, which are not present here apart from my opening aside, which I reconstructed from memory. The title, drawn from John, was meant to have a meaning, but didn’t in the final writing.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for having me back this rainy Eastertide morning and thank you for welcoming me back.
[I’m going to break from my notes a moment and point out a few things in this church. It preaches though silent. There’s an inscription on the back of the wall of the chancel. It’s hard to read but has a version of one of the lines in today’s responsive reading: “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God and God in him.” (1 John 4:16). Along the chancel rail, you have images of the four “living creatures” which are customarily associated with the four gospel-writers, and you’ll find these four on the chancel-wall cross and in the archway over the front door of the church. The furthest stained glass window on the pulpit side — the one with the gold ring and the sprig of leaves — is associated with the text from the Revelation of John, “the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations.” (22:2). That was the text I preached here the Sunday after 9/11, a word of hope.
So if you find yourself tuning out, let the building preach.]
Today’s lessons from the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John have in common — as you might guess — John. Or, it’s more accurate to say they share a theological outlook.
But the closer I got to them, the more I realized there was something about them that both excited and bothered me.
And I realized that this was not my specialty, and that it’s been twenty-five years since I took my New Testament course in seminary, and I have to continually got my head around this.
So let’s start with basics. (Everybody who knows this has to learn this at one time.)
The New Testament is a set of twenty-seven documents written roughly between the 50s and about the 120s, so in the two generations after Jesus’ life and ministry. The four gospels are the longest and best known of these documents; they’re not biographies or histories as we know them, but rather a kind of hero tale that would have been familiar in the time of the Roman Empire. They concern the life, ministry, death and post-death experience of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles, conventionally read in this Easter season, is essentially a sequel to the Gospel of Luke and continues the story in the experience of the earliest Church. The documents are in the form of letters, either true letters from one person to a particular community, or “general” or public letters. The Revelation of John is written is if it were a letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor, in today’s Turkey.
Early Christians wrote many documents, including many gospels; that is, works is the gospel genre, but later influential Christians considered four “canonical” or worthy of being a rule of faith. There’s long been a whiff of conspiracy around these other Gospels, and sometimes they’re described as being hidden or suppressed. but I think they’re hidden or suppressed in the same way those ugly dishes or scratchy blankets that a dear relative once gave you: you know they’re there and you just don’t want to have to deal with them.
In fact, apart from the Gospel of Thomas — which is really a collection of sayings of Jesus — most are pretty loopy. Others are very late, and do not represent an authentic tradition of the apostle, Jesus’ core appointed leaders. It’s hard to take a gospel seriously when you know who wrote it. Because he’s, like, over there.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas — not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas — is an extreme example. It’s the one where Jesus make clay birds come to life and then kills other children because they bothered him but it’s OK because he brings them back to life. You know: normal Jesus stuff.
The gospels and other texts we have were chosen early on because the have the voice of authenticity and authority to them. Besides those wild gospels, other practical but later works didn’t make the cut. If you look online for New Testament Apocrypha you can find all you could ever want.
But it’s not like the four gospels are mirror images of one another. They are four versions, often of the same events, with different focuses. Mark is the shortest and probably the oldest. It’s missing events we take for granted, like Jesus’ birth. Luke focuses on secret knowledge, while Matthew is the most tied to Jewish concepts. But despite these differences, there’s enough overlap between these three that they look on the same events, and are not wholly dissimilar. Indeed, Matthew and Luke seem to depend on Mark; for this reason the first three gospels are known as the Synopics, meaning they “look together.”
The Gospel of John is not like that. It’s about 90% unlike the others (though perversely our passage today seems to depend on Luke.) So, for example, instead of Christmas narrative it has a theological prologue: “In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
The Gospel of John tracks its own path, with the three letters of John and the Revelation of John are collectively known as Johannine literature, which is where we started. This is not to say they are all written by the same person, and hat’s not controversial: Christians since the second century have figured that out. But there are similarities of outlook that holds them together, and we’ll get to that later.
But like the apostle Paul with his emphasis on sin, the Gospel of John has a bad reputation in liberal churches.
I think there’s two reasons for this. First, the synoptic gospels are earlier. Being a closer witness to Jesus and his ministry matters. It’s that same attitude that the early church applied to post-apostolic writings, and I get that. John is later and different. It’s also less practical. With the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, for instance, you get a sense of what you should do. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Be a peacemaker. It’s practical and approachable in its own way. John is less about doing and more about being, and its meaning isn’t clear.
