State of the UUA 2017: The Road through Humansville

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minntonka
July 2, 2017

First Reading: From “Willing to be Made a People
By Victoria Weinstein

Second “Reading” – Video Clip: President’s and Staff Report (from 30:48 to 34:51)
Unitarian Universalist Interim co-presidents: Dr. Leon Spencer, Rev. Bill Sinkford, Rev. Sofia Betancourt

Third “Reading” – Video Clip: Black Lives of UU report (from 14:33 to 18:50)
Passing the baton from Mel Hoover and Paula Cole Jones to Lena Gardner and BLUU

SERMON
State of the UUA 2017: The Road through Humansville
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
July 2, 2017

Friends, it is good to see you again. After a month away on Study Leave and attending General Assembly, our denomination’s annual business meeting, this year in New Orleans, it is good to be back here, it is good to see you all again, it is good to share with each other stories of our time apart, and it is good to be home.

Though I must say, with all the recent transition in our lives on so many levels, the notion of “home” seems to keep evolving. As many of you know, I am wresting with and moving through a divorce that has shaken me deeply, and challenges my notion of family and of home. And of course, as a congregation, we are now a month in to living in and worshipping in the beautiful new space. This transition has been a great joy and relief, but it has also involved some hard conversations and interactions, which are inevitable in a transition like this. And this new building is also a space that will likely takes us many months, if not years, to actually and deeply call this place our spiritual “home.” And on the denominational, hoo-boy, there has been a lot going on, which I’ll get into in a few moments…and then there’s all the incredibly disrespectful, mean and even downright brutal things going on in our nation and our world.

The stereotypical notion of home conjures up images of safety, refuge, security, and of close family who love us no matter what. But the reality is that the notion of “home” brings up painful, or even traumatic feelings or memories in some people. And when we talk about a church community, our congregation or any Unitarian Universalist congregation, a group of people who voluntarily join together in covenant to share values, faith, and action, we are far too varied to hold here the stereotypical notions of home.

The truth is that being in relationship, being a people of covenant, is that we can’t always be in a safe space. Especially if we have any value of growth at all, we don’t grow and transform seated in a comfortable easy chair. Too often we talk about needing to create a “safe space” so that people will feel accepted or feel heard, but too often when we say “safe space,” what we really mean is something like “I want to say what I want to say without getting challenged on what I’m saying.” So I’ve appreciated the new phrase I’ve heard in Unitarian Universalist gatherings over the past few months, that rather than create or enter into “safe space,” that we enter together into “brave space.” Because “brave space” is what allows us to both share our truths as well as hold each other accountable through our covenant to our deepest communal values and highest communal aspirations. So let us enter now into some “brave space.”

This sermon, on the first Sunday in July, is Sunday when I return from General Assembly, our annual denominational conference and business meeting, and report on what I experienced and learned, in an attempt to bring all that home to you. It is always an impossible task, because there is always more learning from a week of experiences that can fit into a 20-minute sermon or a one-hour service. But I do my best to condense that experience to give you at least a bit of a sense of what is going on in the larger UU world.

If you don’t know, or have not been following denominational concerns, this year there has been a flurry of heartbreaking events. And I want to give you a warning here that some of these may be a trigger for some people, and I want to let you know I will be available after the service if you want or need to talk more about any of these. At the Unitarian Universalist Ministry Days during the three days prior to General Assembly, we addressed seven major issues or responses in both worship and in conversation:

  • First there was the redaction of the Barry Street Lecture given by a female minister last year, after she called out clergy sexual misconduct from some older male ministers, and one of the named ministers threatened legal action;
  • Next there was the arrest of the Reverend Ron Robinson on child pornography charges. Ron was a well-respected minister doing powerful ministry in Oklahoma for some of the most disenfranchised people there;
  • Later this spring we unmasked white supremacy in our Unitarian Universalist Association when a white male was chosen for a top level UUA position by other white males over a well-qualified Hispanic woman;
  • Subsequently, and in an unprecedented move, this resulted in the president of our Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, resigning from his post only three months before the end of his term; following him two more top-level white men resigned, who it was later discovered had been given some $500 thousand severance packages, which was over four times the allowed amount for firings – yet these men had left voluntarily;
  • Fifth, in response, the Black Lives of UUs (BLUU – also known as “blue”) called for a denomination-wide White Supremacy teach-in;
  • Sixth, Don Southworth, a white male and the Executive Director of the UU Minister’s Association, sent out an open letter on Easter Sunday calling out behaviors by the UUA board he did not agree with, and hurt a lot of people of color, and white allies, in the process;
  • Finally, there was the response to Don’s letter by the board of the UU Minister’s Association, and their range of responses within their letter.

So, as you may imagine, there was a lot of tension and anxiety among both  ministers and congregants as some 4,000 of us descended upon New Orleans.

For my part, one way I decided to address the tension and anxiety in both my personal and professional life, was to ride my motorcycle from here down to New Orleans and back.

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It was a journey that took me 2,830 miles through seven states…

…retracing parts of a bicycle trip I took in 1984, and included a breakdown in Mississippi on my return trip, rides through a couple of rain storms and a near miss with tropical storm Cindy.
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But on my way, I discovered an amazing little road, off the side of a side road in the middle of Missouri. I was headed down this main highway when suddenly I saw a road I just had to take, no matter where it was going to lead. It was, of course, Highway UU.
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So I turned off the main road and began to follow Highway UU, but what do you think happened barely a mile or two later? Of course, even given what you’ve heard this morning, that road turned to gravel and dirt. And that road crossed a few streams on bridges without any railings.

But here’s the thing. You want to know where that road ultimately took me? Well, ultimately it took me to New Orleans, but in that moment…and you may not believe this but I’ll be happy to show you on a map after the service…but that road dumped me out into the little town of Humansville, population 1,048.

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I don’t know about you, and I don’t know where that town got that name, but I can’t imagine a better metaphor for what we are doing this year, or perhaps any year, or all the time, as Unitarian Universalists. And for this morning, I intentionally did NOT subtitle my sermon, “The Road TO Humansville,” I subtitled it, “The Road THROUGH Humansville.” I wrote the title that way because being human is not a destination. It’s a process. It’s a matter of entering brave space in order to grow and expand and transform. And this year, more than any year in my memory, and in every area of life, from personal to professional, congregational, denominational and national, we have dragged ourselves through dirt and across spans without railings in our fumbling attempts to be human and move through our humanity.

On the hills and valleys of the remainder of my ride down south, on one day I mourned the acquittal of Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philandro Castile. I heard the news through friends and colleagues on Facebook, but I could only mourn in solidarity from a distance.

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And then in a complete turnaround, the next day in Mississippi I discovered the birthplace of Kermit the Frog (Leland, Mississippi), and continued Onward to my destination, General Assembly in New Orleans.

 

For those of you who have never been, and for whom this congregation is your only experience of Unitarian Universalism – and even for someone like me who has been to many of them – it is an amazing experience to walk into a great hall with some four or five thousand other Unitarian Universalists.

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So let me share with you a little more of what we did.

  • There was a push to amend our first principle, to reword it so it would say “we affirm and promote the inherent worth of all beings” instead of “the inherent worth of every person,” so as to include animals and our natural world. Many people argued that the seventh principle, that we are part of an interdepended web of existence, already covered that. But more importantly, the people who brought this amendment forward asked that it be tabled in order for us to focus on the Commission on Institutional Change, a newly appointed group, to explore the work around creating an 8th
  • The Black Lives of UU (BLUU) Organizing Collective encourages all Unitarian Universalists to advocate for the formal adoption of an 8th principle, articulating a commitment to the dismantling of white supremacy, within the stated principles of our faith. According to a statement from BLUU: “It has been 20 years since the 1997 General Assembly, where delegates voted that the Unitarian Universalist Association commit to intentionally becoming a multicultural and anti-racist institution. Notably, this act came some 5 years after the passage of the 1992 Resolution of Immediate Witness which, in part, affirmed the “vision of a racially diverse and multicultural Unitarian Universalism.” The proposed 8th Principle was written by Bruce Pollack-Johnson and Paula Cole Jones…and states:

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

  • In a plenary session of General Assembly, we did resolve to send this 8th principle to the study commission to bring it back next year.
  • We also made a resolution to change the name of the justice campaign “Standing on the Side of Love,” to something more inclusive, in the way that composer Jason Shelton has already changed the title and lyrics of the song to “Answering the Call of Love.”
  • We had the first of two votes to amend the wording of the sources of our faith to be gender-neutral (so changing phrases like “prophetic women and men” to “prophetic people”), though we won’t officially amend them until the vote at next year’s GA.

