Worship Script 3
Freedom From, Freedom To
Worship Script (3 of 4)
By Erika Hewitt
Many of us were once, too, seeking for something larger than ourselves to which we could belong: a sense of rootedness to hold us as we create meaning together. We do that well here—though not perfectly. In this congregation, we strive not for perfection but for authenticity and connection.
Whether it's your first time in worship with us or your hundredth time, we hope that you’ll find here questions that stretch you, people to befriend you, and liberal religious values that challenge you to join us in loving boldly, living justly, and welcoming radically.
HYMN #361 Enter, Rejoice, and Come In
From iChurch to Beloved Community: Ecclesiology and Justice, by Fredric J. Muir
192nd Berry Street Essay Delivered at the Ministerial Conference, June 20, 2012, Phoenix, AZ
What those naming our bright future have not told us is that in order to be this 21st century religion there must be significant change, changes over which - unlike the demographic challenges - we do have control. Fundamental to our survival is a paradigm shift, a "frame-bending” that goes deep into the history, character and epistemology of Unitarian Universalism and its members because it goes to the essence of how we understand and see ourselves and in turn relate to the world at large, which means how we relate to our demographic context. Fundamental to our future is recognizing that our way of faith - from its ministry to its members - has been supported and nurtured by a trinity of errors leading not only to ineffectiveness but an inability to share our liberating message; which is to say, while Unitarian Universalism’s gospel is good news it is losing its vitality and relevance.
The trinity of which I speak is:
• First, we are being held back and stymied - really, we are being held captive - by a persistent, pervasive, disturbing and disruptive commitment to individualism that misguides our ability to engage the changing times;
• Second, we cling to a Unitarian Universalist exceptionalism that is often insulting to others and undermines our good news;
• Third, we refuse to acknowledge and treat our allergy to authority and power, though all the symptoms compromise a healthy future.
These three organizing and corrupting narratives have shaped our story. Naming and addressing these issues and the results will be rewarding, meaningful and terribly hard ministry. I have characterized this change as moving "From iChurch to Beloved Community.” In this process we will create something that has eluded Unitarian Universalism: a doctrine of church, an ecclesiology that is grounded in congregational justice-making; a doctrine of church that will guide and sustain us as we become the religion we (and others) know we can be.
Excerpt from “Response to Darrick Jackson” b y Rev. Lilia Cuervo in Centering:Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry edited by Mitra Rahnema
Both Americans and Unitarian Universalists can take freedom of expression to its extreme. We UUS claim to detest dogma, yet we are capable of acting and speaking in a self-righteous and chastising manner: “In this church we don’t weather That (usually a cross) or say the G word or like pagan rituals.” This is especially hurtful to seekers of color who come to us searching for a liberal faith but who still treasurer, at least at the beginning, some of the symbols and rituals of their native faiths. An employee of color of the congregation I was serving confided in me his bewilderment and humiliation when a congregant, without asking permission, hid under the shirt of the employee the cross he was wearing.
HYMN #324 Where My Free Spirit Onward Leads
STORY FOR ALL AGES
Free for the Summer, by Emily DeTar Birt
For many of you, you might be headed towards the last few weeks of school soon. I can remember when I was in school at this time of year, I just wanted to be out of school. I was so excited to be free from homework, and long class days. Are you excited to be out of school soon?
[wait for kids to respond]
I found what made summer exciting was what I was able to do with family and friends. What are you excited to do this summer?
[listen for responses. Suggest things you are excited about doing]
I ask you what you are excited about, because it teaches us something about freedom. It’s one thing to be free from homework and studying and long classes. But if all you did was be free from that, and had nothing to look forward to, than summer might be pretty boring or dreary. It’s also important, that we are free to do things.
We talk about that kind of freedom a lot here. We want people to be free from judgment. We want people to be free from rigid rules about beliefs. But we also want people to be free to drink clean water. Free to be taken care of when they are sick. Free to love whomever they want to love. Free to be whatever gender or no gender they might be. It’s not enough just to be free from certain things. We as a community help each other to look forward to the things we are free to do. And we help each other build a world where others are free to do things they are excited about doing to.
In This Time of Meditation, by Martha L. Munson, 1997 UUMA Worship Materials Collection
"For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free."
In this time of meditation, may you rest in the grace of the world and be free.
In weakness, may you sense the strength of the eternal hills, and rest in the grace of the world.
In failure, may you be upheld like the buoyancy of water, and rest in the grace of the world.
In limitation, may you remember that the choices may be as great as the expanse of the sky, and rest in the grace of the world.
In insecurity, may you feel the solid earth beneath your feet, and rest in the grace of the world.
