Member Testimonies

What Do You Mean You’re Not Spiritual?

My name is Stan Yack, and I’m a member of this congregation.

A word that comes up around here more often than it used to is spirituality. It’s not something that I like to talk about. That’s in part because I’ve never really felt spiritual, but also because whenever I hear the word spirituality, I think spiritualism. You know: talking with the “departed”, recalling past lives, levitating tables — stuff that a scientific humanist like me rejects almost instinctively. But levitating tables is of course not what spirituality is about.

Spirituality is defined as “the concept of an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality” or  “an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his or her being” or just “the deepest values and meanings by which people live.” The quest to discover the essence of our being, and our deepest values and meanings — that’s hardly inconsistent with our Unitarian principles.

One way that I express my religious self here at First, is by celebrating our 4th Principle, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” So why do I avoid or dismiss a word like spirituality that echoes that principle? Some of you may have encountered my occasional, illiberal reaction to the word. Sorry about that.

In my later life academic excursions, I’ve learned that meaning doesn’t originate in some Platonic idea; what a word means is determined over time by how people use it. And there’s not much evidence that spirituality is becoming a synonym for spiritualism.

Have you ever tested yourself on a “What is your religion?” website? (One of them is listed on the Toronto First website’s “Cool Links” page.) My own beliefs show a 100% commonality with Secular Humanism, and 88% with Unitarian Universalism; not too surprising — but also 55% with Theravada Buddhism. I apparently have 55% in common with what most of us would consider a very spiritual believe system!

I have meditated off on for over thirty years, until recently mostly to calm myself. But I now sometimes meditate here Sunday mornings during a quiet time or musical interlude, apparently seeking some inner peace.

Most spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life, but it isn’t essential that spirituality encompasses a belief in immaterial realities.

I’m most comfortable calling myself an Agnostic. I understand that there are questions that we can’t answer, and I believe that all knowledge is provisional, or as a longstanding UU aphorism puts it: “Revelation is not sealed.” But if I don’t believe in immaterial realities, why every Sunday do I “affirm life, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine”? What’s the divine thing that I want us to grow into harmony with? Is it some theistic entity, God help me! In fact, because I’ve seen no evidence of the universe’s “life-force”, or “cosmic consciousness”, I treat our Sunday affirmation as a metaphor.

My roots are in the Jewish tradition, a religion and culture where teachers, and the most learned, have always been the most respected. As long as I can remember I’ve held learning in high esteem. In later life, it’s become my hobby, and my vocation. One of the things I've learned about is Unitarian-Universalism, a religion where reason is used to filter truth from make-believe, where there’s no privileged priesthood revealing truths about mythical divinities.

I very much value what I've learned from all the free-thinkers that I've met here … and I plan to continue to learn from you and, I hope, you from me.

Good Morning, my name is Peter Brydon, and along with Margaret Kohr and Chris Wulff, I am one of your Lay Chaplains.

Just over six years ago I performed my first service, and this fall I will lay down my stole. I have found these six years to be amongst the most rewarding in my life. For me it has been a great privilege to stand as witness to people as they share the most joyous and saddest times in their lives. It is both amazing and humbling to be taken into the heart of a family who has lost a loved one. Although they are clearly sad their joy and pride come through as they share their memories with me. I remember once, after talking about their Dad, the family wouldn’t let me go until they’d taken me all around the house to show me his artwork and his handicrafts. They even took me out into the back yard to show me a sculpture he had made there.

Weddings frequently bubble with joy. On the less formal side I remember a bride and groom skipping and hopping down the aisle to Feist’s flighty and funky song, Mushaboom. The groom dressed up for the occasion in a brand new pair of running shoes. And there was the couple who tried valiantly to hold their wedding on the same day as the G20 summit in 2010, but they just couldn’t manage it. When they finally did, on the Labour Day weekend, there was so much love and joy in the wedding hall you could almost taste it.

Certainly the most touching and proudest moment for me was last June when I stood at the front of the UU Church in North Hatley, Quebec at the wedding of my son Dale to the love of his life, Sarah Baxter. Sarah’s father, Keith, is a Lay Chaplain there and the two of us co-officiated the wedding. I can’t put into words my feelings that day.

Lay Chaplains serve for a term of six years, and mine has been extended to a seventh, but I will definitely lay down my stole for good this fall. The purpose of this term limit is to allow others in the congregation to offer their gifts in this ministry and to have the opportunity for the kind of spiritual growth I have had. I know there are many of you who would make excellent Lay Chaplains, and so I’m saying, start thinking about it now. Every two years or so, the congregation will be looking for a new Lay Chaplain, so think ahead a bit. Talk to Margaret or Chris or me, or to one of the retired Lay Chaplains such as Margaret Rao or Gillian Burton. We can tell you all about it.

