Friday, June 22, 2018

Listen to One Another

This open letter to the congregation comes from Betty Warner, an active member who, with her husband Bob, moved to Pennsylvania.  They both have been missed by those who knew them, and as this letter makes clear, they miss and still care deeply about the TJMC community.


Forgive us for speaking from far away and long ago, but the tragedy occurring in our (speaking for both myself and husband Bob) beloved community at TJMC is breaking our hearts.  TJMC brought us to the UU church more than 10 years ago; we served the church in a variety of formats until we left four years ago for a Quaker retirement community in Pennsylvania.  Thus, our observations are from the six years of our activity at TJMC, from the perspective of our new congregation in Wilmington, DE, and from the impact upon us of our Quaker community.

Remember our despair as a community in 2009 when the Search Committee was forced to inform our congregation that their ministerial choice had turned us down?  We had suffered together through the departure of David and Leslie (still united in those days), the lackluster 2-year interim ministry that followed, the hope and optimism that, with the right leadership, we could be great again…and then the rejection of that dream by the candidate our Search Committee had identified as best for us.  I remember clearly that the congregation was desolate; we had been communally punched in the gut; we were speechless and adrift.  Remember?  For a brief moment, there was anger…what had the Search Committee done incorrectly?  We could have readily turned on one another.  Rather, we united.  We chose to focus on healing ourselves, on moving forward, on remaining optimistic—without a minister to guide us.  We did more than survive; we achieved the status of beloved community.  That time is my favorite memory of TJMC.

Quaker meetings typically do not have ministers; they believe their work and extensive social justice activism are divinely inspired within each individual.  Healing, social justice, a sense of community are NOT the purview of the minister’s leadership.  Erik was very open with us when we interviewed him…he told us clearly that he would not create our Long Range Plan, but follow the one we created.  And yet, I am reading that some at TJMC are angry at him for fulfilling his promise to minister, to guide but not lead.

In our brief time at TJMC, it was clear that the congregation was hard on its ministers.  Although both Leslie and David were officially part-time, both worked full-time.  Before departing, both indicated that they felt the congregation had been reticent to keep them.  My impression as a congregant, though I cannot point to specific evidence, was that Leslie felt her gender and her ethnicity were barriers to acceptance at TJMC.  Our second interim, like Erik, was clear that she would not be at most meetings nor would she lead us, but would rather guide us to a point where we might be ready to define our strengths and weaknesses more clearly in order to more effectively match with a minister in our search process.  Under her leadership, we developed our Covenant. Most of TJMC was glad to see her go although she was considered a great interim elsewhere, and had been selected by our congregation’s committee.  (My least favorite memory of TJMC was witnessing her being verbally attacked by TJMC members and arguing with members who threatened—and did—leave because she did not take their requested action against an employee.)

For those of you who are irritated with Erik, direct those issues to the Committee on Ministry or Board, and understand that this is a process which represents the community and may not always represent your concerns as an individual.  If you are unable to accept the community’s processes and priorities, and the irritations become battle cries, then work to change the community’s priorities (ie run for Board).  Most of all, please, please do not allow the many riches of TJMC to vaporize in the passion of a position that is temporal.   As any congregation which has engaged in a divisive battle regarding its minister will tell you (which includes our current congregation), the bad feelings will last for many years.   Please use the energy being spent on “taking sides” to be used to listen to one another and heal this beloved community.   

Thursday, June 21, 2018

If we are being our best selves ...

The following is an email sent to the Committee on the Ministry by Dawn Dirks, as a follow-up to her comments on the pulse survey.  She agreed to make it an open letter to the congregation as well.

Hello, current members of the Committee on Ministry. In light of Reverend Wik’s June 2018 ministerial report and the online conversations that have followed this week, I feel the need to expand upon my replies to the Pulse survey sent out last week. 

