Mystery and Light
Religion, at its best, is a light that helps humanity navigate the impenetrable mysteries of life. Like a light in the darkness, religion can comfort, reassure, offer guidance, diminish anxiety, bring hope.
Yet religion, as all-too-often practiced in human societies, can also be a significant bringer of darkness.
What do we expect from our religion, and what do we expect our religion to bring to the world?
In the northern hemisphere, the cold weather closes in, the hours of darkness lengthen, and human beings turn to festivals that celebrate light. There’s Hanukkah (Dec. 2-10); the winter solstice (Dec. 21); and Christmas (Dec. 25) with its “star of wonder, star of light.” These diverse traditions engage the human longing to chase away darkness, along with whatever evil may lurk in the shadows.
It’s almost impossible not to fear the dark, at least a little. To the child sure that something lurks under the bed, or the pragmatic adult who simply wishes to avoid stumbling in the dark, a flashlight is always welcome.
Do we bring light?
Unitarian Universalists gather under one roof to celebrate shared values. Each of us is on a spiritual journey that began with our earliest experiences. Each of us likely has a different set of ideas about what we “believe.” In our UU tradition, we can each have a different understanding of the mysteries of life, but we also accept the responsibility to live out the values of our faith through our words and deeds.
Together we celebrate a religion that helps us create meaning and purpose in our lives. Together we collaborate to make it a religion that brings light to each of us. As a faith community, together we inspire one another to bring light to the world.
It may be only a small light. Or maybe, like the light the Raven steals, it’s so much light that it changes the world forever.
It’s not our task to decide how big or small our light may be. Our only real job is to orient our minds to a simple touchstone—bring light. This perspective encourages us, each day, to light a candle against the darkness.
We enter December with our myriad responses to holiday traditions. We may struggle with the uncomfortable vestiges of childhood religious training. We may vigorously embrace its signs and symbols.
But to make meaning of this holiday month, and of the role of religion in our own lives, we must ever and always bring light.
“Snatching the light in his beak, the raven flew through the smokehole and up into the sky. The world was instantly changed forever.”
“Raven Steals the Light”
(from the Inuit tradition)
My childhood was filled with messages about the importance of toleration. Good messages. Yet toleration (I now understand) isn’t enough.
One of Unitarian Universalism’s seven principles is the idea that every human being has inherent worth. The old Unitarian notion—more than 450 years old—was that God values the diversity of human beings and so we should not judge one another’s beliefs.
Today in Unitarian Universalism this old idea translates into recognition of the beauty and value of human differences. Diversity invites us into creative interchange, into conversational exploration of our different ideas, experiences, and cultures.
Everyone’s life is complex. We are multi-faceted beings of impulse and love and contradiction. None of us is a stereotype. The implicit promise of Unitarian Universalism is that we will not stereotype one another.
As UUs in national public discourse, we aspire to bring more than toleration into the public square. We covenant to respect the variety and complexity of every human being we meet. This covenant means that we refuse to simplify or stereotype or attribute or assume. We hope to live our belief that someone’s appearance doesn’t tell us all we need to know.
In national public discourse today, those of us who identify as non-gender-binary face threats to their equality as citizens. Those of us whose immigration to this country is recent face threats to their equality as residents. Those who have look to America as a refuge, who hope to find asylum here, face threats to their lives and to the safety and well-being of their children.
In light of these threats, it is not enough to make our premises or congregational life a sanctuary. We must enter the public discourse. We must take into the public square our commitment to creative interchange and our covenant of respect for the inherent worth of every human being.
We can do this. We can lift up our values like a roof to shelter every human being.
We can breathe Sanctuary.
As we approach the Visioning Workshop this Saturday, September 22 (8:30 am – 12:30 pm), First Unitarian members don’t have to stray far from home to find inspiration. Since its inception in 1877, this congregation has offered a home and a shared vision to members who seek a more just and humane world.
