Several years ago our minister asked me to take a few moments to share with the congregation what led me to become a UU. I have taken those brief notes and used them as the seed for this service, which is something of an homage to our remarkable church on it’s 175th anniversary. 

“Unitarian Universalism is not a rock to hold onto. It is a river to swim in.  If you want a set of beliefs to hold onto, if you want rules to guide your life in all situations, if you want a foundation for a spiritual fortress, you will probably be disappointed with us. However, if you want to dive into the river and explore, if you think that what you experience and what you do is more important than what you believe, if you want to be with people who engage in this world to promote well being for all, we may have something to offer. Life itself is more like a river than a rock. Life is in flux, it changes, twists and turns, ebbs and flows. When a river encounters a boulder, the boulder may win for a while. But eventually, even the most massive stone is worn away by the currents of time. 
Unitarian Universalism is about learning to swim in the river rather than climbing out of it onto a rock.”
    - Rev. Doug Kraft

"Faith is a commitment to live as if certain things are true, and thereby help to make them so. Faith is a commitment to live as if life is a wondrous mystery, as if life is good, as if love is divine, as if we are responsible for the well-being of those around us.... Faith is a leap of the moral imagination that connects the world as it is to the world as it might become."
Unitarian Minister Galen Guengrich

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

    - the Ethic of Reciprocity, commonly known as the Golden Rule


"I have come all the way to Rochester to speak to a congregation of persons of such deep faith that they dare to be skeptical about widely accepted pronouncements of what life is all about, who call themselves Unitarian Universalists. So I should surely offer an opinion as to the present condition of that relatively small denomination.
 
"I will say that you, in terms of numbers, power and influence, and your spiritual difference with the general population, are analogous to the earliest Christians in the catacombs under Imperial Rome. I hasten to add that your hardships are not the same, nor are you in any danger (as they were) ........You are like the early Christians in yearning for an era of peace and plenty and justice, which may never come.
 
"They thought Jesus would bring that about. You think human beings should be able to create such an era through their own efforts."

    - Kurt Vonnegut sermon at a UU church in Rochester, NY





You recall that when you are young you know everything. The natural course of aging beats that conceit out of you. As you get older and realize you know virtually nothing, you inevitably find yourself searching for answers to life's great mysteries. Many institutions and their earthly
representatives are waiting with ready and absolute answers to fill that void.

Those of us with a scientific bent are faced with a conundrum. At some point in our life we realize that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves and we want to belong to a community that celebrates this grand blessing. But the price of admission to most traditional religious communities is to accept as fact ancient myths that don't hold up to the scrutiny of reason and the scientific method. It strikes me that if you are creating a belief set that is the foundation of your world view, it should, at a minimum, reflect the physical laws of the universe.

Still, nothing serves as a catalyst for joining a church community like the guilt and fear that you might be raising children as amoral heathens, er, I mean, without formal moral instruction. 

When their mother and I reached that point with our handsome sons, we had a brief and half-hearted argument about taking them to the Catholic Church. She was mildly in favor, I was not. Cardinal Bernard Law's secret letters to pedophile priests, posted on the Boston Globe's website, telling them, in effect, to lay low until things blew over, each signed “Your Brother in Christ”, removed the abstractions from our discussion. Our sons wouldn’t be spending interminable Wednesday evenings cursing us under their breath.

Just when we were about to let stasis cause us to accept that our children might not receive formal moral instruction, a horrifying tragedy occurred. My best friend was in a terrible automobile accident, and his beautiful twelve year old daughter was killed. This, as those of you who have lived through such a tragedy know, has a galvanizing effect on the spirit. Literally hysterical with grief, I looked into my soul and thought to myself, “if you are ever to embrace a supernatural deity this would be the time.”

But it wasn't to be.

What was to be was a renewed determination to find a religious community that provided the sense of being part of something bigger than one's self without imposing conditions that were dissonant to one’s core values. I was aware of the Unitarian Church through my heroes Frank
Lloyd Wright and Kurt Vonnegut. I learned that a friend and colleague went to a UU church and that provided the incentive for a visit.

