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July 4, 2021 | Online Worship

Recording of our July 4, 2021 online worship service

Worship manuscript:


This is the original work of the Reverend Mandy Beal (mandy.beal@bucmi.org), unless otherwise attributed.


Welcome

Rev. Mandy Beal


Good morning and welcome to Birmingham Unitarian Church! I am the Reverend Mandy Beal, I am this congregation’s Senior Minister. I am joined in worship leadership this morning by Worship Associates Chris Slon and Tom Raffel. Tom is this morning’s guest musician. We also have technical support from Communications Coordinator Sara Constantakis, and today’s Zoom Greeter is Drieka DeGraff.


Our worship services are hosted on Zoom every Sunday morning at 10:30 and then later posted on our website and our Facebook page. After the service, we invite you to stay for virtual coffee hour. If you are worshiping with us for the first time today, we extend a special welcome to you.


We have one announcement this morning: Join me this Tuesday, July 6 on Facebook Live at a new time--6:00 pm--for our monthly Vespers Service. The service will include the lighting of memorial candles, candles of concern, and candles of hope and joy. Names and information for candle lighting can be submitted through a link on our website. To view the service live, visit the Birmingham Unitarian Church Facebook page at 6:00 pm on Tuesday, July 6. The video will also remain on Facebook for later viewing.


Today marks the independence of the United States from colonial rule. We know the history of our nation is not innocent and we are on occupied land. The following acknowledgement applies specifically to the geographical area of BUC. There is a unique and rich history of First Nations people in every area of this continent and I invite you to learn about that history in your location. I invite your close attention:


The campus of Birmingham Unitarian Church occupies the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary lands of the Anishinaabe - the Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi peoples. Bloomfield Hills is situated on land ceded in the 1807 Treaty of Detroit. We acknowledge Michigan’s 12 federally recognized Native Nations as well as historic Indigenous communities in Michigan. We also acknowledge Indigenous individuals and communities who live here now, and those who were forcibly removed from their homelands. In offering this land acknowledgement, we affirm Indigenous sovereignty, history, and experiences.


As we reflect on our complicated history, let us find in ourselves the drive to create justice in our time and to live peaceably on this earth.


And now, let us join together in worship.


Chalice Lighting

Rev. Mandy Beal


As we worship in our separate homes this morning, we are joined with a multitude of Unitarian Universalists in lighting our chalice:


This chalice is lit in acknowledgment of our individuality, the divine spark within each of us. May we be reminded that this flame depends upon its wick, which is supported by wax and that wax is held within a metal container. The candle rests upon a chalice made by the hands of an artist who bought the clay and it’s glaze from others. This is an individual flame, but it is not alone.


Opening Words

“Come One, Come All” by Ian W. Riddell

read by Chris Slon


Come one, come all!

Come with your missing pieces and your extra screws

Come with your hard edges and your soft spots

Come with your bowed heads and upright spines

Come all you flamboyant and drab

verbose and quiet fidgeting and lethargic

All you with large vision and tender hearts

All you with small courage and tender fears

Bring your lisp and your stutter and your song

Bring your gravel and your drawl and your lilt

Bring your anger and your joy and your righteous indignation

Misfits and conformists and everyone in between

Come into this space and be welcome

Bring who you are

Bring where you’ve traveled

Bring what you long for

and let us worship together


Offering

Rev. Mandy Beal


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 (username @BUCmi), or a check in the mail. However you choose to give, please do so with a heart of gratitude and for each other.


First Reading

Excerpt from “Emerson’s Shadow,” Chapter 19 of The Cathedral of the World by Forrest Church

read by Rev. Mandy Beal


Emerson was the quintessential adolescent sage. I don’t mean that pejoratively. Adolescence, the passage from childish dependence to maturity, is no less necessary a stage for nation or faith than for an individual. Coming of age together, Emerson, the United States, and the Unitarian movement shared the same adolescent passage. Newly liberated from England, the nation was a child when Emerson was born in 1803. The American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825, when Emerson was studying for the ministry. Quickly thereafter, freethinkers in the movement began to challenge every lingering assumption tying young Unitarianism to its Christian parentage.

Emerson chafed at all forms of servitude, dedicating his full intellectual energy to the liberation of American letters from outworn and derivative Old World Models. “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close,” he wrote in his personal declaration of independence, “The American Scholar.”

From the publication of Nature in 1836 until his death in 1882, no figure – political, literary, or religious – better kindled the adolescent spirit necessary for a young people to stand on its own feet and chart a course independent from that of their elders.

Yet, to be functional, adolescence must be age-appropriate. If Emerson’s philosophy spoke to his own times, in the meantime one might hope that our nation and faith have matured. In developmental theory the progression goes as follows: dependence, independence, interdependence. In an age of boundlessness, Emerson’s script (sovereign individualism and self-reliance) does not address today’s need for interdependence. This holds true for nation and denomination both. If we are ever to grow up, the anti-institutionalists who gravitate to our institutions must take a little of their precious Emersonian freedom and invest it more generously. Only then will we bond together in redemptive community. Until we, as Unitarian Universalists, come out from under Emerson’s shadow, we will not mature as a movement.


