15 Year Review - Appendix C
A Homily And Two Sermons Preached At General Assembly 1996
by Karina Kramer-Schevers
The following homilies were delivered on June 22, 1996 at the GA 1996 Worship Service, "The Future is Now", as part of the 1996 GA Youth Focus.
When I was nine years old, my parents took me to a toaster-shaped concrete building that had teal slit windows, like jewel tone eels, on the larger walls and floor-to-ceiling glass as the other two. Hanging down like the hem of a great mother's skirt were earth-colored banners, and in back of the podium hung an art piece of stretched wool that looked like pale distant mountains. The building was not ugly, it was distinctly unusual. "This is a church?"I asked my mom.
About a year later, I remember having a pep talk with God. I don't remember the problem, but I hurried to the secret hang-out next to my house, behind the big climbing pine, and pressed my dirtied child palms on the brick wall and had a fairly rational one-on-one with what I thought was God; somebody who could see the whole thing and was, of course, on my side. Very soon after that I gave up the idea of God. I think I had wanted the feeling of comfort and understanding that others seem to possess when they said they believe in God, but already I was questioning the system, seeing blind followers come up short of satisfying answers, and begging to swim upstream. I was eccentric and creative, and whether it was painful and lonely at times or not, I was an individual.
In fifth grade when I expressed my views on God, I was called a Satan worshiper on the school steps. I turned to the little punk that called me that and said, "NO, I'm a Unitarian."Yet it was because my parents made me that I attended Sunday School. Church wasn't cool. The cool kids didn't like Sunday School. Why did I have to go to school on the weekends? But secretly, hidden deep in my consciousness, like pennies lost in the sofa cushion cracks, I liked Sunday School, or at least began to, because when my church mentor asked me if AYS was any better, I almost slipped and told him I kind of liked it. My feeling about church became a mild love-hate relationship. I enjoyed most of the stuff we were doing, but it didn't seem like I should like it. I loved the Boston Bound trip, but I didn't want to tell people at school who I had gone with. At least in my head, I was a hip kid, I wasn't a Kum-ba-ya singin', prim and proper church girl. And though I knew that I was a Unitarian Universalist, I didn't know what that meant.
My Sunday School class was the first Coming of Age group at the Unitarian Church of Evanston. I admit, we had little idea of what an honor this is; being educated and asked to define our UU beliefs through our actions, then being welcomed into the congregation as voting members. There was a packet listing requirements, offering choices on how to complete the needed work. One of the choices was Spin YRUU conference at the North Shore Church in Deerfield. What I distinctly remember about the conference is the sting of vinegar from the cuts on my hands when I set the color of my tie-dyed shirt, being little and girlishly skinny, playing wink and almost losing my elastic-waist pants, laying down on the chapel floor to create a human peace sign. It was an experience full of energy and pulse, drastic highs and lows, honesty and intensity, hugging with my entire body, smiling with my whole face.
I was immediately addicted to YRUU. I spent my high school years growing up and coming out of myself and into the world with the support and guidance of YRUU. A conference was a brilliant shining weekend like an eclipse, anxiously anticipated, full of meaning, too bright to stare directly at the significance of what was happening at the time, and recalled and replayed long after. Every conference burned an after image of compassion and friendship, love and community into the backs of my eyes until I wanted to be someone who maintained and assisted the rituals. I worked to become a leader in my youth group and I ran for YAC. I was the District Newsletter Editor for two years and the YAC Vice President for a year. I also served as the Youth Representative of the Religious Education Board for my church for four years. It was a blessed endless circle; when I established myself as a leader, I gave back to the community. When I worked to better YRUU, I felt better about myself.
When my time in the Central Midwest District ended, I wasn't finished with YRUU. I traveled to my second Con Con and located the nearest church to the college I now attend.
When I showed up at the Fourth Universalist Society in Manhattan, I was like a wet paper towel about to shred and disintegrate. Having lived in New York City for only two weeks, I was already lonely and impatient for good friendships to form. After the first service, I found someone who would begin a college age group with me. I really needed my UU fix.
But what does it all mean? Have I learned what a Unitarian Universalist is? What do I get out of this now that I rarely get to conferences? Somewhere along the way I figured out that I feel so wonderfully comfortable being with Unitarian Universalists because we have the same morals, and though our spirituality may differ, we can respect and learn from each other. I discovered that the God I spoke to as a child was me, that I was calling my darkness within to help me help myself, that I believe the Great Spirit, the Directions, the Goddess is within every person, but also that someone who does believe in God still has my respect, prayers, and blessings.
