This Congregation and Its Ministers, 1947-2000

Sermon preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2018 Daniel Harper.

N.B.: In 2022, I gave a talk on this same topic for an adult education class at the UU Church of Palo Alto. That talk was based on additional archival research, and in some cases I altered by conclusions on some minor points.

Sermon: This Congregation and Its Ministers, 1947-2000

On the surface, this is simply a sermon full of little stories about interesting people. But I also hope to make a serious theological point: in the words of Unitarian theologian Bernard Loomer: “We are born or created … as members of a Web of interconnections.”

To begin this history, you have to understand that we Unitarian Universalists see the relationship between clergy and congregation a bit differently than other religions. Unitarian Universalist congregations don’t have to have a minister. If a Unitarian Universalist congregation does decide to have a minister, it is the congregation that chooses which minister, and the congregation has the power to sever its relationship with the minister. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the relationship between our congregations and its ministers from 1947 to 2000.

Our congregation began in 1947 when Rev. Delos O’Brian, the regional representative of the American Unitarian Association, met with some Unitarians who lived in and around Palo Alto. He then placed advertisements announcing the formation of a Unitarian group. O’Brian called the first meeting on Sunday, April 6, 1947; and the following week, April 13, 27 people signed a charter membership roll. By April 27, 1947, the Palo Alto Unitarians had arranged with Nat Lauriat, then minister of the San Jose Unitarian church, to lead weekly worship services for them.

This group, calling itself the Palo Alto Unitarian Society, continued in this way some months, content to remain small, with fewer than 50 members. Nat Lauriat recalled a meeting in October, 1947, where “the general feeling was to proceed with great caution, and just have a pleasant little group.” Lauriat wanted to shake them out of that attitude, and he was pleased when the excessive caution at that October meeting “produced a reaction among the younger members for more action and growth.” Lauriat’s encouragement of action and growth soon paid off. Sixty people attended the first anniversary dinner, April 16, 1948, and voted to form a new congregation, the Palo Alto Unitarian Society.

By late 1948, the congregation learned about the new “Minister-at-Large” program offered by the American Unitarian Association (AUA). One minister-at-large was Rev. Lon Ray Call, who traveled from place to place across the country, spending two or three months at each place building excitement and enthusiasm, helping set up a congregational organization, and then leaving when he judged the new congregation would survive on its own.

Call arrived in Palo Alto on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1949. Within a month, membership had increased from 54 to 102. Years later, lay leader Bob Harrison recalled Call and his wife by saying, “Were they terrific!” With help from the Calls, the congregation saw there was strong demand for liberal religion in Palo Alto. The Calls also helped them see they would no longer be content to have Nat Lauriat come up once a week for an hour on Sunday; the congregation realized they would do best with a full-time minister. Based on Call’s recommendation, the AUA agreed to pay two thirds of the new minister’s salary.

In a historical footnote, some months after Lon Call left Palo Alto, the American Unitarian Association began a new policy, encouraging small congregations to form without professional leadership. These lay-led congregations, called “fellowships,” needed only ten members to formally affiliate with the AUA. If the fellowship concept had existed before the Palo Alto Unitarian Society organized, perhaps they would have been content to remain at 50 members in rented space. We owe our current congregation to Nat Lauriat’s encouragement, and Lon Call’s vision of rapid growth.

Dan Lion ready to preach in the Lucie Stern Community Center, the space rented for worship services before moving into the new building, 1957
Dan Lion standing in the pulpit on the first Sunday service in the new building, Sept. 7, 1958

In mid-June, 1949, the Committee to Recommend a Permanent Minister voted unanimously to extend a call to Nat Lauriat. Lauriat turned them down, saying it wouldn’t be fair to the San Jose church. Next the congregation settled on Rev. Felix Danford Lion, then the minister in Dunkirk, New York. Lon Ray Call wrote to Lion on behalf of the congregation, encouraging Lion to accept the position without an in-person interview; Call added, “I do not wish to over-sell this church, but under the right leadership it can very quickly become one of our great [Unitarian] churches.”

In the years from 1949 to 1962, the Palo Alto Unitarian Church (they changed the name in 1951) did indeed become one of the “great churches.” Growth happened very quickly. By 1958, the congregation had grown enough to move out of rented space into its own building, built on a cabbage field at the intersection of Charleston Road and Adobe Creek. Growth peaked in 1962, when there were three Sunday services with six hundred children enrolled in the religious education program. Sunday school classes were held in 13 classrooms, the Fireside Room (which was built as a children’s chapel), and living rooms in houses of people who lived nearby. In order to remain at their preferred size of about 500 members, the Palo Alto Unitarian Church spun off several smaller congregations, including both the Sunnyvale and the Redwood City Fellowships.

The theology of both Lion and most of the congregation might be called vaguely theistic but strongly pragmatic, focused on social issues in the here-and-now. Rites of passage were very important, and Dan Lion officiated at scores of memorial services, child dedications, and weddings. (A historical footnote: If you know something about the 1960s folk music scene, you’ll be interested to know that Lion officiated at the wedding of a young banjo player named Jerry Garcia, and at the wedding of Mimi Baez Fariña, Joan Baez’s younger sister.)

By the late 1960s, the post-war Baby Boom was over, at the same time that people began to drift away from institutions like churches. Unitarian Universalist congregations across the U.S. declined in membership, and Palo Alto was no exception. By 1965, Sunday school enrollment in our congregation had dropped from 600 to 500; by 1970, enrollment dropped still further to 200. To quote a popular song of that time, the times they were a-changing.

Mike Young and Janet Buelow at a meeting in the Fireside Room c. 1967

During the 1960s, the congregation hired two assistant ministers. Bud Repp served as assistant minister from June, 1961, to September, 1962, while Dan Lion was on sabbatical. Even 1962 was the peak attendance of the church, Repp’s “salary was minimal and was not raised at the May congregational meeting,” so he resigned.