We all know that our congregation is experiencing a very challenging time right now, and some people are feeling deeply dissatisfied for various reasons.  I want to share my own feelings regarding these issues, and in particular, how they relate to Wik.  First, let me share a bit about my own history with the UU faith and with TJMC-UU in particular.  I have been involved with TJMC-UU for more than 17 years, but beyond that, I am a lifelong UU.  My children are 3rd generation UUs on my side and 4th generation on their dad’s side.  The UU faith is in my blood, and in that of my children.  In addition, I was a staff member here at TJMC-UU and I recently served as the Chair of the Personnel Committee.  I have been aware of the concerns some members have had over the last several years in regard to Wik’s performance, and because of the nature of my involvement, I hope that my perspective may be helpful. 

For as long as I have been involved at TJMC-UU, I have felt a certain level of tension over a wide array of issues.  As an adult, I have attended 4 different UU churches, and each church has had its own climate, with different strengths and challenges.  I say this because I think it is important to know that from my perspective, the tensions that are specific to TJMC have a long history here.  Some are standard issues that many churches share, such as budget concerns, staffing needs, growing pains as a congregation moves from pastoral size to something different, and struggles over how to determine priorities and long-term vision.  From my perspective, however, TJMC has suffered from a long-standing underlying sense of unease and lack of communication and trust that I have not experienced at the same level in other congregations.  I think that many who have come to TJMC-UU looking for a spiritual home, and many who have left dissatisfied, would share my sense of this underlying energy. 

I believe that our church community needs a paradigm shift.  My hope is that we can find our way to truly be the beloved community built on mutual trust, deep respect, and a shared sense of unified purpose that we all want.  In order to get there, we need to do the hard work together to rebuild, or in some cases, create, our trust in and commitment to each other.  None of us is perfect, including our staff, and we should not expect/demand perfection from each other.  During my time on the Personnel Committee, I was deeply troubled by the consistent lack of respect and basic kindness some congregants, and in fact, some Personnel Committee members, expressed in regard to two of the members of our senior staff.  I sincerely believe that the hateful, racist note left for Christina grew out of this lack of respectful dialogue that we as a congregation have allowed to happen.  I also believe that everything Wik said immediately following the receipt of that note is true and needed to be said.  We need to hear those words again, and take them to heart.  Here is my truth:  we as a congregation have absolutely unrealistic expectations of what our staff can do, and what we should expect them to do.  We often treat them with deep disrespect.  We do not trust them to be the professionals that they are.  Wik told us when we called him that he believes in and practices radical shared ministry.  I believe that those who are troubled by it did not truly hear, or perhaps did not understand what this would look like.  The shared leadership model has worked exceptionally well for our 3 senior staff members.  Why are we as a congregation not willing to trust them and allow them to use this model that has, quite literally, been life-changing for our senior staff?   

I acknowledge that there have been some very real challenges with Wik’s perceived performance, and I understand that he has not always changed his practices in the way that some would like.  It has been my observation, however, that he has in fact listened and responded well to these opportunities for growth.  I have full confidence in his ability to be the leader we need to help us become the church we want to be.  To do so, however, requires a commitment from all of us to truly work towards becoming that beacon of inclusion, racial and social justice, and love that we say we want to be.  In fact, I believe that Wik’s presence here to help guide this transformation is a profound gift to our congregation, if we allow it.  I believe that his radical shared ministry approach may be exactly what we need to achieve this paradigm shift.  If and when Wik leaves, I hope that it will be for the right reasons and at the right time for him, and not because he has been forced out.  I cannot say strongly enough that to me, the way that some members are attempting to remove him is yet another example of the brokenness of our community.  Senior staff members do not make or break a congregation; the overall climate amongst the members does.  Attempting to blame Wik and/or Christina for our current and truly long-standing issues is unfair, inaccurate, and hurtful to all. 

From my observation, TJMC has been very fortunate to have outstanding staff members who are highly professional and who are deeply dedicated to both our congregation and our denomination.  We would do well to trust them to do the jobs that we hired them to do, and that they are, in fact, called to do as their life’s work.  If we are being our best selves and our best incarnation of a beloved community, we will support them and lift them, and each other, up with gratitude, even in times of disagreement and strife. 