For about four or five years at General Assembly we’ve been working toward more and more inclusion and access for people who have physical challenges getting around, and for those who are non-gender-binary by having designated bathrooms around the convention center that allow use by all people.

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As General Assembly continued, the Exhibit Hall housed all kinds of great books, clothing, jewelry and resources for sale, while workshops continued on all levels.

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On Thursday night we held the Service of the Living Tradition, the annual service that honors ministers, religious educators and music directors. And this year, after it was over, the Reverend Jason Shelton conducted a jazz band and a combined choir in the “Ruby Bridges Suite,” a beautiful and heartbreaking piece of music that honors Ruby Bridges, who was six years old in 1960 when she was the first black child to integrate the New Orleans school system.

 

And on Friday, Andrea Heier and I participated in a march through the streets of New Orleans and a rally for “Love Resists” with several inspiring speakers, most of whom were local.

And then on Saturday night, the man who spoke at the Ware Lecture was Bryan Stephenson, who wrote the book “Just Mercy,” which some people in our congregation read and discussed last year. He gave an hour-long speech without notes, that was more captivating because it was full of his personal stories of service, learning, and growth.

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Bryan Stevenson’s four points for the night were:

  • Get proximate – that is, get close to and in relationship with the people who need justice the most;
  • Change the narrative under the policies – that is, change the dominant story so that it includes the experiences of those who live at the margins
  • Maintain hope; and
  • Be willing to get uncomfortable – as he said, “We can’t change the world until good people make the choice to do something uncomfortable.”

Finally, at this year’s General Assembly we also made another historic “first.” We elected our first female president, the Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray (though Sofia Betancourt, as part of the three-person, three-month interim presidency was actually the first female president to serve our denomination). It was the first time with electronic voting that included an instant run-off process, and this time she will serve for one six-year term, rather than a four-year term with a chance at re-election. This is also the first time we have ever had a president who was not a baby boomer. The significance of this, if any, has yet to be seen, but many feel this is a significant shift in a good way.

So now I’d like to introduce the Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray to you through this video of her accepting her new role on Saturday afternoon:

UUA Presidential Election Results: Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray
Clip from 10:20 to 18:25
GA2017 Video #443a

It was a wonderful night, celebrating the new presidency of Susan Frederick-Gray. Unfortunately, and horrifically, one of her first acts as president later that night was to visit the bedsides of two UUA staff members who were brutally attacked and beaten in the French Quarter, and then share that news with the entire General Assembly before worship last Sunday morning. One of the men was released from the hospital quickly, while the other remains in a New Orleans hospital in serious but stable condition, and it is believed he will recover.

After reporting on the attacks, “The Advocate” online newspaper continued: “Meanwhile, members of the liberal religious organization for which both victims worked appeared in court during the bail hearing to spread a message of mercy… Unitarian Universalists packed a row in Magistrate Court as the four men accused of taking part in the attack appeared in court. Several of the observers wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts. After the hearing, one of the Unitarians said they had hoped the young men would receive lower bails. “We wanted to show up for restorative justice. We wanted to advocate for a reasonable bond for all four,” said Jolanda Walter, 43, of New Orleans. “We don’t want these young men thrown away.”

In the wake of this attack, some may question our stance on racial justice and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But friends, we are committed. As my colleague the Reverend Jordin Nelson Long says, “and in those commitments we learn what those covenants are made of, and indeed, what *we* are made of, when it’s hard.”

Friends, our little UU Highway through Humansville can turn to dirt and gravel, and get bumpy and full of potholes sometimes, and lead to some unexpected and even unwanted detours, especially this year. But we ARE a people of covenant, a people of promise, made by our promises. On this road through our humanity we know, even if we don’t always want to admit it, that our faith calls us to greater love, to honor the promises we make through our covenants, that it calls us to remember and to know that the line between “good” and “evil” is not between you and me. That line is not between any group we consider “us” and any other group we consider “them.” No friends, that line between good and evil runs right through the middle of the human heart. Each one of us is capable of meanness and cruelty. But we are capable of so much promise and love too. This is how we honor anyone who is attacked and brutalized. Choose a willingness and commitment to stay at the table. Choose love. Honor who and what we are by demanding that the world become a better place by navigating the road that takes us through the larger, harder, and more challenging love.

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TOILETS AND GLITTER

A Christmas Eve Homily
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 24, 2016

Friends, I don’t know about you, but this season this year, I’m feeling pretty exhausted. For me it’s more of an emotional and mental exhaustion than it is a physical exhaustion. Physical work can be hard, but if it’s not extreme, there’s even a rejuvenating quality to it because with physical work you can easily see what’s been accomplished: the lawn mowed, the boxes moved, a fence built, the garden weeded, the field plowed, the dishes in the drying rack.

But emotional and mental exhaustion is different. There’s a weight to it that physical work doesn’t have, partly because sometimes it seems endless, and you can never tell if you just completed a task, or if what you’re thinking or what you’ve done is enough. And sometimes the emotional and mental exhaustion comes when the task feels overwhelming. That’s part of what I’ve been feeling since the election, and in some other areas of my life too, that feeling of things being so big they are overwhelming.

When racism, even our own racial bias, was already a hugely challenge in our society, how will we address it under an administration that wants to go back to the “good old days” of shutting people down, beating them up and throwing them out, or in jail, when they, or we, attempt to speak up not just about our civil rights, but our human dignity?

And when it was already a challenge in the atmosphere of this corporate society to address environmental pollution and degradation, how will we address it under an administration that doesn’t just have differing environmental policies, but doesn’t even believe global warming is a real thing at all?

And when loving one another was already a challenge, how are we to live with the diversity of our world when so much fear exists, and is supported by so much of the state enforcement agencies.

So I enter this space and walk through this time with a deeply broken heart. It’s a heart that’s broken from so many hopes that have not been realized, and pain from the feeling that no matter how hard I work at making things right, the world and relationships and politics are just too big for me to respond well too, with reason and intellect and compassion, and certainly not all those things all at once.

And then today on Facebook, a colleague of mine mentions on our UU minister’s Facebook page that her child was born one year ago on December 26, but that she and her husband didn’t get the news until the 29th that he was going to be theirs. They adopted him on the 31st. She recalled getting the email that there was a baby, and did they want to show their materials to the birth mother? She and her husband had just been devastated a few days earlier after a long wait and finding out we didn’t get chosen to parent a different baby. They almost said no on the 23rd, but then said yes, and proceeded to distract themselves with holiday stuff. They didn’t even tell anyone.

But a year later she is feeling really overwhelmed remembering how they had no idea how their lives were about to change, and getting ready now to celebrate their son’s first Christmas and first birthday with their giant family. It’s a mixture of feeling lucky and happy, and sad that they didn’t know a year ago that he was born yet, and sad for his birth mother, and yet at the same time thrilled to be a family.

And in the midst of my own struggles and heartbreak, I see this message from someone else suffering from heartbreak, and about to say “no” to life, but then taking a leap of faith and saying yes. “There’s Christmas in the bathroom,” says Robert Fulghum. “And therein lies the message…Christmas is and ever will be found / where it’s looked for. / Most often close by, most always very underfoot. / Hidden away in the cupboards of our lives / waiting to be rediscovered in a rebirth of wonder – / Waiting to be dumped over / our hard heads like blessing oil / Waiting to be scattered like red glitter / on the walls and hallways of dark December.”

It’s an old story, either told the same way every year, or in an attempt to tell it differently and with pizazz, it gets told in sometimes bizarre ways. But look at us. No, I mean really look at us. Here we are, many of us who say we are not Christian, many of us who say the Jesus story doesn’t have much meaning in our daily lives, and yet here we are tonight. And not just sitting here, but packed in here, just as we are every year – and clear out into the North Room as well. We must think we can find meaning here somehow.

I’m not in a place to promise you anything. I can’t promise you that your hard work will pay off. And probably certainly not in your lifetime. I can’t promise you that I, or anyone, knows the way forward. And I can’t promise you that everything will be OK. Because for many people in the years to come, things won’t be OK.

But I do know that under the cruel and brutal leadership of King Herod, a new light, and a new life was born. A life that, legend has it, came to teach the world about peace, forgiveness and grace – and a fierce love that would not die, a love that holds each of us, before we existed, while we are here, and long after we are gone. I can promise you that if you go looking for Christmas, in your cupboards, underfoot, or dumped over your head, you are very likely to find it.