In June, 1965, the congregation hired Mike Young as assistant minister; he was also a Campus Minister at Stanford, so he was not at our congregation full-time. He was expected to stay just two years. Instead he stayed for nearly four years, and during his last year he was “under pressure from the Board to find a church of his own.”

In April, 1970, the congregation hired Ron Garrison as a half time “Minister to Youth,” although he was not actually an ordained minister. In January, 1971, Garrison began working full-time as Minister for Youth and Community Education. He helped organize both Thacher Preschool, and “Lothlorien,” an alternative high school that occupied what are now Rooms A through D. By 1972, the congregation had two full-time ordained ministers, so they only funded Garrison’s position at half time; he then resigned.

1973 photo with (L-R) Margaret French (charter member), Sid Peterman, Milton Evans (charter member), Ron Hargis, and Mildred Justesen

In July, 1971, Ron Hargis was hired as a Minister of Religious Education. Hargis later recalled he “had arrived at the church in the midst of a real conflict of staff personalities and church people.” A year after Hargis’s arrival, Dan Lion resigned to become Associate Minister at Community Church in New York City.

Why did Lion resign? The Palo Alto Times reported: “There has been occasional in-house controversy at the church … but members of Palo Alto Unitarian’s Board of Trustees say it is no more than the usual amount and has not been the impetus for Lion’s departure…. [One] trustee, Mrs. Gail Hamaker, said that some criticism was directed at Lion along the lines that he was perhaps providing too much leadership in church affairs….” Other documents in the church archives imply that Lion was forced out. With Lion’s departure, Hargis found himself as the sole minister of a congregation in conflict.

Back in 2002, Darcey Laine, minister of religious education at our church from 2000 to 2008, interviewed a few people who remembered Ron Hargis. One person remarked on the “creative ferment” during his tenure, another remembered him as “free wheeling, kind, and gentle,” while someone else recalled that his wife would sometimes share the pulpit with him. But another person felt he “lacked some properties that a good minister should have.” In any case, the Baby Bust continued through the 1970s, so that by 1973, Sunday school enrollment dropped to about one hundred.

In December, 1972, the Board of Trustees hired Sid Peterman to be an interim minister following Dan Lion’s departure. This was a new and experimental concept at the time: after the departure of a long-time minister, a congregation would hire a specialized interim minister for a year, someone who specialized in what we now call change management. Peterman later said he began doing interim ministry in 1973, so Palo Alto was his first interim ministry.

When he was ending his interim ministry in late 1973, Peterman wrote eight single-spaced pages of detailed critical analysis of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church. In 2002, lay leader Georgia Schwaar gave a copy of this report to Darcey Laine. Georgia wrote: “Some of the comments [in the report] … are not of current pertinence but much of it is still, surprisingly, à propos.” I will quote one such comment that in my opinion still applies to our congregation in 2018:

“It seems to me [Peterman wrote] to be quite clear now that I have been here a year that most of the [internal] problems facing this congregation are due to a unique history. Starting in 1949 [sic] with a handful of people and no possessions and a budget which was almost fifty percent underwritten by the AUA, PAUC grew by 1970 to be one of the largest churches in the region…. All this was done under the strong and effective leadership of one minister who served the church all during this time…. Many of the administrative and personnel practices in 1972 were the same they had been for a much, much smaller church. The developing and inevitable pluralism of a larger Unitarian church in the late sixties and early seventies were not taken into consideration and the result was the enforcement of an artificial dualism which not only caused great individual strains and discomfort but made the operation of the church far more difficult than it should be…. I stress this analysis because to fail to see what really happened in the past dozen years leads up dead-end roads of personalities and recriminations, rather than providing fruitful ways of continuing the growth — [both] spiritual and physical….”

Bill Jacobsen, 1988 photo directory

In 1973, while Peterman was still on staff, the congregation called Bill Jacobsen to be a co-minister with Ron Hargis. Since there were those who considered Dan Lion to have been an autocrat, I suspect for some people this co-ministry idea seemed like a way for two ministers to keep each other in check. However, the co-ministry idea wasn’t financially viable. Beginning with the 1973 oil crisis, the United States entered a severe economic downturn, and the congregation could not afford two ministers. In response to the economic downturn, in 1975 both Hargis and Jacobsen stated they would automatically “offer their resignations effective January 1, 1978,” if the finances of the congregation did not improve. The finances did not improve. Hargis kept his promise and tendered his resignation on schedule. Jacobsen changed his mind and stayed on as the sole minister.

Not long after arriving at the Palo Alto Unitarian Church, Jacobsen got divorced. There are persistent rumors that subsequently Jacobsen engaged in what is called “sexual misconduct,” that is, he allegedly had sex with women in the church, perhaps including teenaged girls. Whether or not these rumors are true, I do feel there’s a change in the relationship between the congregation and the ministers from the 1970s on. Documents from the 1950s and 1960s show a mutual respect between lay leaders and the senior minister. By 1990, the documents seem to show a different relationship between the congregation and its ministers, characterized by a lower level of trust and a tendency to carefully circumscribe the authority of the minister.

I find it difficult to characterize the relationship between Jacobsen and the congregation. Apparently, lay leaders took on most of the leadership of the congregation, leaving him to focus on sermons. He is remembered for his strong sermons, yet those who were not humanists like him sometimes felt left out.

During Jacobsen’s tenure, attendance dropped enough that the congregation went back to one service. Nationwide, Unitarian Universalism declined beginning in the mid-1960s, beginning to grow again in the 1980s; but here in Palo Alto, it appears that growth didn’t begin again until the mid-1990s.

A September, 1988, survey revealed a mixed response to Jacobsen; comments ranged from “I like [his] sermons” to “The church lacks leadership from our minister.” Other comments from this survey questioned lay leadership, such as this one: “many of the lay leaders are quite sexist in their attitudes.” In December, 1988, Jacobsen announced that he was looking for another ministry position. Finally, in August, 1990, Jacobsen said he’d retire. He then helped form the Humanist Community of Palo Alto, and became executive director there.

