Question Box Sermon 2016

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For seven years now, we’ve given congregation members an opportunity to ask questions of the minister to be answered on a Sunday during a “Question Box Sermon.” Sometimes questions are submitted on paper and deposited to a real enough “question box” left out for that purpose. Other questions come up in conversations during the year. I’m responding to six of those questions this year. The first question:

1. How come we’ve been talking about bylaws so much these days?

This is a question about polity, which is another word for church governance. I think there are several layers to this question.

First: Why do we even have bylaws? The answer to that is that by Kentucky law, all churches are considered corporations and corporations, by law, need to state the rules by which they govern themselves and must recertify each year with the Secretary of State to preserve their legal standing. (Our office manager submitted this paperwork last month, after consulting with our fiduciary officers.)

As to why we are revising the bylaws, a general answer is that it is good to look at our governing documents from time to time to see if they reflect our current situation and to see if they are as complete as we would wish.

Several years ago, your Board of Directors at that time determined that there were some deficiencies that needed to be addressed. (One, I remember, was that there was no reference at all to our committees, so a discussion about whether committees can create themselves or need to be created by the Board could not even begin.) (And if you find yourself taking a position even as you hear these words, you know why such discussions are necessary. And why they take so long!)

A Bylaws Revision Task Force was created a couple of years ago to look at the bylaws we currently have in place, compare them to what other churches are doing, and to look into how our particular circumstances might need to be addressed in ways particular to our needs. At various times Ken Kuehn, Janeen Grohsmeyer, John Downing, Jan Garrett, and David Wellman have served on that task force. Congregation members were invited to a question and answer session a month or so ago and I’m pleased to say that it was well-attended. That shows a real interest on the part of our members in being invested in the governing structure of our church. Of course, bylaws discussions don’t appeal to everyone, and that’s fine. Some people find lists of rules to feel confining and constrictive, so they would prefer to let bylaws be bygones and just let the process work itself out.

I think the best shorthand answer to the question of why we need bylaws comes from our Board President who says that they simply let members know what their rights and responsibilities as members are. Members do have rights in an organization run by democratic principles; and members do have a responsibility to help create the church that reflects the values our mission testifies to.

To my surprise, I’ve enjoyed being part of the process and offering what suggestions I can to help it along, but I consider bylaws to be the province of the members, rather than the minister, so at a certain point, I tend to step aside and let the most invested members work things out. (As you may or may not know, the minister is an ex officio member of most committees, but does not get a vote when the issue comes before the congregation.)

So far, our congregation has updated Article 1, which says who we are and what our purpose is; Article 4, the role and composition of the Board of Directors; Article 5, the role and responsibilities of our officers; Article 7, which defines our fiscal year; and Article 9, stating how amendments are made.

The next time the congregation votes on proposed revisions to bylaws will be in two weeks, when we’ll be looking at proposed changes to Article 2, which pertains to membership; and we’ll incorporate an article on our Endowment Fund, which did not exist the last time we revised bylaws. I encourage all members to become informed by reading the voter guide you will be receiving in your e-mail, to attend, and to participate in the democratic process that creates your church.

2. What Unitarian or Universalist do you most admire from the 18th, 19th or 20th century?

As an English major in college, I was drawn to the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his role in the American Transcendentalist movement. Emerson has an interesting if ambiguous role in the development of the Unitarian tradition. In order to prepare myself to answer questions posed by a panel of nine committee members of the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee in 2007, I had to read and study over 30 books, one of which was Robert D. Richardson’s monumental biography called Emerson: The Mind on Fire. I recommend the book to you if you are interested in Emerson, Unitarianism or the development of the American literary tradition.

Emerson was the son of Unitarian minister William Emerson. He, himself, was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1829, and served as junior pastor at Boston’s Second Church. He was also a chaplain to the Massachusetts legislature, and a member of the Boston school committee.

Some of the things I found most admirable about Emerson were the discipline of his mind, his dedication to family, and his social conscience, as someone devoted to the cause of the abolition of slavery from 1844 on.

As Emerson’s popularity as a lecturer grew, his role as provider did, as well. He provided a home and financial support for his second wife, Lydia Jackson, their four children, his aunt whom he dearly loved, Mary Moody Emerson, and other relatives as they came upon hard times.

It is difficult to give a fair response to this question without giving a full biography of Emerson. Well, we don’t have time for that and anyway, I could never approach the success of Richardson’s magnum opus. Here are some of the things I find most worthy of admiration:

At age 23, Emerson married Ellen Louisa Tucker, age 18, in 1828. She died of tuberculosis at age 20 in 1831, a loss that greatly affected Emerson and led him to question his beliefs. He disagreed with his church’s position on administering communion and had “misgivings” about his role in leading public prayer. These dissatisfactions led to his resignation as minister. This freed him up to pursue by way of his own conscience a “responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Emerson’s essay “Nature” elucidated the principles of transcendentalism, by redefining the relationship between humans and nature. People “use nature for their basic needs, for their desire for delight, their communication with one another, and their desire for their understanding of the world” (The quote is from Wikipedia).

Those of you who embrace an earth-centered spirituality will appreciate this quote, “The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man” (Wikipedia). You can see in Emerson’s response, a foreshadowing of our own Unitarian Universalist seventh principle, “We covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of which we are a part.”