The first sermon I experienced was delivered by a conservative looking gentleman with the appearance and rich voice of a distinguished Christian minister. His sermon was titled “Why I am a Heretic”.

“Dennis”, I thought, “you are not in Kansas anymore.”

The sermon was fantastic. It was stimulating, literate, and made no presumptions of suspect certainties. I discovered that the word heretic is derived from the Greek word hairetikos, meaning "able to choose". Heretics, as it turns out, may be viewed not as spiritual anarchists, but rather as people who think they should be able to choose their spiritual beliefs - rather than having beliefs imposed upon them. When I learned the speaker wasn't really the minister but rather part of a tradition of lay led services, I was hooked.

In short order I heard the official minister preach and was taken with her sensibilities, with her intellect, with the quiet strength she projected. I must mention something I never heard anyone verbalize in a UU sanctuary, probably because they come from better stock than me, but I must be honest. I am just shallow enough to be infatuated with the idea of having ministers trained at Harvard. Those of us who grew up on the Prairie, going to county fairs and watching the Pork Queen being crowned are awestruck by the mythology of Harvard, the mother campus of the American intellectual aristocracy. I'm not proud of my pandering, but I am surely proud of our church for having ministers trained at Harvard and at it’s midwestern cousin, the University of Chicago.

We were embraced by the Church community and enriched by the community in ways I could not have predicted. We followed the arc of so many who walk through UU doors. There was initial wonder and infatuation that led to an idealization of the church community. Then an
inevitable disappointment with the realization that it wasn't perfect, that there were flaws, and cliques, and conflicts within these walls. Finally came a realization that flaws and conflicts are inescapable, humans are imperfect creatures after all, and that we mustn't let these disappointments rob us of the many blessings of this wonderful church. This arc, not surprisingly, reflects the primal myth of our denomination's mother religion, Christianity. The wonder of the Garden, the fall from grace, redemption.

Not long after I joined the church, the person in charge of scheduling speakers noted that I had a gift for gab, and she told me, in a way that suggested it wasn’t open for debate, that I would be leading a service soon. I almost hyperventilated with fear the first time, but quickly learned that I enjoyed the process in spite of the demands. I discovered that, while I had a lot of opinions, but they weren’t always fully formed, or easily defendable. The logistics of putting services together made me examine my belief system in ways I never had before, encouraging reflection and consistency, and has become a wonderfully illuminating, if occasionally terrifying experience.

I can’t express strongly enough how instructive, how therapeutic the process of preparing and delivering a sermon is. It is an essential and often confounding exercise in comparing word to deed. It has become one of my favorite parts of being a member of the Unitarian church.

This wonderful denomination has allowed me to feel like a part of something bigger than myself without having to compromise a single belief or embrace things I believe can’t be true, a crucial factor for the scientist in me. It is a community of ideas and fellowship, a community that strives to live the Sermon on the Mount's ideal of acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness in practice as well as the abstract. The church and it's collective set of values is a treasure.

My home church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Joliet, is celebrating it’s 175 anniversary this year, making it one of the oldest churches in Illinois.

The first church meeting occurred in 1836, only 2 years after the village was laid out. Our church is so old that Joliet wasn’t even Joliet when it was founded, but rather Juliet, a name that was not changed until 1845.

To give you some insight into how long my cherished church has provided a refuge for religious liberals here on what was once the edge a vast prairie, it is illuminating to consider what was happening when the church was formed in the mid 1830’s.

The capital of Illinois was Vandalia, in the southern part of the state, where most of the state’s population resided. Chicago had around 4,000 residents and hadn’t yet received a city charter. Samuel Clemens was born just across the Mississippi in Missouri. Work had just started on the I&M Canal. Abraham Lincoln moved to Illinois from Indiana. An anti-slavery newspaper editor, Elijah Lovejoy, was killed in downstate Alton. The Mormon city of Nauvoo, soon to be the largest city in Illinois, was just being built. Soldiers from Illinois were killed at the battle of the Alamo. While most of the Indians had been brutally driven out of Illinois just a few years earlier, scattered tribal groups still lived in isolated settlements. Andrew Jackson was president and signed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the forced removal of all natives east of the Mississippi River. The infamous Trail of Tears drove eastern tribes on a forced march through southern illinois, with many of them dying along the way. Elsewhere in the world, the last Holy Roman Emperor, Franz II, died in Vienna. Children in the silk mills in Paterson, New Jersey went on strike for an 11 hour work day and 6 day work week. Charles Darwin was on the sea voyage that led to his book On the Origin of Species.

