Prayer for Black History Month 2015

Spirit of Stillness, God of Many Names, Source of Love,

Help us to find the lessons among our village filled with snow and ice.

The greens are hidden, the tree branches are burdened hanging low,

and for a time – the roads – are not passable.

But this is true for but a time;

the snows will melt,

the earth will green,

and color after color will spring into newness soon.

Life was always there, beneath the earth, waiting to be seen.

May we come to find it once more with new eyes,

after a long cold season.

Mother of Hope, we know that rightly, some of us find joy in the play time,

sleds, and snowmen, and winter hikes.

May their joy inspire us; reminding us to play and not always toil.

Others among us are worn down by the season,

from illness or sadness, missing the long days of sun and warmth.

May we honor this difficulty, while grounded in the truth that although hidden, life surrounds us all the time.

At the close of Black History month, may the winter months draw us to the truth,

that in all things, the world bends toward justice.

Though we may find ourselves returning to the month of Winter in the march toward wider freedom, again and again,

Spring always follows the ice.

Life will triumph over the weight covering it,

one story at a time.

May we remember that the challenges before us today,

are not entirely the same as those we struggled with generations past.

Much work must be done,

and we are the hands to do it,

but the work of the generations before,

brought us forward along the rough road.

May we keep going forward.

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Hope: The Communal Virtue

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Fellowship on 2/22/15. It is the second in a series of reflections on the words of Sister Simone; where we explore how hope does not rest solely in our individuals actions and choices.

For years, I attended a Unitarian Universalist summer camp called Star Island. It’s an island about 6 miles off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine; think New England and rocky shoals. On the edge of the island there’s a pier. It juts out maybe 50 feet and one side of it allows boats and ferries to dock. The other side of it creates a man-made mini-harbor that protects swimmers from the pull of the ocean due to it’s L-shape.

At one point during the week, there’s a culminating celebration of the younger grade-schooler’s and their science projects. The land version of this is the point where we see groups of bottle-rockets launch skyward; each group competes to see who can send the bottle rocket farther away. But the ocean version of this are duck-tape boats. Teams or individuals build cardboard boats sealed only with duct-tape. Kids get points for who finishes first, but they also get points for sportsmanship. One kid has to be in the boat, and the rest of the team can swim along around the boat to help it go faster. Parents and friends are cheering them along, and it’s a major accomplishment to even finish this race. I’m reminded of the earlier story today about the geese getting farther along working in formation than alone, even though, I’m sure, the physics is a bit different for duct tape boats in the ocean.

But one time in the five years I’ve witnessed this boating celebration, an individual kid finished the race first (which never happens normally), and then swam back to the middle of the run to help a competing team out of a jam where they were slowly sinking into the water. He took up a supportive role in the back and helped them stay above water. They still came in last, but they got to succeed when it otherwise looked like their boat was doomed. If you thought the parents were loud when they cheered him finishing the race first, know that they went crazy with joy when he went back to be a helper with the team in last place.

Summer camp can teach us a lot of things. The difference in the cheers from the parents and friends told me something really important. We can be really excited for the lone athlete finishing first. That’s going to happen every time in every race – right – someone will always win; but it’s stunningly noteworthy when we see someone go back and help another team succeed. It’s been years since I saw that race, and I still remember what that grade-schooler showed me.

Individual achievements are great. They encourage us to persevere, or to succeed, or to better ourselves. The singular win may inspire others to try things they otherwise never would; it’s the nature of one type of role modeling and it’s a good thing. But the drive to ensure everyone gets to finish is more remarkable in my mind. We can’t all win every time, but maybe we can all succeed. Maybe, crossing the finish line in our slowly sinking duct tape boats, is attainable for each of us, when we work together.

The image may seem silly, but I imagine some of us here, right now, feel like we’re in a duct taped boat just trying to tread water – and finding the successful end in sight is all they’re focused on. As a community, as citizens, as spiritual seekers, we are best to remember that. Sometimes our individual hopes get fulfilled by communal effort. It can take courage to hope, especially in our western society that so often focuses on the singular wins of the person in the lead. It takes courage because we might not fulfill our hopes by ourselves, and we might need to start that race knowing that we’ll at some point need to rely on someone else. Can we be the people, can we be the community, that ensures the hopes of the world are realized? Can we teach one another to do our best while lifting one another up – and not think the two are mutually exclusive?

Our religious tradition reminds us that despite the values of the dominant culture around us, just like we don’t hope alone, we also don’t strive alone, and we certainly don’t achieve alone. Many of our world’s problems are rooted in the mistake that we’re solitary islands in a sea of otherness.