I’ll leave you with a final memory. A couple of years ago I did a memorial service which was just a very small intimate family gathering. When it was time to speak, the deceased woman’s husband of over fifty years stood up and, remembering all those wonderful years with a wonderful wife, said, “I’m the luckiest man alive”. I want to say to him, “ Thank-you for letting me get to know you, your family and the spirit of your wife.” And I say to all of you, “Thank-you for letting me have this opportunity to be your Lay Chaplain. To hold small babies in my arms, to share joy with marrying couples, and to learn about the life of wonderful people, now gone, whom I wish I’d had the chance to know when they were alive. I too am a lucky man.

Good morning, I am Gregory Robinson, a physician, member of our congregation and a Board member of Dying with Dignity Canada.

I am haunted to this day with the call of my Dad's desperate voice, “I’m still here?”

We had no idea why, with blood cancer, after weeks of refusing blood or plasma products, not a blood cell to his name, life still hung on to his frail body. And, now he was resenting the wait after 2 months of in-hospital palliative care.

It haunts me because of his reliance on me as his physician son, and his request to see Dr. Kevorkian. This was Windsor, October 1998 and the passionate doctor of euthanasia was reported to be just across the border. While he made no bones about mentioning it to me, he was more reserved with others in my family given their strong Christian beliefs.

I think he knew I held very liberal views on medically assisted dying after years of watching my friends and lovers suffer as they died of AIDS in the 1980s. In fact, I had my own stash of, now unavailable, secobarb for the final act until 1996 when life saving HIV medication returned life to my AIDS ravaged body. I treasure the hope and gift of life that should never be extinguished before its time. However, I still want all choices to end suffering available to me when I am dying.

After hearing my Dad’s plea that day, I reassured him I would help him go to sleep and not wake up if that was what he wished. I was able to negotiate deep valium-induced terminal sedation with his physician. He passed away in peace within 24 hours.

However, the horror of this was not necessary and it left permanent scars on our lives. Many of you may have similar stories. Our compassion needs to extend our palliative care to include medically assisted dying when needed and desired. We must end inhumane suffering at the end of life.

As Unitarians we led the way forward in 1993 when the CUC endorsed a resolution called “Choice and the Act of Dying”. This resolution called for legalization of the rights of mentally competent, terminally or irreversibly ill persons to determine the manner of their dying.

Our courts, BC in particular, and Provinces like Quebec are now headed into what appears to be a very promising phase and we once again have a lifetime opportunity to have laws changed that will allow medically assisted dying as a choice at the end of life. This is a historic opportunity and we must grab it! Parliament will ultimately be responsible for changing the laws and they must see that the court of public opinion, as well as our judicial courts - are strongly in support of this change.

Please do visit us at the Dying with Dignity table in Workman’s Hall after services today. Kate Chung and I will be glad to tell you more. Also, we encourage you to sign up for the Advance Directive and Patient Rights workshop by Margo Holland and myself on Saturday May 11, 2013.

As Martin Luther King said, in the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies – but the silence of our friends. Do not be silent.
Thank-you.

A riff on Shawn Newton’s June 12, 2011 sermon, “The State of Things.”

This is about three remarkable capitalists.

W. K. Kellogg, the Battle Creek, Michigan corn-flake man, believed that profits created by mass production should be shared with employees. In the Depression year of 1930, Kellogg put his workers, mostly women, on a six-hour day, four days a week, permitting him to hire more employees. It worked well. More families had dependable pay cheques, and employees had more time for canning, quilting, church work, and family picnics.

This changed after World War II when men, returning veterans, got more of the jobs. In their leisure time, the men went fishing, hunting, and driving snowmobiles. Note the difference in activities: boats, guns, and snowmobiles are expensive toys. The men wanted bigger pay cheques, were willing to work longer hours to get them. Mr. Kellogg died in 1951, but the short work-week persisted until 1985, at which time employees’ days increased to eight-hour shifts.

I ask: what was gained; what was lost?

Closer to home, you may remember the disastrous 2009 fire at Chapman’s Ice Cream factory in Markville, Ontario. Immediately after the fire, the owners, the Chapman family, announced that they would be keeping salaried staff on payroll until the factory was rebuilt, saving them from unemployment.

The third is Milwaukie, Oregon, U.S.A. business owner, Bob Moore, who in 2010 transferred ownership of his whole company, Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods, to his 209 employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan.