With love for our church,

Dawn Dirks



Monday, June 18, 2018

A Call to Work Together


Today's Talk is written by long-time member, Elizabeth Breeden:


I think Rev. Erik needs to decide if he wants to be our minister and meet with any small group of people he chooses, to define his strengths and his ministry.  Define where he will show up.  Define what he loves to do and can commit to it, so that he’s not being asked to do what he doesn’t do.  We need to define what WE want in a minister. I want a minister who not only has an idea, but engages his congregation to implement that idea.  I want to be led to be diverse, to tear down the barriers which feel unwelcoming to anyone seeking an open minded, thoughtful, compassionate congregation.

It has been apparent to me, since Rev. Erik began his ministry, that he is a dichotomy of ministerial strengths and struggles. I believe that if Erik could define those parts of his job that he loves and those parts that stress him, he would be able to define his part of a co-ministry. The areas of ministry he would give up would be done by volunteers or other staff. I think he would also have to give up the commensurate salary and I admit that’s a tough one.

The intense conversation our church had several years ago to define and hire a DAF came from the realization there might not ever be a minister who can be pastoral and a spiritual leader AND administrate the business of the church. At that time, the minister was responsible for both financial management and for day to day operations.  Because of those discussions, we changed our Church Administrator position and increased it to the job and skills of a Director of Administration and Finance.

It is my belief that Rev. Erik created the Triune model of ministry to expand who holds the responsibilities of ministry and also to increase engagement with our community.  Instead of increasing engagement, I think it created an ivory tower of decision-making without input from the congregation.  Instead of engaging more with the Committees tasked to help with the work of the church the Committees were stripped of their input and decision-making and thus their full-on support of the members of the Triune.  In the same way, I think the Board decision to lower the number of board members, though a good decision about efficiency and finding volunteers to fill the positions, has decreased engagement with Committees and the Congregation.

Here is my take on Rev. Erik’s strengths and weaknesses. He is insightful and wise if you do not expect a second meeting or any follow up. If the problem is in the present and in his presence, he responds better than anyone.  But he has no follow-up nor any organizational leadership.  I have been on the Racial Justice Council since before it started, and he supports it from afar, but we have never been able to engage him in sustained support, organizational structure or congregational involvement from the pulpit.  The exception to this is IMPACT, I believe, due to the tenacious leader of that group. His sermons are good though he has had some spectacular disasters. He NEEDS to engage feedback from his Worship Associate Committee.  He needs a sounding-board.  Some of his sermons have had unbelievable unintended consequences.  He shows up and delivers a good Adult Faith Development class.  I have yet to hear that he has even attended the Racial Justice Committee nor asked their help in initiatives he was leading.  I believe his racial justice work should be based on relationships and on building those relationships in the larger community and I find him really bad at that. (sorry, I do…maybe he’s out there somewhere I don’t go.) 

The sad result of our recent communications among ourselves is that accusations and single- issue solutions and defensive postures are overwhelming.  They may define our problems, but now they are not helpful.  I think we have an enumerated list of perceived difficulties with Rev. Erik’s leadership thanks to the listening circle and Paula Cole Jones’ two meetings.  We have seen the breakdown of communication when the Triune and the Board does not engage the committees who are supposed to be working tightly with them to get work done. (Budget input) We should be receiving both positive and negative information with the Survey.  The organizational, communicative, action-oriented tactics that respond to this information WILL create a community that has learned to listen and imagine a solution.  Just as I ask Erik to decide what he wants about this job, I ask the congregation to decide if they want to be here, what work they will do and if they will join open-minded solutions towards a community they can love and own and welcome everyone else.  I want to do the hard work. I believe in the good intentions of our leaders.  I hope you will stay and join me.

Elizabeth Breeden



Friday, June 15, 2018

Holding Myself Accountable For Harming My Colleague, Rev. Leslie Takahashi

While this is a message to the TJMC community, it is also an open apology to the Rev. Leslie Takahashi.  I have already sent a copy to Leslie, and we will continue to be in dialogue.