That same pier the kids race their duct tape boats in also doubles at a swimming inlet when the weekly race isn’t happening. At low tide you can wade amidst the water-worn rocks and grounded kelp. But when it’s high tide it can feel rather deep. I love the ocean, and I’m a huge beach goer, but swimming in waters that I can’t see the bottom to, is mildly terrifying to me. The island is something like 10 miles off the coast of the mainland. You are actually swimming in the ocean. And knowing that little kids can blithely race their duct taped boats isn’t reassuring – frankly it’s a bit demoralizing that they can do it and I’m terrified!

One Summer day the heat was so oppressive, and we were on shower rations, that I just had to jump in. The 6 year old nearby is swimming and laughing. I hit the water and think I’m going to die. My heart starts to race and race. I’m certainly not going to play in this death trap, but I tell myself I can at least swim the 50 foot length of pier back to the island. Twenty feet in and I know in my heart I’m doomed. Meanwhile, the backdrop sounds are a grandmother chatting with her friend while a few little wee tykes do body flips, giggling.

The bigger picture here is instructive. When we get fixated on our weaknesses, or our fears – we can get very lost. Reminding ourselves of the community around us can be grounding. The toddlers can do this. The elders wisely know this is safe for those toddlers. The very-in-shape life guards are 10 feet away. And so far, kraken don’t come this close to humans. Evidently, I did not die, and I did make it back to shore to tell the harrowing tale. Hope and courage take markedly different tones when we’re doing so in community than when we’re going at it alone. The people around us change the story from being lost as sea, to swimming at a pier – whether we’re still terrified or not, the reality we may or may not be able to see – changes.

The title of this sermon comes from a quote in a talk given by Sister Simone Campbell, most known for her work “Nuns on the Bus” which toured the country to help educate around poverty and workforce development. All this month we’re looking at some of the learnings from last year’s UU General Assembly which is an annual gathering of 4 to 5 thousand UU’s – a week of learning, worship and social justice. I want to encourage anyone here who is able to make the trip at the end of June to our next Annual Assembly to seriously consider attending this energizing week of learning and justice work. Registration opens up in one week on March 1st. More info will be available via the weekly email-based Flash and the monthly Beacon Newsletter. It takes place in Portland, Oregon this June 24th-28th.

Here’s the short story she shares from her talk to 4000 UU’s last June. The story is about a time when Sister Simone met a young women in her 20s named Robin, at the White House. Here’s the short excerpt:

She, “had been invited to be there for when President Obama signed the executive order to raise the minimum wage for the federal contract workers.

And Robin was there. And she grew up in Virginia. And she had walked by the White House, and this young woman in her mid 20s could not believe she was inside the White House. It was so exciting. And she had her cell phone, and so she took a picture of the chair she was sitting in. And we were going to be two rows back from where the president was going to sign the executive order. So having taken the picture of her chair, she said, would you take a picture of me? Sure. So I take a picture of her sitting in her chair. And then we take a selfie about us being together. And we’re doing all this, she is so excited, she could not sit still for anything. And so I asked her, was she going to benefit from this executive order? She goes, oh no. But a good friend of her’s was. And so she was really excited for her.

She works for minimum wage at a national clothing store chain, and she said she gets to work full-time, she’s really excited about it. …We talked a little while longer, and then she said to me, kind of quietly, you know, by looking at me, you would never know I have to live in a homeless shelter because I can’t afford rent in this DC area. It’s just way too expensive.

She makes $15,000 a year, gross. About $12,000, net. And has not enough money for rent, though she works full time. Quite frankly that broke my heart. And here she was celebrating the fact that her friend was going to get a raise. And she said, well you know, if it happens for some of us, it’ll eventually happen for all of us. We have to celebrate the progress. And I thought, wow. What wisdom. When you walk towards trouble, there you find hope. Because it’s in the relationship, it’s in the connection, it’s in hearing the stories that hope, the communal virtue, is nourished.”

Sister Simone’s story of Robin is sort of the flip side to that everyday phrase we use, “if it makes you feel any better…”. You know, the one where someone knows you’re down over some painful thing in your life and they go on to share with you the woes or misery someone else is going through; as if another person’s pain should ever lift one’s spirits. Robin from the story knew the truth, another person’s joy or success or good fortune after a long period of adversity, should be a source of hope for us in times of adversity. If it can go well for them, it can go well for me. Celebrating the successes of those around us is certainly a better ethic than being relieved by their loss.

If hope is a communal virtue, and witnessing others’ new successes are fuel for hope, then learning from others’ past accomplishments over adversity reminds us that present and future challenges can be overcome. When we look out in the world we see tragedy after tragedy. A world torn by war abroad, and domestic terror at home. Just over a week ago, we learned of three young muslim students attending UNC Chapel Hill, murdered in their home by a white “New Atheist” male neighbor. The NY Times would describe the victims as, “a newlywed couple and the woman’s sister. They were young university students, Muslims of Arab descent, and high achievers who regularly volunteered in the area.” Heart-breaking. A new marriage ended, three lives lost, and a family now must mourn three of its children at the same time. I can’t imagine the horror.

