The Rev. Dr. Stanley Sears, Minister
Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
Published in The Auburn Citizen, March 17, 2012
One of the fluffy popular songs from my teen years was the lilting “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Not to denigrate love, but I think that what the world needs right now is a lot more empathy. Empathy seems to be one thing that “there’s just too little of.”
Empathy is often defined as the ability to feel or share something of another person’s experience. An empathic response is one that lets another person know that you are tracking their feelings accurately, and that you really get what they are saying. With all his failings, President Bill Clinton exemplified empathy when he would say “I feel your pain.” The operative word here is “feel,” and it does not have to be expressed with words. As clergy, sometimes the most empathic response we can make when we visit a family following a death or other tragedy is to sit with the person or persons in silence, and look into their eyes. The poet, William Blake, captures the feeling of empathy in his Songs of Innocence and Experience when he writes:
Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow's share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?
Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
Empathy came to mind over the past few weeks as I watched the genocide being carried out in Syria. Who cannot feel shock and revulsion at the sight of hospitals being deliberately attacked, and innocent neighborhoods under siege from Syrian artillery as Assad’s forces have gone door to door, murdering noncombatants?
Empathy is not something that one political party or religious group owns. It is a human response to the sufferings of another person. Obviously, empathy makes its way into political or religious discussions when we fail to take into account another person’s experiences or sensitivities. The sad reality is that few laws are written with the people whose lives will be most affected sitting in the room. The recent Congressional circus on contraception, in which all of the people invited to testify were men, was but one example. Couldn’t our Congressmen find a qualified woman to speak on an issue so germane to women’s health?
Gun control is another. Within the past few weeks, the Virginia Legislature decided to overturn a bill limiting people to one handgun purchase per month. In a state that witnessed the worst shooting rampage in recent American history, when Seung-Hui Cho shot 32 people before turning a gun on himself, families of the victims turned out and raised their voices to protest what they saw as an insult to their children’s lives. Unfortunately, the National Rifle Association (which has somehow spent a lot more time defending handguns, armor piercing bullets, and assault rifles than shooting sports—unless you consider shooting people “sport”) demanded removal of the limit. Rather than having the NRA’s check writers in the room, perhaps the Virginia legislators should have had the families of the victims in their assembly, and then looked into their eyes as they cast their ballots. Ironically, they cast their ballots on the day that a third high school student died from gunshot wounds outside Cleveland, Ohio.
On one level, empathy flies in the face of our “winner take all” or “I Me Mine” culture. Too often, the message that seems to dominate our society resembles the bumper sticker with the message “Whoever dies with the most toys wins the game.” We hear similar messages from Super PAC donors who freely speak of spending in the tens of millions of dollars to get their candidates elected. What does it say about our society that such blowhards believe that this is even an option? What does it say about politicians who will do whatever “tricks” such braggarts demand for that money?
I believe that most of us are better than that. The nearly universal expressions of revulsion and disgust at what is happening in Syria are but one sign of hope. They are a sign of hope that underneath all of our political differences, there is a layer of compassion, and the ability to “feel another’s woe.” It is that same nascent empathy that it took Comedy Central to reach, when it made each of us ask what it would be like for some inept and unempathic legislator to have a probe stuck into our bodies.
As Unitarian Universalists, empathy has been at the core of our faith. One might call it our version of “applied theology.” Our services are held at 10:30 on Sunday mornings. All are welcome!
This has been an interesting month. I had little to do with it, but the kitchen project was finished and it looks beautiful. Now we need someone to cook in it and a crowd for supper. Many thanks to Bourke Kennedy, Laura Hopkins and their crew that got the work done. Yea!
Also this month, the unemployment specter came to visit our church family. Phil Porter finished at his temporary position in Washington State, and I lost my job with the trucking firm I had been with for a year and a half due to the loss of their contract. I looked around for what was available and decided to accept employment with the new company taking over the contract. The pay is about the same, but the benefits are not what I had been accustomed to. Labor in general is taking it on the chin in this recession. We are being told we need to work more for less, or not. Today three people I work with who thought they had jobs with the new company were told that they were not needed. That’s a two day notice, as the change over happens on Monday.