Unitarian Universalism is accepting people as they
are, giving basic respect to all beings, and being able to consider
others' beliefs to broaden perspective. It is strengthening
the individual in order that many empowered individuals can form
a loving and compassionate community. What I received from Sunday
School and YRUU was courage to break my pin feathers in order
that they could strengthen, so I could fly higher, viewing through
the eyes of an eagle, striving to act in wisdom and beauty, learning
to see what is essential and what will give me worry for nothing,
setting my priorities morally, realizing that people are the most
important thing and that we are all related, learning to be able
to soar into myself in clear introspection, to be able to heal
myself, to love myself, and to carry in my cradling claws, like
the newly-birthed sun being set in the heavens, my dark glinting
splinter of spirituality.
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by Rachel L. Cole
The following is an excerpt of a sermon delivered on June 21, 1996 at General Assembly as the youth winner of the "Youth Focus Sermon Contest."
. . . I remember several low points, when I felt oppressed by my seemingly hopeless surroundings, and it became difficult to effectively serve the Saint Francis Inn's guests. I knew that this despair came to others on the staff at times, but their methods for dealing with this depression, like so many of their daily experiences, were closely related to their faith in ways I did not feel I could imitate. To lessen the pain of seeing the disease of our neighborhood, my friends at least had some kind of formula to follow: say this prayer, go to confession, do ten rosaries, think of the glorious life that is sure to come eventually.
I felt almost jealous of these traditions in which my community sought comfort, for even if their prayers did not visibly change the problems surrounding us, they had a plan, something to do. They had each taken a great leap to believe in their faith, and in doing so, seemed to have received some kind of grace that I did not understand, a grace which allowed them to depend upon the unprovable. The power of their faith allowed them to continue living despite despair. In fact, not only did they live, but they worked for their idealistic and impractical principles, the kind that often seem only believable in a discussion group's setting because of the scarcity of encouragement and validation you get from daily life.
While I did not wish to be zapped into a Catholic overnight, the trust I saw in them was enviable. Not only did they have their trust in what they believed, but they also had each other, living testaments to lives through a common faith. I felt helpless, and horribly alone. But I did not go home and give up. How could I? That would not change my hopelessness, and it certainly wouldn't change the lives of the people of Kensington. Instead, I looked in the phone book, took the next Sunday off, and went to the local UU church, the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia.
I was greeted by familiar sights, but ones very different from those at the Inn. A small summer-service was taking place in the only air-conditioned room just like they do at my church, and it was being led by a member of the Worship Committee, a black woman who had never been to a seminary. There were candles and a chalice on a table in the front, a wide array of different kinds of people in the congregation, and Sweet Honey in the Rock was playing in the background. The woman's sermon was on "The Dignity of Choice", in reference to the issue of abortion. Very, very different from the Catholics.
Afterwards, as I walked through the city's public parks with a wide smile on my face and a feeling of peace within me, I had to wonder what exactly it was about that service that had restored my equilibrium, giving me back my generally positive outlook in life. I compared what I had experienced at the UU church to my daily life at the Inn and tried to find the secret ingredient that had centered me so well. After considering all the usual explanations for the magic I had felt, I was left unsatisfied. Community and love were no more or less apparent at the Inn than at any UU function I've ever attended. The UUs I met could hardly be called more or less committed to their ideals than my Franciscan friends, and, though this may shock you, it wasn't the usual UU value system that I missed, for I had even found several feminist, pro-choice, gay-rights-touting pinkos among the Catholics.
So what was it? Why was I so definitely a UU from birth despite my parents' attempts at sending me to religious education classes in other faiths? If I looked at the experience purely logically, the seemingly bland set of values had given me unreasonable strength. Why this, apart from every other support in my life? My realization was this: that our faith, in its ability to give us mystical strength, is not different from any other faith; that it has power to inspire us and to support us and to connect us; that we have Principles whose sentiments we all hold dear, and by which we all try to lead our lives; that these shared Principles contain all the power we can tap from them, much like the power of a group of people standing together to sing one song, as we shall soon do today.
I believe that the qualities in our Principles that I once called blandness and pure rationality are misleading, and that we have to realize this to tap the power of our faith. In truth, it is incredible that each of us have pledged to affirm and promote the worth and dignity in every person when there are so many people who make you want to write them off. In truth, it is no more logical to say that each of us should be trusted with our own search for truth and meaning, as we do, than to say that each of us is pre-destined to heaven or hell, as the Calvinism from which many of us fled dictates. Neither statement can be proved, but both greatly affect the lives of those who believe them. . . .