Even the 1877 Bond of Membership, still part of the covenant of members here, is remarkable in its vision for the time: “We associate ourselves together for the study and practice of morality and religion, as interpreted by the growing thought and noblest lives of humanity, hoping thereby to prove helpful one to another and to promote truth, righteousness and love in the world.”
First Unitarian members ever since have challenged themselves and the world to live into the aspiration of promoting truth, righteousness, and love.
Women’s Right to Vote. The first suffrage march in Iowa dedicated solely to women’s right to vote was in 1908 in Boone, Iowa, at the behest of the women of Unity Circle. Mary Jane Coggeshall, a member thought of as “the mother of the Iowa suffrage movement” and Assistant Minister Eleanor Gordon were instrumental in advancing voting rights for all American women. One of the banners read, “Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny. As True Now as in 1776.”
Humanism. Rev. Curtis Reese, who served First Unitarian as minister from 1915-19, preached in 1917 what is now considered the first Humanist sermon in the United States. His ideas inspired the Humanist movement, which has deeply influenced Unitarian Universalism.
Civil Rights. In 1948, Edna Griffin, a Black member of the congregation, along with other church members, began picketing a Des Moines drug store lunch counter that had refused to serve Edna because of her race. She filed suit for violation of a 1884 Iowa law making discrimination illegal—and won. After the victory, Edan and her support team ate lunch together at the now-integrated restaurant.
Free Speech. In 1965, a group of middle and high school students, including Chris Eckhart, son of First U member Maggie Eckhart, wore black armbands to school in memory of all who had died in the Vietnam War. Their school suspended the students for the “disruption.” The students took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the now-renowned 1969 decision Tinker v. Des Moines School District the Court declared that students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Hope for Refugees. In 1979, when the Vietnamese refugee crisis was at its height, a group of First Unitarian members decided to offer hope and support. The group sponsored a family of refugees, eventually including 28 extended family members, and dealt with helped them deal with issues like housing, dental care, jobs, and school enrollment. The family flourished with this support; family members or descendants lead thriving businesses across the United States and Canada.
LGBT Rights. Beginning in 1991, church members began living into the goal of becoming a UUA “Welcoming Congregation” to offer a true welcome to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members. In 2007, Rev. Mark Stringer performed the first legally recognized same-sex wedding in the history of Iowa. Today our Welcoming Congregation Team is participating in the UUA Welcoming Congregation refresher program, helping us better understand how to be authentically welcoming to transgender people and breaking new ground with its pronoun initiative.
Where will First Unitarian’s commitment to the “noblest lives of humanity” take this beloved community in years to come? The direction—the vision—is what our members shape today.
A Litany of Blessing
Rev. Jennifer Brooks
There’s a phrase that’s frequently uttered in my family: “Oh, well!” It’s usually accompanied by a sharp exhalation, an eye-roll, and hands thrown dramatically up in the air. It’s inserted just exactly between a litany of hardship and a litany of blessing.
“So my car broke down and it was 90 degrees and there was no room to pull off and I thought one of those big trucks was going to wipe me out.” Pause. Exhale.
“Oh, well!” Eye roll, hands up.
“At least AAA came in less than 30 minutes. At least I have AAA. And they towed me to a shop that was pretty close and it turned out to be something fixable and not very expensive. And there was a Starbucks nearby where I could wait and it was air-conditioned. So I just chilled and answered email, and then everything was OK and I’m here! Hurray!”
Notice that the litany of blessing is longer than the litany of hardship? It’s not that things always work out. They don’t. But my family members are skilled in that pivot from hardship to blessing. If the hardship couldn’t be overcome, the storyteller casts the net wider. “At least it didn’t rain.” And in the most desperate of situations, it’s “At least I know there are people in my life who love me. I’m so blessed to have [name or names, even if it’s only the dog].
As my mother moves this week from her assisted-living cottage to her retirement community’s health center, scaling down to one room with a few treasured possessions and an expectation of nursing care for her final few months, I already know I’ll hear the litany of blessing.
Yes, there are many things to include in her litany of hardship, things she will acknowledge and grieve. But then she’ll sigh and say, “Oh, well!” And she’ll start naming all the things that have made her life wonderful—most of which are present still. It is remarkable. It is incredibly moving. It is holy.