However, stories like these are not common. It appears that Charles Dickens was prescient when he wrote “A Christmas Carol.” He foresaw the transition from an admittedly paternalistic, but also more personal, business culture, represented by old Fezziwig, to one of a more grasping, selfish, impersonal nature, represented by Scrooge and Marley. Fezziwigs are now less common in a world of mobile capital, mergers, and acquisitions.

Note that Kellogg’s, Chapman’s, and Bob’s Red Mill, are family-owned businesses in smaller communities, where people know one another. None is owned by a Boston-based hedge fund, for example, nor by a multi-national company headquartered thousands of kilometers away.

Kate and I try to strengthen our communities by buying, when possible, Canadian-made goods sold by local stores and co-ops, and much of our food is locally-grown. It feels good to engage and support our neighbours.

On vacation, when visiting First Nations, we lodge and eat at on-reserve facilities and donate to First Nations defenses against corporate plunder of their environments.

This is joy-filled activity because it comes from a deep place of love and gratitude for having been given so much. However, we are far from perfect: we do own a car.

My social conscience comes from my parents’ Rooseveltian New Deal beliefs, enhanced by my Baptist youth, campaigning for Adlai Stevenson in 1952, and the Kennedy and Trudeau eras. Now I can see the deprivation many First Nations suffer, and note my benefits from “white male privilege.”

I believe we must look at different models of economic activity that are more local, more human, more cooperative, and more respectful of our planet.

Thank you.

At the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula, where the St. Lawrence River meets the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there is a lighthouse. It is well situated: the currents are tricky, the fog is frequent, and the rocky cliff is 20 stories high.

This lighthouse has special meaning for me. My great-grandfather was the lighthouse keeper for many years. My grandmother was born there in 1876. As a child, I loved to listen to her stories about what it was like to live in a lighthouse. She was the oldest of three daughters. When she was ten, her mother died in childbirth. In the absence of a mother, she helped raise her younger sisters. In the absence of a son, she helped her father with the light. In foggy weather, she shot off a cannon every 20 minutes to warn sailors away from the cliff.

As a child, I thought she had a fairytale childhood. As an adult, I appreciate the hardships of her life. What resonates with me now is her strong sense of duty and responsibility, which I have inherited from my father, her son.

Let me tell you how I came to be at First Unitarian. It was a sense of duty that brought me here–a duty to myself.

When I turned 50, I did some soul-searching. I decided that I needed to pay attention to my spiritual life. I also needed a new community because the only people I knew were my colleagues at work. And I wanted to start to give back, to volunteer.

I knew instinctively that what I needed was to be a practicing Unitarian. I had discovered the Unitarian church as a university student in Ottawa. I have considered myself a Unitarian all my adult life, but it was only when I began to think about my future that I felt the need for this place. I joined this congregation a month after my 50th birthday.

A few years later, I took early retirement from my management position at Toronto Public Library, and this congregation became a mainstay in my life.

At First Unitarian, I have satisfied my need for spiritual growth, community, and volunteering in ways that have surpassed my expectations. Here, I have the time, the challenge, and the encouragement to grow spiritually. I derive strength, self-knowledge, and inspiration from Sunday services and weekday programs. I have also found role models here, who motivate me to be my best self.

Here, I have found a caring community. I have widened my circle through social gatherings, programs, and volunteering. We come together in times of crisis to demonstrate concern for each other and the wider world.

And here, I have found ways to serve that are meaningful for me: preparing meals for Out of the Cold, building a school in Guatemala, building a house for Habitat for Humanity. I am proud of all the ways people here live out their convictions through social action.

I have also found that I can use my administrative skills effectively by volunteering right here, by serving on committees and chairing important projects. I am grateful for the trust the congregation has placed in me. Volunteering at First had another huge benefit for me. That is how I met my husband, Terry. We were married by Shawn in this room three years ago. After 18 years as a member, I feel a responsibility to help provide the resources First needs, not just to carry on, but to thrive. I play my part by giving of my time and talents, and through my financial contribution. I do this as a duty to myself and as a responsibility to you, the members and friends of this congregation. It is like a family obligation, the way my grandmother looked after her family.

I also want First Unitarian to be a beacon for others out there who haven’t found us yet. I want us to be a strong, vibrant force in the community. It meant so much to me to have this place to come to when I needed it. I feel a duty to keep our light shining for future members who I may never meet, as my grandmother felt a duty to strangers in ships at sea off the coast of Gaspe. My grandmother died 50 years ago at the age of 85. The lighthouse is still there—now automatic, unstaffed, a tourist attraction in Forillon National Park—but still a beacon to ships at sea and a light in my heart.