For these acts of faith, I thank you. Not only
have you changed the world, but you have shown me that it is possible
for me to do so. This is the strength of UUism. The leap of faith
that one UU takes in espousing what are truly amazing and illogical
Principles not only gives him or her power to action, but gives
the rest of us the courage needed to live out our ideals in the
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by Drake Baer
The following sermon was delivered on January 25, 1996 at the Unitarian Church of Princeton, NJ, and on June 21, 1996 at General Assembly as the advisor winner of the "Youth Focus Sermon Contest."
I'd like the adults who are here this morning to take a moment to reconnect to your adolescence. Close your eyes and remember who you were as a teenager, what you looked like, where you lived. Your parents. Who were your friends? How did you feel about them, and how sure were you that they liked you? Did you like yourself? Remember an especially embarrassing moment. Remember a moment of great victory. How did you express it? Did you have problems with authority? What was your faith journey like? If you thought about it, what was God like for you?
When I was 15 and facing a life that seemed more horrible than I had the courage or resources to bear, I needed a miracle. Unfortunately, I didn't know any Unitarian Universalists, and all I knew about them was that they didn't believe in anything. But there were plenty of born-again Christians running around offering salvation. Yes. Salvation. The salvation they offered me was real, not shallow or contrived. When I asked the Holy Spirit to come into my life, the visceral feeling of something more powerful than I had imagined pouring down my spine was probably like what the Hindus call "shakti pa,"which is their equivalent to baptism in the Holy Spirit, or what some shrinks call a gestalt, which is theirs.
The next year-and-a-half of my life was magical. When I returned to school after the summer of my transformation, some of my friends didn't recognize me at first. Living in the presence of love that I absolutely believed in brought true miracles into my life almost every day. Most of the time, I could clearly distinguish between my subtly destructive impulses and that part of intuition which translates the voice of God.
Of course, it's after your big miracle that the real work begins, and I worked hard, though everything was much easier than before: building community with people who accepted me, finding courage, developing integrity, building an original, self-sustaining inner life.
At 34, I know I found the best part of my soul at the age of 15, through a subversive act of faith in a community that believed in transformation. My faith was subversive: it separated me from the expectations and even the values of my non-believing parents, and it allowed me to penetrate, for the first time, the membrane of defenses that kept me from fully engaging others with my truest inner self.
But, the community that made my miracle possible had hooks. It required faith in a story of literal resurrection and magic words that eventually tore through my sense of intellectual integrity, making me question the validity of my most essential truths in dark moments that grew in frequency and intensity as time went on. Our concept of God was encapsulated in the word "Love,"which was true for me. And though my community would never admit it, our concept of Satan seemed encapsulated in the word, "Why,"which did not ring true.
I remember the queasy feeling in my gut when I read the story of creation a second time, this time noticing that the damning apple Satan offered Eve, the apple which drove us from the Garden of Eden and made all of us sinners from birth in need of salvation, came from the tree of knowledge.
I suppose that any community offering miracles also has compromising hooks. Perhaps that's why the wise have long counseled, "If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him."But, I was as devout as anyone I knew. I read the Bible cover-to-cover during that year-and-a-half, and I prayed to God every night, even during those dark times, to save me from the devil's intellectual seductions.
I'll never forget the moment when the devil won. When I finally chose to face the fact that the miracle which made me whole carried hooks that threatened to destroy me, I called my minister, to whom I was very close, and explained that I was no longer a born-again Christian. That I was not back-sliding, but sliding forward and away. He came over to my house, we talked intensely. He cried. And he finally said, "You know that if you were suddenly in an accident and knew you had two seconds to live, you would ask Christ's forgiveness rather than risk eternity in hell"I had to say to this man and this community that had loved me as I needed to be loved: No, I would not.
If living in hell is the price to pay for truthfulness, I'm willing to pay. And I did, for awhile . . . .
The tornado swept into our lives at the beginning of last year. I called him that because, at 15 he seemed to sweep up everything in his path into a creative chaos that often left some wreckage behind. Youth group had come into its own the year before and was a powerful place in the lives of many of our youth when he came along. Our youth really got the mutual respect thing, truly accepted each other in unself-conscious ways, and we had a nearly 100% attendance rate on Sunday mornings and at overnights.
