November 14, 2015
In response to the violence in France. We should condemn as evil the attacks upon Paris and call all in metro Saint Louis to respond in ways that affirm the greater power of compassion, and peacemaking. Though international powers must forcefully oppose the radicals who have lost their love for humanity, we know the radicals will be defeated, spiritually and physically, by cooperation between people of all religious faiths to create a merciful, fair and compassionate world.
George Bush led us into this war with bravado, shock and awe. But his policies had very little to do with undermining the spiritual and religious roots of this war. “We fight,” as the apostle of Jesus, Paul, said “not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities: in this world and in the spiritual realm.” Obviously, we do fight against flesh and blood, those people who are willing to tear human flesh and spill human blood. But that very physical war, and its allied spiritual powers of intimidation and fear, will not bring Peace. Victory of that kind of physical force can bring a lull in the violence, and can establish a foundation for the rule of law. But, in the end we must be the peace we want to be in the world. We must undermine the forces which separate and oppress, and replace them with democratic process, compassionate action and mutual understanding.
Every violent attack can make us afraid. We can become like the cousins of Arjuna, ready to spill more blood in anger, or we can be like Arjuna at the beginning of the Gita, overwhelmed by evil. But the best is to heed the voice of the One: on world, one humanity, one spirit of inculsion peace and agape Love.
October 19, 2015
The movie, The Martian is basically a survival story set on Mars. It is funny and interesting, with a likable main character named Mark Watney, engaging side stories, many tense moments of action, and lots of beautiful visions of Mars. But what does religion have to do with this survival story? If you are Mark Watney, (or most anyone else in this movie) not much. The story is about the value of human effort and achievement, science and intelligence. So, by the traditional definition of religion as belief in a supernatural deity, it is not a religious movie. But that is not the whole story.
The most obvious appearance of religion is when people on Earth at mission control are worried about launch of a supply rocket. To quote the book, Mitch asks Venkat, “Do you believe in God?” Venkat responds, “Sure, lots of them, I’m a Hindu.” “Ask ’em all for help with this launch” Mitch tells Venkat, and the reply: “Will do.” (Note that Venkat does no “puja” at that moment). This is what I call “movie luck religion.” A character or characters find themselves in a place where luck will make the difference, or they find a situation where it seems their effort alone is not enough, and so they look for some other and mysterious source of help. Sadly, in The Martian this launch fails, reinforcing the idea that gods (as superstitious luck charms) are pretty much useless. Perhaps they have a value as anxiety reducers.
Religion also appears as a sacred icon. Martinez, a devout Catholic, has been forced to leave several personal items back on Mars, including a wood crucifix. The main character, Mark Watney, shaves it down to kindling. Reflecting back on what he has done he says “If there is a God he won’t mind, considering the situation I’m in.” Religion is presented as a personal hobby of one character, or an unimportant belief in a supernatural judge. It is not made clear how devout Martinez really is, but the impression is that though his faith might have personal value, it certainly is not of universal or practical worth. Watney gladly whittles away religion to serve practical ends.
If, on the other hand, “religion” is a set of shared values and actions that shape the meaning and obligations and ethical decisions that people make, then this movie has a strong religious element. Shared values like loyalty, cooperation across differences and a desire to help others are all factors that drive character’s actions. Watney, while talking to his fellow astronauts, speaks of the fact that they are willing to give their lives to “something greater.” At the end of the story Watney says, “Every human being has a basic instinct: to help each other out. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”
The author of book and of the movie do not reflect upon the validity of this universal truth, or exactly what is the “something greater” that an individual life might serve. Characters also speak seriously of guilt and forgiveness, but only on a practical and personal level. Even the value of the space program is assumed, protected from being hurt by public opinion, but not defended on any real deep level. The religion of this movie is an unquestioned faith in human effort and progress, science and intelligence. Religion is the public and culturally shared expression of personal spirituality. As Scientific Humanism, which deeply vlaues human progress, motivates human striving and human unity, this is a very religious movie. But in this story of space travel, no one is heard praying. Lots of cussing, but no praying.
September 20, 2015
Following is a quote from Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber and her interview on the NPR show Fresh Air.
For me these words show that there are people in mainline religion who stay there, even though they are really Unitarian in theology, and thus are crypto-Unitarians. It also reveals that there are people, like Bolz-Weber, who consciously reject following our way, even if they are OK with who and what we are.
