Order of Service 7/13/14
Welcome and Announcements
Shaker Hymn Fantasy, mvt. II, by Sam Cardon
Karen Allendoerfer, violin, Guy Urban, piano
Hymnal Donation, in honor of 2014 CoA class
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
–William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”
Love is the spirit of this church
and service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
to seek the truth in love,
and to help one another.
From all that dwell below the skies
Let songs of hope and faith arise.
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung
Through every land by every tongue
First Reading , “I lost 18 lbs!”
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Opening Hymn #33 Sovereign and Transforming Grace
Second Reading From Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich
At some point in my predawn walk–not at the top of a hill or the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time–the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with the ‘All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.
Offertory , J. Breval, Cello Sonata in C, mvt. 3
Eric Wetzel, cello, Guy Urban, piano
As many of you know, in the past several years, I’ve gotten very involved with playing the violin again. I’ve played here in church a number of times—today even—and I also play in some local orchestras. I also, a couple of years ago, decided to change careers, from work as a project manager to work as an educator. This move was motivated largely by a desire to have more time with my family, but also by a desire for a career more closely aligned with my values and goals. Maybe a midlife crisis? No matter what brought it about, both of these things together constitute a major change in direction. Some might even say, a “transformation.”
It was soon after I retired from my job as a project manager in Cambridge that I went to the gym that sent me the advertising letter that was the first reading. I showed up there after getting a previous incarnation of that missive because I realized I was no longer going to have a 5-mile bike ride each way to and from work built into my day. I was going to have to find another way to exercise. But when, during my first session, I told the owner of the gym that, she didn’t seem to think I was sufficiently motivated. What were my fitness goals, she wanted to know. She encouraged me to set weight loss goals, too, even though I hadn’t come in to lose weight. And to keep a food diary which showed, clearly, Too Much Sugar. Not Enough Protein. “You know,” she told me, “we don’t accept everyone into our program.”
What I ended up with during the 10-session trial fitness package that I purchased was first a raging headache, followed by intense salt cravings. I started to obsess about food and to think about my weight loss goals at multiple points during the day. I actually somewhat enjoyed the workouts themselves, once I got used to them and the headaches stopped. And, I was introduced to a quiche recipe and way to prepare Greek yogurt that I still eat to this day. I even lost 5 pounds. Nonetheless, when my trial month was up, I quit. Yes, the other people were friendly and yes, I got some good workout and nutrition tips. But I hadn’t gone there to transform my body or my life. I’d just been looking for a few tweaks.
Once I’d been accepted into the program, though, the owner was reluctant to let me go. She really wanted me to sign up for the 6-month package. She sent me a number of emails, trying to get me to change my mind. I screened phone calls for a while, even more than I usually do, to make sure it wasn’t her. Once she had finally been well and fully dodged, and my credit card was safe, I realized that now that I was out on my own, without the backup of a wise employer and a full-time job surrounded by very rational scientists, I was going to have to be more careful about my decisions.
Moving forward, I wondered if the word “transformation” could function kind of like a code word for “something I don’t want,” or maybe even “BS that will lighten your wallet.” I’ve experienced some support for this point of view in other contexts. For example, I’ve been told in gushing terms about how wonderful Benjamin Zander’s TED talk is, called “The Transformative Power of Classical Music.” The talk offers listeners the exciting possibility—and desirability–of becoming something called a “one-buttock player.” Mr. Zander is the controversial conductor of a local youth orchestra, which I’ve also been told about in similarly glowing superlative language. I haven’t actually been to any of their concerts because they play in Symphony Hall and their tickets cost $20 and up, even for discount tickets. There’s something about that that rubs me the wrong way. The youth orchestra I played in as a kid played in a school auditorium, and played for free.
Zander has also written a book called The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life. This too, although the book has 4 and a half stars on Amazon.com from 271 reviews, still had the same whiff to it. And then when I dug down into the 1-star reviews, of which there were a significant number, I realized why. Several of those reviewers mentioned the book’s similarities to the ideas of Werner Erhard and the Landmark Forum, formerly known as EST. These seminars have been around in one form or another since the 1970’s, promising transformation, or even more colorful metaphors: no buttocks this time, but there’s “popping” like microwave popcorn, and achieving Breakthrough Results (capital B, capital R). Of course people who attend the seminars are charged a significant fee and pressured to sign up for more seminars and bring their friends.
I don’t know. I had a friend in grad school who attended a Forum seminar and invited me to his graduation. The people I met there seemed nice enough, and he said the seminar helped him. He also knew better than to try to sell me anything. So I feel a little like a killjoy, like the cranky atheist in the corner whom everyone avoids, when I don’t—when I can’t—get swept up in something like this. In a way, it’s like leaving Christianity all over again. A politician whose politics I don’t care for, and who is the subject of a book called In his father’s shadow: the transformations of George W Bush, famously said, “When you turn your heart and your life over to Christ, when you accept Christ as the Savior, it changes your heart and changes your life.”
