Archive for November, 2011
This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on August 23, 2009. It looks at our fourth principle as a covenantal promise. It revisions our responsible search for truth and meaning as a quest of spirit.
I remember when I was about 8 years old. My mom used to regularly warn me about the dangers of electric sockets. I recall those little plastic inserts that filled unused power outlets throughout the house. She apparently believed 1 inch of plastic could hold back the rampant imagination of my third grade mind. Or possibly, it just served to ease her mind – she could at least say did the best she could. It was a rather good hearted, yet ultimately fruitless precaution.
One Saturday afternoon, with a few friends in tow, I travelled into the bathroom and closed the door. Armed with curiosity, companionship and a set of metal tweezers, I had the brilliant notion that I wanted to see exactly what would happen. Why was it safe for the plastic to go inside, but not the metal? If these sockets really were so dangerous, they clearly wouldn’t be left all around the house with such a flimsy guard. Besides that other great electrical threat, the tongue-on-battery experiment, was in fact unpleasant, but hardly as bad as it was made out to be. I’d be fine.
Well, standing here now does kind of ruin the suspense of whether or not I lived through that pseudo-scientific experiment. In case it’s not clear; I made it. The tweezers gave me the biggest shock I’d ever felt; still to this day that’s true. (Don’t do it folks!) With triumph and pain, and gritted teeth, I knew for myself what my mom was trying to tell me all along. It it plain stupid to stick bare metal into electrical outlets.
For me, that’s the plainest example of doing half of what our fourth principle asks us to do. Our fourth principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the free and responsible search for truth in meaning. The tweezer and socket search was meaningful and it was certainly free, but I can’t say that it was very responsible at all.
In what ways do we do this in our own religious lives? Do we ever search for something new while making sure to close the door behind us? Not seen, we think we’re safer. Or maybe it just signifies how closed off we might make ourselves to something else as we search for the new. “I don’t need that Christianity or Judaism… or my family.” The only thing I had going for me in that bathroom, was that I didn’t go in it alone. I brought my friends with me.
I recall a long time atheist friend of mine from my college days. He did this sort of thing with his spiritual life. Frustrated with many difficulties after college, he managed a 180 degree turn leaving what was for him a healthy sense of atheism, to join a cult. Moving across the country, he shut the door; only his friends weren’t nearby making sure he didn’t get hurt. He needed answers and a change on his own terms, and he was certainly free to do that, but without the balance of responsibility, that way lies little promise. It certainly left little room for long time and close friends.
I imagine some of us may have felt this way if we find ourselves now in a religious community that isn’t the same as the one we grew up in. There’s a time when we’re not sure if what we’re doing is safe, or sane, or saving. We’ve been told one thing. And now, for whatever reason, we need to see the world for ourselves, and the only way we can do it, is to challenge what we’ve been told. Are we going to get shocked, or are we going to be OK?
When I left Catholicism almost 20 years ago over my Universalist heart – not able to believe that an all-loving God could condemn anyone to ever lasting pain and misery – I didn’t really know if I was right. I just had my reading of the bible that told me that God’s love is unconditional. Hell seemed to me to be one rather large condition. Am I going to get shocked later? Hard to tell really.
I’ve come to rely on this fourth principle here. I also have this covenant now to help me sort that out. It calls for a responsible search; and it reminds me that I need to be free to make it. How does a thing make sense? It needs to match what we encounter in the world; and we need to make sure we’re leaving space for a spiritual openness in our hearts. And most importantly, as is all of our principles, it is written as an action statement for the community. We covenant to affirm and promote… we don’t do this alone; even if it says it’s a free search.
I find that the search has to be a useful one. I don’t mean that all our searches have to be materially productive, or come out at the other end with a new way of looking at the world though. Our responsive reading this morning by Marge Piercy is helpful here. She wrote, “The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing, well done, has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.” Not all our searches, and some might argue none of them, will return permanent results or outcomes; but the ones that are really important or truly relevant, have a way of sustaining that is untied to the thing itself. Our mud worker’s dirty hands are clean at the end of her line, despite the dirt obvious to the eye.
That is the promise of this fourth principle. The quest, despite it’s rigors, leaves us clean at the end of the thing worth doing. When we submerge ourselves in the task at hand, or the quest for meaning in a world that too often we find it so difficult to find any whatsoever, a transformation occurs. Mud becomes pottery, becomes empty vessel ready for content.
