One of the highlights of my seminary experience was an eight-month hospice chaplaincy internship as part of clinical pastoral education. Although I began my internship with the same fear everyone has about not knowing what to say or how to pray with the mostly-Christian patients that I served, weekly visits with patients while shadowing my mentor taught me that pastoral care was all about striving to be a non-anxious, compassionate listening presence. It wasn’t about me or my theology, it was about being present, listening to another’s story in the context of ultimate meanings and concerns in their lives. I eventually made visits on my own and found it to be truly sacred work. And, I recognized its importance in the life of a religious community. We informally care for each other as we engage in the life of the congregation – attending meetings, coffee hour, social justice projects.
The Pastoral Care Ministry is a more formal expression of our care for each other. It engages the generosity of individuals willing to share their skills to provide compassionate listening, spiritual support and hope for members and friends of the congregation during life’s transitions. Ordained ministers often cannot meet the pastoral needs of the congregation alone and rely on trained and supervised pastoral visitors to be an extension of the minister’s pastoral presence. Working with the Pastoral Visitors at UUCA is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work.
One of the goals of our Pastoral Visitors Team this year is to increase the visibility of this important ministry and provide programming that addresses some of the stressors that many of us face throughout our lives. We invite you to participate in this year’s programs and welcome suggestions for future programs. Here is what we have planned so far:
November 28, 7PM Domestic Violence Panel & Discussion. An opportunity to dispel assumptions about domestic violence and learn how it impacts communities. There will be a separate workshop for youth: “Consent is Everything.”
December 5, 7PM Thinking Differently About the Holidays: Moving from Terrible to Tranquil
December 9, 2PM Blue Christmas Service. A service for those “feeling blue” during the holiday season intended to create a space for reflection, healing, and hope.
During our meetings, we have been exploring the ways in which a caring community behaves. We invite you to join in the conversation. How can all of us be generous with our time and listening skills to support each other? Please visit the bulletin board in Sandburg Hall and contribute your thoughts on how a caring community behaves. It is a collective effort to build and sustain beloved community. Your input will help us strengthen the shared ministry of pastoral care at UUCA. You can also share feedback with any member of the Pastoral Visitors Team: Karin Eckert, Iris Hardin, Jill Preyer, Ephraim Schecter, Myrtle Staples, and Carol Taylor.
Rev. Claudia Jiménez Minister of Faith Development
SERMON So, what might hope look like for you? Maybe something fragile and insubstantial, like a big soap bubble reflecting rainbow colors. Or maybe a comfy blanket you turn to when you’re cold, or perhaps a finely tooled steel brace that helps you stand you’re feeling weak or uncertain. I chose this occasion, when I want to introduce you to the esteemed Universalist preacher, teacher, and prophet Clarence Russell Skinner, to play with the idea of hope because I think that of all our forebears he offers us a singular challenge to come to terms with it. Even though it’s been barely 70 years since his death, Skinner is not widely known among us. Largely, I think that is because he died a good decade before the 1961 union of our two movements – Unitarianism and Universalism. And with that union came a kind of reset in the minds of many. History, in a sense, began in 1961. Also, it’s true that at the time of the union the Universalists were by far the smaller denomination and in many ways the Unitarians took charge. So, at least at first, Universalists took a back seat and so did much of their narrative. In the years since that’s changed and we’re investigating more and more of our Universalist past. As it happens, this is an auspicious time of year to talk about Universalism, since years ago this was when many Universalist churches used to celebrate the founding of their movement. They called it John Murray Day, in honor the anniversary of the arrival of this founder on American shores on September 30, 1770. So, for some years now I have chosen this time of year to offer a sermon centered on some Universalist figure who I think highlights an important part of that heritage. From the time of his birth in 1881, Clarence Russell Skinner seemed destined for a public life. His father was editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, several extended family members were actors, and all were thoroughly Universalist. In fact, among his forebears going back three generations, he counted three Universalist ministers. Skinner himself leaned toward acting in college – St. Lawrence University, a Universalist school. Instead, on graduating he was hired by a Universalist church, the Church of Divine Paternity in New York City. Without a day in seminary, he began work as assistant minister. A couple of years later he was ordained to the ministry and called to his first church in Mt. Vernon, New York.