HOPE AND HEARTACHE

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 11, 2016

Our Unitarian Universalist religion is a faith based in optimism. This optimism particularly arises from the Universalist side of our heritage. One of the more famous stories comes from over 200 years ago from the Universalist minister John Murray who reported a conversation with a deacon who approached Murray, saying he heard that Murray preached Universal salvation. A conversation ensues where Murray describes his Universalist faith based on scriptures that that tell how God sent his son [Jesus] not to condemn the world, but that through Jesus the world might be saved – while the deacon refutes that theology.

Then Murray pulls out the passage from 1 Corinthians 15, that “As in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive.”

The deacon wants to hold on to the notion that yes, because of Adam and Eve, all people are born in sin, so that’s why people need to believe in Jesus, so that they can have eternal life.

And John Murray said it doesn’t work that way. He said if you’re going to follow the words and the lessons of scripture, it’s either gotta be that only believers are born in sin and only believers who can be saved by Jesus, or it’s gotta be that everyone is born in sin, and that everyone was saved by the arrival of Jesus. And since the scriptures say, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive,” that pretty well determines it’s the second meaning, that everyone is saved. Or as the old joke goes, the Universalists believe that God is too good to damn anyone, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.

The resulting theology and the resulting belief behind all this is in the basic goodness of humanity. Where other more traditional religions believe in the inherent evil of humanity – that everyone was born in sin – the Unitarians and Universalists generally have held a more positive view of humanity, that of inherent goodness. Down through the ages and generations this positive view evolved first into the original and slightly naïve Humanist slogan of “Humankind: Onward and Upward Forever,” and then into our modern and current phrase found in the wording of the first of our seven principles: that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.

Because of this foundational theology, in the most positive spin some have called us a religion or a faith of hope. Now I don’t struggle so much with the notion of the inherent worth and dignity of each person as much as I do with the notion that we are a faith of hope. The “inherent worth” piece is a little easier for me because in humanity, I see inherent worth as different from a person’s actions. We may readily call someone to account for their words or their actions, but our faith calls us to honor their inherent worth.

I struggle, though, with the notion that we are a faith of hope for a number of reasons. First of all, in all the most famous and foundational writings upon which we base our beliefs, including scripture from the Hebrew and Christian bibles, we don’t talk much about hope. Even now, in our seven principles and six sources from which our living tradition draws, you will find mentioned justice, equity, compassion, truth, peace, liberty, love and reason…but no mention of hope!

Secondly, and more deeply and more to the point, I struggle with the notion that we are a faith of hope because I simply struggle with the notion of “hope” itself. Now it may be that others use the word “hope” but mean it in a different way than the way I generally understand it – so it may be that I’m just wallowing in semantics, and that when I don’t want to use the word and others do, that even so we both still really mean the same thing. But a primary reason I try to avoid using the word “hope” is that it gives the connotation – if not a very real request – of a desired outcome. And because rarely in life do we get what we want the way we want it, in my experience hope generally really only brings heartache.

I don’t claim to know a lot about Buddhism, but some of what I do know revolves around the first three teachings of the Four Noble Truths, that (1) life is suffering; that (2) suffering is caused by attachment to desires; and (3) that suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases. As I understand it, attachment isn’t simply about attachment to desire. We can also have an attachment to outcomes. When we hope for something, we desire a specific outcome of an event or happening. When we play a game, we hope we win. When we go on a trip, we hope we come home safely. When someone gets diagnosed with an illness, we hope they get better. In all of these, we are attached to an outcome in the way that we want it to be an outcome. The problem arises when either the outcome isn’t what we wanted it to be, or doesn’t occur at all. Once again, hope brings heartache.

Another reason why I struggle with the notion of hope has to do with our theme for this month, “presence.” Presence is a state or fact of existing, of being present in a place or thing. Presence is about awareness, attention, and existing in this very moment. Hope, on the other hand, pulls us out of the present moment and toward a desired outcome that is not in this present time. We may even get addicted to hope: hope that doubt and mystery will go away, and accompanied by fear that it won’t, robbing us of the present moment. Our December theme of “presence,” then, invites us and calls us into this very moment, not just when beauty abounds, but when pain and sorrow are in the room as well.

A year before I began my ministry here with this congregation I worked as a chaplain resident for a year at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park. Many times that year I entered a room or sat with a patient or their family when they were in pain from a surprising diagnosis of cancer, or were sitting in shock and uncertainty after an accident that involved a daughter or husband, or were aching and empty after the death of a partner or parent. Some found their way through slowly, allowing the feelings to wash over them, and taking each bit of news in each moment as it came and then letting it sink in before they made a decision. But others would want a prayer for their loved one would be healed, or would use some form of the cruel trite sayings like, “when God closes the door, he opens a window,” or worse, “everything happens for a reason.”

In times like those it is important for people to stay in the moment, to process what’s happening, because if they don’t, they often live with regrets and truncated emotional responses for much of their life. But I then discovered two things: the first was that even my desire for them to stay in the painful moment and not wash it away with a trite saying was my own hope, my own desire, my own attachment to an outcome that had little or nothing to do with what the patient or family wanted. Secondly, because my own agenda would begin to loom so large, I discovered in those moments that it was a challenge for me to remain present with them. So I had to learn how to enter a room, and remain in a room, with no agenda other than to learn – learn where the patient or family was emotionally and spiritually, and then learn what they felt would help them most in those moments.

It was not my role in those moments of pain to change their minds or argue with their theology – but if it seemed necessary for processing or healing, or even to avoid a promise I was not able to keep, I could, in some ways, challenge their theology even as I remained present with them. It could be a simple question that brought them back into the moment, like, “what scares you the most about this new diagnosis?” Or if they asked me to pray that their loved one would be healed, I would pray instead for the doctors and nurses to use all their knowledge and care to do what was in their power to bring healing.

In my own life, I was disabused of more traditional notions of hope early on. Just a couple weeks before Christmas in December 34 years ago, when I was in 11th grade, I came home from high school one day to discover that my dad had been admitted to the hospital because of some unusual signs. It took a few months for the doctors to determine what was going on, but eventually they learned that it was a rare illness called sclerosing cholangitis, a disease of the bile ducts, which carry the digestive liquid bile from your liver to your small intestine. In sclerosing cholangitis, inflammation causes scars within the bile ducts, and the scars make the ducts hard and narrow. The disease progresses slowly and can lead to repeated infections and liver failure. The only known cure, even today, is a liver transplant.

Two problems exist, though. First, the body has to accept a new transplanted organ, and the doctors gave my dad only a 50% chance that his body would even accept a new liver; second, the body’s whole system is what makes the liver fail, so even if the body accepted a new liver, they gave that a 50% chance that the new liver would acquire the same disease. And in the meantime, after attempting to recover from those major surgeries in his weakened condition, his quality of life would be next to nothing. Since he had a better chance of living, and living longer, without the transplant, my dad opted not to have a transplant surgery. So at age 16, I got the news that my dad was going to die, and that he had no more than 10 years to live. He endured with his disease for eight years, dying in February, the year after I graduated from college.

A big challenge in dealing with a terminal illness, especially as a relatively inexperienced 16-year-old, is finding anything that passes for hope, when the only real thing to hope for is less pain or fewer maintenance procedures to unblock a bile duct, but never a longer life with more time with my dad. People would even say dumb things like how my dad’s illness and death would make me more compassionate and understanding toward others, and my reply was always that if I had a choice, I’d rather be a less compassionate person and still have my dad.

With that experience so early in life, hope was something I mostly learned to live without. Sometimes that made life pretty hard, but it also created two other realities in my life. The first was living more in the moment. I had a tendency to do that anyway, but my father’s long illness caused me to take fewer things for granted and learn to experience things more fully as they happened. The second was learning to take chances when they arose – so one thing I did as an 18-year-old high school graduate was take a bicycle trip across the country, from coast to coast.

In some ways I’m still not very good at it, but when I’m able to do it well, living without hope is a gift. I can take out my worst fear and look right at it, and then begin to look around to see what options, support and resources I have. Hopelessness is a gift. It helps us look around in the present moment, and rather than looking for something we want, we look around for what needs to be done.