The alleged murder’s professed faith of “new atheism” is a sobering footnote to our nation at a time when our national media is fixated on the non-debate over whether Christianity or Islam have had violent pasts and presents. Any ideology can carve room for hate and violence if we let it, even non-religions. And if time and investigations determine that the sole rationale for these young adults’ deaths is due to an argument over parking, I think we’re in even a more tragic place.

We as a nation have work to do. A family, a community and a university must mourn the loss of three young adults with huge potentials and generous hearts. We must continue to strive to teach the values of diversity – religious and racial. Justice must be served and communities will need to learn to feel safe again.  We must seek to instill a sense of temperance in our people, so that small disagreements about mundane things do not become life threatening; that something besides our stressors and petty inconveniences matters more to a healthy society.

Despite the seemingly perpetual stories of strife, loss and difference the road that brought us here has shown us that there is ever a way forward. Although people are not yet fully equal, and much more work must be done, there have been many successes in civil rights. Grassroots black leaders taught us in the 1960’s that despite having seemingly little apparent power individually, people can organize collectively and affect massive change. We can look to the successes of the activists in the 60s and 70s to teach us, that just like Robin showed in Sister Simone’s story, other people’s successes in building the world we dream about can offer us meaningful hope that we too shall one day do the same. The march of history flows ever onward from the strength of those before us. The people in this room today, all of us, are each in our own way keepers of that trust should we let ourselves be. Friends, will you continue to hope with me? Will you continue to carry the work forward from the hands that came before and the hands that are still striving? There is much work to be done, and we are the ones to do it.

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Sermon: Walking Toward Trouble

This is the first in a three part sermon series looking at the 2014 Ware Lecture by Sister Simone Campbell (of the Nuns on the Bus fame.) It looks at how communities affect change.

We’ve had quite a bit of snow over the past week and look to be getting more and even some freezing rain tomorrow. I think we’re past the obligatory period of fawning over the first pristine snow and have moved into the long-standing New York tradition of being angry or disappointed in the weather reports’ accuracy of what actually fell. I also was heartened to know that despite the snow, when we were finally able to drive again, die hard Long Islanders didn’t allow the snow to change their dedication for driving speed or for our propensity for making sharp turns into on-coming traffic. Area clergy tell me that I’m obliged to curmudgeonly preach at least once a year about Long Islander driving patterns. So… check, got that done early this year.

Walking around town with our one year old puppy proved to be an exciting challenge. Balancing her strength and excitement against snow mounds and ice patches; she leaps like a dolphin through the snow drifts and I flail like a crazed cat on the ice. I noticed a couple of times where cars were stuck on a snow bank. I saw one postal truck getting helped by, a father and son, to free them from a snow bank. And Brian went out on Wednesday spending 30 minutes helping strangers whose car had slid onto our property and were likewise stuck on a snow bank. We’re now relying on the services of a neighbor who makes a living in part by driving a truck with a plow. Thinking of all that, along with the stores and homeowners who shovel sidewalk after sidewalk, I began to marvel at how much gets accomplished by communal human effort.

There’s an old Buddhist parable that essentially teaches that a crafted table is proof of life and interdependence. The wood has to be put together by a carpenter, and cut down by a lumberjack and grown by a forest and from there we delve into the complexity of a whole environment. We can also surmise all the support systems necessary to house a community that supports the carpenter and lumberjack as well. The farmers and teachers, and artisans and so on. So as I’m focused on making sure that my puppy’s exuberance, at her first real blizzard, doesn’t pull my arm out of my socket, I’m remembering this Buddhist parable and thinking about how Blizzards, being cleared, prove life and interdependence.

Community is human interdependence at its best. We specialize and diversify. Each trying to do our own very best, and relying on others to do their own very best as well. Arts, economics, education, construction, medicine – and so on – all improve when we do what we do best – for the greater whole. I can barely remember to take the trash out so I’m really grateful someone more skilled than I knows how to do basic things like, grow vegetables, and dig wells. I also think that it’s through community that we are best able to affect change in the world.

This reminds me of major speech I heard last June at our annual UU General Assembly. Sister Simone Campbell spoke at the annual Ware Lecture. Sister Simone is most known for her work on “Nuns on the Bus” touring the country to help educate around poverty and workforce development. Our annual Ware lecture is a 90 minute talk from someone largely outside our faith, reflecting on some aspect of our religious tradition and how it intersects the world. Such luminaries ranging from Martin Luther King to Kurt Vonnegut to Mary Oliver have been past speakers at this event that draws roughly 4000 people annually. All this month we’ll be looking at different parts of her speech. For those who are interested in hearing the next speech live, the chance to register for this year’s General Assembly will open on March 1st for the event that happens at the end of June. More info will be available via the weekly email-based Flash and the monthly Beacon Newsletter. It takes place in Portland, Oregon this June.