The prefix “crypto” means secret or hidden.
I just don’t think that belief should be the basis of belonging to a community like this, and so we don’t sort of make that the central reason why somebody belongs. So we don’t even talk about belief that often in my church, strangely. It’s not that I don’t care; it’s that I don’tfeel responsible for what people believe. I feel very responsible for what they hear, as their preacher, as their pastor
We have people who are atheist, agnostic, people who are very evangelical in their faith; somehow it’s a space where people who believe a lot of different things can come together, but that doesn’t mean I’m like a crypto-Unitarian. So I’m not just quoting Thich Nhat Hanh in my sermon; I mean, I’m actually a very orthodox Lutheran theologian, and it’s a very sort of Christo-centric community, but it’s one in which really everyone is welcome to come and participate.”
August 10, 2015
“Why We Are Here” Rev. Thomas Perchlik
Remarks at UU Kickoff for the one year anniversary weekend of the Ferguson Uprising. 2015-08-07
I am the Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis. I serve the eldest Unitarian Church in this metro-area. Tonight I am here to speak for the founder. The Lorax spoke for the trees, I speak for the founder of Saint Louis Unitariansm.
In 1834, a young, entrepreneurial minister named William, William Eliot, came to this small city on the edge of civilized America. He knew that city was growing by the spirit of rapid profits and capital gains and booming commerce, and he wanted it to also be shaped by Unitarian principles. William knew that to follow Jesus meant to affirm the dignity and goodness of all persons. He knew that to fight for the Kingdom was to bring love and justice into all our actions and speech. Inspired by the preaching of W. E. Channing, Eliot was passionate about how education can lift the human soul.
William also saw how slavery oppressed and dehumanized people. He was known to speak out against the unfair and cruel treatment of slaves. When he inspired Unitarians in the work of creating a public school system the city was deeply segregated. So, we also created a school for black people that met in our church building. At its height, this school served more than 200 students. When the Civil war began, it became against the law for black people to gather together. Our police did not have tear gas back then, but fear worked the same then as now. Hearing about the new law, Reverend Eliot walked to the governor’s office and got approval for the school to continue meeting while the war raged on. This history is part of the foundation upon which we build here today. Unity of the one human race, with Love and Justice for all.
However, our motivations are never simple. William was a gradualist. He opposed those who wanted to end slavery immediately. He thought it would take generations to change habits and hearts. He feared the loss and pain and violence that always came with any sudden change. He feared the ruin of war. In general, Unitarian Universalists have put him on the losing side, even aligning him with the slaveholders. Some Unitarians called for immediate emancipation. Unitarians like Julia Howe and Theodore Parker went on to give voice and theology and vision for the cause of union and the fight against slavery. But in a way William understood the human spirit more truly. For here we are, more than one and a half hundred years later, generations later, still trying to change hearts and habits, still trying to undo oppression, unfair treatment, and divisiveness. That is why we are here, bearing these twin strains of our heritage, the immediate call for action, and the long vision.
No matter how we are called to serve, no matter our specific actions, may all that is holy bless us and guide us as we seek to embody Love and Justice this weekend.
July 2, 2015
Flames connect us. You know that it is the sunlight of a million summers, caught by photosynthesis, sealed in the earth, that we burn within car engines, moving us here, or there. We gather at fires in the winter, but it was under summer skies when I was closest to my father. We would camp in the mountains, hiking toward the sun. I learned from him to turn a pile of sticks into a fire, to heat beans or perk coffee. I remember liking the taste of burnt marshmallows: their molten centers so sweet on the tongue. Never as golden as his.
Perhaps it was a charcoal grill your father cooked on. A fine combination of lighter fluid and smoke may summon his younger self back to you. Perhaps your father was furnace hot burning you with words or strikes. My father lit sparkers in our hands, and one July he had to chase a burning wheel of fire through dry grass to stop a forest from catching flame. I remember his sun-dark skin, sweat radiant, working a shovel in summer heat.
Perhaps the sun is a god, as some imagined, quickening life, changing the earth, transforming each of us. Or perhaps the summer sun is an icon of something like love; source of power, fearsome, more distant than the inconstant moon, and yet shining in our eyes and skin, warming our minds and heart in this very moment.
