Recording of our December 6, 2020 online worship service
This is the original work of the Reverend Mandy Beal (firstname.lastname@example.org), unless otherwise attributed.
Good morning, and welcome to Birmingham Unitarian Church! I am the Reverend Mandy Beal, this congregation’s Senior Minister. I am joined in worship leadership by our Co-Directors of Music Ministry, Abha and Steven Dearing and, making his debut as a Worship Associate, Chris Slon. We also have technical support from our Communications Coordinator, Sara Constantakis and Zoom Greeter Mary Jo Ebert.
BUC is a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Even in our virtual format, we are a thriving community with a place for everyone. All people of goodwill are welcome here. Social justice is an essential component of our lives. We are a “capital W” Welcoming Congregation and a Green Sanctuary Congregation. Our social justice work this year is focused on civic engagement, racial inequality, economic inequality, and environmental justice.
Our worship services are hosted on Zoom every Sunday morning at 10:30 and then later posted on Facebook. After the service, we invite you to stay for a virtual coffee hour. If you are worshiping us for the first time today, we extend a special welcome to you. We hope that you’ll stay after the service and get to know us.
We have 3 announcements this morning, each of which is about something happening today:
Today is the last day to order poinsettias to support our Religious Education program. You can order them by clicking the Order Poinsettias button on our website. Pickup will be on Saturday, December 12 between 10:00 am and noon in our parking lot. This year, you can order poinsettias for yourself, or as a gift to a fellow BUCer. If you choose to send a gift, it will be anonymous and we will choose the recipient. You can submit your payment online, by Venmo, or by check. All orders are due today!
Today is also the deadline for Adopt-a-Family. If you are planning to adopt a family, or want to donate to the Adopt-a-Family program, today is the last day. There are still 23 children who have not been adopted. Help brighten their holidays by going to the BUC website and use the orange “Adopt-a-Family” button. If you have any trouble, or questions, please contact Jane O’Neil.
And finally, our high school youth group, GUUSH, will meet in our courtyard today at 1:00 pm to lead a special bonus worship service. Participating youth can check Discord for all the details. Everyone is welcome to join in this service on Zoom using a different link than the one you used to join this service. That link can be found on the BUC Meeting Calendar. Again that’s today at 1:00.
Thank you for joining us this morning, or whenever you’re watching this. Although we are not together physically, we are together in spirit, and it is good to be together again.
And with that, our service will begin.
We worship in our separate homes this morning, but we are joined by a multitude of Unitarian Universalists in lighting our chalice:
We are called this morning to be present to the world around us in all of its complexity and beauty. As we wait for the joys of tomorrow, let us find something to celebrate today.
“First Comes the Waiting” by Erika A. Hewitt
This is the season of endings and beginnings,
when the small signs of dawn pierce through the night and something new is born.
But first comes the waiting.
First come the lessons of endings and beginnings.
The Presence of Life, the sheltering Spirit of Love,
grieves with those sweeping up the debris of loss;
waits with those who restlessly reach out for change;
grants us courage in the night to guard each other’s dreams for this holy, wondrous universe.
Grant us, oh Universe unfolding in mystery, a sense of your timing.
May we loosen our grip on that which doesn’t serve us,
leaving behind that which we have outworn and outgrown.
Teach us the lessons of beginnings.
Remind us that such waitings and endings may be a starting place,
a planting of seeds which bring to birth what is ready to be born –
something right and just and different;
a new song, a deeper relationship, a fuller love –
in the fullness of time.
The mission of Birmingham Unitarian Church is to create a free and welcoming religious community that encourages lives of integrity, learning, service, and joy. The weekly offering serves as an ongoing reminder of this mission. Sharing in this weekly practice of generosity also strengthens the bonds between congregants and our high purpose. So let there be an offering in support of this Beloved Community and our good works. Contributions can be made through our website, Venmo, or a check in the mail. However you choose to give, please do so with a heart of gratitude and for each other.
by Chris Slon
When I try to make sense of the world lately, I keep hearing: “Once one dismisses the rest of all possible worlds, one finds that this is the best of all possible worlds!” They echo in an unlikely region of my brain where Enlightenment philosophy intersects with Broadway show tunes.