Here’s a brief quote, from that 90 minute talk, that I’d like to focus on this week. Sister Simone says, “I’d like to reflect with you on the journey of faith as walking towards trouble….our videographer (from Bill Moyer’s news program) … asked me this question, ‘it seems like whenever there’s trouble, you walk towards it. Most people run away.’

And I got thinking about it. And I realized that all of our spiritual leaders, when there are broken hearts or pain in our world, they have walked towards it. They walk towards the pain in order to embrace, touch, heal. Now, that means if the high-level leaders do that, isn’t that the witness that we all try to follow? … But there’s a part of me that has always believed we can make a difference.” 

This quote of hers, of the people who walk toward trouble, came to my mind over the blizzard. I began thinking about what equips us to be the people who walk toward trouble? What empowers us to be able to affect change in the world, or to help those in need or in danger? We might know others need aid, but awareness and desire to help, aren’t always enough to enable us to affect change, or to affect lasting change.

The lesson from the parable of the blizzard, or the Buddhist parable of the well-crafted table, comes to mind here. We’re not going to get all those roads cleared ourselves. When our car is stuck on a snow bank, we’re going to need someone with a shovel and some extra strength. We live this life together; we find our solutions together; and we carve out a path forward in community – whether through strangers or friends. Justice, progress and healing, happen through community too.

I hope we as a congregation continue to be the people who walk toward trouble. Sometimes it takes awareness, and sometimes it takes courage. Our theme this month is that latter part – courage. Standing up to oppressions, or sorrow, or pain takes courage from time to time. Helping people in need isn’t always safe – whether physically or emotionally. There’s risk involved in addressing some social ills. Maybe not always to our physical safety, but sometimes to our sense of self, for some of us it’s a risk to our sense of privilege, and sometimes it risks our hearts being in a vulnerable place. It take courage to walk toward the places many people walk away from.

Yesterday, in this room, we honored the life of Lou Koulias. I’d say we had almost 300 people present here sharing their love for Lou, who finally lost his battle with cancer this week. I heard story after story of how Lou helped the people around him. Over the past year and a half, I also heard story after story of congregants here reaching out to help Peggy and Lou in the most varied of ways. Making a meal, driving a car, dog-sitting, sending a note of encouragement – they all might seem like small things to you; but they add up to something more immense. In a way, they’re one expression of walking toward trouble. Helping another human being in the face of death and loss is one of the most courageous things we can do. Death is scary. And sometimes we let it stop us from reaching out so that we don’t have to face it. Sometimes it scares us enough not to allow ourselves to open our hearts while we still have the chance. Openness can be scary; it takes courage to be open to other people’s fears and loss. It takes courage to be open to our own fears and loss. This congregation has been very courageous. When folks are in trouble, we walk toward it and help as best we can.

Sometimes the trouble isn’t centered in our homes, or hospital beds, sometimes it’s very public. As we return soon to the 50th anniversary of the March toward Selma, our nation is rightly reflecting on our painful history around race relations. Some of us are joining a UU sponsored pilgrimage next month to go back to Selma and study and learn on the anniversary. I’ll be there along with a few of our members. Some of us were in Selma 50 years ago. Our member, Joyce Willams, was one who was there, and has an exhibit in our gallery of her memories of that fateful march. I think this is another form of walking toward trouble. We don’t necessarily know all the answers, but we know we need to witness the pain in the world and be present to help affect change.

And we don’t do this alone. We do it through community. You will often hear messages from me that go through the details of social justice concerns happening on our streets, or you’ll hear me talk about the theology that undergirds our pastoral responses to strife. This week, I’d like to focus on the practical. In order to build the world we dream about, we need to build strong communities. Strong communities are built through each of us giving from our passion, or from our expertise, and sometimes when we’re very lucky – from both at the same time.

Communities are built from the volunteers, the members, the participants that make them up. We become able to walk toward trouble, when the everyday necessities are cared for; when we’re all looking out for one another and helping to keep that next loose end covered from our places of skill and talent. We are able to host a shelter for men during cold weather months because we have people who care for this building, people who help to raise funds, people who put out the beds, and cook the food. We’re able to be a pastoral support for our members because we have so many folks who can drive when needed, or cook a meal when needed, or be a caring ear when needed. Every part of our Fellowship matters. Every contribution makes something else possible. As we begin our month looking at the virtue of courage, I invite you to consider what part you can give to the workings of this spiritual home. Immediately following this service is our annual Volunteer Fair in the Social Hall. Check it out and see where your talents and passions meet the needs of the world.

Some of us are not in a place where we can do the heavy lifting needed to build the world we dream about. We can’t all travel for marches or protests, we can’t all stay up over night to be host at our shelter. We all have struggles in our lives, and there are times for action and times for recovery. But the folks who are greeting every week, and the folks who are making sure the lights stay on, or there is something warm to drink on a cold winter Sunday, are part of this justice building we’re committed to. Society needs people to plow the roads, and congregations need people keeping an eye on our hospitality and our maintenance – or we wouldn’t be able to even function, let alone contribute to the healing of a world that is in much pain. Every task can be spiritual, when we remember the bigger whole we are part of.

