This sermon was first preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 11/16/14. It looks at the role of curiosity, intention and attention in building positive, lasting relationships. A special emphasis is placed on the role of autocorrect in our lives.
When I was a kid, I learned to type on a typewriter. We were still taught with the old machines that required white out for errors, or if you were really lucky, you had a typewriter with correction tape. It would allow you to backup over errors and cover them up as you went. My spelling was much better then. You had to know what you were typing, so it took effort and intention. When I finally shifting to writing on a computer, small spelling errors were fine. The programs would highlight the mistakes to fix. And then a decade or so later, you might not even have to make the changes yourself; the program knew what you were trying to type, and made them for you.
I have a very mild form of dyslexia. When I pay attention, I don’t have any real issues. When I’m going through something fast, I misread much more frequently. I’ve always been an avid reader, but when I was younger I was lucky if I could read 30 pages an hour. It wasn’t until college that I realized something was going on, hearing many of my peers reading twice that rate. After a little bit of research, I realized that folks with mild forms of dyslexia often have this trouble with slower reading. I looked into some techniques to try to correct it. For me, it was the ruler. If you lay the ruler out along a line, you can train your eye where you read; and for some reason it seemed to help with the small errors of flipping letters that would cause me to have to reread whole paragraphs from time to time. With intention, my reading speed doubled for most things.
But when I’m texting or trying to send a post on Facebook, you would think I have no clue where letters ought to be in words in the English language. I get sloppy. I’m not paying attention. And the worst of my letter flipping comes to the forefront. Because most of the time, our modern technology corrects most of the mistakes appropriately, I don’t have much reason to focus and I make more errors. My most recent, and possibly my favorite autocorrect error occurred this week. I was sending a note to my fiancé that I was finally starting on my sermon. (We try to keep each other abreast when I’m home working vs when I’m home and free.) Autocorrect let Brian know that I was, in fact, finally starting on my “demon.” We got a small laugh out of it – the way any of us do when we commiserate on work that needs to be done in our jobs. But it wasn’t actually true – or I should say I don’t see the writing process as a chore or a burden or, well, a demon. I typically enjoy it, even if it’s sometimes frustratingly elusive. Autocorrect reminds me that when I let my intention slip, not only what I see may be incorrect, but what I say may be wrong too.
Intention or attention, are the two ways that most of us get in trouble in life or in our relationships. We let our focus slip and then we fill in the gaps with assumptions, opinions or stories that aren’t real. Or we communicate poorly and others fill in the gaps for themselves in the same short-hand fashion. When I was a lay member of the All Souls Church in NYC, one of the ministers (now the church’s Senior Minister), Rev. Galen Guengrich preached on the topic of iPod people. For those of you too young to remember the iPod (yes, technology is moving that fast) it was a device like your smart phone that only play music. (I know, how boring.) He talked about how one morning he realized, as he was walking down the street, that the world of human interaction in NYC had dramatically declined. All of a sudden everyone was deaf to one another and mindlessly going too and fro listening to their devices. iPod people. (And again, for those too young to have seen it the first time around or on later dvd, “Pod people” is a movie reference to an alien invasion that caused zombie like reactions from humans.) I would amend his story to say with the advent of smart phones, pedestrians in NYC are now deaf and blind as they aren’t even looking up to see where they’re going, and I have a few bruises to prove it.
With or without our devices, there’s a certain level of the “Pod people” phenomena that goes on in our daily living when we let our focus and our attention fall short. When we’re filling in the gaps that aren’t really there because of our lack of mindfulness, we’re creating a fantasy world to live in. Sometimes that’s fun, and sometimes that’s very frustrating. But a lot of arguments in our relationships, our home life, and our work life, come of it.
Last week there was a fascinating article in Business Insider that was looking at the scientific research around successful marriages. It compiled a series of studies over a long period of time that were ultimately able to predict the success of a marriage – at least in terms of duration. The more successful couples had a tendency to turn toward one another in moments of attempted connection. If one parter shared a story of success, the other would shift their attention and celebrate with them. If the story was about a frustration, they’d shift attention and share the burden or commiserate. Or even more innocuously, as the example went, if one partner were an avid bird lover and pointed out an unusual bird out the living room window, the other partner would stop what they were doing and look at it. The researche indicated that the act of showing curiosity, concern or interest, when one’s partner is trying to make a connection in any of these ways, is a huge indicator of an enduring relationship.
Openness, Mindfulness, Reverence. Our relationships thrive when we’re open, or curious, to what someone else is saying or trying to connect with. They endure when we mindfully turn toward the point of interest or connection and respond with attention. I often talk about reverence in terms of the holy, or the natural world around us. It can also pertain though to our human interactions. Relationships and people are a remarkable thing. When we take them for granted, the relationships wither, but so too do we. Having a healthy reverence for the people around us keeps us more human; keeps us more compassionate; keeps us more pleasant to be around. Think about it, do you want to be around people that act like you’re boring, or people that think you’re special, important or at least recognize your value and worth? The same probably goes for the people around you – they’re looking for the same from you. Reverence for those around us goes a long way toward building the world we dream about.