As a congregation we are dealing with a number of overlapping and interwoven issues, and for many of us it is overwhelming. There is so much talk — and so much of it is emotionally charged — that I am loathe to add something else into the mix. And yet, I have recently been made aware of ways in which I inadvertently injured my colleague, the Rev. Leslie Takahashi. None of us — especially those of us who identify as white, and those of us who identify as male — is so “woke” that we are immune from behaving in ways which perpetuate the systems and structures of white supremacy and sexism, even when we’re not intending to. It has been pointed out to me that this is what I did in the way I communicated with you regarding the Ministerial Fellowship Committee’s actions concerning David Morris. In order to be accountable to my colleague, Rev. Takahashi, to this community, and to my own integrity, I feel that I have to add more words to those already swirling around.

I first communicated with the congregation about the action the Ministerial Fellowship Committee took, putting David on probation, using an adaptation of the letter the UUA sent to every congregation in our Association. In tailoring their letter for our congregation, I committed several microagressions against Rev. Takahashi. I privileged David by using the honorific “Rev.” more consistently with him than I did with Leslie, at one point even referring to my colleague simply as “his wife,” further reinforcing the dominant culture’s assertion that the professionalism of a white male is of greater importance than that of a woman of color. That this was not my intent is not as important as the impact my lack of awareness had on my colleague Rev. Takahashi. I regret that my words caused Leslie harm.

That initial letter left a great many questions unanswered, and as I learned more, I shared more. I had reached out to Leslie as soon as I first heard from the UUA, yet was not able to connect with her at that time. Alex subsequently reached out to David, and when I saw his response to her it seemed to me that what he said aligned with what the UUA & MFC had communicated. Wanting to help ease concerns among congregants, I made the decision to share the gist of David’s version of events. In hindsight it is all too clear that I should have said nothing without first making sure to have talked with Rev. Takahashi. Once again I centered the voice of another white male, rather than lifting up the voice of a woman of color. There are explanations for why I did not try harder to make sure I connected with Leslie, yet there are no excuses. Let me reiterate — I should not have told his story without also telling hers.

I have been led to understand that in not doing so, I left what I said open to serious misinterpretation. When I stressed that this was “an internal, family matter,” and “a matter of personal, family dynamics,” I was seeking to address concerns about whether other children in the congregations David served were ever at risk. I did not realize that people would infer that this was just a simple disagreement over parenting styles. I did not imagine that some people would think that Rev. Takahashi was using the MFC’s public accountability processes as a way of addressing a family dispute. To have done so would have been a serious ethical lapse on her part, and would call her professionalism into question. It was not my intention to impugn my colleague’s reputation. To the extent anyone read or heard my words to suggest anything else, I misspoke, and I need to take responsibility for that. Leslie is not the person the MFC placed on probation. 

To be clear, Rev. Takahashi did not initiate this complaint, and she has said she’s bent over backwards to avoid being involved in the process.   If this were “just” an issue of differences in parenting styles, the Fellowship Committee would not have seen fit to be involved, nor would it have decided to place David on probation for three years. While it is still my understanding that no children beyond their own were involved, the MFC would only have acted if they considered this to be an issue of ministerial misconduct, and one serious enough to warrant being placed on probation for three years. The MFC was, in fact, responding to charges of child abuse from both of David’s children.  And I have come to recognize that in saying no children from this congregation were harmed, I denied their connection to the congregation, of which they were also an active part for many years, and invalidated the trauma of their experiences.  Erasing their experience in this way created further harm.

Despite my intent to clearly, accurately, and helpfully communicate news that would certainly be distressing to some in our congregation, I demonstrated, instead, just how easy it is — especially for those of us who identify as white and male — to participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of white supremacy and sexism. My lack of awareness, my inability in this situation to see beyond the conditioning of my culture, was more than a simple mistake. It led to real consequences which were no less harmful for being unintended. In publicly acknowledging the impact of my actions on my colleague, I recommit myself to continuing working to un-learn what I have internalized from the culture of white supremacy and sexism, and I offer a deep apology to Rev. Takahashi. I hope that this will be a step toward repairing the damage I have inadvertently done. 