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Sermon: The Longest Road

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Sunday, January 25th, 2015. “The course of a life is measured in moments. How does yearning bring us back to our purpose?”

At the start of this new year, I began using a Fit Bit. It’s this device you wear around your wrist that tracks how much walking you do; it estimates calories burned, and tracks the food you eat so long so you enter the food on a matching phone app. Besides encouraging you to hit certain goals around “steps-taken” every day, and keeping the calories down a bit if you want to, it plays to the conventional wisdom that if you’re attentive to what you’re doing and eating, you’ll be more likely to make better choices.

Although it’s been pretty effective in the first few weeks, and my dog loves how much more she’s getting walked, it’s also created some comic moments and a an interesting lesson or two. A few days in, the weather was pretty bad and I didn’t quite hit my 10,000 step goal (which is about 5 miles a day.) I found myself walking in circles throughout the house until I hit it. At home, Brian was laughing at me. I know it probably didn’t really count for caloric burn, but I figured if you’re going to make a purposeful commitment to something, you might as well not break it three days in.

I also learned that I walk about 3/4 of a mile every time I do the laundry. Between the back and forth up two flights of steps, folding and putting away, it’s actually a fairly intensive home chore. So if I’m running short on steps, I’ve been more religiously doing laundry – which is better than having Brian continue to laugh at me for walking in circles.

In my last sermon, I talked about the endurance many of us have to hold onto over the long haul during periods of difficulty. Whether it’s illness, or accomplishing a meaningful goal like school, we sometimes think of these in terms of seasons and years. The other side of this though – is this step – and the next. As we continue to reflect on this month’s theme – yearning – we can look at how it influences our lives minute by minute, as opposed to year by year like – I did last sermon.

There’s a reason tools like Fit Bit set daily goals rather than monthly. If that device asked me to walk 150 miles this month, I think I’d laugh. But it’s the same thing I’m doing, by going five miles a day. We can only take it day by day. Yet, from time to time, we all force ourselves to look at a difficult time in our lives as that 150 miles. Our community has faced a lot of loss in our lives over the past few years. Loved ones have died. We’re supporting friends through prolonged periods of illness. Even surgeries that have gone well, take their toll, sometimes for a long time. We can’t wish away the grief, and not all disease will be cured. But we can let ourselves take it five miles at a time. We’ll still have to face the whole long road ahead, one way or the other, but we can give ourselves the gift of facing just the part that’s before us today. It’s the only stretch of the road we can ever face after all.

So how do we face it though, day by day? The common wisdom has a practical and a spiritual side to it. Practically, we have to handle what challenges and tasks are before us right now. Hospital visits have to be made. Dinner has to be cooked. And none of that changes if we’re overwhelmed by it all. Spiritually though, I think the proverbial take-it-one-day-at-a-time means something different. How do we find the place in our lives for the tenets I so often talk about: openness, mindfulness and reverence? Those three are central to much of my preaching, and they are no less important when we’re dealing with grief and loss.

Some of us know all too well the power of grief to narrow our vision. When we focus on the enormity of what’s before us, or what has just happened, we tend to close out everything else. The things that brought us joy or purpose, hope or laughter, seem so far away. Grieving is necessary. Grieving is healthy. But when when it closes us wholly to joy, or purpose or hope, it cuts off the very resources we need to find wholeness again. Openness is not just a principle, it’s a discipline. When we’re taking it one day at a time, spiritually, we look for the places of hope when hope is still a possibility. Or we look for the places of gratitude. We immerse ourselves in the time we still have with one another while it’s still here. Or we remember the joy someone brought into our lives. Love and joy are eternal; and we carry them with us into the world – touching life after life with their stirrings. But we remember that only when we’re still open. And maybe – just getting dinner done – is the only act of love we have in us. Somedays, that’s enough.

Mindfulness of what’s before us, and only what’s before us, can also keep the walls from pressing in. Yearning for something more, or better, can help us to strive to push through a hard time. But it can also paralyze us with wanting what may not be possible. We risk trading the time we have, or the world around us, for pain and loss over what will not be. It’s an impossible place to be. I’ve seen folks collapse before the sense of loss. And I’ve seen others smiling and laughing till their last hour – despite the pain. There’s no right or wrong – surely everyone’s situation is different. But I’ve found attending to what’s right before us, leaves more room for healing in our hearts and souls. And as Jesus taught, worry makes us live through something twice if it actually happens, or it makes us live through it once even though it never happened. Be present to the adversity before us, one step at a time; don’t stack up all the hurdles we’ll encounter along the way in front of you now.

