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On Being Hyphenated Religiously – December 5, 2010

I’d like to begin this morning by telling you a Unitarian Universalist joke. At least, I used to think it was a Unitarian Universalist joke – it was taught to me by a Unitarian Universalist, at a Unitarian Universalist summer camp. It starts out like this: a piece of string walks into a bar. Never mind how it is that there’s a piece of string walking around town frequenting businesses. This is a joke, and in jokes, as in life, we must be strategic in which contradictions and inconsistencies we confront, and which we choose, however temporarily, to accept.

Anyway, a piece of string walks into a bar with a few of his friends. What sorts of folks would a string have for friends? The answer is left up to the imagination of the audience. They might be a couple of tin cans, or a pair of knitting needles. Maybe a handful of fingers that he used to be tied around to remind someone of something – you can be in charge of that part, I’m just going to tell the joke.

So a piece of string walks into a bar with a few of his friends and they sit down to have a drink together. The bartender comes over to take their order, and he moves right down the line but when he comes to the piece of string he stops short, and gets an angry look on his face. “We don’t serve pieces of string in this bar,” he says. “You’ve gotta go.” The piece of string looks around like ‘who, me?’ and thinks this all must be some kind of a joke. But the bartender is dead serious, so the string gets up off the barstool and leaves.

Standing outside the bar now, cold and alone, the piece of string wonders what to do next. And after thinking for a little bit, he comes up with a plan. He grabs his left foot, and he pulls it up over his right shoulder. He takes his right arm and he curls it behind his back and around his waist and puts his left hand in his right pocket. Seeing someone else walking by on the street he calls out, “Hey Mr., can you mess up my hair a little for me?” and then he hops on one foot back into the bar.

The bartender catches sight of him right away and calls out “Hey buddy, like I told the last guy, we don’t serve pieces of string here.” The string just shrugs – very difficult with his limbs arranged as they are – and sits down at the bar. The bartender comes over and gets in the string’s face. “Hey pal, aren’t you a piece of string?” And the string answers back, “Nope; I’m a frayed knot!”

I said before that I used to think that was a Unitarian Universalist joke. I don’t anymore. If it were really a Unitarian Universalist joke then when that string was first kicked out of the bar, his friends, if they really were his friends, would have walked out with him in solidarity. They would have declared a boycott and organized a picket line. They would have worked hard until that bar was closed or the bartender was replaced, or maybe, just maybe, until he changed his mind about strings. But the joke does illustrate something important: that piece of string bends and twists himself literally into a knot, trying to become something he is not, in order to be accepted. That is an all-too-common human experience; for many folks, it is a basic tactic for survival.

That’s a fairly common story among people who come to Unitarian Universalism. There was somewhere where we used to belong, but the price of belonging was too high – it required us to say things, do things, be things that we could not. So we left, and one day, we found this place. Here, we are not asked to live a lie as the price of admission. It is in part because of this experience that we get the often-repeated and never accurate summary of Unitarian Universalism as a religion that lets you believe whatever you want. You have heard this before, most of you, I am sure. The chances are that at some point you have even said it yourself, if only to finally end a long and frustrating conversation with a family member or coworker who just wasn’t getting it. If you have said this before, out loud, or just in your own heart, I now absolve you of that sin – on the condition, that you never do so again. Born into this faith, I have 29 years of experience as a Unitarian Universalist, and if I could teach you only one lesson from that time, it would be this: It is not our faith that you should believe whatever you want. It is that you must believe what your reason and your conscience demand, and that you should live your life in accordance with those beliefs.

There’s a song in our hymnal – maybe we’ll sing it together some day – that goes, “Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I laid my burden down. Glory, glory, hallelujah, since I laid my burden down.”[i] And it goes on “Life is sweeter, so much sweeter, since I laid my burden down.”; “Love is shining all around me, since I laid my burden down.” There’s another line I that song that’s not in our hymnal, but it ought to be. It says, “Friends don’t treat me like they used to, since I laid my burden down.” Though there are still plenty of people out there who have no idea what Unitarian Universalism is, among those who do there are many who do not like us. Following the faith of your heart can be a dangerous thing, and it can lead you into unpopular territory.

I’ll give you, as an example, the case of the Rev. Carlton Pearson. Rev. Pearson grew up a Pentecostal Christian – nearly every man in his family going back for generations had been a preacher, and he grew up to be one too. He went to Oral Roberts University – one of the most conservative seminaries in the country – and he went on to found his own glistening, state-of-the-art mega-church, which at its height had 6,000 members. And he was preaching there, and teaching folks to fear God and come to Jesus every week.

Now this was around the time of the genocide in Rwanda. 800,000 people, murdered by their government and in many cases by their own neighbors. Seeing and reading reports of the atrocities, Rev. Pearson was broken hearted. You see by his theology, very nearly all those 800,000 people were going to hell – because they were not born-again Christians. Rev. Pearson took all his anger about this, and he started to pray, a very angry prayer. What he experienced then was, in his understanding, a revelation. An answer came back from the God that he was arguing with. The message was that Rev. Pearson had it wrong – those poor folks weren’t going to hell, because God welcomes all his children home. They weren’t going to hell, they were coming from hell, the hell that humans make for each other, here on Earth. The hell that any person whose faith is love should be set squarely to abolishing.