Let’s go back to my little autocorrect demon. Sometimes healthy curiosity applies to the things in our lives that cause us the small frustrations. Remember Issaac Newton from elementary school science? The parable goes that he was sitting under a tree and an apple fell on his head and he “discovered” gravity? What if Newton had that apple fall on his head and he simply responded to it with, “ugh, what an annoying apple!” The end. Where would we be? How much delayed would our scientific understanding be? How many other advances haven’t been made because someone turned to their proverbial falling apple and said, “ugh, how annoying!” When we approach the small frustrations of life as if they were a chore, we limit ourselves, we diminish our relationships and we probably don’t feel good either for it.
For just this week, try turning toward the small frustrations as if they weren’t little demons to begin working on. Pay attentions to the small moments where our partners, or kids, or parents are trying to make connections. Approach them all with a sense of curiosity – and see what happens. There are certainly places where this won’t help. And challenges in relationships that have existed for years will not likely go away overnight. And sometimes the small frustrations of work or school are part of a bigger picture of disfunction. But those exceptions don’t pervade everything in our lives. Most of us don’t walk around with rose-colored glasses, so it’s probably safe to put them on from time to time, rather than pretend we need to perpetually take them off.
Today though, we just welcomed 10 of our newest members to our Fellowship. They are committing to our community, and in part, to our community’s mission: In religious community we nurture our spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Curiosity can be central to a healthy expression of our spirit. If relationships strengthen from turning toward moments of connection with curiosity and interest, and if our mission is correct in asserting that our spirits our nurtured through care for one another, then that sense of openness to one another is both community building and soul-saving. We are more human for it. And it may be the very best way to help heal our world.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Mother of Welcome,
Instill in us a sense of curiosity for the new,
for the stranger,
for what difference may come our way.
Open our hearts to diversity,
so that our comfort and our loves
may fall upon the whole expression of our varied humanity.
May the spirit of newness so too lift up our vision,
so that we come with open eyes and open mind,
to those who are familiar to us;
to the sameness we face every day,
in work or in school.
Teach us not to box in the people that we share our every-days with.
May we allow the well-know friend to grow and to change,
and may we be welcome, when the time comes, to shirk off our old coats,
and put on new ways and manners and habits and passions.
We are every growing, ever changing, ever learning souls.
If Love is the spirit of this house,
may it guide our minds to more open places when we have fallen for the trap
of knowing how things are, or must be – simply because that’s how they were.
In every new moment, we are gifted with the opportunity to welcome the new,
to welcome the stranger.
Sometime that new stranger is not a person, or a place, but the next moment.
May we be worthy hosts.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Mother of Love,
We pause this hour, coming upon the 2 year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which so devastated this region.
May we remember the difficulties and the loss so many suffered,
for those who lost their homes, those who were displaced for seasons, and for those who are still hoping to rebuild, we pray.
We remember the 100 lives that were lost from the Caribbean to here in the Mid-Atlantic, the neighborhoods that disappeared, at the homeless shelters that were destroyed.
We honor the relief workers, the first responders, who were caring for us in our time of need – even though their own need was great.
We are grateful for those of us who remained physically untouched by the storm despite being in its midst.
As climate change continues to worsen, may these stories of loss
kindle in our hearts a desire and a commitment to affect change in a world that is often too focused on wealth and convenience.
Mother of Hope, embolden our leaders to lead. May they be inspired by stewardship rather than consumerism. May our nation find ways to value sacrifice over profit, so that our planet may heal from our indulgences.
As we reflect this hour on our religious purpose, and the plight of local affordable housing for families, may the loss and struggle many of us wrestled with two years ago, open our hearts to compassion so that we may strive to build a more equitable world where no one lives without shelter.
This updated sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/26/14. It reflects on our second principle where we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in our relations. There is a focus on Huntington area affordable rental housing advocacy work as the Huntington Township Housing Coalition begins its latest campaign.
When Brian and I were planning to move to Huntington over a year ago, we initially looked at securing rental housing. We were used to living in Manhattan, didn’t have much stuff that would need storage, had no kids or even pets at the time, and were a little concerned about buying a home in an area before we had even lived there for a year. Totally new to Long Island, many folks recommended renting until we knew the area and would have a better idea of where made the most sense to live.
In NYC, the realtors usually tell you not to start looking for a rental until 2 weeks prior to when you need to move. They go so fast, and there’s such a demand, and such a supply, that it all moves that quickly. (The downside of course, is that if you like a place you better have a check in hand because it won’t be there in an hour.) Out here was a little different. We were surprised to find that our choices largely fell into two categories. Either the rental units were lovely and in nice areas but were as expensive as a Manhattan apartment (or what the rest of us would call “the price of a mortgage”) or they were on a highway, or very small, or surrounded by asphalt.
Ultimately, we decided to buy after all. We could stretch and rely on loans against our retirements to get the downpayment needed to purchase, and the home we bought had a mortgage that was comparable to the rental units that were nice. It reminded me of the old adage, “you need capital to get capital.” In other words, if you want to enjoy the benefits of upward mobility, you need to begin by already being upwardly mobile.
Having rented for the 10 years I lived in Northern NJ before I moved to NYC, I can say from experience that this is very different from suburban areas outside of Long Island. As a single guy, just out of college, I could afford a 2 bedroom apartment in a nice area just 12 miles west of NYC – or a 30 minute commute for those that worked in Manhattan. Now with 17 years professional experience, engaged to be married with two good incomes to our household, renting didn’t seem possible or sensible.