The third tenet in this grouping – reverence – may be the soul saving part when we’re in deep grief or even deep depression. Grief and depression keep us focused on what we’re losing, or what we lost, or sometimes in the case of depression – what we only think we’ve lost. Again, there’s nothing wrong with grief – in fact it’s a healthy part of healing, and depression is not one’s own fault. Reverence calls us back to our birthright – life – for as long as we have it. In a universe of nigh infinite stars, the chance of you or me ever being here – in this place – with these people – is remarkable. To be born; to live; to find love or to know friends. Maybe to raise a family or to help someone in need. The chance of any of it having happened how it has, is just shy of impossible. And yet we are. When I grieve, I try to remember this. I try to hold the life I’ve been given with a sense of care and awe, because it deserves both. I try to remember to be grateful for the people I’ve known, and the lives I’ve changed, and how those lives changed mine. None of that is lost – ever. To remember, that just like there are people in my life who have mattered tremendously to me, there are people who I have so mattered to as well. None of that is lost.

When I’m at my worst, I yearn for a sense of reverence. I’ve lost my sense of awe. This kind of yearning brings us back to our center. It also brings us back to our purpose. In popular culture, we often think of the spiritual as airy-fairy. I disagree. I find it grounding. I’m most myself, I’m most whole, when I’m grounded in that sense of awe for life, for the world around me, an awareness of the holy surrounding me. And that holiness, is within reach, every step of the way. The road may just be as long, and filled with just as much hardness, but its character changes along with our changing awareness. We just need to return to the next step before us with attention, and the rest may follow.

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The Spirituality of Doctor Who

Hello! Today, I’m launching a new podcast series looking at the Spirituality of Doctor Who, a favorite TV Time Traveler for the past 50 years on BBC. You can hear the first podcast on “The Shakespeare Code” over here.

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We Desert Amblers

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on Christmas Eve 2014. It looks at the story of the Magi and the origins of what it means to be grateful through gift giving.

There’s a comic making the rounds this year of the little drummer boy in the manger next to Mary. He’s about to give the only gift he has, playing his drums, when a harried Mary stops him saying, “Thanks, but please no. I just got him to bed.” I imagine many of us have been there before – with our own kids, or baby-sitting for friends or family. Or if you’re like me, with no kids of my own, but with a very industrious cat at 4am.

The Christmas hymn, “Little Drummer Boy,” always struck me as a little odd, even if it is quite beautiful, for this reason. The last thing an infant needs is a drum solo at bed time. But the song teaches us that we don’t have to have much in terms of worldly riches, to find a way to be generous. It’s a good message, and a helpful reminder, and yet, I think in some ways, it misses the mark for the holiday.

The gift giving scene in the Nativity is about a few markers. Kings of the world themselves, will bow down to this spiritual king in the manger. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were all associated with standard gifts befitting a king. Others would note their representation of Jesus’ respective roles of king, his priestly role and an omen of his later death. They’re appropriate gifts to signal his station and his purpose. And over the millennia, they’ve been the foundation for what has brought us to the consumer frenzy we see from Black Friday through Christmas, and the return sales to follow the holiday.

So the Little Drummer Boy does his yeoman best to move us back to one of the meanings of the season, calling across the centuries to turn away from the consumerism that pervades our lives these days. I’m grateful for that message. We need to hear it year after year. And yet, aside from the three kings’ gift of gold to a poor family sleeping in a manger, a late night drum solo is about as helpful to the baby, as frankincense and myrrh.

On this past Sunday’s youth-led service, our religious educator Starr Austin, asked us whether we more enjoy giving gifts, or more enjoy getting them. It’s an important lesson around generosity – not just for material things – but for all the talents we may share – whether they be drum solos, or helping those in need. Coming from a place of gratitude, gift-giving can be a holy thing, and when it’s from a place of our talents, may very well be the hope for the world we so desperately need.

But with the modern challenge around secular consumerism and it’s impact on this Holy day, I wonder something else too: When is giving gifts more for ourselves, than it is for the recipient? When do we give out of expectation, rather than desire? And what would the Christ-child really ask of us, if he could have spoken?

In our contemporary reading this evening, by the Rev. Lynn Unger, I think we have the answer in the words of the camels. “What would such a child care

for perfumes and gold?”… “We saw what he would need:  the gift of perseverance, of continuing on the hard way, making do with what there is, living on what you have inside. The gift of holding up under a burden, of lifting another with grace, of kneeling. To accept the weight of what you must bear.” For me, these are the lessons of Christmas. These are the gifts I think Jesus’ parents would have hoped for him, and what they ultimately taught him.

For me, the heart of the Christmas story, is not about the gifts, or even about generosity – two things we often think of this time of year. It’s about the lessons of hardship that can be overcome. It’s about enduring what is necessary so that what might be, can become. It’s the story of a man that was gifted with power – not the worldly kind – who was in fact born into weakness and frailty, poverty and a migrant life, living in a nation that was held by foreign powers – and through a life of vulnerability — despite inherent power – showed us all another way: how to lift another with grace and how to kneel when it’s time. We adore this child, not for his cuteness lying in a manger, but for his awareness of when to hold back, despite the power he may have.