Like everyone in our group, the tornado brought his own yin and yang with him, both of which were unusually powerful. Opening circles were constantly interrupted by his smart-alecky comments and frequently disrespectful attitude, which made our space less safe for some people. His consistent openness, commitment, and originality made a wonderful imprint on our community but, frankly, he was a major pain in the ass. For good reason. Among his other problems, his father had died a year-and-a-half before, and he had been unable to cry even once since before it happened. He was on his fourth psychiatrist since then, whom, like the others, he didn't trust or connect with. And every phone call I took from him at home, including those at 2:00 in the morning when he was struggling with despair, no matter how poignant and meaningful those discussions were, ended with, "You're ugly."Click. That's how he ended every call.
I was hesitant about taking him along with us to his first district conference last year, in Connecticut. Many of our youth make themselves vulnerable at those conferences in a way that requires a lot from attendees: mutual respect, openness, a willingness to respect the guidelines. Several of our youth went over the importance of mutual respect with the tornado prior to the conference and explained that the youth running it took the guidelines seriously and would send him home early if he broke the rules. And so, reluctantly and worriedly, I brought him with us.
People are rounded up for various activities at these cons by someone banging a big gong, and I heard the tornado complaining about this "obnoxious"gong Friday night. Sure enough, Saturday morning, the gong was missing. I was furious, and ran off to find him. There, in the main gathering area, was the tornado, clapping rhythmically, as others joined him to form a circle which grew with centrifugal force. As people gathered, the tornado went into the circle, danced around, did some acrobatics, invited other people into the circle to express themselves, which they did, and that is how we have gathered people at our cons ever since. The tornado managed to offend some people that Saturday but he really started to get it, what being part of a loving community requires.
Saturday night's worship was amazing. Like all of the most powerful worship services I've experienced, this was developed and run by a YRUUer. After chanting a song and filing into the chapel with candles, we had a Quaker sharing circle. The tornado shared that he learned that weekend that no one is ugly, by which of course he meant he learned that he wasn't ugly. He shared profoundly for a couple of minutes and ended by saying, ". . . And I'm doing something I haven't done in a long time. I'm crying."All the hours we had spent with the tornado making it safe to just cry, and the thousands of dollars his mom had spent on psychiatrists had been unsuccessful because the tornado needed more than a good shrink or a mentor/friend who would share his journey for awhile. What the tornado needed was a miracle.
And our liberal religious institution, so comfortable with the gods of ambiguity, gave the tornado that miracle.
The next part of the worship was Sufi dancing, in which people pair up holding up their hands against the others and moving in a circle around each other while singing, "All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you . . . . All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you . . . . " Then each person spins off singing the Sufi words in Arabic, and on to the next person. I saw youth after youth, representing all the normally segregated cliques one finds in a high school, from artsy types to macho jocks, holding the tornado, many of them crying with him. He cried for hours.
The hard part starts after your miracle. But it's been a good kind of difficult for Brian these past months. The first full marking period after his miracle, he was taken off academic probation for the first time in two years. At the Princeton con, during an advisor meeting, some advisors were talking about how caring the Princeton youth are for each other, especially that kid with the crazy hair, who had ministered so well and so consistently to youth he didn't even know when they seemed alienated or out of sorts. These advisors couldn't believe it when I said that six months before he was so disruptive.
I mentioned Brian's name because when I asked him if I could use his story anonymously, he asked that I identify him to you. Because Brian is not just a member of YRUU. He's a member of our church community who has the courage to contribute to our vitality by being open about who he really is.
In some ways, adults of the religious right understand youth and the miraculous better than we of the religious left. One of the things they understand is that miracles require courage and a tolerance of risk on the part of everyone they touch.
Let me offer you a simple formula: where X represents vital youth ministry and Y represents potential problems, X equals Y. But religious conservatives also understand that miracles offer everyone in the community a reminder of what is best about the principles and faith behind the community.
Not many places in society sanction the miraculous. And with every generation of youth, the need for the miraculous seems to increase. Fundamentalist religion and cults understand this. So do drug dealers. As a result, both groups are doing well with youth these days. When will we understand it? And how do we, as a religion rooted in principles rather than creeds and other magic words, countenance it?
Our youth group attended Utne Reader's Vision Fest last year, in which 40 people identified by the magazine as "visionaries of the emerging culture"answered the question, "Where Do You See the Darkness and Where Do You See the Light?"Each of the panelists, ranging from Maya Angelou to Michael Lerner to Quentin Crisp (even Bill Bennet was there, believe it or not), had two minutes to answer that question in a blitzkrieg of inspiration and perspective that left me staggering out of the theater in a state of marvelous neural overload.