When we were looking for places to live, we did so by driving around a lot. It’s hard to tell who’s living where from inside your car, but within 15 minutes of our Fellowship, there’s a huge diversity of people living here. It wasn’t till we finally put down roots, that we realized that the diversity on the road and in the stores, doesn’t translate into diversity in our neighborhoods. Everyone is visibly segregated by neighborhood.
A month or so after we realized that, we saw an add in a nearby paper that was showing the realtors for a prominent realty company that is maybe 15 minutes from here. Over the two page spread of photo after photo (that looked like an excerpt from one’s High School year book), we noticed there were 2 Asian American women. All the rest were White realtors.
Within the past year, our Huntington Township Board finally reviewed a long standing legal case brought against it for housing segregation as it pertains to affordable housing. Remember that affordable housing is usually defined as 80% of the area median income. In other words, it’s mostly used to protect the middle class from being priced out of an area – the middle class. Despite overwhelming support of the proposal for moving ahead with building affordable housing, and despite the town having lost a ten year battle where the courts said affordable housing had to come in, the Town Board voted it down. The plan they’re apparently moving ahead with is creating affordable housing 1 bedroom apartments for purchase; not for rent. You have to have capital to move here. You also can’t have kids if you want to move here, or someone in the family is sleeping on the couch. We have schools closing down for lack of students, but we won’t easily allow new children to move in, unless they come from wealth. And our adult children move away because, as they start their careers, there’s no place to move into aside from staying at home with their parent or parents. It’s not a long term plan for our communities, it’s not moral to build up barriers to entry for people who may look different, and like our wisdom story from this morning – there’s a certain amount of killing the kingdom to feed the hunger of the affluent few – it’s a fundamental lack of compassion….
So why compassion? Who needs it? Compassion is a virtue that asks us to make our lives a little bit more difficult, a little more complicated, without any obvious tangible benefit. It rarely seems to ask it of us when times are easy. Why should we share in the suffering of others? Give a little more of yourself even when it seems you have less to give. Why should we even feel the compunction to do so? Our second principle (We covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in our relations) isn’t just asking us to do something, it’s asking us to feel like we ought to be doing it.
Our wisdom story this morning explores that very question. A rewriting of traditional Hindu folk tales, we learn of a king who has it all. “There once was a king who thought that everyone should always do exactly what he said and that he didn’t have to care about anyone else. Even the people of his kingdom. What did he care? They existed only to serve his needs – or so he thought.”
Hoarding all the wealth of the people, he closes the coin away and along with it, the prosperity of his kingdom. With its lack of use, schools, hospitals, home and hearth all suffer. The king certainly has all material goods he wishes, the largest army and the most grandiose palaces, but even he can’t use it all. It lays fallow, and so does his kingdom; so does the hope for something more.
Our story revolves around the actions of a trickster figure; Lord Krishna. The wider stories of Krishna appear across a broad range of Hindu theological and philosophical traditions. He appears in these stories in various guises: as prankster, model lover, god-child, divine hero or the Supreme Being. In our story this morning he may be divine, but he is also hero of a sort and certainly a prankster.
In a brilliant play, he feeds the voracious king yet another gift; this time the largest hunting dog the king has ever seen. Only the dog has the propensity for food as the king does for wealth. When asked to take the gift back, Krishna refuses. “I can’t. He’s not my dog…. Besides, I’ve been sent here by those who are greater and far more powerful than you. You’re stuck with it.”
Essentially, this is your situation, your problem and you need to live in it. There’s no one else who’s going to live it for you. This hunting dog is a giant sized emblem of anything we turn into a problem in our minds. There are actual issues going on around him, like hungry people, poor schools, and raging wars, but the king is focused on the “problem” he’s created for himself – one giant, loud, hungry dog. How often are we that king in our own lives? Instead of acting to resolve the pain in and around us, we fixate on thinking about issues that we’ve generated for ourselves. In that way, we might all be able to relate to the character of the king in the story. His actions are very normal human things to do; and probably a little insane.
I feel that the giant hunting dog in this story though, is the practical answer to the questions I posed earlier that asked why we should share in the suffering of others. I say “practical” while promising to get to the spiritual and moral answers shortly. If we understand compassion to mean “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering” then showing compassion is simply outwardly recognizing the inward truth. Whether we are aware of it or not, we suffer along with the suffering of people around us. The king had all he could ask for, but he also had that dog – which the story tells us he at first also coveted. Along with his appetite for more, the king picked up the symbol for that appetite as well. A hunting dog that could not be satiated so long as the king continued to need more.
The king’s opulence, although seemingly pleasant, left him closed off from genuine human contact, and did nothing to cease his craving. Like his people subjected to his rule, he was ultimately trapped by his needs. And ironically, left with no one to be compassionate toward him either. He created and perpetuated a reality for his kingdom that matched his own psychological disfunction. Practically speaking, living without compassion for others blocked the king from realizing his own addictions. In his case, the practical solution was to rectify his voracious and hoarding habits. Likewise, his hunting dog would do the same.
But that solution was difficult to come to. “He called in all of his advisors and councilors and asked them what could be done. They tried to think of something but because of the racket from the dog’s barking they couldn’t think.”
Although it’s a bit of an unkind barb in the story, I can’t help but think it’s so true of our worldly leaders who cut funding for schools, health care and affordable housing while raising spending for military and offer support for big bonuses divorced of actual productivity or competency while refusing to raise the minimum wage. Their hunger for power and wealth makes it so that they can’t think straight. In these cases, compassion helps us to think straight. Practically, it helps us to see the world more clearly so that our actions reflect what is actually going.