The education that made the most difference to Skinner while serving the Mt. Vernon congregation was not so much what he learned in the parish, but what he learned in his outreach work in the settlement houses of New York City. While he had grown up in New York, this was a side of the city that he hadn’t experienced: crowded, filthy tenements rife with crime, vice, and corruption. And it lit a fire of outrage in him that never went out. This also happened to be the time and place of the birth of the Social Gospel movement, mostly Protestant clergy who argued for making improvement of social conditions the work of the church. Skinner signed on with gusto and organized a meeting of New York ministers to advance it called the Church Peace Union. Skinner’s powerful preaching spurred growth at Mt. Vernon and in 1910 he left for a larger church, Grace Universalist Church in Lowell, Massachusetts. There he organized the first church forum in New England, inviting speakers of many disciplines – religion, politics, economics – to address the topics of the day, and it drew enthusiastic audiences that filled the hall. This young man, barely six years in the ministry, also helped form the Universalist Service Commission, predecessor of our UU Service Committee, to identify social need and offer aid. Then, barely four years later, never having attended seminary, Skinner was appointed to a new position of Professor of Applied Christianity at Crane Theological School at Tufts University, the premier training ground for Universalist ministers. How to explain this astonishing rise? Well, Skinner was an impressive presence. Though people found him introverted in person, he caught fire in the pulpit and in his writings. But also, the Universalist Church was changing, looking outward in a way it hadn’t done in the past, and for those leaders who promoted that trend, Skinner’s was just the kind of voice they were looking for. But the Universalists may have ended up getting more than they bargained for when at the start of World War I Skinner announced that he was a pacifist and opposed the war. It was, as you might imagine, a minority position. In fact, outrage spilled across the denomination. But Skinner’s defenders managed to protect him, even after he gave a speech in Boston’s Fanueil Hall saying admiring things about socialism. Skinner was never really a socialist, but a religious activist who had this grand vision of a united world community. And what other religion is better equipped to hold such a vision, he argued, than Universalism? His own faith had a mystic bent, a sense of what he called “a creative power” at the center of all things that called us to universal sympathy.
In 1917 it was Skinner who wrote a Declaration of Social Principles adopted by the denomination laying out the many ills facing the word and calling for:
– An economic order to give each person an equal share – A social order assuring equal rights to all
– A moral order in which all law and action shall be “an expression of the moral order of the universe.” – And a spiritual order arising from efforts of all people to build a beloved community. In 1920 Skinner founded a new institution to help make his vision real, the Community Church of Boston. It was modeled after a similar church that Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes, another pacifist, had started in New York City. In fact, he and Holmes collaborated in creating it. It was actually more of a speaking forum, with lectures followed by questions, comments and discussion. But it gained a strong following, with weekly attendance in rented halls eventually totaling more than 1,200. And no wonder, given that its speakers included such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Margaret Sanger, and it wrestled with topics like Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro case and the Republican revolt in Spain. Like Holmes’ church, Skinner’s Community Church had no denominational ties. And that wasn’t especially a surprise, for while Universalists had long been generally progressive most were not social activists. Skinner was well aware this, and it frustrated him. In 1924 in the face of rebuffs for his views Skinner aired his feelings in a widely circulated poem: “In Times of Disillusion.” In it he acknowledged all the ways that people’s dreams were disappointed but insisted, “I still proclaim the Vision Splendid, till it strikes God-fire in old and broken hearts, and urges on the world to consummate its dream. God’s unsurrendered – so am I! Therefore, I will live and communicate with hope. I light the candle and – I dream.” The truth was, though, that many Universalist congregations at the time were small, country churches struggling to get by. The population shift to the cities had cleared out many rural areas, and as the Depression set in many of those Universalist churches were crushed and closed. Skinner, though, persisted. At Crane School, he was named dean in 1933. He was said to be inspirational and engaging as a teacher and enrollment at the school grew, even as the denomination shrank. Skinner also devoted more time to write such books as “Liberalism Faces the Future” and “A Religion for Greatness.” World War II was a difficult time for a pacifist like Skinner, but his greater trouble was a bout with colon cancer. That brought about his retirement from Crane in 1945. He had surgery for the cancer, but never really recovered, and he died in 1949 at the age of 68.
This returns us now to the question of hope and what Clarence Russell Skinner might have to teach us. Let’s begin by turning back to the quote from Skinner that I read earlier: “We are so made that we simply cannot escape the necessity of reaching upward and outward toward something greater than ourselves,” he said. “Whatever the unseen and distant goals, we have never lived a dreamless life, content to adjust our whole being to things as they are.” No, he said, there is a fire, a hunger within us that brings forth what Skinner called “a radiant hope.” Religious life of the past failed us, he said, because it demanded of people “submissive belief” in ordained truths instead of kindling in people what he called “creative faith,” our innate ability to find in the world, in ourselves the spark that guides us to unity and the source of our wellbeing. He called for cultivating what he called “unsurrendered persons” willing to join the “adventure” of discovering what is called of us to bring about the world of those great Universalist visions. The seeds of those visions, he insisted, are present in the people, in the world around us. What was needed, he said, was the courage to own them and move them forward. It is a heartening perspective, but we also need to acknowledge that Skinner’s “onward and upward” rhetoric can feel a bit dated today. In the 70 years since his death, we’ve learned more about what depravity humans are capable of than we would care to know. Is “radiant hope” a sensible orientation the world? Well, perhaps not, if that hope is grounded in unrealistic expectations of ourselves or others to accomplish unprecedented, heroic feats to change the world. Please! We have enough to beat ourselves up about. Perhaps not, if that hope arises from a fantastical vision that hovers like that soap bubble I mentioned earlier but finds no way to connect to the day-to-day world we inhabit. No, I think Skinner invites us to a different way, one centered in his confidence in every person’s capacity to find serenity and courage, to act from a heart held by love aware of and grateful for the gift of life that each of us has been given. Some years ago, in an essay referencing Skinner, the UU theologian Rebecca Parker noted how many people struggle through disappointment to find some source of trust, of hope. And she told the story of one terrible moment when she reached that place. Much in her life had gone wrong. So, in despair, she decided she just needed to end it. She told of leaving her apartment with determined steps, her face wet with tears, walking toward a lake in a park near her home planning to walk into it. Entering the park, she was surprised to see a number of dark objects blocking her way. She didn’t remember them being there before. And as she got closer she noticed something else: There were people moving among the objects.