Which brings me to my point, what can we do about the employment situation? Not that there is anything that any of us can do personally, but we need ideas. We can’t depend on government or an investor to build a mega factory in our community. We can’t manufacture our way out of this. Technology and animation have eliminated most of the unskilled jobs that were available even ten years ago. We can’t expect everyone to get an engineering degree just to have a job, and I’m sure there are more than a few engineers out there looking for work also. But, what can we do together to help everyone in our community have a job that will feed their families and have a decent place to live.
This week I got a call from my friend Tom Mc Kellop. Tom is the facilitator of the Unemployed Persons support group which meets at Westminster Presbyterian Church on Tuesday mornings, from 10 till 12.
A couple of years ago I attended this group when I was searching for a job. At the meeting, attendees network, learn how to write resumes and cover letters, have mock interviews and search for jobs from the information that Tom gathers. I met a few wonderful people there, including Bev Abplanalp, who spoke to us last year and will speak again on September 2nd, Labor Day. Tom told me that even though the unemployment rate appears to be dropping, many folks have just stopped looking. Some, like Bev, are under-employed, and many have had to take unsuitable employment just to have a basic income.
I will be putting a lot of thought and effort into coming up with ideas. As I said before, no one person or party can solve this problem. It will take all of us working together with compassion for everyone in our community. This is a matter of justice. When one of our neighbors is suffering, we all suffer. We are all connected.
It’s a good thing that April is starting with a Sunday, because we have a very full months’ worth of activities, services, and celebrations.
I encourage you to look at the services that we have planned. Your Program Committee looks for topics that will be of interest to the various theological perspectives of our members, as well as issues of interest to the wider community. April’s services are an outstanding example of this. We will have everything from an April Fool’s Day celebration led by Patrick Jordan to a service on the importance of pets (to which you are invited to bring your own pets!) led by Eileen McHale and the original “May Day” celebration of Beltane led by Marilyn Fuller. In between, I will lead our Easter service and start telling some of the stories about how an intrepid group of Universalists started gathering 200 years ago.
In addition to our Sunday services, we will be kicking off our own celebration of 200 years of Universalism in Auburn with a lasagna dinner on Saturday evening, April 14. Make sure that your taxes are finished, and then come and join us for this festive occasion! We will also be celebrating the end of our renovation project, and the kick-off to our annual stewardship campaign. Gilda Brower has been preparing a display of the history. Plans are in the works for additional services and presentations celebrating our congregation’s history. Stay tuned for more information and additional activities.
May will also be an exciting month, with our annual plant sale scheduled for Saturday, May 19. This is a wonderful time to be a Unitarian Universalist in Auburn. If you have been missing our services and activities, now would be a great time to return. I look forward to seeing all of you soon!
Stan Sears, Minister
This month we celebrate the coming of spring. But, this year, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, we can’t have spring because we haven’t had winter yet. Even so, the march of the seasons progresses. This week we celebrate Imbolc, or Oibelc (pronounce it Groundhog Day). The mythology surrounding this day is rich in story and symbolism, but is known widely by the behavior of a rodent, who was originally a Roman hedgehog.
As fate or coincidence would have it, much of what we are doing in our Society is in line with the celebration of this ancient holiday. Of course, the ancient meanings have been thoroughly Christianized. It’s far beyond me to surmise the origins of this day, thought by some to be the first day of spring or the first day of the New Year. Some cultures, like the Chinese, still do celebrate the New Year around this time.
It is also Brigit’s Day in Ireland. Brigit is the Goddess of fire, the hearth, brides, birthing and healing. Those of us who have raised livestock know that this is the beginning of lambing season, following the ewe’s having spent time with the ram in the fall.
According to the tradition that was passed down to me, Oibelc (honestly, pronouncing Welsh words is beyond me!) or Groundhog Day is a time to throw out last year’s candles and make or light the candles for the next year. So, how does this relate with what we are doing at AUUS? Well, we are literally throwing out our old hearth/ kitchen, and replacing it with a new one. What better way of starting a new phase of growth and understanding than replacing the hearth/heart of our building.