That’s a practical or utilitarian argument. Compassion bends us toward facing reality.
To better see the moral arguments we can take a look at the other aspects of our second principle. We covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations (and some of us would say ‘all our relations.’) Our chalice lighting this morning speaks of the singularity of these three. “The world is a single place, and there is a single spirit that blows across its face. And the name of that Spirit is Life. Justice, equity and compassion. Different names for the same thing.”
Different names for the same thing… From our past examples, we already see how compassion reflects the reality of life. In our story this morning, equity is easily the outcome of compassion. The solution to the problem of lack of compassion is equity – allowing folks their fair share. All may not have the same, and we’re all born with differing talents, but this story suggests that severely limiting access to basic human and social needs harms all – not just those so limited.
This notion of affecting all relates morally to ideas of justice or what is often religiously understood as moral righteousness. That term, righteousness, comes up often in english translations of the Hebrew scriptures. However, how we understand the term differs today than it did in biblical days. Another word, solidarity, would be more helpful to our modern sensibilities. Biblical “righteousness”, particularly in texts that refer to right living, really refers to religious teachings that call for a deeper living into community. These scriptures are a series of stories that, among many other lessons and messages, also teach us to be a people. Solidarity, righteousness or justice, are words that call us to consider ourselves in light of others. They fashion us into more than a singular consciousness, but help us to recognize that we are part of something more. “The world is a single place, and there is a single spirit that blows across its face…. May my senses awaken to the touch of that Spirit.”
There’s also a moral sense of responsibility in both our story and our second principle. Practically speaking, only the king could resolve the problem of the hunting dog. But the story tells us that Krishna was sent by those far more powerful than the king to deliver that dog. Whatever we see those forces as, the story tells us that something beyond the king has put this responsibility squarely on his shoulders to bare. Whether this be the demands of the gods, or the implicit expectation of that breath of Life that blows across us, the onus is on the king – the onus is on us.
Our second principle calls for the same thing. We have “covenanted to affirm and promote…”. In other words, we have committed ourselves as a religious people to live into justice, equity and compassion. Will our actions match our words and our promises? We may not all see the same things as the right solution to a given situation, but we are freely covenanting to accept responsibility to live in solidarity; to seek right behavior in response to our human relations. When the giant, loud, hungry dog — which is what we have coveted all along — comes our way, we covenant to take on our fair share of the clean up. It makes sense to do so as it relates to how the world works, and it matches are agreed upon commitments – even though it is often so very tough to do.
Krishna’s reference to those far greater and more powerful than the king hints at a spiritual component. The gods or the Supreme Being is likely what Krishna is referring to within Hindu tradition. It’s also a marker for the reality that the world is not about only us. That’s the fulcrum point to spiritual action. Even when it seems like what’s happening in the world is all about us; it’s not. We may be involved, but we’re never in the spotlight – accept only in our own mind. And when our mind tells us that, it’s a lie.
So if opening up to the “beyond-me” is the spiritual trajectory what’s the spiritual course of action or next step. Our reading this morning offers a spiritual argument as well. The resolution to the story of “The Dog and the Heartless King” is, “…when that day came, the dog stopped barking and lay down quietly at the king’s feet. Everyone was happy and at peace with themselves and with their neighbors.” I love it that the story tells us that everyone was happy and at peace with themselves first… then with their neighbors. So often we seek to remedy internal disquiet by projecting it out onto the world around us. In those fantasies we need to fix others first. Knowing that we can’t really fix anyone else – we don’t have the power to ever do so; aren’t we just delaying real change? We’ll never get to changing our actions if we forever wait for others to do so first.
So maybe a little bit of showing compassion starts with showing compassion to ourselves first. Compassion can be a remedy for lack of self-worth. If we ought to show it to others, we ought to show it to ourselves. In fact, our story suggests that all world solutions originate from self-transformation. With a helpful reminder from the Dalai Lama, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
For me, justice, equity and compassion are expressions of love. My personal theology is love-centered; that is to say God-centered. I find the Sacred in expressions of love; and those expressions lead me toward the divine. They help me to be more present. Christian theologian Carter Heyward writes that, “Love is a choice – not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity – a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life…” She’s got it right. Love, that which I would call the promise of justice, equity and compassion, return us to being human. They situate us as a people. We’re not widgets or cogs to further production; we’re not inherently flawed or evil and thereby destined to worsen the quality of life of those around us; and most importantly – we’re not alone.
This sermon was first preached on 10/12/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It works through the painful and tragic implications of Ebola, ISIS and our perpetual state of war and how the media intersects this.
Earlier this week, I attended an awards dinner for a cancer charity where my fiancé works. Hundreds of scientists and doctors are flown in from around the world for a several daylong symposium that includes this dinner. There are also other professionals tied to the pharmaceutical companies who are more business-minded people than medical, and a smattering of others – like myself – that are only connected through partners. Everyone from suppliers, to doctors in early fellowship, to scientists who were on the short list to receive a Nobel prize. A pretty amazing cohort that represents some of humanity’s best collaborative scientific work.