It’s important to understand that living without hope is not the same shutting down or retreating. In fact, it’s the very opposite. I’m not at all saying “don’t work for justice” or “don’t work for outcomes.” It’s more about not being consumed by the outcome. As I experience it, the life work around this topic is to not be “tricked” by hope – that is, getting lulled into the false notion that if we just work hard enough and are diligent enough and faithful enough that we’ll get what we want: a job we applied for, a better marriage, a longer life, a healed child. Because in this life there’s not much we control and sometimes life just doesn’t give us what we want no matter how honest and faithful and genuine and diligent we are.

But just because we learn how to not be attached to hope and how not to be attached to outcomes doesn’t mean we don’t work for outcomes. Living without hope is not to be confused with working toward something we value. So yes, be diligent, be courageous, show up, be faithful, work hard, pull in allies, read and learn and grow and evolve and transform. In this new political and social climate of more brazen hatred and fear, do all you can to work to create more love and justice in the world…I’m just saying that all that work doesn’t guarantee the outcome you or we want. It’s like being back in the hospital and not praying for healing, but praying for the doctors and nurses to use all their knowledge and care to do what was in their power to bring healing. It’s a little like when teams pray before a football game. It’s pretty dumb to think that God chooses one football team over another, so it’s a pretty empty prayer to say, “Please God, make us win this game.” But it’s a more powerful and more faithful prayer to say, “Give me the strength to play my best today.”

Being present in the moment to what is happening, to what we feel and what we know is a basic way to begin learning how to move through the world in authentic and meaningful ways. The poet Mary says, “This is the first, the wildest and wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of our attentiveness.” And the writer Henry Miller says, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

We rarely get to learn the consequences of our actions, and most of the good work we do in the world emerges after we’re gone. As my colleague the Reverend Jill Jarvis says, “Deeds and words and choices which seem from our perspective to have no impact all, may prove to be the small change that moves history in a new and unexpected direction.”

We Unitarian Universalists balk at the notion of definite hard and fast answers to the deepest religious values. We say we value complexity and nuance and ambiguity. So here’s our chance to take the bull by the horns and live in ambiguity. I know it is hard to imagine how we can work toward a future without feeling our actions will make a difference. But in the long run, rarely is history written in four-year increments. It may be that feeling insecure, even groundless, like the teachings of non-attachment in Buddhism, will increase our ability to be present, with ourselves and each other, and stay in the work.

* * * *
I want to close with a few readings on finding strength and presence without hope:

[SARA] Thomas Merton: Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people…In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

[KENT] Women working against a violent dictatorship in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s:

  • How we’re going is important, not where. I want to go together and with faith.
  • I feel like we’re holding hands as we walk into a deep, dark woods.
  • In my grief I saw myself being held, us all holding one another in this incredible web of loving kindness. Grief and love in the same place. I felt as if my heart would burst with holding it all.

[SARA] Rudolf Bahro: When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.

[KENT] Vaclev Havel: Hope is a dimension of the soul…an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.

[SARA] Gail Brenner: In a nursing home I spoke to a charming 92-year-old woman faced with possibly never returning to her home. When I asked how she felt, she responded, “I’m not attached.” She proceeded to tell me that as a young girl, following the death of her mother, she learned that being attached brought her suffering and being open to the comings and goings of life brought a sense of ease. This understanding enabled her to live life to the fullest – she had many wonderful adventures – as she was no longer afraid of what she could lose or gain.

[KENT] T.S. Eliot: in the Four Quartets:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

DEAR 605

NOTE: Every December, on the first or second Sunday of the month, I preach a sermon that is a letter to a Christmas character. This year, since this will be our final Christmas season in this building before we move to our new one, I wrote my annual letter to the building itself. -Kent

Annual Letter to a Christmas Character sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 4, 2016

READING: Notes below taken from actual church Board Minutes and Newsletters
August 2, 1964: General Meeting of Amity UU Fellowship
Henry Norton reported on the negotiations and stated the price had been orally agreed to, but that the Wayzata Church could not commit themselves as to date until they had actually broken ground for their new building. The earliest date the building might possibly be available is March [1965]. It is the intention of the Board of Directors to acquire adequate facilities as soon as possible. The building fund drive will continue as planned. Further negotiations will be considered with Wayzata Church as well as investigating other possibilities.

November 25, 1964: Board meeting
New members accepted were David G. Opheim [and] Mary N. Opheim…

January 7, 1965: Letter to Membership
There is a good possibility that the Fellowship can purchase the Wayzata church in accordance with previously negotiated terms without the necessity of selling the 3½ acres of property that it owns on Minnetonka Boulevard. The Wayzata church should be adequate for the needs of our Fellowship over the next four to five years at which time other arrangements could be considered.

February 8, 1965
From Expression Newsletter article: STATE OF AFFAIRS AT AMITY
The membership of Amity has voted to proceed to hire a minister and to purchase the Wayzata Church building both by its near unanimous approval of the budget for the coming twelve months and by the encouraging financial support as evidenced by the results of the pledge canvass…Loan commitments are being sought so as to be able to complete the legal technicalities involved with the purchase of the Wayzata church now that both congregations have approved the transaction. Possession of the church will take place August 1.

February 24, 1965: Board meeting
Bill Merlin will act as our lawyer and has drawn up a purchase agreement for the Wayzata church, which will be signed by Joe Connell and himself contingent upon a mortgage of $13,500 at 5¾ %. We have received an oral commitment of a 10-year $5,000 loan at 6% interest from Unity Church [in St. Paul].

April 25, 1965: Annual meeting of Amity UU Fellowship
In a vote of the membership, congregation voted to change their name by a margin of 13 votes to continue with Amity Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and 47 votes to change to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka. An additional name was proposed by Mary Merlin: the James C. Reeb Unitarian-Universalist Church, but it failed to gain enough votes. Motion was made and seconded to amend the articles of incorporation to reflect the name change.

June 30, 1965: Board meeting
First Federal Savings and Loan has approved the Mortgage application. Closing date is August 1, 1965. Report of the Building and Lands Committee: Work parties were organized to begin working on different parts of the church between August 1 and September 12. Bids were solicited from stained glass companies for the cleaning and repair of the stained glass windows; John Prellwitz will paint the church sign; Bob Fetzek will make a new sign for the church property; Bill Hardacker will contract work to be done on the chimney; work is proposed on the driveway; classroom partitions being considered.

August 5, 1965: Board meeting at the home of Irene Chanin
Joe Connell reported that the completion of the church purchase had taken place on Friday, July 31, 1965. The amount paid to the Wayzata Free Church was 21,600.00 [including the purchase of the parsonage next door], with the remaining $400.00 being kept in an escrow account to pay for clearing of Title.

September 9, 1965: first Board meeting held at the 605 church!
There are some problems which remain to be solved – the problem of sound carrying throughout the building is the most urgent one. The furnace must be cleaned; a bid of $185.00 has been received. We have not as yet been able to obtain a piano: an ad has been placed in the suburban paper. Betty reported that there would be a new sign outside the church by Sunday [and] the church will be ready for occupancy on Sunday, September 12 [1965].

 

SERMON: Dear 605
Annual Letter to a Christmas Character sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

Dear 605,

Every year at this time, usually the first or second Sunday of December, I write a letter to a Christmas character in an attempt to explore more of their story than what we usually hear. So in the past I’ve written to Jacob Marley, Santa Claus, Elsa from the movie Frozen, Rudolf, and many others.

This year is a little different though. This year, this is our final holiday season in this building: our final Thanksgiving service; our final Christmas play by Jeff Hatcher in this building, our final annual Christmas pageant in this building; our final Winter Solstice service in this building; and our final Christmas Eve service here. It’s a momentous time. Ever since the City Council gave their final approval last May for our plans to build a new church, we have been charging ahead with great new energy, so relieved and so grateful and so full of vision and pent-up action and joy to finally be moving forward on this project after over a decade after this congregation voted to move.

And at the same time there is a weariness from working so long and hard on this project, and yes, a sadness in many of us about leaving this building. There are so many memories wrapped up here, many joyful ones and a few painful ones. So this year, rather than write my annual letter to a Christmas character, I thought I’d write this one you, 605, the building at 605 Rice Street that has housed this congregation for the last 51 of our 56 years in existence.

