Archive for January, 2015

01
Jan
15

“(W)hol(l)y Ghosts”

I recently led a service and delivered a sermon at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, KS, where I am a member. Below are listed the readings, and the sermon.

Order of Service – December 28, 2014 – “(W)hol(l)y Ghosts: Belief and Belonging”

Cover Art:

Opening Words – Call to Worship

Song: “Urge for Going” sung by (see Dave)

Welcome and Announcements

Opening Hymn: # 55: “Dark of Winter”

Chalice Lighting
Come we now out of the darkness of our unknowing
and the dusk of our dreaming;
Come we now from far places.
Come we now into the twilight of our awakening
and the reflection of our gathering.
Come we now all together.
We bring, unilluminated, our dark caves of doubting;
We seek, unbedazzled, the clear light of understanding.
May the sparks of our joining kindle our resolve,
brighten our spirits, reflect our love,
and unshadow our days.
Come we now; enter the dawning. (Annie Foerster)
Time for All Ages

Singing Out the Children # 413 “Go Now in Peace”

Candlelighting

Meditation & Prayer, Spoken & Silent

Readings – “Calvin & Hobbes, Final Entry, 12/31/1995” by Bill Watterson, read by Caroline and Jason Dawson
from “The Issue in the West” by Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland
Opening to “Things Commonly Believed Among Us” by Rev. William Channing Gannett, read by Ted Glenn and Fiske Miles

“Things Commonly Believed Among Us” read in alternation by the congregation:

We believe that to love the Good and to live the Good is the supreme thing in religion;
We hold reason and conscience to be final authorities in matters of religious belief;
We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, old and new;
We revere Jesus, and all holy souls that have taught men truth and righteousness and love, as prophets of religion.
We believe in the growing nobility of Man;
We trust the unfolding Universe as beautiful, beneficent, unchanging Order; to know this order is truth; to obey it is right and liberty and stronger life;
We believe that good and evil invariably carry their own recompense, no good thing being failure and no evil thing success; that heaven and hell are states of being; that no evil can befall the good man in either life or death; that all things work together for the victory of Good.
We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all;
We believe that this self-forgetting, loyal life awakes in man the sense of union here and now with things eternal – the sense of deathlessness; and this sense is to us an earnest of the life to come.
We worship One-in-All – that life whence suns and stars derive their orbits and the soul of man its Ought, — that Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, giving us power to become the sons of God, — that love with which our souls commune.

Offertory – “Dave’s Choice”

Sermon – “(W)hol(l)y Ghosts: Belief and Belonging”
Bernard Norcott-Mahany

Extinguishing the Flame

Closing Hymn – # 1024 “When the Spirit Says ‘Do’”

Benediction

Readings: Final Calvin and Hobbes strip, 12/31/1995: http://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/1995/12/31

From “The Issue in the West” by Jabez T. Sunderland

Mr. Gannett tells us that the denomination first took its stand on “reason and revelation,” but it had to move on. Later it took its stand at the supernatural or the miraculous; but it had to move on. Later still it made another stand at the Lordship of Christ, but again it was compelled to move on. Now the stand is made at Christian theism, but once more, he says, we must move on. Move on where?
The fact seems to be, there is nothing about which there is more mental confusion than about this whole moving on idea… If I am faced toward the edge of Table rock, Niagara, I can safely move on for a distance – move on until I am within 20 feet of the edge, 15 feet, 10 feet, 5 feet, 2 feet, one foot – but if I move on much beyond that it will be the last moving on I shall be likely to do in this world. So a religious body may move on for a time toward the edge of religion – nearer and nearer to the edge – but what if it moves off? Our Unity friends have got us to the place where they want us as a body to move on and move off historic Unitarianism – move off Christianity, move off theism; they tell us if we will we shall find a religion of ethics which will be better…