The story of Christmas is likewise about the recipients of that grace. If holding back our power at times is a a sacred act, helping to lift those who are vulnerable, is likewise sacred. We often hear misleading stories of people who deserve their poverty; we hear misleading stories that suggest it is not to us to be our brother’s keeper. The story of Christmas corrects these as well. Sometimes, we’re in a place where we have gifts to give. Sometimes we’re in a cold manger needing help. God is found in both these places.

The Holy is found in both these places. This is the closing lesson from our camels in our contemporary reading. “Our footsteps could have rocked him with the rhythm of the road, shown him comfort in a harsh land, the dignity of continually moving forward. But the wise men were not wise enough to ask.  They simply left their trinkets and admired the rustic view.  Before you knew it, we were turned toward home, carrying men only half-willing to be amazed.” Sometimes we come upon the holiday as these wise men, laden with trinkets and appreciative of the quaintness of it all. Sometimes, we come upon Christmas as the silent camels, staring in awe at the wonder of creation – no words to share or say – just the willingness to be amazed. That’s the inkling of the holy, that which the everyday mystics call us to witness. This too is the gift of Christmas; this too is the gift of life. To notice the baby reaching “for the bright tassels of our gear” and to not let it be lost before the humdrum of the world. To pause long enough to appreciate the precious moments of life.

All of this, held in care, is the message of Christmas. May it bear a print upon who we are, knowing that it is to us then, that we commit the life and teachings of Jesus into our lives. We are told he was born, and he lived, and he died for these teachings. To feed the hungry. To care for the sick. To clothe the naked. To lift up the poor. To remember those imprisoned – however they may be bonded. This is to keep Christ in Christmas. Tonight is the start of his story. Tonight, we renew our pledge to hold these ideals deep in our hearts. And to return, once more, to a world lit by such a glorious star, in the darkest of nights.

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Swimming Upstream

This sermon was first preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 1/4/14. It looks at the possibilities of a new year and the differences between desire, greed and yearning.


Here’s a short story that I share with you with permission from its source. I’m very grateful for their sense of humor and willingness to share it with all of us. It’s a story about themselves and a long-time former member of our Fellowship I’m changing their names since this will be posted online. “Rita and Bob went to Town Hall to take care of some business pertaining to the Fellowship building. Rita parked her red Toyota Celica in the crowded lot.  When they went back to the car, her keys didn’t work.  Bob, being an expert at just about everything, worked diligently to break into the car – the way a thief would!  After Bob broke into the car, Rita put her hands on the steering wheel and exclaimed to Bob, who was sitting in the passenger seat “This is not my car, Bob!”  They bolted out of the car, closed the doors and looked for her car.  It was on the other side of a white van that was parked between her car and the stranger’s car that they had just broken into!”

I imagine we all have moments like these in our lives – maybe not so humorous – where we struggle and struggle to make something work in our lives, or to get through a difficult task, and all the energy is for nought. It might feel like we’re swimming upstream at a time in our lives when we’re called to do the hard thing, or we might just wind up working on breaking into the wrong car.

I’m trying to learn to tell the difference; whether when I’m facing a hardship, is it a necessary or unavoidable difficulty, or have I just gone to the wrong spot. Sometimes we can’t tell the difference until we’re sitting in someone else’s driver seat. But it’s a question we’ve begun asking ourselves in my own household when we face something challenging in our wider lives, and it’s a question that I haven’t always been prone to ask.

Maybe it was my working class upbringing, or maybe it was my German Lutheran Dad’s work ethic, but I’ve always known the message that life isn’t always easy and you have to put your back into it sometimes – sometimes for a long time. Many things we yearn for can fall into this category. Getting through high school, or college take years of hard work, and now these days, a lot of debt to show for the higher education degree most jobs require.

Getting through a life-changing illness – either in body or in mind – can be a place of yearning where endurance and hope are the saving virtues. Our lives are in the hands of other people, even if we’re the center of the story. We have to rely on the wind, from this morning’s wisdom story, to take us across the dry places in our lives.

My own road from working in Information Technology to Community Development to the Ministry was like this. I left a lucrative career, at the age of 28 – making about the same amount of money my dad was making after a lifetime of his work – because it wasn’t personally fulfilling. I yearned for something else; I felt a sense of call. Five years of graduate education and what would amount to a mortgage – in most parts of our country – worth in education loans was a surreal choice to make – especially considering my roots. But, I know that choice to swim upstream was the right choice for me – I didn’t break into the wrong car.