As I was moving around chatting with random folks through the cocktail hour, one conversation turned toward the topic of Ebola, where the media would make you think Ebola was knocking on our front doors. (Which it very much is not.) One guest (who like me was there because of someone else, and not because of their medical or scientific expertise) began lamenting about how scary Ebola is; how we don’t really know what “they’re” not telling us – presumably he meant the government – and how it could be everywhere. I calmly replied that Ebola was incredibly rare in the US; can only be contracted through bodily fluids; and pretty much the only Americans who have contracted it are medical professionals treating patients with it. He muttered something like, “well, we don’t really know.” And I let it drop out of politeness, thinking that even at this place filled with the best of our medical and scientific communities, misinformation can infect any of us.
According to CNN, as of Friday of this week, “A total of 416 health care workers are among those believed to have contracted Ebola. Of those, 233 of them have died, the WHO says.” Of course these numbers constitute health care workers who were working in West Africa, not down the street. It’s factually not an airborne virus, so it’s incredibly hard to get unless you’re in intimate or medical contact with someone with it.
This is a horrible illness – don’t get me wrong. With more than 4000 deaths from this outbreak in West Africa, I can only imagine the pain and suffering. But I feel it’s my pastoral duty in the face of the media barrage of insanity and terror to bring this back to perspective. As it’s flu season now, I’ll ask – how many of us have gotten our vaccines yet? (show of hands) I’m going tomorrow to get it finally. The World Health Organization reports: “Influenza occurs globally with an annual attack rate estimated at 5%–10% in adults and 20%–30% in children. Illnesses can result in hospitalization and death mainly among high-risk groups (the very young, elderly or chronically ill). Worldwide, these annual epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 250 000 to 500 000 deaths.” Now the flu is different in that its worst results usually only are seen in the already weak, whereas Ebola can easily kill a healthy person. But when you do the math, the flu kills 246,000-496,000 more people every year than the Ebola virus at this historically worst outbreak. However horrible the virus is to those who have to face it, it’s a blip compared to how the flu affects the world every year – and many of us don’t even get vaccinated for a virus that is actually airborne!
So what’s actually going on? Why do we trump this up right now? Fox and CNN seem to be covering it perpetually. CNN has even gone so far as to ask the burning question: “Is Ebola the ISIS of biological agents? It’s absurd, and it’s mainstream, but I think it may be pointing toward what’s actually going on. Ebola is terrifying. ISIS – noted for public beheadings – is terrifying. Both happen to be in the news right now – and I hate to say this – but it’s far past time more of us begin saying this loudly – terror sells coverage. Information – that which is most sacred to a functional secular society – has been co-opted for profit – and TV journalism has largely gone the route of fake Reality TV mixed with Video Blogging to large audiences.
This isn’t politics. It’s cultural. We are experiencing a profound shift in American identity right now. News that’s not sensational isn’t valuable and comes and goes faster than the wind. Stories that will grip us, even if they’re not actually worthy, in the scheme of things, of perpetual analysis, will linger because they keep us watching. They either reinforce our own beliefs or they foment fear. That’s propaganda. We are beginning to live in a state of propaganda. We’re not getting the context in our news that I recall from my childhood. I was a kid watching the old greats in news broadcasting, and I don’t recall such vapid opinion or sensationalism. And I was an impressionable child – if it were there it would have left a mark. It’s no longer all the news that’s fit to print – as they were wont to say – it’s more all the news that’s fit to sell.
Ebola and ISIS seem to have nothing in common, despite the CNN pithy remark from before. Yet they keep getting linked. We’re hearing story after story of fears that Ebola will invade us through Mexico or that ISIS will invade us through Mexico. On Thursday, Fox News falsely reported that four ISIS agents had slipped through the border. In fact, our department of Homeland Security clarified that four Kurdish terrorists, who are part of an Anti-ISIS group, had slipped through back in September and were detained. Was it ISIS or the enemy of ISIS that got into our country? And did they slip through or were they detained? Can they be detained and at large at the same time? That’s the level of terror-fomenting we’re living with right now. It’s not rational, but it definitely gets a great number of hits on the social media replay.
So we’re stoked on terror and we stay glued. But is that all that’s going on? I think the fear around ISIS (a Middle Eastern horror) and Ebola (a West African horror) and our Mexican border (where human beings are trying to work, migrate and find better homes for their children) is not about ISIS and Ebola, it’s about racism. We can’t argue against immigration reform with integrity, because most of us are decedents of immigrants from the past 100 years, so we need to come up with another way to keep Americans from trusting our neighbors from the South (yet interestingly never are concerned about our White neighbors from the North.)
Just a few months back we had an influx of children fleeing gang violence, trying to find a home in the US and the same media outlets were espousing fake stories about how safe it really was for children there. We can know this is factually untrue if we just think about ourselves. If you’re a parent, could you imagine risking your family’s life, crossing through a killing desert with your family, just to drop your child off somewhere else? And not doing that for any other reason than it’s just simply THAT bad back home? And factually speaking, we actually do know there’s significant violence from gang and drug cartels in Central American countries despite what some politicians will openly lie about. Tragically, these lies about what’s actually going on in Central America rarely get fact-checked live on air so the lies perpetuate. In the US, we call all that gang violence, part of the War on Drugs, yet we’ll pretend it’s not happening when we have kids show up on our doorstep asking for help.