Today I brought my rocking glider chair from home to share this letter with you, 605, because I was inspired by a recent story from one of our long-time members, Nancy Johnson. During our Sunday service in October to honor the dead, you may remember that some of our long-time members shared some of their memories and stories of this place. Nancy grew up attending church in this building even before you housed us, 605, back when it was the Wayzata Community Congregational Church. You probably already remember this, but Nancy said her sister’s wedding was held in this church, and she remembers having church suppers in the basement because the kitchen was located down there back then. And then she said, “The furnaces were always a problem so the man who fixed them placed a rocking chair in one of the furnace rooms so he could be comfortable while he waited to see if they worked properly.”

dear-605-1

So this morning I wanted to sit in this rocking chair as I share this letter with you, 605. You see, our theme for the month of December is “Presence.” And when I heard Nancy tell her story earlier, and mentioned the man in the rocking chair, I was moved. Now, I have no idea who the man was, partly because it was so long ago and partly because he was someone from two congregations before we even arrived here. In fact, you probably know who it was. But I don’t even know if that man was sweet and kind or mean and grumpy [I learned from Nancy after the service that his name was Carl Linman, and he was very nice!]. To me though, no matter what kind of man he was, I know that he cared. Maybe he was the life of the congregation and was one of those happy outgoing people who was involved in everything. Or it may be that he was a quiet man who just knew he was good at mechanical things, and so, having faith in the congregation and the people who carried out its mission, wanted to take on one role he knew he could do – something he could do in a way that others could not.

So to me, it was a story of caring, of stepping up and stepping in when something needed to be done and a person knows they have the experience or the talent or the knowledge for it. For me, it was a story of presence. That man in the rocking chair – and others after him – was present with you, 605, all the while you were present with the people of the Wayzata Community Church, and then the people of the Wayzata Free Evangelical Church after them, and then our people after that, those of us in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka.

You, 605, have been a presence with so many people during your time. Of course, you were not the first one on this site. As the story goes, in 1881, twelve people who were concerned with their own unfulfilled spiritual needs, covenanted together to – as they described it – to “bring civilization to the wicked, uncivilized village of Wayzata.”

So in 1881 that group built a little wooden church on piece of donated property on the corner of the two dirt roads, Walker and Rice Streets at the top of the hill. The congregation grew over the decades so in 1912 they built a new church. Unfortunately that building only lasted for four years, because it burned down in February of 1916. But the congregation was resilient, and in addition to their own funds, and since they were the only church in town back then, they went through the town, soliciting funds from ALL the residents – which is partly why, I suppose, they have that name: Wayzata Community Church. In any case, in 1916 they rebuilt you, on the foundation of the 1912 building, and amazingly, completed construction in seven months during that same year. So this building that you are now is essentially the same layout and design as the 1912 building, and now you are just a few months past 100 years old.

It’s pretty amazing to think of what you’ve seen and been through. You were built just before our country entered World War I. You’ve been present through three congregations, two world wars, the Great Depression, the independence of India from Great Britain, the creation of the state of Israel, the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Rights movement, the Black Power movement, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the construction and destruction of the Iron Curtain, the imprisonment and release of Nelson Mandela, the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the following wars around the globe to fight terrorism, the election of our first black president, and most recently, the election of the least politically experienced president in the history of our nation. You’ve been present and witness to a world in its automobile infancy that was still largely dependent on horse power to a world that has sent men to walk on the moon and created tools to see galaxies far beyond our own.

You’ve seen quite a lot. And you’ve seen a lot of us, too. Us Unitarian Universalists. We may be the third group to be housed here, but we’re the ones who’ve been here the longest. The original congregation was here 32 years, the next was here about 12 or 13 years, but we’ve been here now 51 years!

After meeting for five years in the cafeteria of a grade school in Minnetonka, our congregation purchased you, 605, in 1965. And as I read it in our history, the people were so happy to get a new home to call their own, one where they wouldn’t have to set up every Sunday morning, then take everything down by  noon, and then gather in the homes of their members for every single meeting.

To our way of thinking, it’s also a little strange to think that our first minister, the Reverend Robert Brownlie, who was called here in 1966 – the year I was born – lived next door at 615 Rice Street, because back then, that house was that parsonage for this church. I always wanted to live close to the church I served, but never THAT close!

Much has been said this year about our time here, with our 100-year Sunday service celebration last May with the other two congregations, and the local paper write up of our history, and members who’ve shared stories and pictures this fall. I myself first saw you in the mid-1990s. I was the Youth Director at First Universalist in Uptown Minneapolis. I brought my youth group out here one time for a youth conference. And the next time I saw you was in 2007, when the ministerial search committee began to consider me as a possible next minister. That was a joyful time, for both the congregation and for me. And now, here we are, in our tenth year together – the longest relationship this congregation has ever had with a minister, and for me too, the longest job I’ve ever had.

We’ve gone through a lot in our time together too. Not only was it the five-year legal process where we sued the city in Federal court, invoking Federal law around the separation of church and state in order to build our new building, and then the last three years of raising money and working to design the building (which has taken an inordinate amount of time out of just regular, normal church life) but there’ve been other good things we’ve done as well: creating a congregational covenant together, hosting a social justice empowerment workshop that helped guide us in social justice for many years, the work around defeating a Minnesota amendment that would deny marriage rights to same-sex couples, creating new rituals like our Winter Solstice celebration, the delightful annual Jeff Hatcher holiday play, and the multiple-year process to change from an operational governance system to a policy based governance system. And now we are in the middle of rewriting our mission, and within the next six months we will move into a new building.

So I’ve come to wonder what wisdom you might have, 605, to share with us? I’ve wondered what knowledge or wisdom you’d have to share about how you might see things going on in our world today. I look up into these rafters and think about the people who built you, and what might have been going on in their lives one-hundred years ago in 1916, and I wonder if their lives, thinking about the World War that was going on, was vastly different from how we feel today, or if there is any remarkable similarity. You are not a mountain, but dear 605, you have seen a lot in your time.

You see, part of it is that I’m having a hard time. Ever since the election I realize that I’ve been grieving. As a colleague of mine, the Reverend Joanne Fontaine Crawford, articulated similarly, I feel I am grieving for the death of what I thought was my country. I realize this comes from a place of privilege, since native people and people of color have never had the experience of this country that I have – even today, as we gather in this beautiful warm sanctuary, thousands of clergy and laypeople from many denominations and over 2,000 military veterans are joining native people at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to join together in an interfaith Day of Prayer, called by Chief Arvol Looking Horse, to “unite for our children’s future.” Though not everyone can be there physically this weekend, they are asking religious people for support, to stand with them physically, or in spirit, and spend a day in prayer with them.

But I have always hoped for better. Even though I know my country has not always lived up to its aspirations and ideals, up until now I have always held those ideals as a guide, like the north star, and almost every work of justice I’ve done has been guided by both the human ideals articulated in our nation’s constitution, as well as the values and beliefs articulated by my faith. But now I am feeling deeply discouraged. I’ve seen the media be manipulated by a showman, and whatever dignity the presidency had, has been stripped away by a thin-skinned, petulant, crass, narcissistic, politically inexperienced and morally irresponsible man. And all, apparently, without regret.

I’ve always tried to be a pastor to everyone, to not take sides, at least not here in church, between one political party and the other. But this feels different. This is not normal. This isn’t Democrat versus Republican – what’s going on now is an attack on our religious values: that all people have inherent worth; that revelation is continuous; that we have promised ourselves and our world that we will direct our efforts toward creating a loving community with liberty and justice for all; and to honor the interdependent web of existence.

The attack on these things, or the destruction of them, is just not ok. I feel disillusioned, and even frightened, that we could be manipulated so easily to be our worst selves. So part of what I’m grieving too, is the myth that our country is “safe” from such things.

I am heartbroken.

So in this loving time of year, during a time in our congregational life when we are preparing to leave you, 605, and grieve your loss as well, I look to you for some wisdom, some lesson in how we may move forward with a sense of purpose and meaning, while holding on to our liberal religious values and beliefs.

One lesson I’ve learned from you, 605, is your presence. You have housed three very different faith traditions. You have witnessed a community church that was probably fairly in the middle of the road in religion, and then what was probably a more right-leaning evangelical group, and then us, on the far left of the religious spectrum. Even though people in our groups may not think they could get along, you have always been steadfast. You have always been here, offering hospitality for anyone who needs it. And for me, that is pretty much the core of any faith tradition. How they – the people who call themselves part of that faith, whatever faith it may be – how they express and practice hospitality.

Are they bitter and mean, joking about people who are not like them, people who are “too liberal” or “too conservative”? Or are they open to differences, in a healthy way that can both set boundaries but also be open to difference and unique life and belief and practice? We Unitarian Universalists say we believe in diversity, but we don’t always practice it.