Remarkable.

Just as remarkable as the sheer number of years since our founding is the transformation in what our church stands for.

Let me list a few beliefs consistent with a liberal protestant viewpoint 175 years ago, the sort of things that might have been presented from the pulpit of our church at it’s inception. 

The belief in One God and the oneness or unity of God.
That the life and teachings of Jesus Christ constitute the exemplar model for living one's own life.
That reason, rational thought, science, and philosophy coexist with faith in God.
That humans have the ability to exercise free will in a responsible, constructive and ethical manner with the assistance of religion.
That human nature in its present condition is neither inherently corrupt nor depraved, but capable of both good and evil, as God intended.
That no religion can claim an absolute monopoly on theological truth.
Though the authors of the Bible were inspired by God, they were humans and therefore subject to human error.
That traditional doctrines that malign God's character or veil the true nature and mission of Jesus Christ, such as the doctrines of predestination, eternal damnation, and the vicarious sacrifice or satisfaction theory of the Atonement are rejected.
That salvation is available to all, not just the chosen.
And, of course, the rejection of the Trinity doctrine that gives Unitarianism it’s name

The divine nature of God and Jesus was emphasized more 175 years ago than today, as the connection to our Protestant roots were of greater importance than you might see in a modern UU church.

The sociologist Max Weber, in his famous studies of religion, made a distinction between innerweltliche and ausserweltliche belief systems, which translates roughly as worldly or outerworldly religions. The Jesus Seminar, the group of prominent biblical scholars who are analyzing the historicity of the sayings and deeds of Jesus, make a distinction between what they call wisdom theology and apocalyptic theology. In both cases it is a distinction between concerns of this earth, versus supernatural or divine concerns. One of the fascinating and attractive things about the UU denomination is that it has transformed itself over time from an Abrahamic, salvation focused religion, to a worldly, wisdom based religion.

Unitarian Universalism is almost alone among long standing religions in it’s willingness to adapt to current reality. And adapt is has, in spite of the irony of a religion with Abrahamic roots evolving. 

But even with it’s evolution, it is remarkable at how much the 1836 church shares with it’s current incarnation. Our predecessors rejected the idea of man as inherently evil. They emphasized science and reason, that no one religion has a monopoly on truth, that behaving ethically is of paramount importance, just as we do.

Even 175 years ago the emphasis in our church was on the things that are good about mankind, about focusing on the positive, rather than punitive elements of religion.

How lovely to know that we all have chosen a denomination that 175 years ago in this area, already had come to understand that religion should never be about exclusion and punishment, but instead about reason and empathy and compassion.

An ever growing body of research into mammalian behavior seems to suggest that empathy and compassion are built into our muddy genetic code.

This research suggests that the forces of natural selection long favored human beings with strong natural senses of ethics and morality. We are tribal creatures after all, and, while there is a short term advantage for unethical behavior, over the long haul, empathy for the lot of your tribal neighbors is to the advantage of all.

Tapping into this intrinsic sense of empathetic behavior, this phenomena we call the Golden Rule, is the well spring of all that is good about humanity. 

Interestingly, over time, man began to wonder about the source of our natural impulse towards empathy, and persuasive souls, oblivious to the natural source of empathy and compassion, began advocating ausserweltliche, outerwordly  explanations for this expansive drive. The predominate religious model on planet earth came to promote an explanation for compassion that insists that humans are inherently sinful, and it is only by looking outside of ourselves, to an anthropomorphic supernatural being, that these sinful impulses can be overcome. Goodness, the model dictates, is outside of man. 

Unfortunately, the marvelous cerebrum that sets us apart from all other of creatures in creation just can’t help itself when presented with a script that says that humans are sinful and must look outside themselves for goodness. It sees an opportunity to leverage the letter of the extrinsic law to it’s advantage. 