All of us, members and friends, at this AUUSpicious time are involved. From committing funds and materials, to providing the labor to take out the old and putting in the new, there is something for everyone. When we are done with this hearth/heart renewal, we will be primed for growth in the new season. The dark of winter is ending. We will take our winter’s introspection and see it put into action.
We, as UU’s have so much to contribute to the world and our neighborhoods. This is a festival of lights and life. Let us let our light shine. We are not in competition with anyone, we are everyone who believes in light in this world. Using the light of reason we can work for a better world, accepting that we don’t have the understanding to answer all of life’s questions and allow the mysteries to inspire us.
As a runner, as well as a man who lost a wife to breast cancer, I wore my “Race for the Cure” shirt with pride. Linda, my late wife, and I ran together from the earliest days of our relationship. So I always felt that I was embodying her spirit. I also felt a sense of connection whenever I would see someone wearing their own Race for the Cure shirt, or a pink ribbon. That time has ended. As many of you have probably heard, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which popularized the pink ribbon, and raised significant amounts of money from its franchise, decided to stop funding Planned Parenthood, which is the largest provider of women’s health services in the United States. This decision made absolutely no sense. It is absurd as the Defense Department saying it is going to stop doing business with Boeing. The decision was politically motivated, and represents yet another step in the battle to delegitimize Planned Parenthood. The decision has been reversed after a national outcry, highlighted by the news that Planned Parenthood raised more than $3 million within a couple of days, to replace the $700,000 grant that the Komen Foundation intended to end.
There is, I believe, a certain amount of denied misogyny in the battle against Planned Parenthood. As most people know, Planned Parenthood is the largest provider of women’s health services in the United States. Three million women are served by its doctors, nurses, and counselors every year. Many of them turn to Planned Parenthood for screenings and treatment after being turned down for their inability to pay more profit-oriented providers. By their very nature, Planned Parenthood affiliates are also the largest single provider of abortion services. To put this into perspective, 3% of Planned Parenthood’s work is abortion related. The other 97% includes medical services for such things as pap smears, mammograms, sexually transmitted diseases, and contraception counseling.
Breast cancer knows no political boundaries. It affects rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats, alike. The person responsible for this policy seems to be Karen Handel, a failed Republican candidate for Governor of Georgia in 2010. Handel trumpeted her opposition to reproductive rights, as well as her embrace of photo ID voter laws, which have been used to suppress voter turnout. The Komen Foundation probably made a fatal mistake in hiring her. I hope that they are now wise enough to recognize their mistake and fire her before she does further damage.
Those of us whose lives have been torn apart by breast cancer have seen the search for a cure as nonpartisan: we want to support as many people as possible who are either, living with breast cancer, treating people with it, or doing research to find a cure. Many of us already support Planned Parenthood, and will continue doing so.
There are plenty of races to enter. The Race for the Cure brought many of us together in shared purpose, particularly as we watched women in “survivor shirts” or wearing hats and scarves because of hair loss due to chemotherapy. It remains to be seen what the effects of this debacle will be. Certainly, many of us will think twice before raising funds for Komen, when there are other ways of donating to the cause.
I hope that the national response to this incident will lead self-righteous politicians to think twice about their efforts to destroy Planned Parenthood, and to wage their ugly war against reproductive rights. Women’s health is too important to be treated like a kickball for misogynists. It is time to end this perverse and politically motivated game of attacking Planned Parenthood, and others who provide essential medical services to women.
Stan Sears, Minister
If you do not believe in gay marriage, do you believe that you should be paying to support lobbyists who support it?
If you are opposed to any form of birth control—regardless of whether it includes contraception, the “morning after pill,” or abortion, do you believe that you should be subsidizing groups that are lobbying for it?
Those of us who support gay marriage and/or reproductive rights have been pondering these questions for some time. Atheists and the 15% (and growing) of the population who claim no religious affiliation have also been wondering about this. They go right to the core of the fairness of what are called “charitable contributions,” and who gets to use such funds.