June 9, 2015
Words spoke at the Installation of Reverend Sarah Richards at the Carbondale UU Fellowship, April 26, 2015, Carbondale, Illinois
By Reverend Thomas Perchlik © 2015
What a beautiful thing to do, to lay hands upon this minister, and the people and friends of this congregation, and thereby to bless one another and affirm the power of our promise together. The sermon and the ritual have lifted up the larger beauty of what we are doing here, and something of what we hope to be doing in the future. But, it is my job to make the commitment of this congregation a little more specific, a little more concrete.
To do that I will tell you a story. Once, I was in a conversation with a Rabbi. I asked him some questions about how Judaism changed from being temple-centered to focused on the religious life of home and congregation. Instead of giving a discourse on Jewish history, he said that once upon a time after the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, there was a lay-led synagogue in an isolated shtetl. The leader of this congregation was beloved not only because he had memorized the scriptures, the whole of the Torah and the law. Always, when he spoke or read the holy words it was with deep understanding and insight. What is more, he lived his life as an embodiment of God’s holy covenant, and was an inspiration to others. He made his money as a mason, building walls, for yards, homes, and other buildings.
One day the wealthiest man in the synagogue came to this leader and said, “My father has died, and you must come with me to say the prayers and put his body to rest.”
But the stone worker said, “I cannot. I have a contract to finish this wall in three days.”
“Oh don’t worry about that,” said the rich man, “I can find others to do this work and fulfill your contract.”
But the stone worker protested, “The homeowner did not contract with anyone, but with me. He knows the quality of my work, the artistry and durability of my work. He wants a wall of quality.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” said the rich man, “I have resources. I will find someone of excellence that knows stone as well as you, but, I cannot find anyone who knew my father, and who knows the spirit of worship as well as you.”
“Ah, yes,” replied the stone worker, “But you must realize, I need this job. Without it who will pay my bills? If I lose this contract, I may lose others.”
The rich man finally saw the whole picture. He said, “Don’t worry. I will help pay your salary, and I will make sure the others in the synagogue pay your salary, not just a fee for each service, but a wage you can live on.”
The stone cutter agreed, and that was the beginning of congregational ministry.
So, this story carries a three-fold charge to you.
First, remember that Sarah is a professional leader. We know she is professional because she has jumped through the many hoops of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. She has great training, has developed her talents and skills, and continues to study and develop her craft. She does this best with your support. So, treat her with particular respect. Honor her opinions and the power of her professional disciplines. Understand that by choosing to be served by a professional you are all lifted up together. The work she does here, connects you directly to the great lineage of professional religious leaders, from martyred Bishop of Kolozsvar, to Rev. Francis David, to the powerhouse 18th Century preacher, Rev. Theodore Parker, from Educator, Rev. Sophia Lyon Fahs to the first woman in American ministry, Rev. Olympia Brown. This Reverend connects you even to Jesus and Buddha. Through the dignity of her office and the honor you give her, the honor, and dignity of your congregation becomes greater.
Second, remember a minister is more than a fee-for-service professional. Sarah is a religious person and does her work as an expression out of her relationship with the sacred, the holy, the good and ultimately real. In this, she represents the center of your congregation. She is not the center but helps you to make it more visible. I know that UUs can be diaphanous, or vague, about what is at the center of our faith. Sometimes it seems as if we are a mere collection of individual ideas. But to help your minister you must join with her in claiming the center. In our way, it does not matter what you call that center: God or Truth or Inherent Worth. But what matters is that you seek to know it and embody it. Don’t make Sarah do that alone. Share the work of faith with her. She wants to nurture and inspire the soul of each child. Join in that sacred work. Don’t let her be the only one who finds connections and partners out in the community with Catholics, Jews and others. Join with her, even while making your worship together more meaningful, beautiful and good.
The third part of my charge is to remember that she is a person, just like anyone else.
So, treat her as a person. Be polite, be kind, and friendly to her, even when you and she disagree. Thank her. There are many people in my congregation who thank me for what I do, even when I only do a mediocre job. I am so grateful for that. It is encouraging. Think about Sarah’s feelings, she has them. Respect her limits. Give her days off, and forgive her mistakes and failings, because we are all faulty in one way or another. I charge you to go so far as to embrace in love her shortcomings because those are part of her humanness and wholeness.