Emerson and Thoreau were among the earliest Americans to familiarize themselves with Hindu and Buddhist thought. If you are drawn to Buddhism’s emphasis on being at one with the present moment, you might find Emerson appealing, too. “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire from his chamber as much as from society. I am not solitary whist I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.” And if you are a pantheist, perhaps this quote will appeal to you. “In nature, a person finds its spirit and accepts it as the Universal Being” (Ibid.) There is much to admire in the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson and I recommend Robert Richardson’s book if you’d like to get to know Emerson better.

3. What’s a columbarium, and why should we want one?

A columbarium is a place where the ashes of those who have been cremated (also known as “cremains”) are interred. Often, there are niches in which the containers for the ashes are stored. The word comes from the Latin word for “dove,” “columba.” The original term referred to the compartmentalized housing for doves and pigeons.

Several of our longtime members and former members have felt this church to be so much a part of their lives that they would like it to be the place of their eternal rest. Jean Thomason, one of our founders now living in Nashville is one of those; others are in this room today. While investing in a crematorium may not seem important to you as an individual, I would urge you to consider the wishes of those for whom this church has such a high importance and to whom we owe so much.

At our January meeting, we voted approval for the idea of maintaining a meditation garden between our two buildings. The original proposal called for us to consider a columbarium as part of that plan. It may come up again in our Spring meeting in a couple of weeks. Certainly, the cost is one consideration, but it should, I think, be measured against the other considerations I’ve mentioned.

4. I’ve edited a rather long and detailed question to this: “Can turns of phrase associated with Christianity… be “redeemed” and put to use by UUs? Can they be liberated from patriarchal bias and myths of divine violence (if we believe that) there is a Source of Life… that somehow carries with it certain obligations for conscious living creatures such as ourselves(?)”

For me, the beginning of an answer to this question comes down to how we interpret the first chapter of Genesis. First, we must agree that the language is mythical, not meant to reflect a literal reality, but the poetic conception of a reality that cannot be known by direct experience. Karen Armstrong says this about myths: “(They) are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives– they explore our desires, our fears, our longings, and provide narratives that remind us of what it means to be human” (A Short History of Myth). This is what the Creation story is meant to do.

The New Revised Standard Version of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, verses 24 through 28 of Chapter 1 read like this:

And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so.

God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

What does it mean to have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth? What does it mean to subdue the earth? One interpretation is consistent with the narrative that legitimizes patriarchal control: control over everything that functions on the earth. Sovereignty: the right to rule. Another interpretation is, to put it bluntly, “Humanity is at the top of the food chain.”

Certainly, without tools of defense, we would all be subject to the large carnivores, whether on land or in the sea. But, given that we are made “in the image of God,” we contain within us both the capacity to create and the capacity to destroy. If man (humanity) is granted sovereignty over all other living things, certainly there is the possibility of a wise rule, a rule that understands balance, wisdom in discernment and proportion. If God has within Godself the capacity for showing love as well as fury, and man is made in God’s image, a variety of choices are available. The God of Creation is a God of creativity and creative rule is thus a capacity granted to man.

God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the earth of every kind. And God saw that it was good.”

God’s Creation is good. Because it is good, it needs to be ruled over wisely and cared for with loving discernment. So, yes, there are certain obligations for conscious living creatures such as ourselves. And if we align ourselves with this kind of understanding of what it means to have sovereignty, to hold dominion, then, yes, there is the possibility of redemption which, after all, is to come into alignment with the will of God, the voice of Creation.

 

5. Did you get my request to be friends on Facebook?

I think that this is a polite way to ask “How come you didn’t respond to my Facebook ‘friend’ request?” Sometime during my first year in this church, which was nearly seven years ago, one of our members told me “If you’re not on Facebook with the church, you’re missing out on everything that’s going on in people’s lives.” So, of course, it’s worth considering whether it might be a good idea to be on Facebook with folks from church. And some ministers see no problems in doing that.

But, I find that I use Facebook quite a bit to voice my opinions on political matters and candidates and to engage in political discussions with folks in ways that open up my understanding and, I hope, enlarge the understandings of others. But, I have no wish to offend those whose politics are different and I don’t believe it’s good ministry to alienate church members who may one day need me to be there in a pastoral way; or even those with whom I need to work with productively in our various ministries. And I’m not sure that my sense of humor will not occasionally offend, so I think it’s best that we all maintain our own social media playgrounds.

 

6. How come we don’t hear the sounds of children’s voices in the sanctuary more often?

I wish the children were more present in our services, as well. I’m certainly glad that we get to see them at the beginning of our service and that we get to see their teachers, too. Unfortunately, the best arrangement that we’ve been able to work out has the children in their religious exploration classes at the same time that the adults are attending the worship service in the sanctuary.

One way that we’ve tried to get the children in the sanctuary more often is by including them in our five festivals, which are “all ages” or “multi-generational” services. We’ve been working to increase the “child-friendliness” of these services and I think we’re moving in the right direction. Our last festival was Earth Day, three weeks ago and you might remember that children helped out with the compost demonstration and in other ways. Our next all-ages service is next month on June 19, the “Festival of Flowers” or “Flower Communion.” Members of the Sunday Services and Children’s Religious Exploration Committees will be meeting later in the month to plan this service, so I expect that it will be wonderful and that you will all want to be here to celebrate together.

 

Thank you for your questions. I look forward to hearing the questions that the year to come may bring.

Sources:

  • Wikipedia: “Ralph Waldo Emerson;” “Nature;” “Columbarium”
  • A Short History of Myth. Karen Armstrong. Canongate. Edinburgh. 2005

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on May 8, 2016

 

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