One of the benefits that religious organizations, as well as other “do good” groups receive is favorable treatment under the tax code. This encourages people to contribute towards what is ostensibly “the public good” because their contributions are deductible when they file their taxes. In all honesty, this deduction enables congregations and other organizations to provide far more in the way of programs than we would be able to accomplish without the deduction. This goes back to the days when there was less of an official separation between church and state, and churches were charged with the task of providing moral instruction in their local communities.
Over the years, charitable status has extended to numerous other groups, such as museums, food banks, and other community organizations. Charitable status also helps fund numerous forms of medical research. All of these are important, particularly at a time when government funding is being cut. It enables all of us, as individuals, to support causes that are particularly important to us.
Unfortunately some very egregious abuses of this status in recent elections have led me to question its future. One very prominent abuse was the Mormon church’s injection of $22 million to end marriage equality in California. Some Catholic bishops have also attracted attention with various threats to deny communion to politicians who support various forms of reproductive rights, as well as their followers, and for their recent decisions to withdraw Catholic Charities from participating in the adoption process because of the bishops’ opposition to adoption by same-sex couples. Over the years, I have gotten to know numerous people who have worked for Catholic Charities. Many are non-Catholics who are more concerned about the work they are doing to help the poor and those in need than they are in the political aims of the bishops. I have to believe that many of them are cringing in embarrassment at the bishops’ actions.
The privilege of using tax exempt funds is something that all of us serving religious congregations take seriously. By law, we cannot endorse political candidates. This is not to say that we should be agnostic or silent on issues that we believe are morally important. How we use our tax exempt funds, however, should be studied. It does not take a scholar in theological ethics or moral reasoning to know that something is wrong when groups such as Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS organization are allowed to collect and use tax exempt funds. To be blunt, it cheapens the term “charitable giving” when blatantly political organizations use tax exempt funds to pay for professional lobbyists or television advertising to influence political campaigns.
The absurdity of this has been pointed out in recent weeks by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, who set up their own “Super PAC” to collect money. As a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine pointed out, Colbert used some of the funds for ads supporting the National Basketball Association owners. The Super PAC, which he turned over to Stewart’s control last week, has been running ads in South Carolina, as it prepares to hold its primary election. The ads satirize the process that allows this to happen as much as they poke fun at individual candidates. As the Times article pointed out, Colbert offered to underwrite the cost of either the Democrat or Republican primaries if they would include a referendum asking whether corporations are people, or, if only people are people.
Every year, Americans give hundreds of millions of dollars to tax exempt organizations. These are funds that are not available to pay for schools, roads, our wars, or the care of veterans who will need help for the rest of their lives. In a recent online article, Martin Marty, the esteemed scholar on the interface between religion and society asks whether this practice make sense. As Marty writes, “the generally free ride given religious institutions even in a “secular time” should inspire thought: With all its contradictions, the United States remains a wonderful place in which religions can prosper. They do well when they serve the common good freely and openly.” I believe that this is more important, as well as a more appropriate use of these funds than as morally questionable ways of funneling tax exempt dollars to political action committees, or any groups that function that way…regardless of what they call themselves.
"Havel’s hopeful Christmas Message
The Rev. Stan Sears, Minister
Auburn Unitarian Universalist Society
This article ran in the December 24, 2011 edition of The Auburn Citizen
The highlight of most Christmas Eve services tonight will come as the lit
candles fill our churches. As most of us know, the candles we light are not
"birthday candles." They are candles of hope, lit at the darkest time of the
year in the northern hemisphere. This is also why we sing "Silent Night" or "Joy
to the World" rather than "Happy Birthday." Scholars will never agree on an
exact date for his birth, and there is no reason they need to. The editors who
made the decisions about what to include and what to exclude from the Bible gave
us two different birth stories, in Matthew and Luke. They also gave us two
different Creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. I imagine one of the editors
speaking up and saying "Let’s protect them from the literalists who don’t want
to think for themselves. By giving them two different stories, they’ll have
something to talk about. Maybe they’ll be wise enough to realize that religion
should not spend so much time thinking about how things start. It’s what we do
with it that really matters." And what is it that "really matters?"