Second Reading

read by Chris Slon


In his essay, "Self-Reliance," Emerson vehemently argues the case that a person can only find worth from within themselves; that true genius is unique to each person and can only be corrupted by the influence of others.


For instance, he bemoans the loss of the uninhibited, independent voice of youth as we learn to speak in interdependent world of the adult. He says:


The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature…He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict.


These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue it most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.


Later in the essay he says:


Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession. That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.


It is easy to think Emerson sees a binary option: either the abject, soulless conformity imposed by society or the noble exhilarating independence of the free thinker.


I am told by scholars who have invested way more time in Emerson than I am willing or able to do, that this self-reliance Emerson refers to is only a starting point. Self-reliance is relying on one’s own personal access to the “universal mind.” Something like what Forrest Church calls “one light, many windows.” Emerson is really admonishing us to simply find our own window.


But that raises a question in my mind: What then? Say I achieve this Self-reliance that Emerson describes, what do I do with it? Paradoxically, I don’t think I can answer that question on my own.


Homily

by Rev. Mandy Beal


Every July 4th or so, I like to wrestle with the tension between independence and interdependence through the lens of Unitarian Universalism. We tend to align our Unitarian heritage with independence and Universalism with interdependence, but both themes are found in both historical Unitarianism and Universalism. Today we’re going to take a look at notions of interdependence in the development of American Unitarianism.


The Transcendentalist influence on Unitarianism cannot be understated, and perhaps the best known intellectual figures from this period are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Their influence is still found in modern Unitarian Universalism. We cherish individual freedom, the right to conscience, and the ability to chart one’s own course without being beholden to tradition, authority, or the beliefs of previous generations. Emerson gets most of the credit for developing these ideas into compelling essays, and rightly so. But, exploration of Emerson naturally lends itself to consideration of Thoreau’s role in the development and dissemination of Transcendentalist thought. They were conversation partners then and it’s appropriate to keep their work in conversation today.


At the core of Transcendentalism is the belief that each man is endowed with a divine spark that is unique and intrinsic to his nature. And, I’m going to clarify here that when I say “men,” I do mean “men.” The worldview of those forefathers was limited almost exclusively to wealthy, highly educated, white men from New England. They believed each man’s individual spark was his and his alone, it was the key to his character. But, the maturation of that spark was influenced by interactions with others, which, in turn, influenced personal development. To that end, the Transcendentalists kept a very tight social circle to limit the kind of people who would influence them.


Obviously, they could not completely avoid contact with people outside of that inner sanctum. Even if they didn’t engage explicitly with other people, they were tacitly bound to them through cultural institutions and societal expectations. They were expected to do things like have families, keep households, give money to the poor, pay taxes, and vote. They wrote on these subjects with a range of discomfort, resentment, and rancor. These were means by which they were forced, against their will, into interactions with regular people to whom they would otherwise never speak.


All cultural institutions and societal norms have been built on the ideas of other men. Participation in society, acceptance of government and its laws, and all cultural expectations are social constructs that are superficially imposed, yet compulsory. The Transcendentalists believed institutions deserved scrutiny rather than mindless acceptance. Such institutions are the abstractions of other men’s thinking and values. And this is what they hoped to transcend - the laws of men in favor of the inherent and intrinsic laws of nature that would allow them to live without the influence of others.


Like many of our religious forebears, Emerson and Thoreau were abolitionists. They were outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act and saw it as an overreach by the federal government into the lives of its citizens. By requiring American citizens to return slaves to their owners, the government was requiring them to participate in injustice. There was no better example of being forced to do something that would corrupt their self-determination and development of personal character.


Emerson, Thoreau, and others made important intellectual arguments against the Fugitive Slave Act. Thoreau took it a step further. In an attempt to disentangle himself from involvement with the unjust law, he refused to pay his poll taxes. When he was visiting friends in Concord one night, he was approached by a tax-collector, arrested and imprisoned. He was released the next day when an anonymous benefactor paid the debt. He later wrote about his objections to the Fugitive Slave Act, his refusal to pay taxes, and night in jail in an essay entitled “Civil Disobedience.” By refusing to pay his poll tax, spending the night in jail, then later writing about it, Thoreau found a new, larger platform to spread Transcendentalism.


Our young nation, hungry for new, uniquely American ideas, was ready to hear the good word of self-determination. As they pushed further West, claiming that did not belong to them, Americans were full of notions of exploration, individualism, and fresh starts. They wanted to leave behind all vestiges of the “Old World” and make something new, from the ground up, completely on their own. The supercharged individualist philosophy of the Transcendentalists was an echo of and fueled these desires. The idea of a guy living alone in a cabin in the woods and choosing imprisonment over paying taxes was very appealing at that time, and still resonates today.