Pax tecum,

RevWik

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Lead Minister Report to the Board — June 13, 2018


This is my Board Report for the month of June, 2018.  I am posting it here because I think it lifts up a wider context in which the congregational survey is taking place.  It is imperative that everyone participate in this survey so that it's results truly reflect the perspective of the majority of the congregation (no matter what that may turn out to be).

During Paula Cole Jones’ first workshop(s) with us in early May, she asked people to reflect on this question: 

What concerns, interests, or opportunities do you think should be addressed in order for TJMC to be a healthy, vibrant, multi generational, multicultural community free of racism and oppression? 

Among the responses were several that expressed the belief that my continued ministry is one of those concerns, and that its termination is one of those opportunities.

It has since come to my attention that these were not just comments.  Shortly after those meetings in May, a member of the congregation sent a letter to a select group of congregants, outlining her dissatisfaction with my leadership, expressing her belief that I should resign or be fired, and encouraging this group to push for the launch of the congregational survey sooner rather than later.  She was hoping to have actionable data from the survey results before the congregational meeting and its vote on the budget.

When I heard about the email, I reached out to its author, inviting her into a conversation.  We met, and talked for roughly two hours, during which time she named her frustrations, disappointments, and dissatisfactions.  She left saying that she’d felt heard, and also that she was going to continue with her efforts to gather signatures for a petition requesting that the Board call a special congregational meeting for the purpose of voting on my tenure.  Her recommendation was that I be allowed to take my sabbatical this coming year, but that I be asked not to return after it. 

To her credit, she has shared some of her correspondence on this subject with the Committee on the Ministry and the Board Presidents (copying me as a courtesy).  For the most part, though, she has been communicating only with this group of people she thinks agree with her, out of view from anyone else in the congregation who might feel otherwise.

Her most recent communication to this group had the subject:  Do not mistake silence for inaction on the movement to vote on the Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom's termination.  It included the text of the relevant bylaw regarding the process for terminating a settled minister’s call, as well as the proposed text for the petition.  In other words, this is a serious, strategic, and sustained effort to force either my resignation or a congregational vote regarding the termination of our mutual ministry.

I would be the first person to acknowledge that my leadership is not, and has not been, perfect.  Especially during those first years I did not perform as the congregation had every right to expect.  More recently, I know that many of the positions I’ve taken – particularly regarding issues of anti-racism, anti-oppression, multiculturalism – have not been popular among everyone in the congregation.  There are many who did not understand just what my talk during my candidating week about “radically shared ministry” would look like in practice. I have been advocating a shift in paradigm, and that entails changes about which not everyone is happy.  (Nor are they convinced that the attending discomfort is necessary or desired.)

I have always affirmed that it is both the right and the responsibility of congregants to express their disagreements and dissatisfactions with the direction the congregation is going, as well as with the congregation’s leadership.  It is the members of the congregation who have the final word, and so it is only the congregation that can decide on the fitness of its leadership.  The congregant who is spearheading this effort clearly believes that I am not fit to lead this congregation, especially in what some are experiencing as troubled times of budget deficits and racial disquiet.  There is no surprise that there are others who agree.

Yet this is too important an issue to be taking place among only one segment of the congregation.  It should be a public conversation.  There needs to be transparency.  I have asked the person leading this campaign to make her efforts known in the wider congregation, and have offered to post any (or all) of her writings on the congregation’s blog, The Talk of TJMC. (This would also put it on our website, with links in our weekly email, our Sunday morning insert, and on our Facebook page). 

The day after our congregational meeting I received an email from another congregant with the heading, Erik, it is time for you to resign.  To date I have respected this group’s decision to organize a coalition before going public.  I am now convinced, however, that congregational leadership needs to respond, and that the entire congregation needs to know what is happening.