The words are from a number in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide which is a musical restatement of Voltaire’s satire of an argument by Leibniz. Now, those are some pretty heavy names to drop on a Sunday morning, but in this case, I think they are just barely enough to balance against the weight of the world. Let me try to connect the dots.
Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz was a great thinker of the Enlightenment who espoused the idea of optimism. This is not the glass-half-full optimism we have come to know. It is based on a specific idea, that this is the best of all possible worlds, arrived at through the rigorous methods of rationalism. Leibniz, a rationalist, framed the proof this way:
He starts with three axioms, presumably accepted truths that need no proof:
1. God is the only perfect being
2. God is good
3. God created the world
From this foundation, Leibniz reasons that the world cannot be perfect since only God can be perfect. If the world is not perfect, it could be any of a number of possible imperfect worlds. Since God is good, God created that world which has the least amount of suffering. Therefore, this is the best of all possible worlds. From this perspective, everything that happens, even evil, is ultimately for the best.
If Leibniz the optimist took an inventory of the state of my life, he wouldn’t say my glass is half full. He would say that whatever is in my glass, or not, is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.
As a trained engineer, I find that argument logical but not very useful. As a born-again agnostic, I find the axioms contrived and less than universally accepted—even back then. As a self-professed poet, I find the conclusion barren and wholly unsatisfactory. Taken altogether, I guess I am not an optimist.
But I’m in good company. Voltaire, who lived a little after Leibniz, found this argument flawed and dangerous—flawed because it ignores the evil humans create in the world, and dangerous because it encourages passivity toward improving the world. Voltaire wrote a satirical novel in response to Leibniz’s argument wherein the title character, Candide, is taught Leibniz-ian optimism as a youth, then experiences a tragic sequence of events filled with political unrest, social injustice, and brutal violence; natural disasters and plagues; broken faith and death.
If you’ve been paying attention to the news for the last few months—or years—you might find this storyline familiar.
In the end, Candide in exhaustion and despair abandons optimism.
But Candide finds a better perspective. In the end he confronts his tutor declaring that noble thought has its place, but true meaning lies in just living day to day. The only truly meaningful act is to do our best in our daily tasks—bake our bread, chop our wood, build our home—make our garden grow.
Two hundred years after Voltaire, Leonard Bernstein told Candide’s story in music. The show was never really successful on the stage, but there are several wonderful recordings of it.
When I am overwhelmed by the effort of trying to make sense of the world, I listen to the finale of Bernstein’s Candide, "Make Our Garden Grow." The words—that the meaning of life is found in the satisfaction of our daily tasks done well—never fail to bring a tear and a fresh perspective to my eye.
The piece builds gradually to the last verse when the orchestra drops out and the entire cast and chorus in lush harmony sing: “We’re neither pure nor wise nor good. We’ll do the best we know. We’ll build our house and chop our wood. And make our garden grow, and make our garden grow.”
This holiday season, don’t spend too much time news-reading, twitter-following, doom-scrolling, trying to make sense of nonsense. Bake your bread, chop your wood—maybe listen to some Bernstein—and even in this, the bleak midwinter, make your garden grow.