Sam Wright and Donna Lee c. 2005

In 1990, our congregation hired Sam Wright as interim minister. Up to 1988, Wright had lived for two decades in the back country of Alaska with his first wife Billie. When she died, he wrote a book about his Alaska experience, which was published by the Sierra Club. Having read his book, I’d call Wright a mystic, in the naturalistic mode of Henry David Thoreau. One of the few mystics who had remained in the congregation during Jacobsen’s tenure told me they welcomed Wright’s arrival, and were deeply inspired by him.

Wright and his second wife, Donna Lee, considered themselves to be co-ministers (Lee was then in process to become a minister). Lee made a significant contribution to their interim ministry by writing a history of the early Unitarian Church of Palo Alto which existed from 1905 to 1934; Lee’s history remains important today because she had access to historical material that has since been lost.

During the one year that Wright and Lee served as interim ministers, the congregation added 69 new members.

Ken Collier (at right) during a UUCPA Work Day, c. 1995

After the interim ministry of Sam Wright and Donna Lee, the congregation called Ken Collier as sole minister in 1991. Later Collier said that he was warned away from taking the position as minister: “I was told [the congregation] was an aging, tired, isolated and somewhat troubled church that had enormous untapped potential. It needed to heal from its recent troubles….”

Two achievements stand out from the decade when Ken Collier was minister. First, Collier and a small group of lay leaders led the Welcoming Congregation program. This program, an initiative of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was designed to “undo homophobia” and ensure the congregation was a welcoming place for gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons. The congregation’s commitment to welcoming gay, lesbian, and bisexual people was soon tested. In 1993, Collier and his then-wife Marnie co-wrote a letter to the congregation in which they explained they were getting divorced, saying, “The central issue that we have not been able to resolve is that Marnie has come to realize that she is a lesbian-identified bisexual.” Marnie Collier and her new partner remained a part of the congregation.

The second major achievement during Ken Collier’s tenure was the introduction of the worship associate program, which continues today. Worship associates are lay people who share leadership with ordained ministers in planning and leading worship services. This is a distinct change from the 1950s and 1960s when Sunday morning worship was not a shared responsibility, but rather delegated to the minister.

By 1998, effective leadership by Ken Collier and lay leaders had helped congregation recover from its low ebb in the 1980s. To continue that growth, lay leaders decided it was time to start thinking about adding a second minister. In order to establish this second ministry position, the congregation hired Til Evans, an experienced minister of religious education and sometime faculty member of Starr King School for the Ministry, for a two-year interim ministry. Those who remember Evans speak of her with affection, and when a new garden was established next to the McFadden Patio, it was named the Til Evans Garden in her honor.

By 1999, the congregation had seen enough growth that members also voted to add another Sunday morning worship service. (Remember that there had been three services in the 1960s, but the congregation dropped to one service during the 1980s.) The task force charged with adding a second service included lay leaders Ruth Freeman, Cathy Leach-Phillips, and Ed Milner, along with the two ministers.

Darcey Laine in 2000, when the congregation installed her as co-minister

In August, 2000, our congregation called Darcey Laine to be the settled minister of religious education, and co-minister with Ken Collier. This was the first time since 1927 that there had been a regularly called and regularly ordained woman minister settled in the Unitarian congregation of Palo Alto. The previous one had been Rev. Leila Lasley Thompson, ordained and called in 1926 to the old Unitarian Church of Palo Alto; she was the first woman minister called to any Palo Alto congregation, but resigned in 1927 when that old congregation could no longer afford to pay her (that congregation was defunct by 1934). I find myself astonished that, after having been such pioneers in women’s rights, it took Palo Alto Unitarians nearly three quarters of a century to call another woman minister.

Darcey Laine’s arrival provides a convenient ending point for this brief history. Before I end, let me tell you what struck me as I was researching this history.

I couldn’t help noticing that the relationship between congregation and ministers was never perfect, not ever. We human beings are fallible, which means we regularly make mistakes. Some said Dan Lion took on too much of the leadership of the congregation. Some said Bill Jacobsen took on too little leadership. You could, with equal validity, say that lay leaders during the 1950s and 1960s took on too little leadership, while lay leaders during the 1980s let themselves take on too much leadership. The relationship was never perfect.

We should never forget that human beings are fallible; this is a crucial theological point. Any time a human being thinks they are infallible, they become dangerous; the lone rangers who have no check on their own fallibility, they’re the ones we need to worry about (and there are numerous examples of the lone ranger phenomenon both in contemporary U.S. politics and among Silicon Valley executives). With that in mind, ideally our congregation will be a place where our relationships with others protect us from the worst effects of our own fallibility. This in turn suggests that fallible humans need share leadership with others, because this is the best way to help us through our mistakes and moments of fallibility.

To put this in theological language, what I’m saying is that we are part of a Web of interconnections. The dimensions of that Web are measured by trust, power, gratitude, forgiveness, transformation, and so on. And the balance of shared leadership is simply another way to measure the dimensions of the Web of interconnectedness that binds each of us together with all reality.

Notes

The primary source for this sermon was documents from the in the UUCPA archives, including those listed below. I also referred to my notes of a few reminiscences from long-time members, notes which remain confidential.

Published sources:

Loomer, Bernard. Unfoldings. Berkeley, Calif.: First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, 1985
Ross, Warren R. The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Boston: Skinner House, 2001.
Ulbrich, Holley. The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and Its Legacy. Boston: Skinner House, 2008.
Wright, Sam. Koviashuvik: A Time and Place of Joy. Sierra Club Books, 1988. (Contains a brief reminiscence of Dan Lion.)