The Prelude to “Things Commonly Believed Among Us” by William Channing Gannett

The Western Conference has neither the wish nor the right to bind a single member by declarations concerning fellowship or doctrine. Yet it thinks some practical good may be done by setting forth in simple words the things most commonly believed among us, — the Statement being always open to re-statement and to be regarded only as the thought of the majority.
All names that divide “religion” are to us of little consequence compared with religion itself. Whoever loves Truth and lives the Good is, in a broad sense, of our religious fellowship; whoever loves the one or lives the other better than ourselves is our teacher, whatever church or age he may belong to.
The general faith is hinted well in words which several of our churches have adopted for their covenant: “In the freedom of the Truth and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we unite for the worship of God and the service of man.” It is hinted in such words as these: “Unitarianism is a religion of love to God and love to man.” Because we have no “creed” which we impose as a condition of fellowship, specific statements of belief abound among us, always somewhat differing, always largely agreeing. One such we offer here:

“Things Commonly Believed Among Us”

We believe that to love the Good and to live the Good is the supreme thing in religion;
We hold reason and conscience to be final authorities in matters of religious belief;
We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, old and new;
We revere Jesus, and all holy souls that have taught men truth and righteousness and love, as prophets of religion.
We believe in the growing nobility of Man;
We trust the unfolding Universe as beautiful, beneficent, unchanging Order; to know this order is truth; to obey it is right and liberty and stronger life;
We believe that good and evil invariably carry their own recompense, no good thing being failure and no evil thing success; that heaven and hell are states of being; that no evil can befall the good man in either life or death; that all things work together for the victory of Good.
We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all;
We believe that this self-forgetting, loyal life awakes in man the sense of union here and now with things eternal – the sense of deathlessness; and this sense is to us an earnest of the life to come.
We worship One-in-All – that life whence suns and stars derive their orbits and the soul of man its Ought, — that Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, giving us power to become the sons of God, — that love with which our souls commune.

Sermon:
“(W)hol(l)y Ghosts”