An example:

There was a little boy who desperately wanted a bicycle. He prayed every night in the hope that God would send him that bicycle. After weeks with no answer to his prayers he reluctantly realized that God doesn't work that way. 

So he stole a bicycle and prayed for forgiveness.

You begin to see how ripe for gaming the outerwordly model of morality is.

Whether you believe that the drive to be a decent soul is an intrinsic attribute of natural selection, or the result of divine intervention into the affairs of wretched sinners, I hope we can agree that the desire to live a ethically positive existence is a fundamental driving force for most of humanity.

But we are made of flesh and are susceptible to the weaknesses of the flesh. And one weakness of the flesh is to let our sense of morality and ethics somehow morph into righteousness. And when this happens, we become part of the continuum of foolishness that is exclusive rather than inclusive, judgmental rather than forgiving. Our fundamentalist friends around the world follow this pattern far too often, bringing darkness rather than light into their lives and the lives of those they come in contact with. 

But don’t let me pick exclusively on folks who make such maddening leaps based on a fundamentalist moral world view. Even those of us who favor a evolutionary based explanation of human empathy are not above a grand gesture, not above a bit of moral theater. The slope of righteousness is just as slippery when the impulse arises from reason as when it arises from a fundamentalist mindset.

I was on my way to work one morning recently when I noticed a tire on my car had low pressure. I pulled into a local gas station to fill the tire up. 

This gas station has a large picture window on the side facing the parking lot and a group of retired gentlemen gather there each day to have coffee and share in some gossip, all the while viewing the goings on through the picture window. I could tell that they were giggling over the sight of my tiny Smart Car.

After I finished filling the tire and began to leave the parking lot, I saw something astonishing. A man opened the door to his truck, reached in the cab, scraped an accumulation of trash and litter into the parking lot, then hopped in the cab to drive away.

I am a certified tree hugging liberal. I couldn’t believe it.

Before he could put the truck in gear to drive away, I hopped out of my car, marched to the side of his truck, and theatrically picked up the trash, gesturing broadly as I compacted it into my hands, holding it up for the offender to see that he had been busted in an act of shameful littering.

As I righteously strode to garbage can, I noticed all of the retired folks staring at me out  of the window. This is perfect, I thought to myself. The old geezers can see that, not only is it important to drive a green car, but that green sensibilities are important to acknowledge in all situations. I imagined the truck driver sitting in his cab, shamed to the point that he would never do such a thing ever again.

Still, I couldn’t help but notice that the fellows in the window seemed distracted. They weren’t really looking at me. In fact, they began gesturing madly at something behind me. I wondered what could be more engaging than my righteous bit of theater. I turned around to look at what could possibly be of more interest than watching a litterer be publicly put in his place.

This is what I saw. My little car, which I had exited so hurriedly that I neglected to put it in park, was driving across the parking lot by itself.

For a moment I had an out of body experience.

I looked down at myself as if a bystander, and saw myself jump in the air, mouth agape, and, after coming down in a squat, slapped both of my hands to the side of my head, like McCauley Culkin in a Home Alone poster. I watched my car accelerate to the other side of the parking lot and, with a giant thunk, smash into a brand new pickup truck. Hands still on head, mouth still wide open, I rotated back to the gas station window, to view the entire population of the gas station all staring at me like I was a carnival side-show freak.

I wanted to disappear in a puff of smoke but their was no place to hide. I looked for the truck driving litterer but he was nowhere to be seen, having driven away in the excitement, no doubt laughing like a fool. It was just me on big empty patch of pavement, with a large and spectacularly entertained audience gawking at me from the window.

Their faces all carried a dissonant, frozen look. Every molecule in their body wanted to laugh at the sanctimonious freak show they had just observed, but propriety wouldn’t allow them to do so. It would be bad manners to shake with laughter when one of their own had just watched his truck get crunched by runaway clown car.

My car is the lightest car sold in America and it has a plastic body. It hit a giant new pick-up truck,  My little car’s plastic fender was dented but a gentle push popped it right back out. The expensive new truck’s bumper, the apparatus meant to protect it from crashes with semi-trailer trucks, was broken by the Smart Car.

