At our June 2nd service, Harmony member Paul Smith asks us to discuss culturally imposed rules about clothing, language, and marriage. We’ll explore our own preferences in these areas, why we feel the way we do about them, and why other people might (legitimately) think and feel differently about these topics than we do.
Warning: this sermon contains language that some may find objectionable…which is perfectly appropriate given the topic, but feel warned regardless.
Read more about this service here:
Is it always wrong to lie? If not, when is it OK? In this podcast episode of our March 4, 2018, service, Harmony UU member Paul Smith discusses what can we learn from religion, philosophy, and science about lying, as well as its effects on the lied-to and the liar.
Read more details about this sermon here:
A friend recently asked me:
“At Harmony, you have 20 minutes after every sermon when people are allowed to discuss the sermon in small groups and disagree or even offer alternative ideas. That sounds more like a philosophy or debate club. Why do you use words like ‘church’ and ‘sermon’?”
That’s not an uncommon sentiment, so I thought I’d share my response:
All good questions. Yes, there is certainly much of what goes on at Harmony that could be described as a philosophy or debate club—things like the 20-minutes of small-group discussion after every sermon, or the monthly discussion group meetings where we discuss and debate an important topic of philosophy, theology, or politics.
But there is also much that would seem more similar to a traditional church service—things like singing songs, rituals, the group recitation of a common statement of belief, the personal theology group meetings, the children’s religious exploration (i.e., “Sunday School”) classes, and the fact that one of our purposes for organization is to provide an environment for people to have a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Meaning being something that is typically provided by religion and faith.
The “truth” part in there is the part that might seem more like a philosophy or debate club, and that’s on purpose. Part of our statement of purpose includes the words, “a balance of faith and reason.”
We also have Christmas and Easter celebrations, we’ve had a Wiccan Spring celebration, we have interfaith visits where we attend services at a Muslim mosque, a Jewish synagogue, a Buddhist temple, or a Catholic church. And we’ve had representatives of those faiths lead our sermons on occasion.
And many of our sermons are very theological in nature. Some of my favorites are ones where a single topic is discussed from the point of view of several faiths, quoting scripture from various holy books and comparing the teachings. And there are practicing Catholics, Muslims, and Jews who have and do attend our church.
Perhaps the main reason we use religious words to describe what we do (like the word “sermon”) is simply historical. The Unitarian-Universalist church came from the merger of two Christian churches (the Unitarians, Christians who asserted the Unity of God and rejected the concept of the Holy Trinity; and the Universalists, a Christian group believing that all of human kind will eventually be saved and granted access to Heaven, not just people of one faith or another).
So, we are part of an historically religious organization. And much of what we still do is religious. We just practice it in what I think is a more responsible way. That is, without any coercion to join or stay a member, and without insisting that our beliefs are somehow true of the objective world and anyone else’s beliefs are therefore objectively wrong.
Paul Smith is a member of Harmony and the best-selling author of Lead with a Story.
In an age where chivalry is largely extinct, it’s sometimes helpful to remind ourselves that some of the oldest traditions are born out of respect for other people.
I learned one of my most memorable lessons on chivalry as a college student. One Saturday, my girlfriend Kelley and I were walking on a downtown sidewalk alongside bustling mid-day traffic. As we walked past a middle-aged African American man sitting on a bench, he called out to me in a respectful, but disappointed tone, “Young man, show some respect. Walk curbside of that pretty lady.”
I was instinctively embarrassed, though not immediately sure why. But I quickly switched places with her anyway. With a few minutes reflection, it occurred to me he was teaching me a valuable lesson that probably dated from decades earlier. When walking along the side of a road with a companion, the one walking closest to traffic is at higher risk of coming in contact with the cars or horses speeding by. Or less dramatically, they’re more likely to end up wearing the dust, mud or smell that regularly flies off passing vehicles. The other pedestrian is somewhat protected from those unpleasantries by their partner.
But I had more lessons to learn. Just knowing what to do isn’t enough. Knowing how is also important.
Proud of my newfound gallantry, the next few times Kelley and I went for a walk I made a show of my chivalrous position curbside. The first time evoked a genuine smile from her. But after 2 or 3 such instances, her polite but annoyed smile let me know my pride was overshadowing the good deed. Apparently part of being a gentleman is doing so without being boastful.
I only came to fully appreciate the value of humility in relationships many years later as a newly married man. I had of course told my wife, Lisa, that I loved her many times in our early marriage. But I asked her one evening when it was that she really knew for certain that I did. She surprised me by saying yes, and there was a very specific moment that convinced her so. I had learned Lisa had a habit of sleeping completely covered with blankets all the way up to and over her head. She left only a small opening in the covers near her mouth, which I affectionately dubbed her “breathe hole.”
She answered my question by reminding me of something I had done one evening that I wasn’t aware she ever knew about. I had gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and when I returned to bed, I noticed I had disturbed the covers just enough to collapse her “breathe hole” leaving her entire head covered by the blanket. With her still asleep (or so I thought) I quietly reshaped the blanket to reconstitute a proper opening and rolled over to go back to sleep.
Apparently, although she kept her eyes closed, my movement had awakened her just enough to notice what I was doing. And while she did appreciate having her breathe hole fixed, what she appreciated more was the fact that I did so even though I thought she was still asleep and would never even know of my deed. That’s when she knew that I really loved her.
This story was featured in a recent sermon by Harmony member Paul Smith on the subject of “Respect.” It is excerpted from his book Parenting with a Story, and published here with permission from the author.
This sermon, “Empathy: Too Little, or Too Much?,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on March 5, 2017. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.
We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness. Many of our wisest policy-makers, activists, scientists, and philosophers agree that the only problem with empathy is that we don’t have enough of it.
But new research makes the case that some of the worst decisions made by individuals and nations—who to give money to, when to go to war, how to respond to climate change, and who to imprison—are too often motivated by honest, yet misplaced, emotions, and specifically empathy.