First, let me thank Dave Simmons, Ted Glenn, Fiske Miles, the Dawsons, Marci Schroeder and Al Fuller for their part in this service. Shared duties are lighter, good companions make the time more pleasant, and the incorporation of a variety of voices and music help to take dead words on a page and give them life. And thank you, all who came today – so that, as Annie Dillard notes, “creation need not play to an empty house.” An audience is always part of any performance; as a congregation, we are no mere audience; we are more than audience; we are fellows flocking together.
Let me start by saying that I believe in ghosts – to paraphrase the Cowardly Lion in MGM’s 1939 Wizard of Oz, I do believe in ghosts. I do, I do, I do believe in ghosts. As a child growing up, I knew the Holy Ghost as one third of the triune God. Around the time I entered middle school, the Holy Ghost had been renamed “the Holy Spirit” that being closer to the Latin Spiritus Sanctus. Ghost, though, was the word I first heard, and heard a lot, in those formative elementary years. And ghost is an Anglo-Saxon word, and so is closer to my English speaking soul. Besides, my cultural background is that of Ireland, and Celtic mysticism is full of ghosts. So, for me, Ghost it remains. Long after I had dismissed the God the Father as something of an angry white giant in the sky – think John Brown in John Steuart Curry’s wonderful mural in the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka if you want a visual; and long after I felt more comfortable with human rather than divine Jesus, the Holy Ghost stayed with me. Rev. Maucere a few weeks ago spoke of the Holy Spirit being added into the divine mix at Nicaea, and characterized the Holy Spirit as a minor biblical figure. I hope to conjure up a more positive and powerful Holy Ghost today, and also consider other ghosts we would do well to set to rest.
When I say “ghosts,” I don’t want to suggest that I “see” ghosts as they often appear in Hollywood films, spectral and translucent simulacra of the living person. I don’t. And I don’t want to suggest that some aspect of a person lives on after him or her in some kind of an afterlife. That may be the case, but I do not currently believe it. I may believe in eternity, but not immortality. Ghosts are not something scientifically verifiable. Still as I see it, all of us have ghosts peculiar to ourselves. Words said, physical tenderness shared, events experienced jointly — all of these have an effect and leave an impression on your psyches or souls – these form the basis of “ghosts” for me. For instance, I remember many things my mom and dad said to me, and their image comes with their words; in many cases, I remember exactly where I was in time space when they said them to me and I feel transported in time and space. I am also conscious of things not said to me by others, or by me to others, of opportunities missed. And I remember words spoken in pain, or anger. All of those things are part of the ghosts of my past, as are my own internal dialogs over the years.
In addition to personal ghosts that come from my own personal life, I’m well aware of institutional ghosts. Growing up Catholic, I knew I was not just a member of St. Peter’s Parish in Dorchester, MA in the 1960s, a member of the oldest Catholic Church in Dorchester, whose founder, Peter Ronan, still lingered in the memories of the eldest members of the parish; I was also part of the Archdiocese of Boston, and attended a college founded by the second bishop of Boston, Bishop Fenwick, whose spirit lives on in that place, as his name lives on in the name of the administration building; I was also part of the global Catholic church, and part of the long history of the church. And some of those ghosts continue to haunt me, often in positive ways. In my formative years, the Mass was still said in Latin, a language that linked me with the long and rich, often glorious, sometimes nefarious past, of a church first persecuted by the Roman Empire, then adopted by it. And, as a sensitive youth growing up in the Catholic Church, much of the sensory experience of the Mass stuck with me and lingers even today. The “smells and bells” of my youth have never fully gone away, and will remain with me, I expect, until I die. The good and the bad of that experience hangs on and haunts me still. Yes, y past and my present have been and remain haunted by ghosts.
Ghosts don’t haunt Irish Catholics alone. Ghosts haunt Unitarians as well. It is not unusual for Unitarians in thinking of what their religion has brought to the people of the United States and the world to think of Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists, or to the righteous preaching and example of Theodore Parker, who inspired Martin Luther King, Jr and others; Parker was a man not well treated by his fellow Unitarian ministers in his day, but whose power as a ghost has done much to make Unitarian Universalism what it is. We have T-shirts you can buy from the UUA shop which proudly proclaim the Unitarian and Universalist heroes of the past. These are ghosts, too. As a Unitarian Universalist church in the Mid-West, the ghosts of Jabez T. Sunderland, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, and William Channing Gannett are present here to a greater extent perhaps than one might find in the metropolitan areas of the East. For these three were on the front lines of the battle for the future of the Western Unitarian Conference, and for the Unitarian denomination as a whole.