As in any congregation, there are people who disagree with the direction, approach, and qualifications of the Lead Minister, as well as people who staunchly support that minister.  Generally speaking, the majority of the congregation has little to no idea about either end of that bell curve, fairly content with the way things are.  Particularly given that our congregational survey has just launched, it is imperative that this larger group be made aware that there is an organized campaign to terminate my ministry and change the direction of the congregation.  Surveys tend to draw respondents primarily from the most the most disaffected and the most enthusiastic.  It is essential that the congregation understands the context in which this survey is taking place, and that every effort be made to encourage everyone to participate.  It is vitally important that its results truly represent the voice of the majority of our members.  

Last week I reached out to Connie Goodbread and Natalie Briscoe (Co-leads of the UUA Southern Region), Kathy McGowan (a member of the UUA Congregational Life Staff for the Southern Region), Paula Cole Jones (the UU consultant who has been working with us), and Patty Hanneman (the UU Minister’s Association Good Offices person for this area).  I also brought the three Presidents and senior staff into the conversation.  In a Zoom meeting we agreed with my assessment that something this important should not be happening out of sight of the majority of the congregation.  I suggested that I could make this the subject of this report – which will put it into the public minutes of our meeting – and we agreed that this would be a good first step.  (Out of respect for the congregants who are leading this campaign, and not wanting them to be blindsided, I have sent an email informing them of the content of this report.)

I can well imagine that all of this is disturbing.  I know that there are people who will see this as one more sign of an unresolvable and untenable rift in our congregation.  I will say, as I have before, that I do not see it that way (most recently in my Report for the Congregational Meeting).  It is important that we remember this is not the first time our community has been split.  It’s not even the first time there has been a petition to end the settled minister’s ministry!  Repeatedly, though, our history says that these divisions were never really resolved, that the wounds and the pain never fully healed.  It is my assessment that at each of these crossroads the congregation had a difficult choice to make – just what kind of congregation are we called to be?  I believe that that is what’s happening today.  The vote on whether or not my ministry here continues is, ultimately, a vote on the direction of the congregation.  And I understand it to be a part of my call to help this community discern its true identity.  So whatever happens with this effort, I want to encourage us all to stay in this discomforting place until we face that decision head on, and (finally) make a clear decision.

I believe in the direction the congregation has been moving, and I believe in the vision many here have expressed for our future.  Our congregation is in the forefront of a cultural shift which is rippling throughout our Association.  We are among the leaders in our movement striving for more than a mere verbal commitment to an anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural future, but who are committed to the discomforting work of making the changes within ourselves that are needed to make that vision a reality.  I truly believe that the majority of the congregation agrees.  So while the fractures which the campaign to terminate my ministry highlight are understandably upsetting, I would encourage us to see them as an opportunity for the kind of clarity about ourselves – our mission, our purpose, our identity – a clarity which we truly need if we are to be the “bastion of Unitarian Universalism” the wider Charlottesville community, and this world, need us to be.

I’m happy to address any questions anyone might have.

Pax tecum,

RevWik

Monday, June 11, 2018

Many Meanings of Freedom: A Sermon marking the 450th Anniversary of the Edict of Torda


This is the text of the sermon delivered by the Rev. Alexandra McGee on Sunday, June 10th, 2018, to the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The hymns used were:  Thanks be for These (# 322); Find a Stillness (#352); and,  Szekely Blessing (#1043).   Earlier in the service, Rev. Alexandra gave a brief history lesson exxplaining the Edict of Torda. 


This morning I would like to talk about religious freedom, and how that relates to freedom of conscience, and then the distinction of spiritual freedom.  Three meanings of freedom, with different opportunities and callings for us today. 

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM  
Let’s start with religious freedom.   
I invite you to consider whether you have encountered in your life a time or place when a religion was mandated by government.  In some times and places, this has been a life or death issue. 

In our US history, some the colonists in the United States were seeking freedom from religious persecution, and the young nation took a stance of freedom of religion.  Unfortunately, that did not mean that in daily life people truly ended all discrimination.   

Perhaps, you have you experienced a limit to your religious freedom?   

Let me offer some examples from diverse perspectives.  Some people in this country believe their religious freedoms are not being respected, say, for example,  
-because they are not allowed to lead their students in prayer in public schools,  
--because their tax dollars are used for certain medical procedures they find immoral. 
---  because the theory of evolution is taught in public schools, although it is against some students’ religion. 