But there’s another reason we might be uncomfortable with John: we might sense that we’re reaching a limit of what’s acceptable. And a lot of that problem is what we bring to the reading of these text as our cultural inheritance.
Let’s also be plain about Christians for century have made targets of Jews, and have very often used texts from John to justify terrible violence. The community that produced these material were probably expelled from their synagogues, and might have been bitter and hurt for it. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity isn’t the same then as now. Both were periods of rapid transition. From its own perspective, the separation from a Jewish identity was not anti Jewish, much like a much less anti-Semitic in our modern use of the word.
But a lot of Christians who followed in the generations to our own have used the Gospel of John as a blunt weapon against Jews. And so we have to be very careful when we introduce these texts in our worship do so carefully. I’m unapologetic that I will remove or trim ratings in order to take out a phrase that means something very different to us today than it did when it was written.
The text is associated with Holy Week just passed or some of the hardest to deal with, and that’s why in place of the usual Good Friday text from John, I was glad to see Pastor Gatton use the text from Luke instead. It’s reading aloud is less likely to put casual readers on edge when emotions are prone to be high.
Another problem with Johannine literature is much older: it’s association with, and approval by, Gnostics. in these tolerant and pluralistic days is easy to overlook how dangerous Gnostic seemed. I think it’s because we’ve lost the sense of how powerful ideas can be, although that hasn’t really changed. Ideas are as powerful as ever, which means that some ideas are necessarily harmful.
Gnostics fall into that category. They have strong dualistic view of existence. Light and darkness are real, separate and irreconcilable. Spirit and matter are real, separate and irreconcilable. And the spirit is good in the matter is evil. The Gnostic views our physical bodies, our material world and the created order itself is something tragic. What Gnostics are described as having an equal regard for men and women, it’s because physical existence of self is equally bad I’m so how could you distinguish between them? It doesn’t read like approval to me, indeed when I think of Gnostics I think of the great sadness they must be towards the world. Any beauty or comfort or desire would have to be a delusion, or worse something misleading and diabolical.
Their hatred (or fear or rejection) of the material world. Not being able to love trees or mountains; birds or beasts; their hunger or their food; the sky and the stars; their bodies and their growth, even aging and dying. They hate the non-spiritual, and hate living itself, subordinating everything to the spiritual. And that moves me to tears.
I’ve come to love the Revelation of John, who is not fashionable in the liberal tradition. It’s wild, erratic, based on visions, is full of wild imagery and (most of all) is apocalyptic. Liberal Christian grows well in better-tended garden, one less wild and without the threat of sudden and inextricable change. But who doesn’t? Even the early church wasn’t sure the book — framed as letter — belonged in the canon of the New Testament.
It was probably a coded taketown of the Roman empire exactly at the time when it was most dangerous to do so. In the nineteenth century, it became
But it’s precisely that wild visionary view that gives the words of the Revelation their power. It was probably a coded taketown of the Roman empire exactly at the time when it was most dangerous to do so.
It’s this otherworldiness found in Revelation that helps us understand the Gospel of John. They belong to the same “school of writing” if not the same author, and are known collectively as Johannine literature.
Be careful in your dealings with people, yourself included. Be wise in your dealings with people, yourself included. Above all, be loving in your dealings with people, yourself included.
Seek that spirit that goes where it will, and be conscious of where it is taking you, for just because it seems to be of God, doesn’t mean that it is.
And lastly, look that the opportunities that God has given you with a questioning mind. What is the truth in this moment? What details am I missing? What other perspectives might there be? Does your understanding of our shared experience differ? Maybe my understanding or your understanding has a greater portion of the truth, and with wise discernment we can try to tell the difference.
Twenty years ago this September, Canon Universalist Church, Canon, Georgia ordained me to the Ministry of the Gospel. That day I made this pledge:
Friends: With a deep sense of responsibility, trusting not in my own strength, but in the grace and power of God, I take up the ministry to which you ordain me. I do pledge myself, so far as in me lies, to maintain the freedom of this pulpit; to speak the truth in love, both publicly and privately, without fear of persons; diligently to fulfill the several offices of worship, instruction and administration, according to the customs of this congregation and fellowship; and in all things so to live as to promote piety and righteousness, peace and love among this people and with all humanity.
I’ve thought quite a bit about that pledge and my responsibilities, not the least of which to our religious traditions and the ministerial college. A vague comment, I admit, but one that will be more clear in the next couple of weeks as start working some things out in public.