When did we give up being the nation that welcomed the wretched, tired and poor upon our teeming shores? Now we imagine they are terrorists armed with viruses (that can only infect us through intimate contact.) We are in a state of perpetual war, and have shut our borders and imagined that every entry (from countries with people of color) are imminent threats to our safety and health. That we’re a religious (or Christian) nation that can also ignore the pain and suffering of foreign nations wracked with illness – as if caring for the suffering weren’t a religious value. Ignoring the strife and illness in other nations, when they’re asking for help, doesn’t develop allies. It only seeds chaos and nurtures future unrest, that we know from history, often leads to more violence. It’s not a wise a path. It’s not a compassionate path. And it’s not a patriotic path to ignore people in need asking for help. We are more than that.
If we continue to choose to live in a state of perpetual fear and isolation, we will continue to live in a state of war and perpetual ignorance. At a time in our nation where our senior leadership no longer looks white, and our national definition of what is considered normal regarding sexual morals has become more expansive and affirming, we are seeing a knee jerk reaction against anything that appears different from the 1950s standard of normal. We’re also inventing bogeymen where they don’t exist. Or importing real threats to locations where they don’t exist (like Mexico), demographics just happen to neatly match our fears around difference. An individual can go to therapy to deal with this – and that’s good – a nation can’t construct foreign policy based upon it, though. Unless we want to perpetuate the cycles of violence we have lived with for generations.
When we live in the knee-jerk space that is our ethics of “us over them” in all ways, we remain in a place of suffering. Or maybe I should say we create a place of suffering. There’s a difference between putting ourselves at risk and imagining fantastical risks that we need to defend ourselves from. When we live from the place of imagination-as-fear we replace all our creativity with loss and sorrow. Safety isn’t worth that. And I’m not sure the idolatry of safety is even realized when we respond to fantastical imaginations. We’re not safer by protecting ourselves from non-existant threats. We just utter politically correct non-sense that other leaders fear arguing with for worry of coming across as weak on security.
There’s a really excellent opinion piece on Bill Moyer’s blog that goes into all the bit-by-bit construction of our perpetual state of terror that I strongly recommend we all read. It’ll be linked here on the sermon online if you have the time to read it. But one quote that sums it up well is:
“In this context, perhaps we should think of the puffing up of an ugly but limited reality into an all-encompassing, eternally “imminent” threat to our way of life as the final chapter in the demobilization of the American people. Terror-phobia, after all, leaves you feeling helpless and in need of protection. The only reasonable response to it is support for whatever actions your government takes to keep you “safe.””
I’m not sure I’m willing to be so cynical that the government is systematically taking all these steps to fool the population into complacency. I personally feel it’s more the combination of “terror-selling-news” mixed with politicians remaining “politically correct” on the talking point of security for fear of losing an election over it. But I do agree with the author of that quote that terror-phobia leaves us feeling helpless. If we remain a helpless people for too long, what is the cost on our culture and our nation? How much do we choose to live in a state of terror?
Living in NYC for 10 years post 9/11 (and living the prior 10 years a few miles west of the City), I remember the day we began seeing military, with assault weapons, guard Penn Station. I remember being more afraid of those guns than the idea of terrorists. I remember being more afraid of living in a city that had people walking around with assault weapons, than I was taking my first flight after 9/11. I have friends and family in the military, friends in the police, FBI and secret service. I have always trusted their competence and their ability to keep serious threats off our borders. Mistakes can happen, but considering their remarkable track record on our nation’s ground for the past 200+ years, we can say it’s not commonplace, although sometimes tragic when they occur. Placing assault weapons in our transit hubs, when there’s never been a case where that was ever needed – they certainly wouldn’t have helped on the planes 13 years ago – only serves to get us used to living in a state of perpetual war. They’re a marker, a sign. Politically, they make us think we’re safer, but think about it, would you ever want to be near one – in a very crowded Penn Station – should they ever be put to use. If it gets that far, we have a much bigger problem. Friends, unless you are or you have a close family member or friend who is actively serving, it’s hard not to become numb to our state of perpetual terror and war. What we’ve accepted as normal, is changing our national identity.
As a religious people, we hear truth in the words from our choir song this morning. They relate to the teachings of St. Francis – they pray that we understand rather than be understood. That we actively care for others first rather than seek to be cared for first. It’s not always and only about us – and it is certainly not about our imagined fears. When we react to the world as if it were really only about our imagined fears, we remain locked into generations of violence, rather than seeking creative ways to improve our situation and the lot of others. That’s how things have been, it’s not how things must continue to be. Our perpetual choices to close our borders are not real – interestingly only on the borders that would welcome people of color – and to fantastically create links between obscurely rare viral illnesses with terrorists from the other side of the planet, speaks more about us than reality.
For as the prayer goes: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is injury, help me to pardon.” We have abandoned public discourse to arguments of the inherent permanence of terror. We allow ourselves only to be instruments of war. Knowing that our military use of drone strikes in civilian areas has significant civilian casualties, we can confidently say that our actions make it easier for terrorists groups to bring in new members. Terror breeds terror. And our hands are bloody over civilian deaths.
We begin by bringing love to places of suffering rather than arming rebel groups who will become our next enemy in a generation. We begin by traveling to places of suffering, like West Africa, and helping to treat outbreaks of Ebola before governments become destabilized and we have yet another hot bed of civil war that often creates new terrorist cells. We welcome the tired and weary who come to our borders and help their children find places of safety, rather than send them back to be easy victims for cartels or easy targets for new recruits. If a family wants to come to the safety of our shores and contribute to the American Dream, we let them. We don’t send them back to a nightmare. “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is darkness, let me bring light. Where there is sorrow, let me bring joy.”