But only two words have stayed with me. "Radical Amazement." I don't remember the context in which Communitarian thinker Amitai Etzoni used that phrase, but after years of trying to explain my faith to my more sensible friends, I finally had words for what distinguished me as a believer in the miraculous: Radical Amazement at the magic in the world; at the transformative power of love; at the synergies that happen when people just say no to cowardly engagement with each other and somehow summon the crazy faith that you can love as you need to love, respect as you need to respect and commit as you need to commit without compromising who you really are.
As I sat between two of our youth at this event, I realized that YRUU, through disciplined principles of youth empowerment that distinguish it from any other youth movement I'm aware of, make the embrace of Radical Amazement possible with an integrity I needed as a teenager but didn't find until I found UUism.
Saying that no UU youth will have to choose between spiritual and intellectual integrity is a fine thing, but it is also an easy thing, and not enough. If we, the educated, sensible grownups, truly believed that our principles offered youth in need of a miracle the power of salvation, Unitarian Universalism would be growing at least as fast as Fundamentalism and the drug culture, and our churches world be even more vital places than they are.
I've asked many former YRUUers why they think so many of our youth leave Unitarian Universalism after high school. One thing I hear a lot is a sense of anticlimax in visiting UU churches as adults. I hear that in YRUU, one feels constantly surrounded by a kind of empowering love and acceptance that can make many places within the larger UU community seem almost barren by contrast.
There are many valid reasons for the diminished intensity of connection and meaning many former YRUUers experience in the post-adolescent UU community. Each period of life offers us special gifts for the process of connecting with the miraculous in each other through Unitarian Universalism, but adolescence is uniquely fertile ground. Maybe it's the alienation so many teenagers of this generation feel in relation to each other. Or the open-mindedness, and porous set of defenses adolescence seems to encourage.
The fact is, our unique UU principles, and the kinds of individuals drawn to our community, have generated the most potentially powerful religious institution I can imagine for empowering youth. There are more youth who have experienced transformation through liberal religion truthfully and powerfully shaping itself in YRUU than most adult UUs realize. And that's a shame.
And it goes both ways. Two years ago, I got a call from someone who told me he accidentally attended Youth Sunday, which he has always avoided, because he forgot to read the service announcement the week before. He said it was the only service at our church that moved him to tears. And he didn't know why. But he was surprised that this source of inspiration and power was part of his religious community.
I have been fed tremendously by the adults of our community and was a committed UU for years before I became a youth advisor. But like so many advisors, my commitment to YRUU is rooted in amazement at what our youth have taught me about the power of liberal religion. It has been our youth who have reminded me most consistently that in growing beyond the restraints of creed-based religion, I did not have to grow beyond living in the presence of the miraculous. And what I have learned by working with these people has enhanced my resources for relating to my peers.
But as an advocate for our youth, I advocate for a group of people marginalized from the centers of power in society at large and in our congregation. The sexton has told me several times that our youth clean up better than many adult groups in our church after events. Most of you didn't even know we had a 3-day 120-person youth conference here in October. And yet, whenever there's a minor problem, and, knock on wood, they've been minor problems this year, adults who hear about them seem to give them more attention than they would give comparable problems generated by adults. Even here in the land of Political Correctness, where we can be painfully conscious of language that marginalizes and offends other minorities, we routinely use language like "responsible adult"to underscore our distrust of a culture, youth culture, with traditions and orientations that often seem alienating and threatening to us grown ups, who, for better or worse, define the terms of power in our churches. As a multi-generational religious community, we Unitarian Universalists have come a long way since the re-birth of our youth movement 15 years ago. But we have a long way to go. A long way.
I encourage you to seize the opportunity our youth offer you to fulfill the promises of our UU principles. To acknowledge the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, including youth. To understand that ministering to youth requires reaching out to another culture, using a different set of tools than we use to minister to adults, and to value those tools as we value the others. Our youth will help you learn to tolerate and celebrate the differences between our adult culture and theirs, to engage them, and perhaps to be transformed by what you learn.
Just as rational integrity by itself can limit our experience of the miraculous, so our adult-centrism limits our experience of what youth can teach us about community and spirituality.
The next time you find yourself bristling at the inconveniences, expense and risks that youth ministry requires us to assume; the next time you find yourself reluctant to engage one of our possibly wild-haired and body-pierced youth in conversation or to accept him as a full member of our church community, I would gently challenge you with one of God's most sacred words. A word which birthed our Unitarian and Universalist traditions and which often finds its least compromised, most miraculous, and, yes, most crazy-making expression in adolescence. I offer you this morning the word, "Why?"
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