Another interesting example was in the Charlottesville news recently when Dr. Greg Gelburd attempted to visit a person to provide medical care and was blocked from entry.  In the past, Dr. Gelburd has gone on medical missions to help refugees and hurricane survivors, based on his Christian beliefs.  Last month, the person he wanted to visit was sitting in a tree in Giles Country as a protest to the construction of the Dominion Pipeline.  The people who blocked him were the National Forest employees who said the area was restricted.  The Rutherford Institute took up the issue and sued on behalf of Dr. Gelburd, saying his religious freedoms were being violated.   

Throughout history, there have been times when one group of people wants to dictate beliefs to another group of people.  Usually, this is done for political reasons, which boil down to economic reasons.  For example, when Native American children were taken from their homes and sent to Christian missionary schools.  Unfortunately, at least one of these schools was run by Unitarians 
By taking away people’s culture and values, it is easier to conquer and take their resources.   

But, for the most part, the US government today does not require people to register as a certain faith or declare belief in a certain doctrine.  And, we within our Unitarian Universalism, do not require a faith statement before one can become a member.   

FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE 
So, this leads to the distinction of freedom of conscience.   
While a person might have religious freedom, a person might not act on their conscience.  In other words, some religions have strict behavior codes such that a person follows ritual guidelines and group leaders, instead of their inner conscience.  One example of this was the book From Housewife to Heretic, in which Sonia Johnson described the journey that led her to leave the Mormon church, also known as the LDS Church, or Latter Day Saints.  Her government gave her the freedom to be LDS, but within the group, her freedom of conscience was not welcome.  Eventually, she left. 

In the reading we did earlier by Francis David, he said:  “Conscience will not be quieted by anything less than truth and justice.” 

And in the hymn we sang earlier these words:  “Thanks be for these, who question why; who noble motives do obey.”  The line in the song is saying, thanks for people who question, and who obey noble motives instead of blind rules. 
I like that phrase: 
Noble motives. 
To me that means to obey not whim, not the current trend, but to obey a higher calling. 

That is what we teach our children in religious education:  a responsible search for truth and meaning. 
That is what we do each time we have a congregational vote:  people get to vote their conscience. 
That is what we do when we have intelligent conversation about our values and then choose a course of action for living them, such as speaking up about national policies. 

SPIRITUAL FREEDOM 
But, let us look at this from another angle: 
I might also venture that under a government that restricts religious freedom, one is not free to act on their conscience, but one may be free in their heart. 

Consider the situation in Tibet, in which the Chinese government is limiting the freedom of people to practice Buddhism.  But the Dalai Lama continues to find ways to help people understand an inner freedom. 

We might say that freedom of conscience happens in the mind,  
while spiritual freedom happens in the heart.   

Let me try to paint a picture.  Let’s imagine a man named Pete.  Pete is resting in a bed, cared for by nurses because he is expected to die in the next few weeks.  Outside the windows, he sees the birds flying freely, and he smells the scent of spring blossoms floating on the breeze.  He knows his daughter Lisa is coming to visit this afternoon, and he is very scared.  He has not lived up to his own values as a father and grandfather.  He did not support Lisa when she was a teen who became unexpectedly pregnant, but instead cut off contact for many years.  He worked long hours building up his business and wealth but has no friends.  He regrets that he himself never got help for his alcohol addiction, and now his body is shutting down from liver disease.  He wonders what happens after he dies.  He wonders if there is any way in these last few weeks of life to make up for the poor choices he has made.  They feel so heavy inside, cutting him off from himself, his daughter, and whatever bigger meaning in life there might be.   

Now, let’s imagine, in this scene, that his daughter Lisa arrives and they are able to have a sincere, honest conversation.  She expresses forgiveness and says she is concerned for his well-being.  She encourages him to forgive himself.  She says that she has come to understand human fraility---that all of us have suffering, --- and yet that we can choose love in each moment.  And in that tender conversation, let’s just imagine, that Pete’s heart softens and he is not worried anymore about dying.  He relaxes.  He is surprised at how peaceful he feels.  We could say he experiences spiritual freedom. 