Finally, I charge you to remember that, as an ordinary person, and as a religious person, and as a professional, she has bills to pay and a quality of life she would like to live. So, pay her well. Honor her and her role. Share with her the sacred dimension of your work together. Treat her kindly; if so, you will build something together, something that is beautiful, inspiring and enduring. You will build the Beloved Community out of the stones of your lives and faith.
February 6, 2015
In his editorial column of February 3, “Making a Better Secularist”, David Brooks has made three terrible mistakes. In responding to Phil Zukerman’s vision of secularists, Brooks has overlooked reality.
First, he accepts Zukerman’s idea that “religion” is equivalent to conventional Christianity or Judaism. He makes this clear in his second-to-last paragraph when he gives only Jewish and Christian examples when speaking of a need to “exalt the passions in pursuit of moral action.” In reality, religion is rich and complex, offering many responses to the realities of human existence. To assume there is but one alternative to so-called secularism is to overlook the glorious abundance of religious diversity, including non-theistic forms. My religious tradition is part of this diversity but is not part of Brook’s article.
Secondly, David Brooks has accepted the illusion that all so-called ‘secularists’ are purely atheistic individualists. In reality, Zukerman’s Secularism is one current in the mighty river of humanism. Humanism centers morality, like Brook’s secularists, on “individual reason, individual choice and individual responsibility”. Humanism appears within religious traditions and outside of them. But most importantly, humanists have long understood that each person makes moral choices within a network of relationships, shaped by human culture, and as a small, linked, strand in the infinite, interconnected, web of being.
Finally, Brooks accepts the false idea that, as he puts it “You either believe in God or you don’t”. Beyond the fact that there are many understandings of ‘God’, there is another option. We place moral purpose and spiritual experience at our communal center. In my congregation, both non-theists and theists (and even atheists) together, shape the meaning of life, find shared identity, and choose common purpose. The “better secularist” that Brooks imagines has long existed and thrived in such communities.
At the end of his article, Brooks invokes an “enchanted secularism, one that puts emotional relations first and autonomy second.” He imagines “secularism” becoming “less content with mere benevolence, and more responsive to the spiritual urge in each of us, the drive for purity, self-transcendence and sanctification.” The better secularists that he imagines have existed in our congregations for a long time now.
January 26, 2015
On Saturday a couple of weeks back, I went to see the movie Selma. It told me only one thing I had forgotten, that Malcolm X had visited Selma, and talked with Coretta, but did not talk directly to Martin King, Junior. On the Monday after I saw the movie, Malcolm and Martin showed up at the “4 Mile March 4 Justice.”
In front of the Ferguson Police Station, the group paused to hear a speech, a poem and a song. One young black man spoke about many things. He said he was a father who did not want to raise his daughter in a world where she was 80% more likely to be shot during an encounter with the police than the average white American. I understood that completely.
He then testified to learning of King’s non-violence approach. He said that maybe this was the right way, and sometimes maybe not.
From my point of view this means this Saint Louis youth did not yet understand King’s approach. Even Gandhi said that if the choice was quiescence in the face of evil, or taking up violence to stop evil, violence was the better path. But non-violence is an absolute way of rejecting and countering the violence of oppressors with the power and courage and clarity of the ultimate truth. It is backed with what King called God. Non-violence depends upon a faith stance, that Love is the greatest power, and it bends the universe toward Justice. This abiding in Truth, gives the non-violent protestor strength and courage, and it leaves no room for maybe.
But this young man did not have that kind of faith, (I don’t know for sure if I do either) at least not yet. After this brief mention of King, the speaker said, “I have also studied the ideas of Malcolm X and Elijah Mohammed.” He said something positive about their ideas on black self-determination and self-defense. He spoke of standing against oppressors. I could not tell if he was promoting violence.
Then, his voice rose a little, insistent, addressing directly his black brothers and sisters. His exact words are lost to me now, but he said something like this: “If we are killing each other we are only helping our oppressors.” I understood that completely, even though it was a bit simplistic.
I can’t remember his exact words. Someone recorded them, but I can’t find that recording online. Perhaps I mis-understood, perhaps I got the flow of his ideas wrong. They did get my attention and got me thinking, even if I did not understand him completely.
