April 27, 2016
Remarks made at the First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis, April 23, 2016
My Dear People, long ago according to Mr. Tolkien, Bilbo Baggins gave a speech at his one-hundred-and-eleventh birthday party. I have borrowed some of Bilbo’s words, and added some of my own, to properly to honor this marvelous event, our Fellowship of the Church Dinner.
My dear Dusenberys and Fathmans, and Koebbes, O’Briens and O’Malleys, and my dear Myers and Kindlebergers, and so many more. Too many to name and count, including individuals such as Bovento and Hoeklman, going on to those at the end of the alphabet, such as the Wires, and the inestimable Weck. WELCOME! Also, my greetings go to all those who have worked to make this party possible including Ms. Clemons and Ms. Underwood, and our custodian, Mr. Smith.
Today, this church is more than a hundred and eleven years old! In fact, it is only a couple of months past its hundred and eighty-first birthday! Since we did not celebrate our birthday at the end of January, let’s do that now. Cheers!
I hope you are all enjoying yourselves as much as I am. I shall not keep you long. We have feasting to do, but we are gathered together for a purpose. Indeed, I have three Purposes for this speech.
First of all, I speak to tell you that I am immensely fond of you all and that five years is too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable Unitarians and to say that I am sorry to be leaving you in a few months.
I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.
Secondly, we are here to celebrate birthdays of another sort, the anniversaries of all who joined this church 15 years, 25 years, 50 and 55 years ago. I am not going to add up all those years, all the Sundays celebrated, all the Fellowship Dinners attended, all the money that you gave or any of that, but it is not a trifling amount. It is a form of inheritance given to us for which we should be grateful.
It is also, if I may be allowed to refer to ancient history, the sixth anniversary of my arrival by barrel here at our annual Fellowship Dinner; this was the first time we were, properly, introduced. I was only fifty then, but I had the honor of being seated at a front table with the eldest of our elders, including Marietta Hunsche, who on that day was not even a hundred and who, tomorrow we will memorialize in words and song. The banquet that night was very splendid; I was as grateful to be here then as now. I repeat what I said then, ‘Thank you very much for coming to this little party and for including me.’ I now expand on what I said then: thank you for including me in all that we have done together for the past five years.
Thirdly and finally, I wish to say that this party is not my party, even though I briefly wondered if the Tolkien inspired theme was chosen just to please me. In fact, this dinner is not about me at all. This party is about you, the fellowship of this church. The minister of a church makes visible the good of the church, but he or she is not its goodness. I represent the center, but I am not the center. I clarify our purposes, but I do not determine our purposes. I choose a course across the wilderness, I can name the dangers and the joys we should face in our journey together, but I cannot choose what you do or how you do it. You are the fellowship of the church. Even when I give a great speech, without you to create the occasion, to support my work, to open your minds and hearts, I am just talking to myself. And when I am gone, when someone else holds this office, you are the church. With you and only through you does the church live and love and remember and hope. Together, as a fellowship, you must seek the truth, seek love, seek justice, and seek honesty, integrity, and inspiration, because the finding is in the seeking.
But tonight we cease from seeking. Together, we rest from our eternal journey to find the spiritual ring of Love, Justice, Dignity and Tolerance. We take the time to look around and to see in each other, the fellowship of the church, to appreciate how far we have come on our journey, and to see clearly the spirit that moves us all to do the hard work of committees, and boards, feasts, and festivals. Tonight you are all to be honored, for you are the mighty Fellowship of the church.
April 6, 2016
Often, while marching in Ferguson, we chanted “No Justice, no Peace.” I thought to myself as I chanted, “Know Justice, know Peace.” However, during a lull in the chanting, I asked a young man next to me, “What do you think ‘justice’ is?” He replied without hesitation, “Put that murderer away.”
Last month, on the Books and Culture website, Tim Stafford posted an essay titled, “Why Justice Divides Us; And how it can unite us.” You can Find it here. (Tim Stafford is a self-avowed Evangelical Christian, an author and the general editor of a recent publication, God’s Justice: The Holy Bible (Zondervan).)
In his essay, he notes how most people contrast justice with mercy, and associate justice merely with laws, and punishment for breaking laws. He notes the obvious parallel between how Christians often see the “Law” of the Old Testament and the “Grace” of the New Testament. But, Stafford argues, that ultimately, Biblical justice “Is not the application of a static body of law, but a foundational component in the great story of God setting right the creation he loves.” In fact, he emphasizes that the Biblical view of justice contains and incorporates Grace and Mercy.
He writes: “The gospel is not just about personal transformation. The good news is that God is setting right everything: individuals and society, nations and nature. If the gospel is strictly about sin and atonement in the individual’s heart, “your God is too small.”” I have met many people, even Unitarian Universalists, who’s God is too small.
Many people in UU congregations struggle with what appears as an absence of a clear and unifying theology, because we have no creed. In fact, we have a robust theology (defined as “a way of speaking about the holiest and trusted source of all that is good and right in our lives”), and it centers on a Beloved Community of Ultimate Justice.
Our theology shows up in what we do and value. For example, we are often very proud of being among the first, in this country, to speak out against slavery, to ordain women, and to affirm gay and lesbian marriages. We feel energized by action on climate change, or engagement with immigration reform, or demands that our political system treat the most vulnerable and poor with a fair and generous hand. These examples show what we think is of greatest worth and that the heart of our faith is a vision of Ultimate Justice (what Stafford calls “God’s Justice”). This vision draws from all our religious sources, Biblical, and Humanistic. Thus, it is an act of worship for us to chant “Know justice, know peace” if we remember that Justice is an integration of radical mercy, kindness and reconciliation into the application of the Law.
March 16, 2016
Last weekend I was cleaning out some leaves that January winds had left in our back stairwell. Beneath and amidst the layers were worms and centipedes.
It amazed me to see vibrant life, already moving and multiplying, while Saint Louis still has an edge of cold, especially at night. Where did they come from these creatures? What instilled them to travel across the cement stairs and slabs to these rotting leaves? I thought, with a smile, of spring coming and bright flowers growing and the coplex intertwining of all living things.
Then I recalled those who are squeemish about “creepy-crawly things” and then my mind lept to a silly image in Peter Jackson’s movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Early after Merry and Pippin have stumbled onto Frodo and Sam, they all hide under a huge tree’s tangled roots. An evil Black Rider pauses on the road above them. Jackson wanted to communicate the evil and unreasoned fear that radiated from the rider, so he showed all manner of earth creatures coming out of the ground and across the four humans (hobbits).
One could argue that these icons of good and fecund soil were trying to escape the Black Rider’s deathly presence. But I assume that Mr. Jackson just wanted to instill a feeling of fear in his audiance, and he used arthropods and annelids to do it. As a friend of mine says, “They have too many limbs or worse yet, none at all.” But I have always been one of those who find wonder in insects and such. It is reported that the biologist J. Haldane was once asked what he had found of the mind of God after studying creation for so many years. He responded, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” Haldane also conjectured that God loved stars too, because there were more of those than beetles, as far as we guess. But beetles and centipedes and worms are far more complicated, more caught up with our own survival and wellness, than are stars.
So, even these fellow creatures reveal to me the texture of heaven, the Pure Land that is waking up in the early spring amidst the leaves of my back yard.
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.