And her example is an incredible gift.
Rev. Jennifer Brooks
The idea of creativity is deeply embedded in Unitarian Universalism. It was 20th century Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Weiman who coined the term “creative interchange” to describe the learning and growth that occurs when people engage meaningfully with others who have different ideas.
The ways in which we as a congregation reach outside our walls to partner with others is a form of creative interchange. The energizing conversation when a UU with one set of theological beliefs talks meaningfully with another who believes differently is creative interchange.
There’s another form of creative interchange that’s absolutely vital in congregational life. It’s the creative interchange that occurs when people in one social network have connections and relationships with people in other social networks. Everyone benefits and breakthrough ideas emerge.
It’s natural for members to find themselves in a main social circle and be loosely connected to several others. If each person has a number of loose connections to multiple circles, the organization as a whole becomes more creative; useful, innovative ideas are more likely to emerge.
What happens at First Unitarian? Maybe members sit next to people they know; talk more with people they know well; and if they plan meals or events apart from church events, they may invite people they know best.
Now this is all very natural and very human but it may be difficult for newcomers to find social connections. And there’s often overlap between people we know the best and people who think the way we do. Friendship involves loyalty—which can become an expectation of agreement in a circle of friends whenever one or a few of them has a strong point of view. Silos of perspective can develop, and that’s the opposite of creative interchange.
One of the ways to encourage congregational creative interchange is through stakeholder meetings on various topics. Meetings have already occurred in the areas of social justice, and membership; the Worship Innovations Stakeholder Meeting, open to everyone, is scheduled for 6:30 pm Thursday, May 17. Faith Formation Stakeholder meetings will be held on Saturday, May 19, 9 – 11 am, and Monday, May 21, 6 – 7:30 pm.
In these carefully structured conversations, we have a chance to hear many voices and multiple perspectives. New ideas may emerge that revitalize our life together.
March / April 2018
The Balance of Charoset: A Love Poem from the Earth
Rev. Jennifer Brooks
Each Passover, which begins Friday evening, March 30, one of the traditional foods in the Seder meal is charoset, which is made from a millennia-old recipe in the Song of Songs, a love poem in the Hebrew scriptures.
Chaoset is a kind of love poem from the Earth.
When people think of Passover, they often remember the big things—the plagues, or the release of slaves into freedom. Not everyone thinks much about something so small and simple as a sweet side dish that’s part of the Passover meal.
But charoset is important. It helps to balance out some of the Seder’s sour and bitter foods—and it’s a symbolic reminder that the joys of life help to balance out life’s sorrows and challenges.
The poem that is the Song of Songs lists all the foods we combine to make charoset.
We start with apples, all cut up. Apples come from a tree and can be eaten fresh or dried and saved for a long time. Even fresh apples, stored properly, can last through the winter.
We add raisins, which are very sweet. Raisins are dried grapes, which grow on a vine. Grapes need lots of sunshine to grow; raisins capture that sunshine and offer it to us as intense sweetness that lasts through a long, gloomy winter.
We add dried apricots. Apricots are a fruit that, like apples, grow on a tree. Apricots, too, can be dried so they last a long time. They’re sweet with a color as gold as the sun.
Dried figs are another ingredient. Figs, like apples and apricots, grow on a tree and can be eaten either fresh or dried.
We add spices for flavoring. Spices come from plants that have especially intense flavors. Just a little bit goes a long way. Like the other ingredients, spices can be used fresh or dried, too, and saved in jars.
We add nuts—walnuts, which are tree nuts that grow in a round, hard shell. The part we eat is inside and we get to it only after we crack open the shell.
The last ingredient is the liquid from crushed grapes. Wine makes the charoset a bit less sweet; grape juice makes it very sweet. Either one helps to hold all the little chopped bits of the other foods together in clumps that make charoset easy finger food.