Photographs:

All photos are from the archives of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

Unpublished sources:

Anonymous. [Folder titled “PAUC All Church Survey 1988”].
Anonymous. “Church Timeline from February 5, 2001, Meeting.” Notes from “Visioning Our Education Ministry” meeting, 2001.
Anonymous. “History of UUCPA.” 2 pp., undated photocopy of a document (c. 200?).
Bell, Rachel. “Parish Ministers, Interim Ministers, and Intern Ministers,” timeline. 7 pp., n.d. (c. 2000).
—————. “Religious Education,” timeline. 2 pp., n.d., c. 2005.
—————. “Religious Education at UUCPA,” timeline. 16 pp., n.d. (2000).
Call, Lon Ray. Letter to Felix Danford Lion (“Dear Fe,” [sic]), 2 pp., June 11, 1949.
Collier, Ken. “Minister’s Report, 1997-1998.”
—————, and Marnie Collier. Letter to the congregation. 2 pp., July 30, 1993.
Currie, Rigdon. Untitled [letter from Currie as President of the Board of Trustees to the congregation]. 1 pg., Feb. 28, 1989.
Ruth Freeman, Cathy Leach-Phillips, Ed Milner, Ken Collier, and Til Evans. “The Dual Services Plan.” 2 pp., n.d. (c. 2000).
Hargis, Ron. “The Palo Alto Unitarian Church: An Analysis.” 2 pp., Jan., 1977.
—————, and Bill Jacobsen. Untitled memo (“We are concerned, as I know all of you are…”). 2 pp., n.d. (c. Nov., 1975).
Hamaker, Gail. “History of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church.” 3 pp., 1980.
Harrison, Bob. Untitled [memories of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church]. 2 pp., Aug. 7, 1983.
Indergand, Litsie. Untitled [letter from Indergand as President of the Board of Trustees to the congregation]. 1 pg., Oct. 17, 1989.
Jacobsen, Bill, and Diane Jacobsen. Untitled [announcement of their divorce to the congregation]. 1 pg., n.d.
Laine, Darcey. Notes from interviews conducted in 2002; and column in “The Bulletin,” the UUCPA newsletter, May 23, 2003.
Lion, Felix Danford. “Biographical data.” 1 pg., August, 1969.
—————. “Memories and Reminders” [sermon for the 25th anniversary of the building]. 5 pp., Oct. 16, 1983.
Macdonald, Charles H. (Attorney-at-Law). “Status of Loan on Parsonage of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church, 339 Kellogg Aveneue, Palo Alto, California.” 1951.
Mackay, Ned. “Rev. F. Danford Lion resigns to join church in New York.” Undated clipping from the Palo Alto Times (1972).
Niles, Alfred S. “The Early Years of the Palo Alto Unitarian Society, 1947-1950.” Typescript, 1958.
Perry, Bryce. “Staff at UUCPA.” 2 pp., Oct. 9, 1998.
Peterman, Sid. No title (“Because the interim ministry…”). 8 pp., 1973.
Schmidt, Muriel. “A Brief Resume of the Palo Alto Unitarian Church.” 4 pp., 1972.
Schwaar, Georgia. Note to Darcey Laine dated Oct. 15, 2002.
Wright, Sam, and Donna Lee. “Report from Sam and Donna.” 3 pp., April 18, 1991.

Groundbreaking ceremony for the new building; the robed figure (center left) is probably Dan Lion

Mysticism in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2014 Daniel Harper. The reflection was delivered by Brooke Bishara on the same date. Reflection copyright (c) 2014 Brooke Bishara; used by permission.

Reading — from Mysticism: Holiness East and West by Denise and John Carmody,

“[C]onsider Lao-tzu, reputed author of the Tao te Ching. Grappling with the Way, he found his reason clouding. All around him moved bright, busy, and certain people. They seemed clear about what they were doing, about who they were and what was happening to them. He alone seemed to feel overcast, dull, and not at all certain. They more he searched, the less he found. The long he studied, the less he knew. It is easy to picture him trekking off into silence: the Tao that could be told was not the Tao. However, painful though his dissociation was, hard as his alienation struck him, he was in love with the Tao and so was willing to suffer for it. Life without the Tao would have been no life. Clarity without reality and depth would have been horrible.”

Reflection — Brooke Bishara, worship associate

A mystic is one who seeks direct experience of ultimate reality. The mystic senses that the divine is always present, but also that in our “normal lives” we are only dimly aware of it. The mystic wants to come closer, to connect, and know the truth intimately.

About ten years ago, I had a mystical experience. It started as I was painting a picture to express a painful feeling from the past. With black paint, I painted the top half of a face along the bottom edge of the paper. It almost looked like the face was peeking just above a window sill at me. The face had a sad expression, with a hat pulled down close to its eyes. In the act of painting the image, I was allowing an old feeling of shame that I had held for a long time to be expressed. I asked the spirit for help with this feeling, and suddenly I received a surge of energy through my arms and into my chest and head. It tingled like electricity, and it was so strong that I got up from the desk and lay down on my bed. I stayed there for about a half an hour, feeling this tingling current of energy radiating through my body. I was fully awake and consciously thanking God for this gift, and for the love being shown to me. I was deeply changed by the experience.

The next day, when I had to get up and go through the regular motions of my life and work as a teacher, my eyes were open a little wider. I was awed by what had happened to me. I wanted to tell my colleagues and students, but I knew it was not for telling, not yet. Mostly, I wanted to reassure the people around me that there is, indeed, an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension. As years have passed, and I’ve told this story a few times, someone once suggested that the feeling was a release—the energy of that old emotion leaving my body. Someone else suggested that it was the holy spirit coming in to me to heal what was hurting.

I do not worry about finding the right explanation. Nor do I expect to ever have that experience again. But it has become a touchstone of my life. Though my mind cannot explain it, that experience opened a pathway in my heart that can never be closed.

Sermon — Mysticism in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

In her reflection, Brooke has given us one of the best short descriptions of a mystical experience that I have heard. She brings out several typical features of a mystical experience: that it is an experience that is difficult or impossible to put into words; that it changed the person who had the experience; that such an experience gives knowledge of some deep and abiding force or presence in the universe; that such an experience ultimately cannot be explained, nor explained away.