This is precisely the reason we have so many different sects and
interpretations of Christianity in the world today. You can go to any church to
hear its version. For me, it is the message of hope, even in the most desperate
and tragic of times. What sustains us when we feel worthless, oppressed, or just
plain unable to make it through another hour, let alone another week or year?
The theme of hope is especially pertinent to me this year, due to the death last
week of Vaclav Havel, the renowned writer and former president of both
Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.
Havel was born into a wealthy family, whose land was seized from them when
Russia overran most of Eastern Europe after World War Two. Prohibited from
attending college, he was drafted into the army, where he started to write
plays. After serving in the army, his writing expanded beyond plays to include
essays focusing on human rights. Eventually, he was jailed as a subversive. His
reputation grew during this time. When the Communists were removed from power by
the "Velvet revolution," there were calls of "Havel to the castle," and he was
elected president of Czechoslovakia. Havel was the last president of
Czechoslovakia, and the first president of the Czech Republic, after the Slovak
Union chose to separate.
Havel, like Jesus, believed in the importance of doing good as an end in
itself, regardless of one’s chances for success. As he once wrote: "Hope
is a state of the mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense,
is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in
enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to
work for something because it is good."
As a Jew, living under Roman rule, I have to believe that Jesus would look at
our society today and ask why racism is still so prevalent; why gays, lesbians,
and transgendered people are treated as less than fully human; and why women are
still treated as "junior citizens" who are not fully trusted to exercise
sovereignty over their own bodies. How else can we describe the blatant sexism
of the plethora of laws restricting reproductive freedom that have swept through
some of our nation’s statehouses over the past year? In addition, we have
endured an expansion of revelations of child abuse within both organized
religion and wider society. Too often, the perpetrators have been those who have
spent years keeping people focused on the so-called wrongs of reproductive
rights, while they have maintained a strict code of silence as children have
been abused. There is nothing "pro-life" about laws that would strip funding
from Planned Parenthood, collective bargaining rights from working people; or,
hold unemployment benefits hostage to oil pipelines.
The past year has not been a good one for those of us who believe in a
progressive society. I believe that the various "Occupy" movements were a
symptom of the growing cynicism that people have; and, it will be exacerbated as
we hear more talk of gerrymandered districts to preserve entrenched politicians
and legislation making it more difficult for people to vote.
This is precisely the type of situation that Havel says we must confront with
hope. So, on Christmas Eve, as I light my candle, I will imagine Jesus welcoming
Havel to what I call "a higher castle" and then looking at our world and saying
"May they continue to hope, and may they continue working for what is good…for
what is truly good."
On Sunday morning a quorum of the congregation met after service and voted to
allocate funds of $25,000 (includes a $5K contingency) to remodel the kitchen
and bathrooms. Bourke Kennedy, chair of the kitchen task force, presented a
representation of the proposed kitchen, a list of estimated costs for cabinetry,
and appliances, as well as contracts from the contractor, plumber and
electrician. The majority of the cabinets to be used were donated by Laura
Laura Hopkins gave us a history of the funds. They were proceeds from the
sale of art work and a sign the Society sold to cover the cost of construction
of the elevator and the sun room. The funds were dedicated for capital projects.
The Board of Trustees and the Finance committee reviewed the proposal of the
kitchen task force and discussed the stewardship concerns we have about using
the dedicated funds which are currently invested and returning mild returns, and
approved the use of the funds with the intent that at least fifty percent of the
cost be raised by the congregation and returned to the fund within three years.
Reverend Stan Sears presented three ways of contributing financially to the
capital project. One is that we could have members "buy" a piece of the project
such as a sink, or a microwave, or a piece or cabinetry. A second option would
include donations of appreciated assets (stocks or bonds that can be donated and
written off on future income without capital gains taxes being added in). A
third option would be increasing your total pledge by adding a "capital
improvement pledge" over the next three years.