Every ingredient in Passover’s charoset is special in similar ways: They’re all delicious. They’re all good for us. They don’t need to stay in the refrigerator. They can be easily carried—which is a good thing whether you’re escaping from slavery or just going for a hike.
And, finally, every ingredient is a gift from the Earth that makes charoset a sweet blessing of Life, a millennia-old love poem that sustains us wherever we go.
Ingredient list from the Song of Songs; proportions are guesswork
Apricots, dried, about ½ cup, chopped fine
Figs, dried, about 8, chopped fine
Raisins, about 2 oz (two little boxes; more if preferred)
Walnuts, chopped fine, about ½-3/4 cups
Apples, 3 fresh, chopped fine, with skins
Wine or grape juice, enough to dampen, about 1/3 cup
Spices: cardomon (about 1 T), cinnamon (about 3 T), nutmeg (about 1 T), date sugar (about 2 T)
Rev. Jennifer Brooks
It was only four years ago that I traveled to North Carolina to be part of a “moral march” in support of voting rights for people of color. As I walked with 1,500 other Unitarian Universalists and about 85,000 other people from a wide variety of faith traditions from all over the US, I passed a man who was standing on the sidewalk and holding a sign.
“Welcome to North Carolina,” his sign said. “Turn your watch back 50 years.”
The Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century seemed like such a breakthrough moment. And it was. Yet 50 years later Americans are still struggling for full access to the voting booth, for good education, for affordable health care, for reproductive rights, for an immigration policy that preserves the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Folks who marched and sang and wrote letters for these things 50 years ago, and during many of the intervening years, may wonder whether their work has been in vain. The short answer is no; that work has not been in vain.
Because just think where we’d be now without that work.
In this cold and snowy February, we are called to persevere. Each generation stands on the shoulders of those who came before. There are always obstacles. There are always setbacks. And, yes, it may seem, sometimes, that the values we share as Unitarian Universalists are words that someone wrote down and forgot to pass along to the rest of the class.
We can’t let those values languish unlived. At this time in our world, we need the voices of Unitarian Universalists who see the inherent humanity of every person; who seek to live with equity, justice, and compassion in all their relationships.
Our world needs the perspective of Unitarian Universalists who take seriously the idea that people with different opinions can find a way to communicate with civility and respect. Our world, our nation, our state, and our local community—whether they know it or not—are longing for the presence and support of UUs who open their hearts to the needs of others.
Another thing our world needs is the persistence, the perseverance, of people who understand that the world we imagine may be generations in the making—and who also know that every act of love and grace may make an immeasurable difference in the life of a stranger.
The First Unitarian Church is here in Des Moines because of the generations that came before. It will be here in generations to come because those of us here and now remain faithful to our heritage, our values, and our vision.
Rev. Jennifer Brooks
The New Year starts with good intentions. And, yes, we all know that good intentions may not pave the road to happiness. But there is one practice that can make a difference as we seek to live our values in 2018.
When we bring intention to all that we do, we gain a moment of awareness that can help us keep—or intentionally break—those New Year’s resolutions. The practice of intention is the act of pausing to ask: Is this what I intend? Is this thing I’m about to do or say really what I intend?
That question inserts a pause. It’s likely only a millisecond. But the moment in which we ask and answer that question creates awareness. And awareness is the first stage of mindful living.
A pause to notice intention doesn’t mean that we must change what we were just about to do. But we notice it. Over time this practice of intention develops out the ability to choose our words and deeds with more attention to their congruence with our values.
Despite the chilly winter weather, the members and friends of First Unitarian have warmed my heart. I wish you all a happy and healthy 2018. May it be the start of a life of greater awareness—not only for our own lives, but for the life of the world.
May we be the change we wish to see.
Rev. Erin Gingrich
It was cold outside and we couldn’t wait to get indoors, but we had to. When we tried to enter the front door of the house, which was slightly ajar, it quickly became apparent that there was nowhere for the door to go—a lot of people were standing on the other side. The entire living room and first floor, in fact, were full of people. About 50 had gathered to celebrate the completion of Hekmat’s and Abeer’s home, many having worked on the house with the family and Habitat for Humanity through our houses of faith. It was a joyous and prideful occasion.