At this point, let me say something about the peculiar nature of the Western Unitarian Conference, founded in 1852. Unitarianism in America sprang up as a form of Christianity, and Unitarians in the East in the 19th c. saw themselves as practicing a purer form of Christianity, freed from the mess of the trinity, consubstantiation and transubstantiation, and from the hierarchical structure of Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. As the Unitarian movement grew, it was deemed right that Unitarians send missionaries into the West to spread the Unitarian gospel. If you’ve listened to enough Prairie Home Companion you’ve heard Garrison Keillor poke fun at Unitarian missions coming to Lake Wobegon to spread their message with their use of interpretive dance. A Unitarian seminary was established in Western PA in the town of Meadville specifically to prepare Unitarian ministers for the West.
The spirit of many Unitarians in the West was a lot like the spirit of other people in the West – they were not interested in pushing a tired old religion, or of doing things according to some outworn rules, and they were quite open to welcome into fellowship many who would call themselves religious, but not Christian, and who did not see themselves as part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Unlike the Eastern, especially the North-Eastern states, where there were a great many Unitarians (in Massachusetts, Unitarianism remained the denomination sanctioned and supported by the state well into the 19th c.), and where a common set of societal and church values reinforced each other and led to something approaching a Unitarian orthodoxy, Unitarians in the West were relatively rare. So Unitarians in the West had to take into account a greater variety of belief; they had to meet people and were glad to meet people where they were. And so, the more liberal ministers in the WUC were quite willing to shift from a purely Christo-centric denomination to something broader. And Western Unitarians valued their own personal freedom more highly than any allegiance owed to Boston and what they saw as Eastern “orthodoxy.” They refused to believe that being Unitarian meant you believed in “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of Jesus, and the neighborhood of Boston.”
And so, from about 1865, a rift was beginning to form between the Unitarian Christians and Unitarians who did not so identify themselves. The “Issue in the West,” as Jabez Sunderland defined it, was that the more liberal (radical some-would say) Unity men, so=named for the journal they published, people like Jenkin Lloyd Jones, who had been the Secretary of the WUC before Sunderland took the job, or William Channing Gannett, the popular minister of Unity Church in St. Paul, and later in Hinsdale, IL, were taking Unitarianism down a dangerous path.
Jones and Gannett saw things differently. Though both were likely theists, they saw a greater value in building community with all those of good will who would join them in the mission of “love to God (whatever that might mean) and love to man.” Their motto was “Freedom, Fellowship, and Character in Religion.” They felt that fellowship was key – the same spirit expressed by Jesus that those who are not against me are with me — and that all of goodwill should be welcomed into fellowship. They felt that the demand for Christocentrism was the same as demanding there be a creed … something to which they were very much opposed. And they realized that such a demand would make many who might be co-workers in the needed work of this world and who were currently members of Unitarian congregations feel unwelcome. Adopting the Christocentric position would strengthen that particular position, but would close the door on many fellow seekers.
This issue came to a head in 1886 when Sunderland delivered a speech on “The Issue in the West” to the WUC meeting at Cincinnati, OH (it was also released in a pamphlet). As you heard the selection in the reading, Sunderland, though not doubting the goodwill of Gannett and Jones, felt that continuing down the path proposed by the “liberals” would be akin to walking off the cliff. There were many who agreed with Sunderland. At the same conference, though, Gannett managed to get passed a statement from the conference that no doctrinal or dogmatic test was called for, the first part of the opening of “Things Commonly Believed Among Us” that you heard read by Fiske. Gannett also proposed the idea of a committee of five to examine current belief among the members and craft a statement of current belief that would not be a creed, nor a test to membership. That part of the resolution did not pass. But in 1887, at the meeting in Chicago, Gannett proposed a fuller statement, which included the “Things Commonly Believed Among Us” which we read and the opening words as read by Fisk. That resolution passed by a vote of 59-13.
When I think, what is it that makes me want to be a Unitarian, it is this beautiful statement by Gannett. It’s a masterpiece of poetic succinctness – in many ways like Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” – and it manages to say some powerful things, and deftly handles the God issue – you’ll remember how Good was capitalized, suggesting God, but something else as well. But the power of the piece, beyond its beautiful language, is the generosity of spirit behind that language. Gannett and his fellows would make the Unitarian tent large, and not focus on consolidation of a position and view – Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity” — then over 50 years old. Sunderland feared, in the triumph of this spirit, the loss of an honored and comfortable past. But there is nothing in the broad language of “Things Commonly Believed” to deny Unitarian Christians a place at the table. They were still welcome at a round table of fellowship, an equal part in communion with others.