Rev. Pearson had this new spiritual insight – without meaning to, he had become a Universalist. So he did with it what came naturally to

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him: he preached it. And I’ll tell you friends; that sure got him in a lot of trouble. His friends, colleagues and mentors disowned him as a heretic. He was kicked off of boards, drummed out of organizations, banned from Christian television networks, and just generally ostracized. People left his church in droves – some because they did not agree with him, and others because agreeing with him publically would have meant sharing his fate as a pariah and an outcast. Carlton Pearson followed his heart to the beliefs that his conscience demanded of him, and though today he has reached a fairly happy destination – called to pastor a new church, in another denomination and another city; where his message is heard and received – it was a very hard road.[ii]

You see friends, being here – having arrived at Unitarian Universalism, whether by upbringing or by seeking us out later in life – does not mean that the journey is over. The journey, in truth, is only beginning. And if you follow it long enough, I guarantee you that it will lead you to places both wondrous and strange. To seek the truth in love will lead you to cross borders, to transgress the lines between ideologies, to do work you would never have imagined doing, and to love people you would never have expected to love.

If you heard it before today, or read it on the sign out front, or in your order of service, then you know that my name is very long. It is long enough that just saying it aloud in public constitutes a punchline. It wasn’t always quite that long; I was born Kelly Asprooth-Jackson. Asprooth is my mother’s name, Jackson is my father’s. So far as we can determine, my brothers and I are the only Asprooth-Jacksons in the world. But then I went and got married, so now I’m Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson. Weisman is my partner Sara’s name, and now our daughter Miriam’s too. Each of those names has a reason for being a part of mine. And that hyphen, the little dash that connects Asprooth to Jackson, is particularly hard fought. There was an error in my original birth certificate; the hyphen was left out and so my parents had to get a new document issued to correct it. That new certificate was not inexpensive, and I have been reminded by my parents more than once of the literal cost of my hyphen.

We placed no hyphen between ‘Unitarian’ and ‘Universalism’ when those two movements became one 49 years ago. And type-setters everywhere gave thanks for small favors. But in print, a hyphen indicates a connection between two things that others might mistakenly believe are not connected. So it is a very appropriate sign for us. Because our faith calls us to cross borders, between communities and between theologies, it frequently leads us into hyphenation; a state in which two or more seemingly disparate groups or ideas find their connection in us.

As some of you know, I have my own particular story of hyphenation. I mentioned before that I was raised a Unitarian Universalist, and I have fire in my blood about this faith. It has always been at the heart of who I am, and it always will be. I would say it was in part because of this that I fell in love with a Jew. We shared many qualities in common: a passion for justice, a conviction that what matters most is not the doctrines we believe in, but the actions we take; and of course, the experience of being a religious outsider in a society that poorly understands our faith.

When we started living together, I began to attend the synagogue with Sara, stumbling through the prayers and doing my best to learn new songs. And I listened to what the Rabbis, and the 13-year-old Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, had to say. What I found there, was a wisdom that spoke to my heart. Because I was raised a Unitarian Universalist, I knew what it means to be a part of a religious community. You do not sit on the sidelines forever. You own the covenant, join your personal good to the good of the whole; you study and you sing and you attend potlucks and committee meetings. So I could not hold myself back – to do so would have been untrue to my religious upbringing. It didn’t take me very long to realize that I had begun to think of myself as a Jew. It took a lot longer to find many people who would agree with me.

But in time, I did. This past month, after seven years of trying, I completed my conversion to Judaism. I say conversion for lack of a better word, for I have left nothing behind. I am still a Unitarian Universalist, still a minister in our tradition, and will be for all the rest of my days. But my path as a Unitarian Universalist has drawn me into an equally enduring relationship with a specific religious tradition. It does not exclude wisdom from any other corner, but offers a deep well of meaning that has nourished me. This is my particular story, and each of you have or will have your own. Some may have much the same experience with Buddhism or Christianity or Paganism. Some may be drawn to no named religion, but the writings of some sage – a bel hooks, or a Jean-Paul Sartre – will be written upon your heart just as surely as the Torah is written on mine. Some of you may find multiple intersecting identities, needing two, three, four or more hyphens to keep it all together. The number, from zero to infinity, is not important. The willingness to be what your heart demands that you be, is. This faith, our common faith, will lead you to strange and wondrous places, and it will grow with you, so long as you will grow with it.

One of the gifts of my relationship with Judaism is that, for the first time in my life, I began to study the Hebrew Bible. Growing up in UU Sunday school, you get a good survey of the major names and stories; I’m very proud, in fact, of the foundation for multi-religious understanding that we give to our children and youth. But now I have come to appreciate the gifts of forming a deep relationship with a text. In the 58th chapter of the book of Isaiah, the author describes the expectations of justice – what is required of every human being. “To unlock the fetters of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free and to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to hide yourself.”[iii]

Not to hide yourself – not from the needs of others, and not from the truth of your own heart. This is the challenge that our new members have taken up today, one we freely share with them. Here, may you never be asked to tie yourselves in knots, in order to belong. Instead, may

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you find the tools and the compatriots you need, to untie the knots in your soul, and become what you and the world need so desperately for you to be.


[i] Singing the Living Tradition, #201

[ii] For a more complete account, see this article on Pearson from the UU World: http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/145503.shtml

[iii] Isaiah 58:6-7

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