Let us return to our story this morning, remembering the words of Mr. Rogers’ mother in the face of tragedy, “to look for the helpers amidst the tragedy. There are always helpers.” This is one of the fundamental messages of Mr. Rogers’ formative years, which helped to shape the character of his public ministry. If there was ever a more universally beloved figure among my generation and the generation before mine, I could not think of one more trusted. What happens to our spirit, as a nation, when we so carelessly toss aside such wisdom? Look to helpers. Can we find them among ourselves?
Spirit of Peace, God of Many Names, Mother of Love,
Move through out hearts,
lighten our tight grips and clenched teeth,
ease the uninformed fears,
that infect our media,
weaken our resolve,
and limit our imagination.
Help us to find new ways,
to perennial problems.
Remind us of our human connectedness;
that compassion is virtue,
that maintaining a civil diversity of opinion is a discipline,
and hope is a spiritual practice that keeps us grounded when we despair.
As the temperatures continue to drop,
and many of us begin going to school or work when it’s barely light,
help us to find moments of reflection,
being aware of ourselves,
the life all around us,
and the weight of our hearts and breath.
Where we are weary, may we find rest;
where we are burdened, may we remember those around us who can lighten that load;
where we are joyous, before the quiet of the hour or the lengthening nights,
may our silent light be a strength for all.
Teach us to shine that light more often than hide it.
For the world needs such a gift, whenever we may give it.
This sermon was first preached on 10/5/14 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the writings of Martin Buber and how they influence our sense of purpose in life.
Remember our story earlier today about the two dogs going into a room full of mirrors and being greeted with what they brought in with them? When are we the dog wagging our tail, and when are we the dog growling and barking at ourselves? So often in life, how we react to the world, creates the way in which the world responds to us. Our actions create a cycle that’s sometimes hard to get out of. Now, I’m not primarily talking about matters of injustice, or violence, or hardship. That’s sometimes true too, but often the really horrible things that happen in life are out of our control. No one should carry the burden for what is random in the world. I’m not preaching the message of “The Secret;” in fact, we don’t always get what we give.
But we often see in the world what we see in ourselves. If we see in our selves cynicism, or hatred, or fear we can find the world a harsh place. If we know joy, or compassion, or forgiveness; we often find the world appears the same. When we come upon the funhouse mirror-filled rooms, we see the tails wagging or the teeth bared that we bring to it.
It’s a practical argument for self-care, self-affirmation and self-love. When we live our lives from a place of emptiness, we limit creation. As we lose a sense of value, or a sense of purpose, we enter a cycle of limiting how we can perceive meaning in the world. It’s a painful spiral, and something most, if not all of us, wrestle with from time to time.
Today marks another new year in the Jewish holy calendar. Throughout the world, Jews recognize this weekend as Yom Kippur – as a time of atonement. Last week, Starr preached about how forgiveness works between people and even within ourselves. Sometimes we also have to learn to forgive the world; forgive the universe, or chance, or maybe even God. We sometimes have to learn to let go of how we perceive the world ought to be differs from how the world is. Or maybe just how the world appears to us to be.
We often get caught in the trap of wanting things to be a certain way, then those things fall short, and we then succumb to disappointment, regret or disaffection. Remember, I’m primarily speaking about the every day, smaller things in life today, not the great injustices in the world. I’m speaking about the clutch and grab we often have over things, and preferences, and delays and achievements. The things commercials tell us we need, that they conveniently have the exact answer for – until the new model comes out of course. Then we’ll need it again. If our sense of purpose is tied to the things of the world, our spirits’ sense of satisfaction will be trapped to the temporal. That way lies only pain.
Forgiveness allows us to let go long enough not to hold the world, or ourselves to blame when the dreams of our ego, the desires of convenience, don’t win out. Those things are dross, so to hold animosity toward life when our wants, or our preferences, or those small conveniences are not met – is to lose the core of our purpose in living. And this is a daily struggle for most of us.
…I believe life has meaning. I believe our purpose is to see the world as it is; to notice the spark of life, of divinity, in each breathing being around us. When we notice that, our purpose is met, and the rest can grow from there. Ethics and values are rooted in the mindful recognition of life around us. It begins with seeing – or recognizing. It begins with coming to a place of reverence for that which surrounds us. And like the dogs in the funhouse, it’s much easier – or maybe I should say it’s much more pleasant – seeing the world with our tails wagging than our mouths growling.
The world around us has meaning, and it also has form. Finding the substance or distinction between this can be easy, yet is often nonetheless difficult. Dr. Martin Buber, a prominent Jewish philosopher from the 20th century, influenced generations of wonderers on this very topic. Since I posted this week’s sermon topic, I’ve learned from a long time member, that Rev. Ralph Stutzman – our Fellowship’s minister from 1962 to 1980, was fond of preaching on Dr. Martin Buber. In the category of small world, Buber had probably the strongest philosophical influence on my own thinking of any religious scholar.
Here is a short excerpt from his book, “I and Thou.”