In despair, may you hear the joy in birds' singing, and rest in the grace of the world.
In fear, may you feel the warmth of the sun, and rest in the grace of the world.
"For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free." So be it..
CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN
Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives. As you do, you may briefly share what it is. We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.
Freedom From and Freedom To, by Peter Friedrichs
Every spring at Stonewall Farm in Keene, New Hampshire—and at other dairy farms throughout northern New England—there’s a festival to celebrate the season. It’s not an Easter celebration, or a Solstice celebration. It’s not Mother’s Day or May Day. It has different names at different farms, but at Stonewall Farm it’s called “The Dancing of the Ladies.”
Sounds like some kind of pagan rite, doesn’t it? When I first heard it, I pictured adolescent girls prancing around with flowers in their hair. But that’s not what the Dancing of the Ladies is. Instead, it is the ceremonial release of the milking herd from the barn to the field for the first time in spring.
The cows, you see, have been cooped up all winter, eating last year’s hay for months. They likely haven’t even seen the sun for the entire length of the cold New England winter. So they’ve got a serious case of cabin fever. But the farmers have to wait until fairly deep into spring to set the cows loose in the field, so that the pastures are ready to receive them. They don’t want their fields to become mud-pits, like some bovine version of Woodstock, where their cows and calves can get stuck and stranded. And they want to be sure that the new grass and alfalfa have time to take root and get some good greening before it’s trampled.
So, at most New England farms, the cows have to wait until late April or even early May before they’re released from their winter jails. And as you might imagine, the cows get pretty antsy, cooped up in the barns all winter and a good part of spring.
Noticing how they typically react to being set free, the farmers cleverly decided to build celebrations around the event, invite people to attend, and make some money. The herds become literal “cash cows.” Thus, the creation of the Dancing of the Ladies.
At these events all over New England, hundreds of people now throng to dairy farms dotting the rural landscape. I’ve heard that there are even families who plan several weekend outings around them, traveling from farm to farm to witness the recurring event. Rumor has it that at one farm they accompany the release of the herd with a champagne toast and a brunch afterwards.
What makes this event so popular that crowds will stand eight or ten deep to witness it is the reaction of the cows to being set loose in the fields. You can see it for yourself—it’s all over YouTube and maybe it’s crossed your Facebook feed. When the cows are freed from the confines of their barns, they act like excited little children. These animals that can weigh close to a ton dance and prance and cavort all around the fields. Not only are they let loose, but they let loose themselves, literally kicking up their heels with pure, simple, unadulterated (I’m tempted to say “unpasteurized”) joy. You can almost see it on their faces.
The closest experience that I can relate this to was back in grade school, at the end of the school year, the last minute of the last hour of the last day, when the bell rings and suddenly you’re FREE, and you’d run out of the classroom screaming and singing. Do you remember that feeling? I don’t know whether the cows feel that way, but that’s the way they act when the get out into the fresh air and sunshine for the first time in spring.
I felt something like that same feeling when I discovered Unitarian Universalism. That same sense of freedom, of being released from bondage, ofbeing able to breathe again. Perhaps you also experienced that feeling when you first discovered a religious community that doesn’t tell you what you have to believe to belong. Having been raised in the Catholic Church myself, I remember it distinctly.
I had left the Catholics as a teenager and entered the ranks of the “un-churched”—or maybe now I’d be called one of the “Nones.” That was until my wife and I moved to Maine and had our two children, and she sent me out to find a church where I’d be happy. The main street of our town was lined with churches of every stripe and color, with the Catholics located at one end of the street.
I decided to start my search geographically as far from that church as I could, and it just so happened that at the other end of the street were the Unitarian Universalists. I had never heard of them and had no idea what to expect. But I tried it out. And I was amazed by what I found that Sunday.
So I went back the following Sunday and then the next. And I felt like those cows set loose into the field and the sunshine. Free. Free to doubt. Free to find my own path. Free to explore. Free to question long-held beliefs from my childhood. Free to be myself with others like me. That was more than 25 years ago, and I still remember those feelings of freedom as strongly as I remember the feeling of the last day of school and the start of summer.
It is one of the great graces of our faith tradition—this freedom we’re given and that we claim. It lies at the very core of who we are as Unitarian Universalists. Because our liberal religious forebears fought and sometimes died for it, we are free from the constraints of orthodoxy and the commandments of the Catholic Church. We are free from the stain of Original Sin. We are free from the power of the priesthood to mediate our relationship with the Holy. We are free from the control of a central authority in Rome or even Boston.
Our scripture isn’t limited to one holy book. Religiously-speaking, the entire world is our oyster. Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s a rich and enticing smorgasbord. We have been granted the freedom to learn from Sufism, to investigate Taoism, to immerse ourselves in Emerson and the tasty Transcendentalists. And it feels GREAT! Am I right?