In the dedication, we learned the homeowners, Hekmat and Abeer, had brought their two sons to the United States from Iraq in 2008 when living there became unsafe. The eldest son was a Grandview University student studying to be an anesthesiologist. I realized I had met him before. As the president of the Diversity Alliance at Grandview, he had helped organized a letter writing campaign to support DACA recipients and their families that our church members signed at a fall event at the Capitol.
It is a small world and a meaningful joy to experience our interconnectedness and support of one another in community. Let us celebrate our church’s efforts in the making of their beautiful home. Let us also celebrate the family’s efforts in making our shared home community and nation beautiful as well.
Rev. Jennifer Brooks
December is the month for hope.
We human beings hope most of the time, of course. Even in our day-to-day lives we hope. Maybe especially. We hope for good weather, or for the traffic to unsnarl, or for the old car to make it through one more winter. We hope the children are OK.
People long ago must have hoped for similar things. Good weather, certainly. Good hunting, perhaps. For the old horse to make it through another winter. For the children to be OK.
During December, it’s possible to see how the hopes of people today and the hopes of people long ago are connected. We can see those big hopes for the world; big hopes for each individual life.
Advent, Dec. 3-24, is from the Christian tradition. It’s often described as the “advent of hope.” Hope for peace. Hope for goodwill. Hope for a better life for all people.
Bodhi Day, the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment, is Dec. 8 this year. The Buddha sat for days beneath the Bodhi tree, and then one day understood how attachment keeps people from experiencing life fully. Whether it’s attachment to the losses of the past, or attachment to future outcomes, attachment keeps us from living life mindfully—keeps us from appreciating the good we experience in the here and now. The Buddha’s enlightenment gives hope to everyone who longs to grow spiritually and emotionally.
Hanukkah, in the Jewish tradition, this year runs from Dec. 12 through Dec. 20. It celebrates the miracle of the lights that lasted for eight days when they should have gone out after just one. The Festival of Lights gives hope to everyone who longs for a signal that persistence is rewarded.
Yule, or Solstice, is the pagan celebration of the longest night in the northern hemisphere—this year Dec. 21. It’s a celebration that arises from the turning of the seasons, which are as infallible now as they were long ago. It’s a celebration of the ever-fulfilled hope that darkness will give way to light; cold to warmth; a fallow season to a time of new life.
And we, in the here and now, watch the days shorten and grow colder. We remember the big hopes that all the religions of the world express. We decorate our homes with symbols of hope. We gather each Sunday to celebrate our free faith that invites people with different beliefs into beloved community—a community that encourages us to wonder, to grow, and to hope.
Rev. Jennifer Brooks
As I think back on this last week, this last month, my heart is heavy. After the devastation of three hurricanes, we’ve witnessed a senseless act of human destruction. For those in the path of desolation the suffering is unimaginable. But even those not touched by physical harm feel deep sorrow.
People of compassion and empathy suffer with the suffering. We donate money and supplies and blood. Yet people of compassion can also feel compassion fatigue, discouragement, despair. It is deeply disheartening to think that there might be nothing we can do to prevent the next act of devastation.
We must find the courage to resist to despair; we must renew and restore our inner resources. We must encourage one another.
The images from the floods and mass shootings of the present age have in common something miraculous: hands, reaching out; hands, lifting; hands, holding.
Think of stepping into a flood-driven river, trying to remain standing through the roiling current. Alone, even the strongest person can be swept away. Now think of a chain of people, holding hands, with others bracing along both sides. With the presence and support of community, all who step in the river are safe.
The human response to destruction and suffering is to encourage and support one another. We help, we reach out, we offer hope. We encourage.
In the act of encouragement is our own spiritual deepening. We find courage to continue; we find courage to turn away from despair; we find courage to fling ourselves once again into the churning water.
Join hands. Strengthen connections. Don’t let anyone be swept away. Create a community that keeps everyone safe even as we step into a river of challenge and change.