So if there’s one thing this season can bring us, and if there’s one thing I hope you will be able to remind us about, even after we are gone from here, is hospitality. Though nothing is certain yet, it is looking more and more like a theater group may move into this space. It makes me happy that you will not be torn down, and that you will continue in your practice of hospitality, not just of religious groups, but secular groups as well. Your hospitality carries on and continues to inspire. Even after we move away, I hope we can stop by to visit, and maybe see a show. Thank you so much for your presence and your wisdom.

As ever, your friend,

-Kent

Easter Reflection 2016

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
March 27, 2016

So this is Easter.  Most of us in the Western world know what this Sunday is about, but if you are a little hazy on the story, here’s a reminder. In the Christian faith, today is the culmination of the life story of Jesus of Nazareth. Recently Sean Gladding, a blogger, posted an obituary for Jesus with a modern turn, writing:

“Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem of Judea [and] His family fled to Egypt when he was two, seeking political asylum. They returned to Nazareth… after the death of Herod the Great. Jesus was apprenticed as a carpenter to Joseph, and worked in the family business until he turned 30. He was baptized in the Jordan River by the prophet John bar Zechariah, his cousin. He spent the next 3 years living as an itinerant rabbi, with a small school of 12 disciples. He received the patronage of Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward…and many others. [Jesus] devoted his life to serving the least, the last and the lost, wherever he found them. He proclaimed that the kingdom of God has drawn near, and bore witness to it through liberating people from the demonic, from disease and from the slow death of social exclusion. Despite our repeated warnings, his teaching, his work and especially those whom he chose to call friend inevitably drew the attention of the authorities. The family wishes to make it clear that his arrest and immediate trial took place without due process. The charges of blasphemy and of being a threat to national security were not corroborated by a single witness. He was humiliated and brutalized in custody before his execution by the State. He died as he lived: extending forgiveness to those responsible for his death. He will be greatly missed by his family, his friends – the ‘sinners’ – and by the poor.”

While I love this version of the story, it doesn’t account for the rise in Jesus’ popularity or the lasting power of his teachings centuries later. The great mid-20th Century Unitarian religious educator, Sophia Lyon Fahs, continues the story from a perspective that still resonates with many Unitarian Universalists today. She describes how the remaining male and female followers returned brokenhearted to Galilee after Jesus’ death, and in their grief they clung to one another for comfort. They gathered in each other’s homes to talk, to process all that happened, to both rage and weep over the death of their teacher, struggling to understand why their beloved teacher had to be killed.  It was as if the foundation on which these men and women built their beliefs had been blasted out from underneath them, or had been shaken by an earthquake. They had hoped and believed that Jesus would save their nation in some way. But now his voice was forever gone, and as they tried to look toward the future, they could see nothing but desolation. The Roman conquerors and occupiers were too powerful even for him.

Now friends, I don’t know about you, but this is where I’ve been for some time now: disheartened. I haven’t been much in the mood lately to create a traditional Easter sermon and service. I know governments are not perfect, but after so many years of progress, dating back at least to the Civil Rights period of the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed we were moving on, moving upward, moving forward on a progressive humanitarian direction where we continued to care for more and more people.

And then, after reaching the point of electing our first black president, it seemed that brought out some of the worst fears and reactivity and anger of a bunch of people in our country. Hate, hate crimes and threats against our friends and neighbors of color increased, against immigrants and our own citizens from Central America and South America to Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. And now we have candidates running for president who fight and whine and call each other names in ways that, if my nine and seven year old kids did it, they’d be in time out for the next ten years. These candidates make running for president into a mockery of a reality TV show or “professional” wresting match that is focused on pure entertainment value as though it has no real consequences.

And I am tired of the gun deaths and terrorist attacks, and the feelings I get of lethargy and the despair I see in others, day after day sometimes, where I wonder just what is the point? Some of us work so hard to make justice more available to ever-widening groups of people, to include those who are disenfranchised and marginalized, and yet lately it seems that all we are doing is taking giant steps backward in how we treat the women of our nation, and people who are poor, and people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, and taking giant steps backward in our relationships between people of all colors, and going backward in education, voting, jobs, the environment and global warming. I tell you, with so many verbal, political and physical attacks against so many people of good will doing so much good work that this year I often find myself feeling more the despair of Good Friday than I do feeling the message of the joy and resurrection of Easter Sunday.

[Sigh]

But then again, this IS Easter Sunday. And the story of Easter is the story of spring, the story resurrection in the midst of death, of inspiration in the midst of despair. And as most of us know, despair and sadness doesn’t come only during Easter – or only during election season. Despair and sadness can come at any time of year for any reason, so the challenge is figure out what I’m going to do in response. So I often hear myself asking: “What are my choices?”

It’s true that I can choose to live in despair, but having been there I know that doesn’t change much except insulate me with a thick coat of paralyzation. I’m learning, too, that parts of despair actually come from a place of privilege, as when people say they will move to another country if they don’t like the outcome of this fall’s election. Moving takes a huge amount of resources, which disenfranchised people in our country don’t have. I’ve also lived in a Pollyanna world, where I pretend everything will work out fine without me lifting a finger. I want to live in a place that honors the pain, but also honors beauty in the world and then does something about it. So instead I hear and see and feel and hold beauty and creation in poetry, music, stories, art, dance, and the growth of new ideas like fragile emerging tulips through the snow. Like the words of our choir anthem today: “Oh war and power, you blind and blur…but music and singing shall be my light.”

I am also challenged and inspired by the words of Adrienne Rich when she says, “My heart is moved by all I cannot save: / so much has been destroyed / I have to cast my lot with those / who age after age, perversely, / with no extraordinary power / reconstitute the world.”

And you know, in our telling of the Jesus story, it is not difficult to imagine a slow and lovely thing beginning to happen among his followers after his death. Day after day, as they raged and wept over his loss, they began to do with Jesus what people often do regarding the dead person at funerals and memorial services: they began to recall the wonderful experiences they had had with Jesus. They told one another happenings they had almost forgotten. The very tone of Jesus’ voice and the look on his face would come back to them so vividly that it seemed as though Jesus were again right there with them.

Though death ends the physical interaction with another being, the teachings and joy and love endure. In our presence with one another, one option for us is to be bitter, cynical and full of despair, just like much of the world would have us be. Another choice is to stay connected and engaged as we are called to do by our faith, or as one minister [David Pyle] puts it, to be a people who encounter the two saving lines of grace at the beginning and end of our seven principles. The first principle, as you may recall, is that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each individual, and the seventh principle is that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part.

Teaching each other and reminding each other about these saving lines of grace amid the despair of our world today is a revolutionary act. It is a way through for us, to feel and be known for our joy of life and love of one another. It is a way of living lives of enduring transformation, of changing fear and hate into joy and love. And when we teach each other and remind each other of these saving lines of grace, we discover, over and over again, in this often harsh and divisive world, that we are not alone. So… [from Jan Richardson’s “Blessing for the Brokenhearted”]

Let us promise
we will not
tell ourselves
time will heal
the wound
when every day
our waking
opens it anew.

Perhaps for now
it can be enough
to simply marvel
at the mystery
of how a heart
so broken
can go on beating,
as if it were made
for precisely this—

as if it knows
the only cure for love
is more of it

as if it sees
the heart’s sole remedy
for breaking
is to love still

as if it trusts
that its own stubborn
and persistent pulse
is the rhythm
of a blessing
we cannot
begin to fathom
but will save us
nonetheless.

Unitarian Universalist Prayer: A Velvet Bridge

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
October 18, 2015

READING: On Prayer
By Czeslaw Milosz

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are left aloft, as on a springboard
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun
That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word is
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we: there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.


Unitarian Universalist Prayer: A Velvet Bridge
By Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

This month of October our theological theme is prayer. I know for some, prayer may feel irrelevant, outdated, or seem like magical thinking.  I understand that some Unitarian Universalists struggle with prayer. Even through my years in seminary I also struggled with understanding prayer, and it wasn’t until my year as a chaplain resident at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park that I began to awake to some beginning understanding about prayer. It is good to remember, though, that many Unitarian Universalists, even many in this congregation, consider themselves Christian, or theist, and there are many in our denomination for whom prayer is a lively act of faith.  Our religious parents were the Congregationalists, and our religious grandparents were the Puritans, so our religious DNA is firmly grounded in Christianity.