The success of Gannett in this matter and the eventual decision of the AUA to side with the Western Unitarian Conference against the Western Unitarian Association (a more Christocentric organization, aiming for closer ties to Boston which sprang up and lasted for some few years) set the stage for the mix we now see in Unitarian-Universalist churches and in the UUA. The flourishing of humanism in Western churches was a triumph of the first half of the 20th c. is largely due to Gannett’s success in keeping the Unitarian church more inclusive.
A lot of those ghosts in my past I choose to honor, and am glad to have them around. When they come to me in dreams or in that liminal space prior to or immediately after sleep, I usually feel something warm and rich, making sleep time even more welcome. These are ghosts which I’m glad to have around.
Not all of my ghosts, though, are so welcome. I have ghosts of guilt and judgment, which spring from words spoken by others regarding me, or from hostility or fear within my heart. I often wish these ghosts would go away, but wishing does not make them so. I once knew a very wise woman who told me that from time to time she would go to a dark place and in those difficult times harsh voices from her past would come forth and point out her shortcomings or the faults in others. She confided that she couldn’t escape those voices, which seemed to come when they willed, but she had learned to hear them out patiently, acknowledge them, without letting them control her That was how she dealt with those negative figures from her past.
Jabez Sunderland, I’m thinking, had some such negative feelings, born in fear, regarding an expanding and expansive Unitarian church. He did not hate Gannett or Jones, but was afraid that their vision of Unitarianism would mean the end of his own path, or the disappearance of that path for others. From what I read, Gannett was very careful in how he approached the matter in advocating for his vision. Private letters show a personal fondness for Sunderland, but strong feelings of antipathy towards Sunderland’s rhetoric and its limitations. Gannett was shrewd enough, and loving enough, to keep such feelings private, and take care not to alienate Sunderland, “counting nothing good for self that is not good for all” as he puts it in “Things.”
Sunderland was not won over by Gannett’s generous offer, and fear of losing what he had still dominated his thinking in 1887. Later in his life, though, he served as a Unitarian delegate to India, and his time in that country managed to open up his views and broaden his vision. I don’t know if Sunderland and Gannett ever became friends; it is clear that Gannett’s vision of a generous Unitarian church won out, and Sunderland, who stood apart from that vision, came, in time, to approximate it in his own way.
But what has that to do with us here today? Gannett’s vision won out. The Unitarian-Universalist church of today is much more Gannett’s vision than that of his namesake, William Ellery Channing, whose views likely were closer to Sunderland’s, though I doubt if Channing would ever be so controversial or brash to pen a tract like “The Issue in the West” as Sunderland had done.
Part of what prompted me to speak of this work today was that we are about to embark on a period of self-study here at Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church, to consider what things are commonly believed among us, and to ponder our course forward. As we share with one another our own views and feelings, our own hopes and fears, in this self-study, I hope that the image, the ghost of William Channing Gannett, might linger in our hearts and minds and that the poetry of that statement composed, read and approved more than 100 years ago might help us as we come to reflect and share our deepest beliefs and deepest longings.
But our personal reflecting and sharing is not enough, we must give ear to what our brothers and sisters have to say. This is not so easy to do. As a man trained in Jesuit schools, where every class other than mathematics was based on debate – Jesuit schools were intended to train lawyers for God – I can let my own enthusiasms and certainties drown out other voices. It’s great for my ego, but not great. My wise friend from Syracuse once told me that she believed we “listened one another into existence.” When we drown out those other voices to win a point, we deny space for the dreams, the hopes, the ghosts of others. They don’t die, or go away. But doubt, or resentment grows, and the positive dreams and ghosts are warped or trapped, while the negative ghosts gain a foothold.
As we take inventory of who we are, and envision whom we might become, let us take care to craft our own words with care and love in hopes that we will be heard and let us be sure to listen generously with love in our hearts to our own ghosts, good and bad, and to the ghosts of those around us.
That, it seems to me, is the way for us to build “the House Beautiful” as Gannett called it, and such a house, such a gloriously haunted house, will be the home we want, a home with plenty of room, a home in which to grow.

Bibliography
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Lyttle, Charles H. Freedom Moves West. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.
Moore, Rev. Preston. “Things Commonly Believed Among Us?” Williamsburg UU Church. September 02, 2007. http://www.wuu.org/sermons/ser090207pmoore.pdf (accessed December 20, 2014).
Norcott-Mahany, Bernard. “Things Commonly Believed Among Us Revisited.” All-Soulo. January 10, 2011. https://allsoulo.wordpress.com/2011/01/10/things-commonly-believed-among-us-revisited/ (accessed December 20, 2014).
Parke, David B., ed. The Epic of Unitarianism: Original Writings from the History of Liberal Religion. Boston: Starr King Press, 1957.
Pease, William H. “Doctrine and Fellowship: William Channing Gannett and the Unitarian Creedal Issue.” Church History 25, no. 03 (September 1956): 210-238.
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