I wanted to talk with you about mystical experiences this morning because such experiences lie at the very core of our Unitarian Universalist tradition; more specifically, at the core of the Unitarian half of our tradition. Unitarianism began to arise in North America at about the time of the Revolutionary War, and although the movement later came to be known for affirming that Jesus was not God, it started out as a movement that asserted the free will of individual human beings: in the late eighteenth century, the movement that became known as Unitarianism reacted against the then-dominant Calvinist notion that human beings not only are depraved, but that human beings have little free will and can do nothing to further their own salvation. So the early Unitarians said, in effect, that we human beings do have a fair amount of free will, and that each of us must take responsibility for living the best life possible.

By the 1830s, a number of Unitarians were refining that basic argument further. One person in particular — a man who had been a Unitarian minister but who left the ministry to become a full-time philosopher, writer, and lecturer — made a strong case for individual responsibility and free will in a famous essay titled “Self Reliance.” That person was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was part of the Transcendentalist circle, and who had himself been affected by his own mystical experiences. Emerson said that any person could apprehend the ultimate reality directly. You could call that ultimate reality “God,” or you could call it the “Oversoul,” as Emerson sometimes did; the name was less important than was the truth that we all have direct access to this ultimate reality. We don’t have to go through priests or clergy; we don’t have to read certain specified scriptures, nor do we have to engage in specific religious practices like prayer. We all have direct access to this ultimate reality — no strings attached.

Of course, this kind of self reliance carries with it great responsibility. Having direct access to ultimate reality has moral and ethical implications: if you have direct access to ultimate reality, this implies that you will have high standards against which to judge your own behavior and decisions. Self reliance is not an easy philosophy: freedom comes with great responsibility, and that can lead to political action.

One of Emerson’s protegés, Henry David Thoreau, explored some of the political implications of self reliance in his famous essay “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau said that while there are human-made laws, there are also “higher laws,” and we can have direct knowledge of these higher laws. Sometimes human-made laws are unjust, and when that is true, we may be called to obey higher laws. (Notice that Thoreau starts with the assumption that we can have direct apprehension of those higher laws.) In her reflection, Brooke talked about “an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension.” Once you have that kind of experience, it is difficult to put up with human-made laws which go against that abiding love, and which instead promote hatred and warfare. So it was that Thoreau was appalled by the Mexican American War, which he felt was unjust and unjustifiable. Appealing to higher laws, he refused to pay taxes that would support that war, and for his refusal he was thrown in jail. As I said, this philosophy of self reliance is not an easy philosophy.

More than a century later, Martin Luther King drew inspiration from Thoreau when he was formulating his own theory of civil disobedience. King knew that the human-made Jim Crow laws were in direct violation of that deep abiding love that reaches beyond our rational comprehension. Appealing to that higher law, King said that it was acceptable to break the human-made Jim Crow laws. I would say King’s theory of civil disobedience comes out of his direct experience of ultimate reality. King was careful to call that ultimate reality by the name “God” — to call it “God” made it possible to explain civil disobedience to others, particularly to those ostensibly God-fearing authorities who were trying to enforce the human-made Jim Crow laws; but the name of the ultimate reality is less important than the experience. I don’t know that King was a mystic himself; but if he wasn’t one himself, he drew on Thoreau, who was a mystic; and he drew on Jesus of Nazareth, who was also a mystic.

And by telling you about Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience, I am making the point that mysticism can be a disruptive influence. Mystical experiences are personally disruptive: Brooke told us that in her reflection; she told us that her experience was so strong that she had to lie down. (I’ve had my own mystical experiences, starting in my mid-teens, and I can assure you from my own experience that they can disrupt one’s sense of the world.) When you have powerful experiences of an ultimate reality, that can cause you to look with skepticism on the way humans rationalize our actions. This is what happened to Thoreau. He had his transcendent experiences, he had direct apprehension of higher laws, of ultimate reality, and with that perspective he found himself unable to accept the half-truths that were foisted on the public by those who were trying to rationalize the unjust Mexican American War. Nor did he stop there: Thoreau also knew with perfect clarity that slavery and fugitive slave laws were wrong, that those laws went directly counter to higher laws; and he broke the human-made laws by participating in the Underground Railroad. (Indeed, we have independent documentation that he harbored fugitive slaves at his cabin on Walden Pond.) Thoreau’s mystical experiences proved to be a very disruptive influence.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the other Transcendentalists — all of them open to direct experiences of ultimate reality — went on to disrupt the world around them. They disrupted the older Unitarianism that had been founded on sound, rational Enlightenment principles. The rational Unitarians were infuriated by Transcendentalists like Theodore Parker. Parker infuriated them partly because of his challenge to their rational ways of thinking; partly because he managed to draw over two thousand people to his sermons each week (his was the very first mega-church, by the way); and partly by his adamant opposition to slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. The more rational Unitarians may have been opposed to slavery, but they were appalled when Parker told them that not only had he harbored fugitive slaves in his own house, thus breaking the law; in addition to that, he had written sermons with a loaded pistol on the desk in front of him, expecting to have his house broken into at any moment by slave-catchers. Keeping a loaded pistol on his desk was not a rational act, as defined by the rational Unitarians steeped in Enlightenment thinking, but it brought Parker into harmony with higher laws.