How do we know when it’s the right choice or not? There’s a graphic novel series that I’ve read where the anti-hero of the story (in this case Lucifer himself) talks about the difference between desire and greed. To paraphrase: desire is to need what we can never have. Greed is to need what is readily available. To add a third type of wanting to that scene, I might say yearning is to need what is right, but not yet at hand. We yearn to find or fulfill our purpose; we yearn for justice; we yearn for a caring, loving, kind world. So when we’re struggling hard for something, maybe we can ask what type of “want” we’re trying to fulfill this time as a starting point.

In my own life, when I run across something that’s deeply tied to my sense of purpose, or part of the bigger vision of my life, I’m willing to put a lot of energy into swimming upstream. These days though, I walk away from other stuff that saps my time and energy. I watch for patterns. Once a project has enough unexpected hurdles, unless its essential to home or health, I drop it. We can only manage so much before the frivolous winds up veering us down the wrong path; sapping our ability to accomplish the things that fulfill our purpose.

Occasionally, that which saps our ability to be effective in life are not complications or hurdles in life; sometimes they’re misinformation. I’ve gotten into almost daily habit of watching Fox News. It happened by accident really. There’s a local diner that I like to goto where I read while I eat for about an hour to hour and a half every day. For a long time I thought they changed their news station depending on the time of day. Fox, CNN or the local 12. But after a few months I realized that the pattern was almost entirely just Fox. Apparently, the owner requires the waitstaff to put Fox on, and they can only change it when clients ask to put something else on – or if there’s a major sports game on.

In the beginning, I let it get to me. I couldn’t believe a store owner would play politics like that with a station that factually gets the news wrong 80% of the time (and there are numerous non-partisan reviews that verify Fox is wrong, misleads or outright lies 80% of the time.) To be fair, the same reports find NBC to mislead about 60% of the time. So in the beginning, I would ask to have the station changed to the local news. Over time though, I just let it go and watched. I’ll read the NY Times, and Washington Post for the same reason. And periodically hop over to the BBC or other European news to see what we’re not being told.

What I see reading or listening to all these sources, is that the people that only read or tune into the station that matches their worldview, never hear what the other side has to say in a way that expresses that view with integrity. I feel like this is the major source of our nation’s swimming upstream over the past decade or two. We don’t hear the other side’s points, and if we do, they’re shared in mocking tones. It also oversimplifies complex situations because nuances of view are tossed for the sound byte. We see this in NYC’s current struggle between the Mayor and some Police Union leadership.

It also tends to contribute to false balance – where one reasonable opinion is pitted against a ridiculous opinion as if they are equal in value. We most notably see this with reporting on Global Warming, where world scientific expert opinions are considered with equal “value” with politicians who have no scientific training and are relying on personal opinion and anecdote to challenge 98% of the scientific community’s consensus.

Pope Francis is expected to charge our world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to commit themselves to the Global Warming crisis after a trip to the hurricane-ravaged Philippines soon. And in September, he’s slated to speak to the UN General Assembly as plead for more serious action. If all of this happens as expected, it fills me with a deep sense of hope over this crisis that has felt like swimming upstream for so many of us.

However, if you heard it reported on Fox, the story was told very differently. In the most mind-numbing twisting of news I may have ever heard, the TV station reported that the Pope was going to call Catholics to action over Global Warming, but they described it as something that reinforced “some critics” concerns over “religious fervor” which has been the foundation for those that believe in climate change. Climate change – that which has 98% of world scientists in agreement – is now magically a sentiment of those with religious zeal. When in fact, it’s been strong religious groups who believe global warming is God’s will, and man had no influence on our planet, that have stalled some of our actions to remedy this crisis saying that we can’t flout God’s will, so let’s let it burn as the bible has foretold.

If desire is to need what we can’t have, and greed is to need what is readily available, and yearning is to need what is right, but not yet, then global warming brings out all three in us. Our desire for the myth of limitless resources without repercussion and our greed for that which we yet have so much of, are making our yearning for a world that is whole and balanced all the more difficult to realize.

As we begin a new year, and prepare to swim up whatever streams come our way from time to time, we should remember something about endurance. Sometimes the world is a difficult place, and sometimes our personal situation is very stark. But not everything is hopeless. Not everything is simple. And we often need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, or tune into more than one voice. Our nation is wracked with many serious, or life threatening problems right now. But we also have many stories of success, change and transformation. Our national debt is declining drastically. For those who benefit from stocks, they’re soaring to record highs. Unemployment is down. We have movement away from some Cold War policies toward our nearest neighbor, while reaching out with environmental agreements with foreign powers. Ebola never spread here – not from ISIS, not through Mexico. And with Pope Francis expected to join his voice in world leadership toward serious climate action, things may look very different. When we yearn in difficult times, sometimes we need to remember not to listen too fully to the voices of strife and confusion; or at least not allow them to be the only voices we hear. When we only listen to them, our hearts and minds may not be ready to do the work of building upon the many successes the past year has gifted to this new year.

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