So may it be.
by Rev. Mandy Beal
I keep seeing this commercial with a family setting up a Christmas tree and a teenage girl who just cannot get into it. The commercial opens with the dad saying something like “This is a year to remember.” She rolls her eyes, he adds: “Or maybe to forget.” It goes on from there with a younger sister putting ornaments on the tree and the older girl criticizing her. She finally reaches a breaking point and says: “They might as well cancel Christmas. They’ve canceled everything else.” The little sister is disheartened and leaves the room. The dad motions for the older sister to go after her and she stands outside of the younger kid’s bedroom and sings a Christmas song, in an affirmation of the younger’s Christmas spirit and perhaps an attempt to recover her own. It’s a Meijer commercial and every time that thing comes on, I tear up a little. We’re not talking about a work of cinematic glory here. Meijer. This is an ad that plays on the deep well of emotion we all have for a year to remember. Or perhaps forget.
One of my favorite Southern sayings is a phrase used when something is taking too long. We say “it’s slow as Christmas.” That coffee maker is slow as Christmas, this line is slow as Christmas, etc. The time we spend waiting for Christmas always seems to pass slowly. And it’s something we anticipate all year long.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we have a positive relationship with Christmas. For a lot of us, waiting for Christmas is an experience of slow, looming dread, rather than excitement. The American culture of Christmas is at once aggressively joyful and casually brutal. Christmas messaging tells us we don’t make enough money to properly show our love. Or perhaps we don’t have enough friends and family to love or maybe they’re not the right friends and family to make that perfect holiday greeting card. Or maybe we don’t celebrate Christmas, but it’s basically inescapable. And we’re expected to “be of good cheer” through the whole thing. Whether our relationship with the holiday is positive, negative, or deeply ambivalent, Christmas has been particularly slow this year. And now that it’s finally here, not even Christmas is living up the impossibly high standards of Christmas.
In any season, most of our lives are spent living in the future or in the past. The weeks leading up to Christmas have the dubious honor of doing both. We dream of next year when all our troubles will be out of sight. We believe in a misty-eyed vision of the future when war and poverty will end, but only if we want it badly enough today. At the same time, we are surrounded by a saccharine nostalgia for a time that never was - when things were simple and everyone was a Norman Rockwell painting. That was the time of peace and prosperity, when war and poverty lived in far off lands and had nothing to do with us.
Christmas messages tell us there is a best possible world and it has already happened and/or is yet to come. We are barraged with songs and stories of a best possible world that is not here and now, but the property of the past or the future. These songs and stories are particularly loud in a year that we don’t want to look at too closely anyway. This year, more than ever, we want that time travel.
In just a few weeks, we get to say good riddance to a year we’ll always remember and can’t wait to forget. I’m not going to go over the litany of things that happened this year. We all know. There were things that happened at every level of our lives that we were not prepared to deal with. Whether or not there is a best possible world, the world this year was the worst and we’re ready to move on.
I’ve heard stories from many of you about trying to suffocate 2020 in garlands and bright red bows. I’m in this camp, too. I’ve sunk hours into finding the perfect, living spruce and fir wreath with lights and pine cones. And I feel great about that choice. I think we all have permission to do what we need to so we can close this year on an upswing. Since Christmas isn’t going to be cancelled, we might as well try to beat it at its own game. This year, we’re going to drag Christmas through Christmas rather than getting drug by it.
Although we’re ready to put this year behind us, let’s not get lost in an escapist fantasy. God willing, there will never be another year like this and as it draws to an end, my hope is for us to be awake to our spiritual being in this moment. Let’s feel those feelings, difficult as they might be. Personally, I don’t want to be in my 60s and have a young person ask what it was like to live through 2020 and my only response to be: “Well, in March, I closed my eyes and put my fingers in my ears and then December came and I bought a bunch of Christmas lights.”
There’s no reason to put off celebration for a better time. There’s no reason to skip celebrating because there was a better time. We need celebration and joy now more than ever. A more honest celebration than we’ve come to expect of the Great American Christmas Racket. We need to celebrate the joy that lives right here and now. That is what gives meaning to a year that might otherwise feel empty. Not by wishing ourselves into a different reality, but by transmuting difficulty into something worth celebrating. That is how we round up a year that could have been better. We can find the spirit of joy as we make a celebration of the world exactly as it is today.