Transformed? Born again? No. I was born only once. To all this, and to all these people who want to transform my life in exchange for my money or my vote, I want to retort like the bumper sticker says—not arrogantly, but in self defense–no thanks, I was born right the first time.
I’ve probably already offended some people with these opinions, and may go on to offend others. But I can’t help it. The well-known author, political activist, and atheist Barbara Ehrenreich expresses this skepticism differently, but better: “Whenever a crack appears in the lockstep logic of cause and effect—from this to that—a certain kind of opportunist sees openings for boundless free will, or even God. We can skip right by the tedium of math and science and admit that anything, anything can happen in this magical universe we inhabit: Particles can communicate across galaxies, wishes can be fulfilled through “visualization,” diseases can be vanquished by “positive thoughts.” Whee!
I thought maybe UUs might be less prone to seeking transformation, that maybe we were welcoming to enough skeptics and atheists and the like, that we wouldn’t toss that word around quite so much. But a quick internet search of “UU” and “Transformation” suggests that UUs are as interested in transformation as Forum attendees. The UUA website has a whole page called “Resistance and Transformation.” And there is a smattering of sermons online from UU ministers who seem to want to break down even the last little bit of UU resistance to and skepticism about transformation. These ministers inform us that “many of us come to a church community and a faith tradition because we are yearning for something that will transform our lives.” (from the UU church in Reading) The bumper sticker slogan that I find somewhat comforting in the face of these endless exhortions to transform my life? It was called “at best naïve and at worst arrogant” in a speech at the 2005 UUA General Assembly. We should not just be born again, we should be born again and again and again! Several ministers quote the Unitarian poet ee cummings, who wrote that “We can never be born enough.” The UUA even has something called a “Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee.”
If I didn’t already have a headache, I think the idea of a Transformation Committee would have given me one. After that, I have to admit, I went to bed annoyed, thinking “how am I ever going to finish this sermon?” I decided to stop reading the words of the UUA and read some more Barbara Ehrenreich instead. I’ve been a fan of hers since I was politically aware. Her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed, about not getting by on minimum-wage jobs in America, is more timely now than ever. And, she and I have a number of things in common: we both have PhD’s in biology that we ended up using in non-traditional occupations. We have similar political views, and we are both atheists, of a sort.
But I approached her latest book, Living With a Wild God with some trepidation. This book centers on a spiritual experience that Barbara had as a teenager, and her quest in late middle age to figure out what it meant. She spends much of the book reading and responding to a journal she kept as a teen. While the teenage Barbara writes in overdramatic and self-centered fashion, I have to admit that as another teenage journal-keeper, I sometimes preferred that voice to the matter-of-fact adult one. Barbara’s spiritual experience is described in only two paragraphs–the two paragraphs that Chris read for the second reading. Yet, she remembered it, and carried its memory with her, for 48 years, finally responding to a question posed by her 13-year-old self in the journal: “what have you learned since reading this?”
She seems to have learned to be less arrogant, less sure of herself, more apt to keep an open mind, even about things unseen. But one thing she didn’t do, back then or even now, was to be born again. Or born again and again. Instead, she got involved in political activism. She became concerned with the plight of others, with making the world outside herself, better.
In her Slate magazine review of the book, Hanna Rosin points out that mystical experiences can be seen as a spiritual error, even a potentially dangerous one. Rosin tells a story of a Buddhist monk who encounters one of his acolytes looking like Ehrenreich says she felt after her spiritual experience at Lone Pine: dazed, drained, and also ecstatic. The acolyte tells the monk he’s just been consumed by a flame. The senior monk looks sad and replies, “I’m sorry.” Rosin’s interpretation of these words is that he is worried that the acolyte will now spend his life agonizing over that moment of ecstasy and find the daily life of a monk unbearably dull by comparison—that he will become the monk’s version of a drug addict, constantly looking for his next spiritual high.
Whereas the hard part—and the real, honest, and dare I say transformational work–is coming back down to the here and now, to an ordinary life of joy and woe. When I look again at the mission of the UUA’s “Transformation Committee,” that’s what it’s all about: social justice. It’s about making our congregations, and the world, a less racist place. I think the Landmark Forum people have it exactly backwards: you don’t transform by leaving the past behind and becoming something or someone entirely different from who you used to be. And you don’t transform in a moment, in a weekend, or on one buttock. Transformation is the hard, slow, incremental work of becoming your best self; of growing into who you can still be in the time you have left, and then working to transform the world.
Joys and Sorrows
Closing Hymn #17 Every Night and Every Morn
From Hanna Rosin’s Slate review of Living with a Wild God
To her credit, Ehrenreich did not spend her life chasing and wondering about the flame. She spent it in the mundane tasks of socialist committee meetings, union rallies, and feminist marches, in the less intoxicating but more fruitful project of nickel-and-diming the world into social justice. Thank God.