But the fierce independence of the Transcendentalists is not all there is to the story. No matter what they said or wrote, they did not exist outside of the context of other humans. It’s well documented that Thoreau often walked from Walden to Concord to visit friends. That’s what he was doing when he was arrested. Plus his mom and sister did his laundry. Also, it bears mentioning that he was not at all alone at Walden. Those woods were occupied by several Black families, most of whom were formerly enslaved.


It is by bemoaning the unavoidable connections of the human condition that Thoreau and Emerson demonstrate that relationships are unavoidable, and therefore, natural. If a person can corrupt the divine spark of another, it means that every person has an impact on everyone around them. That’s essentially an a priori argument for inherent interconnectedness. The Transcendentalist fantasy of “self-reliance,” as Emerson called it, was not completely devoid of other people. Even if they could separate themselves from commoners, they willingly surrounded themselves with intellectuals and artists they admired; peers with whom they could debate and sharpen their ideas; and, of course, a few women to cook and do laundry. Both Emerson and Thoreau, and indeed all Transcendentalists, lived their lives within the context of community, even as they wrote about being completely independent.


Their understanding of their place in society was...convoluted. Despite his disdain for most people, Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” essay includes the following passage: “I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject,” meaning a subject of the state, and he goes on to say “and as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countrymen now.” This clarifies that he did have concern for others and was willing to involve himself with them; what he refused to accept was expectations of how he would involve himself with others.


He chafed at the expectation that he should have allegiance to the state which would inherently involve him with others without the opportunity to direct that involvement. It is the loss of agency that concerned him most. He wanted to act for himself rather than act out of obligation. In other words, he wanted to do it because he wanted to do it, not because someone else wanted him to. Thoreau might have lived “alone” in a cabin in the woods, but he still wanted highways and schools to support the well-being of his fellow countrymen. Why?


The independence that Emerson and Thoreau spoke of has to be placed in historical context. This was about a hundred years after American independence, and European thought and culture dominated the Western World, and indeed beyond. Freedom from tyranny is a through-line in Emerson’s and Thoreau’s work. Emerson, as the de facto leader of Transcendentalism, was interested in taking American freedom one step further by freeing American thought and culture from the hegemony of Europe.


The insistence that men should chart their own course without interference from others was necessary for and indicative of the development of our nation’s identity. As Forrest Church wrote, this period of wholesale rejection of authority was imperative to our growth as a nation. We’ve all heard a young person say: “I’m nothing like my parents! They just don’t understand what it’s like to be young these days!” That’s where America was at the time of Emerson and Thoreau. Their work, their aggressive individualism, was totally appropriate and necessary for a young nation struggling to create its own identity.


But it has to be said, American independence was about freedom from oppressive tyranny, not freedom from mutual obligation to each other. The Revolution took place within the context of creating and protecting a commonwealth; the idea of a shared well-being, a common-wealth. It was only through cooperation that the United States could be formed - they are united, after all. Of course there were those who did not want to unite under a federal government, and even amongst those who did, there were tensions and opposing factions, but they shared a common dream of freedom from oppression. Well, freedom from their own oppression. Our nation was built on stolen land by the labor of enslaved people and we must remember that every 4th of July.


There’s an anecdotal story about that infamous night Henry David Thoreau spent in the Concord jail. Emerson, thoroughly scandalized, came to the jail to see for himself what had become of his young friend. When Emerson, who was called Waldo by those who knew him, found Thoreau behind bars, he exclaimed: “Egad, Henry! What are you doing in there,” to which Thoreau replied: “Egad, Waldo! What are you doing out there?!”


Do you see what happened in that story? Thoreau went to Concord to visit friends. He was arrested because he wouldn’t pay taxes to fund laws he thought were unjust. Someone saw him get arrested. They told other people. The news made it to good ol’ Waldo. Waldo went to the jail to see him. They were always a part of a community. And so are we.


Transcendentalists were key to the development of our religion and our nation’s personality, our collective divine spark, perhaps ironically. Forrest Church is right, it is time for our faith and our nation to step out of Emerson’s shadow. A shadow even he did not cast alone, but along with the support and admiration of his fellows, not the least of which was Thoreau. The role of Emerson and Thoreau in the development of Unitarianism should never be diminished. But a few things have happened since then, both in our country and our religion. Yesterday’s tools are not fitted for tomorrow’s tasks. It’s time to let go of the myth of the solitary person. It wasn’t true in Emerson and Thoreau’s time and it isn’t true now.


They were correct that everyone has an impact on everyone else. That is an inherent law of nature. Our need for each other, our total inability to escape each other, is our natural state and the divisions we create between us is a social construct. Those divisions are what has been handed down to us from previous generations and deserves our scrutiny rather than our fealty. Living into the truth of interconnection and interdependence is the task of Unitarian Universalism in the 21 century. It’s time to step more fully into our maturity. Just as the Transcendentalists cast off obligations to accept the scholarship, opinions, and expectations of previous generations, so must we. Each of us is special, holy, and worthy. All of us are. Together.

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