But like many theological terms and general religious practices, prayer is not solely owned by Christians. It is not owned by Muslims or Jews either, for that matter, or by any particular religion, sect, or people.  The issue of prayer really isn’t about Christians versus atheists or humanists. In fact, it’s not a “versus” thing at all. It’s not about fighting, arguing or disagreeing. The issue of prayer is partly about honoring our own sources and values, but even more importantly, it is about the quality of how we want to connect.

We Unitarian Universalists say we value diversity, all kinds, including sexual orientation, skin color, income levels, geography – even theological diversity. In fact, we value theological diversity so much that we enshrined it in the words of our six sources. You may already be familiar with our Seven Principles: the ones that include “The inherent worth of each individual” and “The interdependent web of which we are a part.” But I’m wondering how many are familiar with our six sources of Unitarian Universalism?  The “living tradition” of six wisdom and spirituality sources, affirmed decades ago by our congregations, and from which Unitarian Universalism functions and engages the world, include:

  1. Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  1. Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  1. Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  1. Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  1. Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  1. Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

No single one of these sources is intended to dominate the others. These six sources are the foundation upon which we operate and move through the world. These sources are six equal ingredients in a soup that nourishes our wisdom and guides our actions. Denigrating any one of these six ingredients not only discounts individuals in our church we love and cherish, it also discounts the value we say we have of diversity.  How are we to go into the world and preach tolerance, acceptance and diversity if we don’t first practice it here in our midst?

We are held together not by dogma, theology or creed, but by covenant, by the promises we make to one another, as individuals and as a denomination, for living in Beloved Community.

I know words like “prayer” and “spirituality” and “God” come with baggage for a lot of people. And I know that a lot of people come to Unitarian Universalism because we tend to be not as religiously dogmatic as many of the more right-wing conservative religions of many faiths.  But that doesn’t mean we abdicate the use of religious language and the language of reverence. Our task is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to turn and face our biases, to be rigorous in questioning how we got them, and to be honest about the beliefs and practices we may let go, and the beliefs and practices we appreciate and want to keep.

In all my years of growing up in Unitarian Universalism and in recent years gathering with fellow ministers, I have never heard anyone pray asking for a miracle of healing or engage in magical thinking about supernatural intervention. Maybe it’s just the people I hang out with, but Unitarian Universalist prayer, in my experience, is directly tied to our relationship with each other and with the planet, and often addresses our greatest aspirations for how we want to engage our own powerful humanity as a creature that evolved as an expression of a creative universe.  “Spiritual growth” is written into the third of our seven Unitarian Universalist principles: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” So in my experience, Unitarian Universalist prayer is one of those pieces of how we as individuals go about growing in spirit.

In his poem, “On Prayer,” Chess-law Me-losh (Czeslaw Milosz) says, “All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge / and walking it we are left aloft, as on a springboard / above landscapes the color of ripe gold.”

The poet begins by saying “all I know,” which is using different words to describe our first source: direct experience.  In our liberal religious tradition, we affirm that we don’t need popes or bishops or ministers to access the power of the universe. We first access the Holy, however we may describe it, through our own direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. This is our first source, from our own tradition, which acknowledges that we are called and moved to a renewal of spirit through an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. Some people call those forces “God,” some people call those forces the Big Bang, gravitational pull and DNA. These are the forces greater than ourselves that we may acknowledge through addiction recovery, in small group ministry, in social justice work, and through being part of a congregation and having to work through the challenging problem of designing a new building that will embody our congregational mission.

And I love the image of prayer being a “velvet bridge.” The poet doesn’t describe prayer as a way to ask a supernatural being for money or for favors or for miracles. Through acknowledging the existence of transcending mystery and wonder, though, we know that the task of faith is to move forward even when we don’t know the answer. In fact, that’s the definition of faith. We don’t know for sure, absolutely positively, that all people are born “good.” But our Universalist heritage fills us with the faith that people are NOT born in sin, that we are inherently the expressions of a creative universe, and as such we have inherent worth. We have faith in our connections to one another, to our planet, to the universe, to the past, and to the future.

The central image of this poem is the bridge, the velvet bridge. The purpose of a bridge is to connect, to unite, to pass from one shore to another, from realm of experience to another. With the metaphor of a bridge, prayer is understood to be not a form of begging for things to be different, but to connect things as they are. And yet, paradoxically, in the process of connecting things as they are, everything is transformed. Soren Kierkegaard, that famous Danish philosopher and theologian, once said that “Prayer does not change God, but it changes [the one] who prays.”  The poet Chess-law Me-losh (Czeslaw Milosz) says something similar.  He says, “That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal / Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is” / Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.”

The “shore of Reversal.” What a beautiful phrase. In the written version of the poem, the word “Reversal” is capitalized. The shore of Reversal. That’s where the velvet bridge of prayer leads. Why does anyone pray? To be grounded, to find a center, to find focus, to connect to a deep yearning, to connect to the Source of all creativity and love that enfolds and welcomes, to connect to the Source that affirms the brilliance of our origins and brilliance that lies beneath the mess of all pain and addiction and loss that is our true self and our true being.

Friends, we pray out of a recognition that we are not able to get through this world on our own. That even when we don’t fail or falter or struggle, and even when we are not faced with some big catastrophe, we rely on so many things done by so many others: the people who package the food in the grocery store, the farmers who grow and harvest the food, the people who made our cars and built our homes, the institutions and people who provide our paychecks, the doctors and dentists who see to our health, the construction workers who built the roads upon which we travel, the people who took care of us and raised us when we were babies. We are not self-sufficient islands and never were.

A time of prayer provides us with a time to remember our connections to each other, to remember the velvet bridges that reach across the chaos and consumerism and conflict of each day. The “shore of Reversal” is the ground where we can go beneath the surface of the veneer of our lives, to touch again our original brilliance and be reminded of our purpose, our deepest desires and our greatest aspirations.

That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is”
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we: there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh

This is another part of what we find on the “shore of Reversal”: not only do reconnect with our own brilliance and greatest aspirations, but we find compassion too.  This life is beautiful, but sometimes it can be really hard. Things happen. Sometimes we lose a job.  Sometimes we need to move to another neighborhood or another state, where everything is new and different and unknown. Sometimes we are betrayed by a friend. Sometimes a beloved family member dies.  And I’m willing to bet that each person here, at some point in your life, has behaved in a way you regret. I know I have. So in prayer, when we arrive on the “shore of Reversal,” we move beyond ourselves and become larger. Maybe we recently had a fight with someone, but for a few moments in honest prayer, we let down our walls and feel some of the fear or pain experienced by the other person. The Reversal comes from being startled for a few moments when we loosen our grip on our own anger or resentment and feel compassion for the Other. We see that we may be a unique human being, but we are not alone, and neither are others, that there on the shore of Reversal, “every one, separately, / Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh.”

In the music Paul Winchester [our Music Director] offers us today, the movement is from a more traditional understanding of prayer and use of language to a more broad and deep and open interpretation of language of reverence that connects us to the forces of the universe that create and uphold life. The language of reverence, whether through music, words or theology, is largely through metaphor, and the language of poetry is the primary vehicle for the use of metaphor.  So the words of our music today begin with the traditional language “Our Father, who art in heaven” in the musical piece of the prelude, but in the opening words of the music for the postlude, the words are very different.  The postlude piece begins with the phrase, “O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos, focus your light within us.” It is said to be an translation of the Lord’s Prayer that is directly into English from the original Aramaic. I have no way of knowing for sure if that is true, but it definitely resonates more with the teachings of the radical and inclusive Jesus I know from the rest of his teachings and actions in the old stories. And in this new translation, I love the line that, instead of saying, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” it says, “loose the bonds of mistakes as we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.”

We humans are created from a creative universe and we are creative beings. We are artists.  We can make spiritual growth out of anything.  Spiritual growth is the purpose of the church.  It’s the purpose of ministry.  It’s why we’re here.

I like Parker Palmer’s definition of “spiritual.” It connects with an understanding of prayer as a velvet bridge. Parker Palmer says, “By spiritual I mean the diverse ways we answer the heart’s longing to be connected with the largeness of life.” There are so, so many diverse ways to pray, and so, so many ways to answer that longing to be connected with the largeness of life.

The poem by Chess-law Me-losh (Czeslaw Milosz) ends with the lines:

That velvet bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word “is”
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we: there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.