That afternoon, as the air cooled and the sun slid low in the sky, I was happy to hear that Malcolm were carrying on the dialogue they never really had when they were alive. There they were, in the minds of those who follow after them.
January 22, 2015
I took a walk with a couple of hundred people on Monday (including a few members of my congregation and Unitarian Universalists from other parts of Saint Louis). There were other marches that day in other parts of the city, but I chose to go back to Ferguson proper. I had not seen the streets of that town for well over two months.
After an opening speech and prayer we walked the 4 and 1/2 miles from the Canfield apartments to the Ferguson Police station. We listened to a poet and a speech and sang a song, then walked back, chanting all the way.
I smile whenever someone sings out “Show me what democracy looks like” and the people respond with “This is what democracy looks like.” Democracy is messy and can entail some yelling and protesting. Marches alone are not democracy, but they can be part of the processes we value so dearly.
Of the new chants my favorite chant was this one:
“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other
and protect each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Some people had this on the back of T-shirts with “I learned this from Assata” on the front. But when we asked one woman about that she did not seem to know what it meant. So I did a little internet research. I discovered that these words are from a radical American activist, now exiled in Cuba – Assata Shakur. She says she was shot, unarmed, by the police and framed for the murder of an officer. They say she killed the officer in a shoot-out. She escaped from jail and fled to Cuba, and thinks of herself as an escaped slave.
I still like the words, but with some ambivalence about agenda, or agendas, that they may, or not, hide. Victory against spiritual powers, and principalities in the name of inclusive worth and justice is not the same as victory over persons of flesh and blood. But, ambivalence is not a bad thing. Clarity is not always possible. The whole Civil Rights movement is often like that: excellent, and edgy, importantly good and the cause of suffering, all together.
All-in-all, this walk was a meaningful way to spend a warm afternoon.
August 22, 2014
This week I have gotten many requests to help us here in the Saint Louis area. Often the offers have been for donations of food. This is my response.
Thank you so much for your compassionate outreach. You may be happy to know that First U took a food collection last Sunday and all our baskets were filled. We took our collection to St. Stephens and they were very appreciative. Other sites, outside Ferguson, in Saint Louis City and in the city of Florrisant have been selected to receive donations of food, and supplies are being distributed from those places. Another collection of non-food items has been initiated and UU congregations are joining in that.
Yesterday (August 21), all local UU clergy went to a Community Center that is just north of where all the violence took place. It was a crowded, but very mellow, scene. We offered counseling, care, and help carrying supplies to cars. People were getting help with food, utility bill problems, legal services. It was a hopeful event and others are being organized.
Meanwhile, while all the attention is on the people in Ferguson who have been isolated by protests, stores being closed and streets being shut off, there are also poor people all over the metro area who still rely on continued support of food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and services.
I say all this to let you know that this is not a disaster area, but a very active metropolitan community with many resources.
Given the distances involved, if you want to donate to local food pantries, it would be easier for you to send financial resources to be used to purchase needed items. You could send a check to First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis or to one of the several food pantries in the town of Ferguson.
The other way you can help is to focus on the bigger issues of racial inequality and policing. The best way you can stand in solidarity with us is to look at your own community. If it has not been done, look at how often police in your area stop people of color in proportion to their percentage of the population. Talk to people in your community about how much they trust the police officers to protect them. Ask the Police if they feel trusted. Do people feel that violence is going unchecked, and that the police are one source of harassment and violence in their lives? Ask your local police if they are becoming more militarized or less. Look at mental health practices in your area and the role the Police force plays in that. You may know that only a couple of days ago another young man was killed by police in this city. He was a mentally ill person wielding a knife. Do things like that happen in your town? Do the police kill many people in your city but never see anyone punished for those deaths?
If there are troubles, hold a forum to raise awareness. Hold a rally to protest injustice. Do it in the name of Michael Brown and Ferguson, but focus on your community.
And if things are going well, then hold that up. Be a light. Let the Police in Ferguson and STL County that military responses to unrest and crime are not the norm in America. Let everyone know what justice looks like.
Another thing you can do is look at . This is a site of things happening in the STL area. If a vigil is happening here one night, you can create a parallel event in your church or city to say that you are with us.
Keep being Peace builders. Love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with what you know to be the one God.