Mystics can be less openly disruptive — not all of us mystics keep loaded pistols on our desks — but no less challenging in more subtle ways. I think of Mary Rotch, who had a strong influence on Emerson’s thinking. Mary Rotch had grown up a Quaker, a mystical tradition; she knew what it was to commune directly with ultimate reality. When she became a Unitarian in the 1820s, Unitarian churches still had communion services about once a month. Emerson filled the pulpit of Mary Rotch’s Unitarian church for a few months while the regular minister was on sabbatical, and he noticed that Mary Rotch would stand up and quietly walk out of the church just before the communion ceremony. He discussed this with her, and she convinced him that the ritual of communion was an empty ritual; that the direct communion with ultimate reality was real communion, and the only communion that was needed. This prompted Emerson to write his famous sermon stating why he could no longer officiate at communion services. The rational Unitarians of the day were not pleased by Emerson’s argument; to them, communion made complete rational sense, as a memorial ritual that helped commemorate an important moment from our religious history. It’s fairly easy to come up with rational reasons for most things, and I suspect that if rational Unitarianism had prevailed over Emerson’s Transcendentalism, we would still be serving communion here in our historically Unitarian church.

In our day, Unitarian Universalism is once again dominated by religious rationalism. This is not a bad thing: logic and rational thought are extremely powerful intellectual tools. But a year ago, I had a very interesting conversation with Fred Hawley about the way Unitarian Universalism is currently dominated by religious rationalism. Fred was a long-time member here in our congregation, and he gave me permission to tell you about this conversation. Fred suggested to me that our congregation was overly dominated by those who value rationality above all else, to the exclusion of other modes of thinking and being.

As I said, logic and rationality are powerful tools. Emerson and Thoreau and Theodore Parker and Mary Rotch all used rational thought and logic. But what the Transcendentalists, and other Unitarian mystics, have tried to demonstrate is that logic and rational thinking have limits; we cannot rely on them for everything. The limits of rationality became particularly evident during the twentieth century: Nazi Germany was in many ways the epitomy of a rationally-run nation; here in the U.S., separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws were perfectly rational; and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons was eminently rational. All these things were quite rational, but they were not necessarily right.

One of the things Fred Hawley talked to me about was the book Koviashuvik by Sam Wright [San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988]. Sam Wright is a Unitarian Universalist minister, who served our congregation as interim minister in 1990 and 1991. In Koviashuvik, published by the Sierra Club, Sam Wright tells about living in the Brooks Range in Alaska while the Alaskan pipeline was being built. Koviashuvik is a book about different ways of knowing. Sam Wright knew about the Brooks Range as a place where he and his wife lived off the land; the people who planned the Alaskan pipeline knew the Brooks Range in a different way, as a mere obstacle to the building of the pipeline; the people who worked on the pipeline knew about the Brooks Range as the background to their well-compensated jobs; the Arctic Terns and caribou knew about the Brooks Range in still other ways. Now, the people who planned the Alaskan pipeline were entirely rational people who knew that they had to transport oil from where it was being pumped out of the ground to where it could be refined and used. But, says Sam Wright, the Arctic Tern and caribou have equally valid, albeit non-rational, ways of knowing the world. Were the builders of the oil pipeline right simply because they used rational thought? I’m not sure the Arctic Tern or the caribou would say that was true.

I have never lived in the Alaskan wilderness, but in my work as a religious educator, I see the limits of rationality all the time. Anyone who teaches sees the limits of rationality. As a religious educator, one of the things I like to teach children is how to be radical feminists — that is, teach children that girls and women are just as good as boys and men. Now if you’re trying to teach a nine year old girl about feminism, you can give all the rational explanations that you want, and that nine year old girl will probably agree with you, but she has not really gotten what feminism is all about. But if a boy is given preferential treatment, a teacher suddenly has a moment when they can suggest that perhaps this instance of preferential treatment is part of a larger pattern, and sometimes you can watch as that girl suddenly gets it, suddenly perceives this mass injustice that pervades our society: Oh yeah, boys get preferential treatment all the time, and that’s not fair! We do this with boys, too, and they are equally capable of directly apprehending the unfairness of sexism. But in my teaching experience, this is not a rational process.

Rational exposition can work as a teaching tool, for some people, at least some of the time. More often, however, I think learning takes place in flashes of direct apprehension: suddenly you get it, suddenly it all makes sense, suddenly you can do it. Fred Hawley talked with me about this experience in relation to his favorite pastime of lawn bowling. Referring to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Fred spoke about “flow,” when you get so involved in something that your self is subsumed in the task at hand. In Fred’s interpretation, this happens when you are not thinking about doing something; you are doing it, doing it so well that there is no thinking involved: you have direct contact with the game in that moment. You can learn all you want about the physics and mechanics of lawn bowling; but unless you actually do it, and practice it, and get good at it, mere rational knowledge of lawn bowling means you know everything about lawn bowling while knowing nothing about lawn bowling.

Teachers run into this situation, too: every teacher has run into learners who can talk a good game, but who don’t really know much of anything. Mystics also run into this situation all the time: people who have not had mystical experiences themselves trying to give rational explanations of other people’s mystical experiences. Rationality is a good and useful took, but it is merely one tool in your toolkit, and like any other tool, it is good for some things and useless for other things. What I have learned from our Unitarian Universalist mystical tradition is that rationality is a very useful tool for explaining, describing, and designing new technology. It is less useful for making moral and ethical decisions. It is next to useless for lawn bowling. Just as you should not use an ohmmeter to hammer a nail or open a can, you should not use rationality to do everything. And as for transcendent experiences and direct apprehension of reality and the feeling of “flow” — these are not particularly useful tools for explaining and describing, but they are quite useful tools for teaching kids about sexism, for engaging in civil disobedience, and for lawn bowling.

This is why we are fortunate to have such a strong mystical tradition within Unitarian Universalism: it significantly expands our kit of useful tools. If you find yourself engaging in civil disobedience, and being hauled off to prison, it might be helpful to have a rational understanding of why you are getting arrested; but Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., might suggest that it could be more helpful to have a direct experience of an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension. If you find yourself fighting very rational arguments for ignoring something like global climate change or toxics in the environment, it might be helpful to remember that people can learn through direct apprehension at teachable moments.