This is what humans long for. 
This is why world religions tell stories and myths and fables and encouragement and teachings about this of peace that passes understanding.  
Even secular literature offers characters who find spiritual freedom:  Ebenezer Scrooge experiences joy at the end of A Christmas Carol, and the green Grinch experiences a new community at the end of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  They had an inner change of heart.         

The Buddhists have a word for this.  Samadhi 
Liberation from doubt, confusion, bitterness. 
It could be when a person finally feels a natural forgiveness after a divorce. 
It could be when a college student realizes they don’t need to impress anyone, but can relax into their own skin. 
It could be when a person realizes they will not spend energy hating their oppressor. 

Spiritual freedom has an energy of light – not only light like the sun, but light like a balloon rising.  Spiritual freedom can also have an energy of rest --- rest like floating without burdens.  The image of a cloud is often seen. 

Ideally, our society can be set up so that spiritual freedom can happen without needing to be hidden. 
In the Hungarian Unitarian church, they say:  “The most important result of the spreading of the Unitarian faith was the proclamation of religious freedom at the Diet of Torda in 1568. It was first declared to the world in Transylvania, that everyone can exercise that religion which agrees with their understanding, because "faith is the gift of God".   (source:  http://unitarius.hu/english/catechism.html.  Accessed May 27, 2018) 

This is demonstrated in a story from a Unitarian Universalist minister named Rev. Victoria Weinstein, who serves a congregation in Massachusetts.  She describes her journey being raised in an atheist family, then as a young adult, having Jewish mentors, and then what happened next  She writes:  “[Then maybe five or six years later, a terribly embarrassing thing happened.] Jesus got ahold of me. Like when someone’s enraged and ranting and you just wrap your arms around them from behind and hold them—that’s how Jesus got hold of me. 

[It happened like a secret romance through years of private study. It really happened when I fearfully accepted an invitation to the open  communion  table at a meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. Everything went Technicolor for me that day, like when Dorothy gets over the rainbow, and I had found my religion. And after I became a Christian, many other religions looked beautiful to me, too. I worked for understanding and I received healing.] 

I kept my religious beliefs a secret for a long time, because in my experience Unitarian Universalists had such bitter disdain for Christians I didn’t want to be considered a heretic by the heretics! How marginalized can you get? My experience with Unitarian Universalists was that everyone was happy to have you search, but you weren’t actually supposed to get anywhere specific. 

Not a year goes by that I am not asked by half a dozen UUs why I am still here as a Christian—and not nicely, either. I joke, “This is where my free and responsible search for truth and meaning has led me. If it upsets you, imagine how I felt!” (Source: https://www.questformeaning.org/quest-article/free-and-responsible/) 

CLOSING 

To wrap up this sermon, let us consider the quality of each freedom and what we do to cultivate it. 

The quality of religious freedom is that it is something very solid and visible.  It exists within legal systems and courts and declarations.  It often lasts for centuries.  You can preserve it by voting, lobbying, and recording public decisions. 

The quality of freedom of conscience is more intellectual and individual.  It occurs as a deep knowing within a person.  But, it is still acted out in visible ways through conversation, consideration and action.  An act of conscience can take a few minutes, days, weeks, or years.  You can preserve it by keeping a keen mind and surrounding ourselves with intelligent reflection. 

The quality of spiritual freedom is the most ethereal and is sometimes fleeting, and yet it floods a person with an unmistakeable deep peace in their soul.  Those who experience it may remain silent, but others who witness them see the soft forehead, clear eyes, and easy smile.  You can preserve it by doing spiritual practices that cultivate faith, hope, and love. 

Freedom of religion does not mean that one has spiritual freedom. 
Spiritual freedom does not mean that one has freedom of religion. 
One is outer 
One is inner. 
We do not always have control of our outer environment, but we can strive for liberty. 
We do not always have control over our inner environment, but we can be open to grace. 

Blessed be,  

Amen