This freedom is one of the reasons—maybe the primary reason—we love our faith as we do. It’s why the boldest among us even tell our friends and neighbors about it and maybe, just maybe, invite them to come to church with us. We are unique among all the religious enterprises and experiments because of this freedom, and the independence it invites.
For those of us who have come from other faiths, the freedom from all that has bound us in our religious past draws us toward Unitarian Universalism. For those of us who have been marginalized or oppressed by religion in our personal pasts, the freedom from fear and judgment draws us toward Unitarian Universalism.
Ours is a faith in which we are allowed to be our true and authentic selves. And if we don’t know exactly who or what that is, this faith gives us the freedom to explore and discover and claim it. Our faith is nothing if not the sum total of all the “freedom froms,” such as freedom from authority, freedom from fear, freedom from orthodoxy.
But there is a shadow side to all these “freedom froms,” which can show up in unhealthy ways in our congregations and in ourselves. Just because we are free from authority doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want. Just because we are free from orthodoxy doesn’t mean that we can believe whatever we want. We have shared values and understandings about the world and our place in it, and there are limits that, if exceeded, would place you outside the admittedly wide bounds of our faith.
The fierce independence that our faith promotes can easily become corrupted into a narcissistic individualism that is both personally destructive and damaging to our communities. The Rev. Dr. Fred Muir, senior minister of our church in Annapolis, Maryland, calls this the rise of the “iChurch,” where each individual believes and acts as though the institution is there to meet their own personal needs. Here’s what he said, in part, in an acclaimed 2012 essay, entitled, “From iChurch to Beloved Community.”
We are being held back and stymied—really, we are being held captive—by a persistent, pervasive, disturbing and disruptive commitment to individualism… While individualism may have been a bold and appealing way to create and build a nation and its institutions, and to grow Unitarian Universalism (it might even have felt natural or “God-given”), it is not sustaining. Individualism will not serve the greater good, a principle to which we have committed ourselves. There is little to nothing about the ideology and theology of individualism that encourages people to work and live together, to create and support institutions that serve common aspirations and beloved principles.
The danger, I think, stems from our getting stuck at “freedom from,” and not living into the “freedom to” of our faith, as when we come to treat our freedom as a birthright rather than as a precious gift. The “freedom from” mentality keeps us stuck in antagonism. It pits us against “them,” whether “they” are the faith of our family of origin, those who refuse to accept us as we are, or any other part of our past that we have rejected or want to hold at bay. “Freedom from” keeps us in a state of moving away, instead of moving toward; of disengaging, rather than engaging; of standing against instead of standing with.
It is the “freedom from” approach to church that enables toxic people to hold entire congregations hostage, and that keeps us from achieving the excellence we’re capable of, for fear of offending someone. “Freedom from” is a kind of lowest common denominator thinking, where we value keeping things calm and conflict-free more than risking depth and living into the power of our true potential.
Our faith is about gaining freedom from certain things, yes. But we can’t stop there. We must move beyond it to a “freedom to” attitude. “Freedom to” is about exploring rich possibilities in our lives and in our congregations. It calls us to ask and explore tough mission questions like “Why do we exist?” and “What are we called to be and to do in the world?” When we look at freedom not as the be-all and end-all, but rather as the jumping-off point—the place where we begin instead of the place where we end—we realize that our freedom is a rich resource from which we can draw strength and gather commitment.
“Freedom to” leads us to ask questions: “Freedom to be who?” “Freedom to do what?” It calls us not to spin around in our own little orbits as individual actors. Rather, it calls us to seek to grow into relationship with each other, both within our congregations and with the community around us. “Freedom from” keeps us looking back on our past. “Freedom to” is forward-looking, pulling us toward the future. “Freedom from” is about rejection, while “Freedom to” is about creation.
I want us—each and every one of us—to celebrate the simple joy of our freedom, just like cows that dance in the spring fields. But we can’t stop there. We can’t be satisfied with the freedoms that we’ve won, and that have been won on our behalf. We have been handed a precious and powerful gift. We must ask ourselves toward what ends we can use it, and then take steps to put it in motion, so that future generations may one day celebrate their own liberation.
HYMN #368 Now Let Us Sing
Uncertainty, by Orlanda Brugnola
For those worlds which are strange to us,
whose demands and obligations
are harsh or unclear
that we will maintain our integrity
though we be uncertain,
though we be shaken to the core,
Wwe hope that we will seek strength
from familiar worlds
to deal with those that we are unfamiliar, remembering
that the heart knows many ways,
is not alone,
carries in itself
the very message of life.