Now it could have been much worse. My pilotless car could have hit a gas pump, could have gone into the highway causing an awful accident, could have run over a child, or it could have crashed through the station’s window, ending the coffee klatch once and for all with bloody finality. 

Righteousness, you see, can get disconnected from the roots of positive, empathetic behavior and turn into something dark and foolish. 

But consider how, once my righteousness was dramatically extinguished, the episode played out.

The retired farmer came out to view the damage to his truck, we introduced ourselves, we had a nice laugh at my expense, counted our blessings as we considered how much worse it could have been, exchanged phone numbers, he got a quick estimate, I wrote him a check later that very day emptying my checking account, then we had a final laugh about the entertainment value of my little display.

What started as an exercise in righteousness ended as an exercise in treating each other as we wished to be treated, an exercise in the foundation of Unitarian Universalism, indeed of all religion, The Golden Rule. I think this story easily illustrates which approach is best, and serves as a warning to those of us given to sanctimonious impulses. So many churches these days seem to promote righteousness, as well as the judgments that follow in righteousness’ wake. I think we should be proud that the UU church focuses on the Golden Rule rather than the certainties of righteousness.

I’ve told you earlier about our denomination’s ideals when our church was founded, and I think it important to examine what we have gradually evolved to become.

Playing no small part in my decision to join the Unitarian Church are it’s Seven Principles, as well as it’s Creed, sort of statements of purpose for the denomination, statements that reflect the UU ideal of a wisdom theology. They are certainly worth reciting, a reminder of why we are here:

The seven principles which Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote are:
•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.

The Unitarian Universalism’s Creed affirms:

That Creation is too grand, complex, and mysterious to be captured in a narrow creed. That is why we cherish individual freedom of belief. At the same time our convictions lead us to other affirmations . . .

•That the blessings of life are available to everyone, not just the Chosen or the Saved;

•That Creation itself is Holy -- the earth and all its creatures, the stars in all their glory;

•That the Sacred or Divine, the Precious and Profound, are made evident not in the miraculous or supernatural but in the simple and the everyday;

•That human beings, joined in collaboration with the gifts of grace, are responsible for the planet and its future;

•That every one of us is held in Creation's hand -- a part of the interdependent cosmic web -- and hence strangers need not be enemies;

•That no one is saved until we All are saved, where All means the whole of Creation;

•That the paradox of life is to love it all the more even though we ultimately lose it.

Our principles and creeds are ideals of the first order, and the cynics among us might argue that they are near impossible to achieve. But, if nothing else, isn’t a church a place were we try to be our better selves? Is not a church the place to reach for Ideals, no matter the difficulty in making them real? Idealism may seem naive to the cynic, but mankind is alone among all of Creation’s creatures in being capable of considering Ideals, and this, I feel, makes it our obligation to do so. To be naive is our imperative.  

The good men and women who started the Joliet church so many years ago might not recognize much of what their church has become. What they would recognize is our ongoing embrace of the notion that we are our brother’s keepers, and that the fundamental human ethic is to treat others as we would want to be treated. This, I believe with all my heart, is why the Unitarian Universalist Church of Joliet is still around after 175 years.

My sons, whose lack of formal moral instruction initially brought me to the Unitarian Universalist Church, are at that curious age where they know pretty much everything, just as I once did, and haven't taken to the whole Unitarian thing as avidly as their dad. They are hard headed and independent, exactly the qualities that I am confident will motivate them to fully embrace our unique and beloved denomination when the aging process knocks the certainty out of them.

At some point I hope they will follow in the footsteps of such Unitarians as John Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Schweitzer, Buckminster Fuller, Clara Barton, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Jefferson, and the many others who embraced the sentiments of the great philosopher, Johann Wolfgang Goethe.

"In the end," Goethe said, "we all make our own religion." Unitarian Universalism is alone among religious institutions in embracing this approach to spirituality, and allows me to construct a religion based, not on the neurotic certainties of Righteousness, but rather on  an abiding Faith in the primal truth known as the Golden Rule, a primal truth embraced by the members of the Joliet Unitarian Universalist Church for 175 years. This is why I am a Unitarian.





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