I certainly don’t expect every Unitarian Universalist to have mystical transcendental experiences; after all, ours is a non-creedal faith that does not enforce intellectual conformity. But when I think about all the serious problems that face us — racism, toxics in the environment, global climate weirdness — I am glad that we can draw on the mystical tradition of Mary Rotch, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Thoreau.

A Patriotic Faith

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 10:30 a.m. service. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.

Happy Independence Day weekend! Aren’t you glad that Independence Day is on a Monday this year, so we get a three day weekend? It’s a three day weekend, and all of us came to church anyway! But then, I like having that peaceful moment in the Sunday morning service at least once a week.

Because tomorrow is Independence Day, I would like to reflect with you on the relationship between patriotism and liberal religion.

When it comes to Independence Day, you probably know that quite a few of the people who were deeply involved in the Revolutionary War belonged to Unitarian or Universalist churches. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, belonged to a Universalist church. John and Abigail Adams belonged to a Unitarian church, and John was first vice-president and second president of the new country. John Murray, minister of the Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, served as a military chaplain, and so did Dr. Samuel West, minister of the church in Dartmouth, Massachusetts that later became Unitarian. We Unitarians and Universalists were deeply involved in the struggle for American independence. And for some of them, liberal religion and political independence were definitely connected. Dr. Samuel West, in one prominent example, preached sermons in which he justified the Revolution from a liberal religious point of view.

And the connection between patriotism and liberal religion continued up through the middle of the twentieth century. Many Unitarian and Universalist churches used to display framed honor rolls of all the people who saw active service in the Second World War. Up until 1993, we had “American, the Beautiful” in our hymnal; I remember singing it in Sunday services when I was a boy. Even today, a good number of our Unitarian Universalist congregations display American flags in their main meeting space, often alongside the United Nations flag; for we have always been concerned with international community, as well as with our own nation.

Yet these days we increasingly shy away from any mention of patriotism in our congregations. Too often these days, patriotism is reduced to an overly simplistic conception based on an unquestioning acceptance of political slogans. But as religious liberals, we can never be unquestioning, and our liberal religious conception of patriotism is a complex affair; it cannot be reduced to a political sound bite. With this in mind, I’d like to tell you three stories of three different notions of liberal religious patriotism.

 

First let me tell you about Robert Gould Shaw. He was born in Boston in 1837 to a wealthy family. His parents were Francis George Shaw and Sarah Sturgis; they had inherited money from Francis’s father, and Francis was involved in business and philanthropy. The family moved to West Roxbury, near the famous Brook Farm community, when little Robert was five, and then to Staten Island, where the family helped found the Unitarian church, when Robert was in his teens. The Shaws were abolitionists, and they may have been active in the Underground Railroad, helping escaping slaves to flee to the northern states.

Given the wealth and influence of Shaw’s family, he surely could have avoided military service during the Civil War. But he chose to enlist. On April 19, 1861, Shaw joined the private Seventh New York Volunteer Militia. when that short-lived unit disbanded, he then was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the Second Massachusetts Volunteers (Infantry), on May 28, 1861. He became First Lieutenant on July 8, 1861, and Captain, August 10, 1862. While with the Second Massachusetts, he took part in several battles, including the battle of Antietam. In late 1862, he was offered the chance to command a regiment made up entirely of free African Americans from the north. He became Colonel of Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on April 17, 1863.

A small volume titled “Memoirs of the War of ’61,” published in 1920 by George H. Ellis, who was the printer for Unitarian tracts and books, tells the story of Shaw’s military service through excerpts from his letters, and I will read those excerpts relating to the 54th Regiment, for they show his courage, and his growing realization that the men under his command were indeed his equals; for even though he was an abolitionist, like most white people of his day, he thought African Americans his inferiors:

[Upon accepting command of the 54th Regiment, February 5th, 1862. Shaw wrote:] “There is great prejudice against it — at any rate I shan’t be frightened out of it by unpopularity.” March 25: “The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me.” March 30: “The mustering officer who was here to-day is a Virginian, and he always thought it was a great joke to make soldiers of [blacks] but he tells me now that he has never mustered in so fine a set of men, though about 20,000 have passed through his hands since September. The skeptics need only to come out here to be converted.” Morris Island, July 18: “We are in General Strong’s brigade. We came up here last night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being heavily bombarded. We are not far from it. We hear nothing but praise for the Fifty-fourth on all hands.”

Shaw was offered the post of greatest danger and greatest honor in the assault on Fort Wagner, and accepted immediately. Here is a contemporary account of what happened, written from South Carolina on July 22 someone attached to General Strong:

“The troops looked worn and weary; had been without tents during the pelting rains of the two previous nights. When they came within six hundred yards of Fort Wagner they formed in line of battle, the Colonel heading the first and the Major the second battalion. With the Sixth Connecticut and Ninth Maine and others they remained half an hour. Then the order for ‘charge’ was given. The regiment marched at quick, then at double-quick time. When about one hundred yards from the Fort the rebel musketry opened with such terrible fire that for an instant the first battalion hesitated; but only for an instant, for Colonel Shaw, springing to the front and waving his sword, shouted, ‘Forward, Fifty-fourth!’ and with another cheer and shout they rushed through the ditch and gained the parapet on the right. Colonel Shaw was one of the first to scale the walls. He stood erect to urge forward his men, and while shouting for them to press on was shot dead and fell into the fort.”

Thinking to humiliate Shaw and his family, the Confederate Army, shocked that a white man would serve with African Americans, buried Shaw in a common grave with his soldiers. But his parents were pleased by this, and wrote: “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!” (1)

The story of Robert Gould Shaw is a classic story of patriotism. He gave his life in service of his country; more to the point, he gave his life while serving the highest ideals of his country, the ideals of freedom and equality for all persons. And in this case, the ideals of his country, and the ideals of his Unitarian faith, were clearly aligned. It is a classic story of patriotism, yet even so, Shaw’s patriotism questioned a dominant notion of his day, that African Americans could not serve with distinction in the military. So you see, this is a story of how a religious liberal pushed the boundaries of patriotism.