“If there is no other shore / we will walk that aerial bridge all the same.” In prayer we walk forward with a trust in the connections that bind us to one another and to the planet and to the universe, and to our past and our future. In prayer, even if we don’t always know why it works or how it transforms us, we move with an intention that helps us let go of our frustration, anger, and resentment, and helps us focus on compassion.  In prayer, we move not with pleas to a supernatural being for supernatural help, but with a faith in the goodness that exists in each being, and in the transformation of our own attitude that will allow us to see that goodness.

In prayer, even if there is no other shore, we will walk across that velvet aerial bridge all the same.

 

Benediction
(From the words I spoke at my own ordination in March 2008)

It has been said that the only true and honest prayer,
For all the joy and for all the pain,
For all that is despised and for all that is beautiful,
Is a prayer of thanks.

So I give thanks today
For all that has been my life
For all that has been given
For all that people have done to make this day happen.
But the thanks are not for me alone.
I give thanks for this community,
For our time together today
Is in honor of our covenantal relationship
With each other.

So, as we move forward together,
May we remember and honor our gifts, our compassion, and our passion.
But most of all, may we remember and honor
The spirit of love that moves between and among us.
Here today, and for all the days we move through the world together.

Blessed be and amen.

ROMANIA: First Impressions

I flew into Kolozsvar (Cluj) from Munich.  The airport is on the east end of town, and because of the winds we circled around from the east.  So I kept expecting to see the city but all the way until we landed, all I saw was rolling hills, a little like western Wisconsin, and small villages tucked in between the folds.  We landed, got on two busses, and then rode the busses about 400 yards to the terminal, and then got out!

I made it through customs with no problem – it seems that most of the people in the city (maybe not in the rural areas?) can speak decent English to answer questions of directions, and the officials (like customs agents) and the Unitarian folks, all speak English very well. My baggage came through no problem, and I met up with Arbad (I hope that’s the correct spelling) who held up the UUPCC sign: the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council.  Arbad was there to pick up me and one other woman on the trip, Karin, who came in from France.

The drive from the airport into the city was very exciting!  I’m sure it won’t be quite so much if I ever visit again, but I just kept thinking, “I’m in Romania!  I’m in Romania!  I’m in frickin Romania!”  The apartment buildings on either side of the road looked like the eastern Europe of all the 1960’s and 1970s James Bond movies I’d ever seen, except they had a new veneer.  Many had neon signs or various decorations on the outside, and many of the brightly colored billboards were in English. We even passed a red Coca-Cola stand.  I guess Coke really is teaching the world how to sing its song.  Maybe not in perfect harmony as the 1970s commercial suggested, but they are worldwide now.

So many of the “new” buildings – built during the time of Communism – look so masculine and squat and solid. Like bunkers.  They cool in a way.  They have weird crenellated twists and bumps across their fronts to make room for balconies and bends in the walls to follow the curve of a road they were built against. But they certainly are not pretty.  Arbad said that when he was a boy he would ride out to this area to buy vegetables.  This area had all been fields and farmers and a place to buy fresh vegetables some 35-40 years ago, but Nicolae Ceacescu (“chow-ches-cue”), the brutal Communist leader, built all these apartments to bring in Romanians from surrounding villages, partly to keep a better eye on them, but also partly to increase the number of Romanians in the city in order to make the Hungarians an even smaller minority.

We commented on how well we thought Arbad spoke English, and he said, “Yes, when I was younger I was a king!” (because he spoke it so well, and other Romanians and Hungarians did not), and then he laughed and said, “But now I am a peasant” (because so many others speak English as well!).

Arbad dropped us off at our hotel, the Hotel Transilvania.  Yes, it exists, but no, it is not run by Dracula, as is depicted in the recent animated kid’s movie.  It was a delightful little three-star hotel with an open courtyard and a small outside walkway on the upper level to access our rooms.  I met Istvan (“Steven”) who was the clerk/receptionist, and he gave us our keys.

I rested for a bit, and then took a walk out on the cobblestoned streets of the old part of the city.  It was chilly – about 50 degrees (F), took some pictures, and imagined Francis David (spoken Ferenc David – “Dah-veed” – in Hungarian).  In Hungarian, the surname always goes first, so for example, I would be called Saleska Kent.  My family name comes first, and then my name.  It seems, though, that the Hungarian Unitarians we meet are very used to speaking with people from the states because with us they always use the westernized name: Francis David (pronounced the way we say David).

That evening, at 6:30, I met up with the rest of the group.  I later learned that at age 49, I am the youngest of the group by about five years.  On the trip there were two couples from the Hanska congregation in Minnesota, then a man from Washington, D.C. (who was also the brother of one of the women from Hanska), then there’s one man from Sarasota, Florida, and another woman, a minster, from Ohio.  Never having met any of them before, I had been wondering who my travel mates might be, but I hoped to at least get along if not actually make friends!

Our guides for this trip, John Dale (trip leader) and his wife Csilla (“chilla”) Kolcsar-Dale (the tour director), took us for our first meal to a little pizza joint down a side street nearby, within walking distance.  John and Csilla know the people in all the places where we eat our group meals, and that makes it very easy and friendly.  We pretty quickly fell in together and began talking up a storm getting to know each other – fueled by our shared bottles of wine.

Before the trip began, one of my biggest fears was that someone, or several, of my trip mates would be arrogant and intolerant UUs, the kind who roll their eyes or dismiss anything that even gets close to language of faith, or a belief in spirituality or in God.  Growing up in Unitarianism, and having been a minister for eight years now, I’ve experienced those types of UUs. We United States UUs like to proclaim and exclaim how tolerant we are, how open and welcoming and free-thinking we are…and then the moment someone begins talking about God or spirituality, especially if it is Christian, there are those UUs who will laugh and shake their heads and deride the speaker as misguided or superstitious.  We have UUs who are just as judgmental and close-minded as the conservative religious people we like to condemn for their close-mindedness.

I’m not trying to force a belief here.  I’m not trying to insist that all UU’s must believe in God. Because I have become more fluent in metaphor over the decades, there are some who have accused me of that.  But what I really want people to do is think bigger than that, to compare using words to describe belief in the same way we use poetry to describe love. There’s all kinds of love, so there’s all kinds of poetry to describe new love, broken love, deepening love, erotic love, lost love, mature love. In a similar way, it is very challenging to describe our connection to things larger than ourselves – to our friends, neighbors, other church members, to the world of nature, to the past, to the future, to the planet, to the dynamics of creation and destruction of the universe.  For some, the language of science helps them do that.  For others, the language of art or the language of faith helps them do that.  This is what I want – for us to discover and use what has been called “a language of reverence,” and to honor the different ways others use it and believe it as well.

And the sad part is that many Unitarian Universalists will only use one of those many languages of reverence (usually a scientific or what they call “rational” language), and will not tolerate the use of any other language.

I’m not saying we can’t use critical thinking.  But if you say you believe in openness, tolerance, welcoming and acceptance, then you really have to behave that way too…otherwise you don’t really believe what you say you believe.  Because here’s the thing: Unitarians are not held together by creed – neither religious creed or scientific creed.  We are held together by covenant, by the promises we make with one another, by behaving towards each other in the ways we promise we will behave toward each other.  So if you are promising to behave well and honor someone else’s beliefs, then you are not upholding that promise when you roll your eyes when they begin to talk about God.

Because here’s another thing: the Unitarians in Transylvania talk about God.  And even though they believe, as we do, that Jesus was human and not divine, they still talk about Jesus Christ.  And generally they hold communion four times each year.  In their view, the bread stays bread, and the wine stays wine, but they do it because it is in memory of the teachings of Jesus, of the promises they share, of the bonds they share by welcoming one another to their table of faith, and by the community they build by taking that faith out into the world.

So back to my Transylvania trip.  I realized on the 15-hour flight over here to Romania that my biggest fear was not about not knowing the language or eating strange food or finding my way around…it was about whether my own religious people from the United States would be welcoming and graceful with our hosts, Unitarians who have a faith that looks like much more traditional Christianity than we Unitarian Universalists have in the United States.

And I am both relieved and happy to say that my travel companions are nothing like I feared. They have been kind, curious, respectful, and funny.  And I appreciate that so much.  So our first night out at the pizza place was a good, fun night of getting acquainted with each other, getting acquainted with the city of Kolozsvar (Cluj), getting acquainted with the language of both Hungarian and Romanian, and joking around a lot.  It made me very happy to be here…AND it made me feel much less anxious about going to church at the First Unitarian Church in Kolozsvar (Cluj) the next morning!