The leadership wants to stress that we are committed that no one feel
obligated to contribute to this capital fund replacement of 50% if it would
require them to reduce their normal annual pledge slated for the ongoing
operation of the church. We will have opportunities for "sweat equity," and we
hope the new kitchen and accessible bathroom will encourage other fundraising
activities. The majority voted for the project with one nay vote recorded
because the 50% repayment of the fund was not included as a requirement. The
leadership strongly believes in replacing as much of the investment as possible
without straining the finances of anyone in the church.
In parliamentary countries, the ruling party often faces what
is often referred to as a "loyal opposition." I have sometimes thought that the
epithet "loyal" is probably used to masque the fact that, given the opportunity,
they would lop each others' heads off. In a sense, it provides a bit of
security. "Loyal" also infers that while we may disagree over policies, we agree
on the preservation of our nation.
The value of a loyal opposition is that it provides for a process of checks
on the ruling party's power. While the ruling party may eventually overrule, if
it has a majority, the loyal opposition can raise questions during sessions of
parliament, as well as in the court of public opinion.
Although he viewed religion with some disdain, and probably would not have professed any loyalty to God,
Christopher Hitchens, the writer who died last month, served this purpose for
many religious people. In books, such as God is Not Great, as
well as his numerous articles on religion, Hitchens questioned the absolutism
and tribalism of much of organized religion. One of the best-known examples of
this came when Iran's ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, slapped a fatwa or
murder target on Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses.
While many other writers chose not to get involved, Hitchens did not
hesitate to call it what it was—a barbaric and vain attack on someone with an
opposing view. Hitchens, like most of us, knew that it had more to do with
Khomeini’s ego than any offense to religion. Of course, Christianity had a
similar history with its blasphemy, heresy, and witchcraft trials. I often
wonder whether the willingness to kill those who are different is a part of the
human condition that we have not fully acknowledged or confronted.
Hitchens was well-read, and sometimes appeared every bit as vain and
egotistical as those he lampooned. He was far from perfect, but so are we all.
What infuriated some who claim to be religion's official spokespersons was that
Hitchens had the audacity to infer that the idea of a perfect God was also an
absurdity. Furthermore, he did it with a biting sense of humor.
He also taught us the importance of religious questioning. Just because
someone claims to speak for God, does what they say make sense?
In this way, he helped keep us honest and reminded us not to become too full
of ourselves, or of God. Or, more importantly, to confuse our own beliefs with
God's. As numerous writers have said, claiming to read the mind or know the will
of what we call God is a fantasy. And killing people for a fantasy is a tragedy.
Stan Sears, Minister
The holidays are a wonderful time for reconnecting with
family and friends. Many of us will send out annual cards with letters updating
what we and our family members have been doing over the past year. Some of us
(or our family members) will travel to see one another, if only for a few days.
In our part of the world, all of this frenetic travel takes place at a time when
the snows of winter are increasing. Yet, we do this as an act of faith (that our
travels will be safe and manageable) and love (because we know that these
connections are important to us, as well as those we are visiting).
If you have not made it out to church with your usual regularity, I want to
issue you a special invitation. Come over to Ron and Laura’s for the holiday
potluck on December 10. In addition to seeing other members and friends, you
will get to meet their new dogs. It is also likely that you will receive a tour
of Ron’s amazing fish collection! If you have questions about what to bring,
contact Laura Hopkins for suggestions.
I would also like to invite you to visit us at church. A lot
has been happening, and much more is in the works. (See the note on our kitchen
renovation and plans for a handicap accessible bathroom!) Over the years, we
have been holding a multi-festival candle lighting service on the Sunday evening
before Christmas. This year, with Christmas on a Sunday morning, we decided to
try holding our candle light service on Christmas Eve. Mary Ann Finn and Carolyn
Christie are planning special flute and piano music for this service. There
will, of course, be holiday treats following the service.
If this has been a challenging or difficult year, I want to make an extra
effort to reach out to you. I will be calling over the next week or so to set up
visits, if you would like a home visit. I believe that I know most of you; there
are undoubtedly some who have kept your difficulties private. Please do not
hesitate to contact me, if you would like a visit.
I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible this month! Once again,
thank you for the privilege of allowing me to serve as your minister. Have a
happy and a healthy holiday season!
Rev. Stan Sears, Minister