Suddenly, she realized what she was seeing: telescopes. It was a meeting of the Seattle Astronomy Club. Its members just happened to have set up their equipment that night because the unpredictable skies were clear. A little disoriented but still determined, Parker made her way through the group, until one enthusiast, who assumed she had come to look at the stars, spoke to her. “Here, let me show you,” he said and began to explain what he had focused his telescope on. Brushing her tears away she peered in, and “there it was,” she said. “I could see it. A red-orange, spiral galaxy.” And that was it. “I could not bring myself to continue my journey,” she said. “In a world where people get up in the middle of the night to look at the stars I could not end my life.” What was it Mary Oliver said? “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely The world offers itself to your imagination.” “Step into the center,” Marta Valentin invites us. “Come in from the margins. I will hold you there. Don’t look back, or around. Feel my arms. The water is rising. I will hold you as you tremble. I will warm you.” The blessing of radiant hope is that it lives within each of us, and we are each other’s agents of awakening. “In the tiny space where I end and you begin,” Marta said, “hope lives.” Hope is that lifeline we each carry the possibility we see in ourselves and each other, the grace we extend and receive. Let us be keepers and givers of such hope.
Once upon a time not so very long ago, a UU congregation in, well, somewhere near here, did not quite have a culture of generosity when it came to taking care of itself. The idea that all members need to be, no, ARE stewards of the organization hadn’t quite spread to everyone. There had always been time-generous people, and skill/talent-generous people, and money-generous people, but many folks were happy that those people were around and didn’t recognize that their own (less, they thought) contributions were important. I’m here to say that I think those days are behind us, er, them.
Here at UUCA, I am feeling the shift in the practices of generosity and stewardship. People are beginning to understand that all generous gifts, no matter the actual size, are vital to the health of the congregation, make the congregation vital, and turn out to be healthy for the giver, too.
If stewardship means taking care of UUCA, then we surely need to call out the fabulous fundraising for the solar panels. Not only was the project itself much more about protecting the environment than saving money on electric bills, but the project was paid for by lots of people giving generously—to the best of their abilities.
And were you here on the Sunday we dedicated this year’s teachers/leaders in religious education? A LOT of people stood up in front at the second service…we have about 80 adults, mostly active parents but some non-parents, too, acting as teachers, helpers, and mentors in Sunday RE programming. That is time-generosity in action.
We have three active teams planning fundraisers for this year. The women on these teams (yes, of the more than 20 or more people planning these events, only one is male) are contributing their skills and talents to help support (take care of) UUCA. This year, the largest of the “special” fundraisers, our annual auction, is scheduled for November 3. (Please turn in donations this Sunday—the planners are near to having anxiety attacks, afraid we won’t have enough stuff to auction off.) Another, smaller team will have been working for nearly a year to conduct a gently-worn but “New to U” sale of jewelry, scarves and trinket boxes on March 29. And of course, the folks that will be leading our annual budget drive (you know, the one that supplies 88 percent of our operating funds) have been gearing up for another Celebration Sunday on March 3. All of these “back room” planners are demonstrating skill/talent-generosity.
Acts of stewardship are obviously good for UUCA, but are they really healthy for the giver? Turns out the answer is a scientifically-proven yes. The science of generosity shows that the more generous people are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy. There is also reason to believe that generous practices actually create enhanced personal well-being. There’s an entire book on the science of generosity, cleverly NOT named that. Look for The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose by Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson. (Use smile.amazon.com and donate to UUCA if you buy it.)
I notice a tendency in myself to “just finish a few more things from my to-do list,” to keep grinding, and “once everything is done“ it will be easy to relax and have fun. While I believe delayed gratification is an honorable and productive strategy, it can be overused. We live in a society that is productive and inventive and also, in my opinion, overly focused on doing things. My children serve as inspiration and motivation to accomplish such hard work. Thankfully they have also been inspiration and motivation to sometimes “just be.”
The borders of work and play and public and private are in flux these days. While not all of this is problematic, I think the increase of purposeful- and mindful-living themes is a reaction to these changes and an indication of the needs we have for awareness in the moment. This doesn’t only mean awareness of the happy thoughts, the calm, the peace. It may not be as fun or easy, but it is ultimately helpful to truly feel anger, stress, disappointment. It means not just smelling the pretty red roses – it means getting a little whiff of everything.
We often label decay and death as necessarily bad or scary. However, as the very first signs of Fall have started to appear, here is a reminder that a peace can be found in acknowledging the beauty of endings as well as beginnings. After all, the dead roses fertilize the next generation.
“Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”― Rumi