 

Now I’d like to tell you about a different kind of patriotism. This is the story of Rev. William E. Short of Palo Alto.

The first Unitarian church in Palo Alto was formally organized in 1906, and lasted through until 1934. In 1916, the congregation called Rev. William E. Short, recently graduated from divinity school, to serve as their minister. Short was a pacifist, and it is said that he found a good deal of quiet support for his pacifism among kindred souls in the Palo Alto church of that time.

Short resigned as minister of the Palo Alto church in 1917, and became the Chairman of the Northern California branch of the People’s Council. The People’s Council was a nationwide pacifist organization that opposed the military draft. This was in the days when it was almost impossible to conscientiously object to military service on religious grounds, and I am inclined to understand Short’s service with the People’s Council as a kind of patriotic act: he was upholding the fundamental religious principle of religious tolerance on which the United States was founded. As a matter of incidental interest, the chair of the national organization was Scott Nearing, later known as the co-author of the back-to-the-land book Living the Good Life; William Short served on the national executive committee with Nearing.

By late 1917, the United States had entered the war, and Major General Ralph Van Deman of the Army decided something had to be done about the People’s Council in general, and more specifically something had to be done about William Short’s activities. The People’s Council headquarters in San Francisco were raided twice — no search warrant was issued — and when that failed to turn up anything, Van Deman decided to bring William Short under military jurisdiction for draft evasion. Van Deman and the military lawyers successfully argued that once he was no longer serving a local church, Short was no longer a minister, and therefore was no longer exempt from the draft. He was taken into military custody in September 1918, interrogated, imprisoned, and eventually released, after the war was over, in early 1919. (2)

The story of Rev. William E. Short is not what you’d call a classic story of patriotism. He actively the military establishment, and did so at great personal cost. Yet his was a form of liberal religious patriotism. He was holding his country accountable to its highest ideals. He challenged involuntary military service based on his understanding of the ideals of his Unitarian faith.

His was not a blind unquestioning patriotism, he certainly pushed the boundaries of his day and age; nevertheless, Short was indeed a patriot. He did what he thought was best for his country. Many people disagreed with him; the American Unitarian Association itself disagreed with him. Yet that is the uncomfortable thing about patriotism: there is never a perfect consensus about what constitutes a patriotic act. Not everyone thought that Robert Gould Shaw did the right thing be commanding an all-black regiment. There has never been, and never will be, a perfectly clear definition of patriotism with which all Americans agree.

 

The third story I have to tell you is short and simple. There have always been Unitarian Universalists serving in the military, but over the past decade or so, we’ve seen a number of Unitarian Universalists choose to serve their country by becoming military chaplains. When I was in seminary a decade ago, military recruiters were actively pursuing Unitarian Universalist seminarians; I was told that the military loved Unitarian Universalist chaplains because we knew how to minister to a wide variety of beliefs, and we don’t proselytize. And now there are several Unitarian Universalist military chaplains who are not only performing the usual duties of a chaplain, but also quietly, and by their very presence, challenging the norm of evangelical Christianity that has come to dominate the U.S. military establishment in recent years.

That’s the story. Now I’m going to engage in some theological reflection with you. Recently, I met and have been corresponding with Rev. Seanan Holland. He is a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, currently based in southern California, and preparing with his unit to be shipped to combat duty. In one email message, he outlined a Unitarian Universalist theological grounding of military service, and he has given me permission to read it to you:

“In striving to come to a coherent universalist theology that captures both our hopes for a peaceful world and the reality that at the moment it is not, I see war as an organic reorganization within the web of life. It is a reorganization mediated by humans mostly through our shortcomings/dysfunctions. What this means to those of us who participate in war is that we are witnesses to the sorest of humanity’s dysfunctions — war. Warriors possess a knowledge of an aspect of humanity that most do not want to carry and hopefully won’t ever have to. However the nature of war is such that those of us who have pledged to protect our country don’t always get to choose which conflict to be in and we have very limited power as activists while we are in the military. Those who have more power as activists (many UUs) typically (and understandably) do not possess an intimate knowledge of warfare. This is a sketch of my theological grounding that warriors and non-warriors really have to work together on redeeming conflict — hopefully before it happens.”

I’d like to read you that last phrase once again: “warriors and non-warriors really have to work together on redeeming conflict — hopefully before it happens.” If we follow this suggestion, we will be drawing on one of the great strengths of our liberal religious tradition. We know there are no simple answers to anything. We know that we have to continually question our assumptions. We know that no one person ever has complete access to universal truth. We also know that conflict is inevitable in human affairs, and that we must find ways to resolve or manage conflict as quickly as possible, before it leads to open warfare.

For us religious liberals, patriotism is not a simple matter; like the rest of life, it is complicated, and we’ll never all agree on one single interpretation of it. Yet we know we share certain liberal religious ideals that relate directly to patriotism: the dream of a peaceful world where no person is exploited or subjugated; the dream of life in balance; the dream of a more harmonious existence for all humanity. As religious liberals, our patriotism will be colored by these liberal religious ideals. And so on this Independence Day weekend, may we dedicate ourselves once again to an earth made fair, and all her people free.

 

Notes:

(1) Quoted in Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-century Reform, by Lorien Foote (2003: Ohio University Press). Other information about Robert Gould Shaw from Memoirs of the war of ’61 (1920; the online biography of Shaw at the UU Historical Society Web site; and other online and printed sources.

(2) Information about Short from: Roy Talbert, Negative Intelligence: The Army and the American Left, 1917-1941, (Univ. of Mississippi Press, 2008), p. 75-77. And: Ex parte Short. District Court, N. D. California, First Division. September 5, 1918. No. 16417. The Federal Reporter, Volume 253, 1919, p. 839.

(3) Personal communication from Rev. Seanan Holland, Major, U.S. Marine Corps, 29 June 2011.