“The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives the being that surrounds him, plain things and beings as things; he perceives what happens around him, plain processes and actions as processes, things that consist of qualities and processes that consist of moments, things recorded in terms of spatial coordinates and processes recorded in terms of temporal coordinates, things and processes that are bounded by other things and processes and capable of being measured against and compared with those others – an ordered world, a detached world. This world is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed; one can get it out again and again; one recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks with one’s eyes open. There is stands – right next to your skin if you think of it that way, or nested in your soul if you prefer that: it is your object and remains that, according to your pleasure – and remains primarily alien both outside and inside you. You perceive it and take it for your “truth”; it permits itself to be taken by you, but it does not give itself to you. It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody, it is prepared to be a common object for you; but you cannot encounter others in it. Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.
Or man encounters being and becoming as what confronts him – always only one being and everything only as a being. What is there reveals itself to him in the occurrence, and what occurs there happens to him as a being. Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically. Measure and comparison have fled. It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. Then encounters do not order themselves to become a world, but each is for you a sign of the world order. They have no association with each other, but every one guarantees your association with the world.”
Buber is referring to the perception of two worlds. One world is of things. We can measure, count, taste, sense that world. But we also keep that world as “a common object,” a thing. The other world is the world of relationship. Not just a conversation with another, or the act of gardening in all its logistical complexity, not just petting a dog – but the place of encounter. It’s the world when we are recognizing another living being as a being, and not as the sum of its parts.
We each live in both. The world of it, allows us to work, and eat, and learn and teach. It makes sure the pets are fed, the bills are paid, and our roofs stay above our heads, and our basements stay dry. As Buber writes, “Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” There is nothing bad about the world of it, except for when we live only in and by its rules. A life whose purpose is simply the details, is a life without meaning, a life of nothingness. Or it might be more accurate to say a life whose awareness is only on the details, is a life without meaning. Awareness of only the details, and not the relationships, is to die into the world of it. Fortunately, there’s nothing to needed to do, nothing to accomplish, to live from time to time in the other world – the world of being. It’s not a check-box on our to-do lists. It’s simply being aware of our interdependence. We can’t easily do this in every moment, though any moment would due.
When I pay my bill at the diner, I can do it as a chore, or I can remember the people around me are living lives themselves; that I’m part of that whole. When I’m frustrated with how my kid is being willful in school or at home, I can focus on the chores that aren’t being done, or the stress I’m feeling over disobedience (both things that may be real problems), or I can remember that every human – kid or adult – goes through deep places of pain that extend beyond the details of any situation. The problem has to be attended to, but we don’t live by the problem. We are not defined by the details or the chores or the failure of them being accomplished. As important as all that may be to the completion of our tasks, they are not our essence, not our soul, not our being. Dealing with the specific problem doesn’t change the essence of our personhood or the inherent nature of human relationship. To focus, Buber said, “It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody…”. When we’re dealing with frustrated relationships with people that are incredibly close to us – like the case of a parent/child or child/parent argument – it helps to remember those words. The world takes a somewhat different form for everybody. We will always see a given situation from a different perspective. We’re rarely responding to the same situation with the same information or from same angle. Any disagreement – or any agreement for that matter – we can only come to an understanding about it – we don’t have the essential truth – just proximity. I mention this here, because in the most difficult of arguments we can sometimes fall into the trap of projecting onto another what we think is going on in their head. We know what their actions might mean if we were making them, and assume that’s what they mean as well. I’m not sure that’s often the case.
In that same quote, Buber is talking about the World of It. Measurements, details, processes and things. “It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody…”. I think this is also a good description though for how we talk about our encounters with the Holy. When we talk about the Holy – life, God, awe, spirit – whatever word makes the most sense to you – we often transmute the Holy into the World of It. It’s why you’ll oddly find this minister not talking too much about some of the theological questions of the Divine. It’s the old conundrum that you can talk about a thing or you can relate to it, or experience it – but it’s tough talking about something while you’re experiencing it. But the reminder that it takes a somewhat different form for everybody is really instructive. You might believe something differently because you’re seeing something else. It doesn’t mean the other person is wrong.
We’ve talked about the ethical, the pastoral and the theological. What abou the practical applications of some of Dr. Buber’s philosophy? Our Fellowship is about to make a major decision regarding the care of its grounds and finances this afternoon. We have a project from the world of It – the reconstruction of our parking lot and general improvement of our grounds, environment and how we manage water run-off. In the scope of “reasons to be a religious institute”, one could imagine this is not at the top of your list. How we manage the curbs, and the drainage, and the landscaping and the financing, are all important details that we’ll live with and through – but the details are not what we live by. We live by our relationships and our commitments. Money that was bequeathed to us by longtime beloved members is not just dollars and cents. They’re markers of life-long relationships of encounters with people, art and space that was centered around this Fellowship grounds. Parking Lots may not be spiritual, but the attended details that prevent someone from falling is how we live in this world. And the ways we care for the space around us, speak to the care we have for the memorial garden on our grounds – speak to the encounters with all that rest with us from decades past, and in our most recent months. The details will always matter – “Without [them] you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” We can not remain alive without attending to the bits that keep the world moving, but as we prepare to make one of the most important financial decisions in the past generation, let us not die into those details either. We are a Fellowship grounded in community. May we make all our decisions remembering the truth that we are here, on this earth, to bear witness to one another, to the Holy in any form it may take. And may we do so, wagging more, and barking less.