That’s the story of the Ox Cart Man we heard this morning as well. A year of meaningful work on the farm that fills up a cart pulled by an Ox. Not holding onto all the things that allow him to bring his wares to market beyond their use, the Ox and the Cart are sold along with the potatoes and goose feathers. When he returns home, he stitches a new harness for the next Ox, and cuts planks for the next cart. The focus for our farmer is the work at hand. His quest for sustenance involves travel, but always a return home year to year.
Things, like beliefs and opinions, are held onto so long as they serve the role they need to for the time at hand. There is no fear in his heart when he let’s go of a thing; even if his plan is to pick it up again later or craft a replacement in its stead. This lack of fear is an act of responsibility. It is true to life. A thousand arguments could fly through the mind warning us of all the calamities that might befall our Ox Cart Man should he continue his long practice of selling all of his goods at the harvest market; but none of them would be real. They would be in our mind, and likely we might feel some investment in getting them inside his mind. But he remains true to his experience. All that he needs is available from the land before him, and the work of his hands. Why hold on tightly?
We do this with beliefs and religious views. We often hold on tightly, beyond their use, or sometimes despite their use. Some of us might rail against something we’ve been taught. Because of the hurtful, or nagging, or patronizing things that have been said or taught. We run to our respective bathrooms; shut the door to the message and stick a piece of metal into the Spirit. Sometimes we’ll find those sockets are dead things, not to be feared. Sometimes we won’t. The fact of the free search is life saving. How we go about it though, might not always be.
I’m not sure that when we rail against a belief we have actually let go of it. It might still hold dominion of us as we run through our lives doing most things as an act of defiance. We’ve not really gained freedom; we’ve just learned a new way to stay trapped. My once good friend who traded atheism for cult-hood may subscribe to a new set of beliefs; but I find it hard to imagine that the dis-ease he wrestled with before doesn’t continue to manifest itself in new ways. I hope I’m wrong though in his case.
Maybe the role model to look up to is the Ox from our poem. He’s able to carry large burdens without complaint. The Ox has slow, plodding, deliberate steps that are just the right speed to plant seeds for the future; possibly to a time beyond the span of the Ox. How is knowledge like the seed planted by the helpful efforts of our Ox? As they relate to the living world, seeds grow for a purpose, not for themselves. They are planted, take time to grow, have a lifespan, transform and someday repeat the cycle. How responsible would the farmer be who wrestled with his seedlings? A very humorous image comes to mind for the farmer and seed that chose to role-play out my own history with my Christian heritage. (Insert imaginative hand gestures.) But the growing would have to happen after the weeds, hands and plants let themselves untangle.
Our bricklayer from our words for all ages is another good role-model. “He stoops over to look at the line of the bricks, hands on his thighs, inspecting the work. Sometimes as I drive by I see him put his hand on the back of the person he’s teaching. Often they are both smiling.” I so wish that was the metaphor for my religious journey. Always and ever loving the work, with a clear mentor to guide my way; we’re both smiling. And not the metaphor of the farmer rolling in the fields; body wrestling with his crop. Sigh.
“I think, from the look on his face, that he loves the process. I imagine that he never thinks about the end of the project, the completion of the wall. I think he will go onto the next wall as if it were just a continuation of this one, then the next one and the next, and never be bored.” In our search for truth and meaning, is knowledge about building structures or outcomes, or is it about the hand on the back and the process? How do we have fun along the way? What do we carry with us, and where is our focus?
Truly, part of it is about what we learn from it. With science, it means the potential for healthier lives and increased capacity for global communication. Pretty good goals. I remember the hundreds of hours I shared as chaplain in the pediatric intensive care unit at NY Columbia/Presbyterian Hospital. This ICU was the place so many infants went when no where else could help. There were many children that recovered who would not have lived were it a decade earlier. That’s part of this fourth principle to. Make sure we’re looking for new ways.
Sometimes it’s just about seeing that star for the first time. Coming close to the mystery and awe that is this ever expanding universe; like the bricklayer, never bored. It’s where our fourth principle and our first source connect. Our living tradition we share draws from many sources, and the first among them is the direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life. In some ways the free and responsible search for truth and meaning helps us to encounter this sense of wonder in new ways. I see this as the promise of the Questing Spirit. Unsettled with where we are, we set off to some distant stars to better learn our place in the universe. It is my prayer and my hope then when we see the beauty and awesomeness of some far away universe, that it touch something deep in all of us, and help us to see the same thing here, on this planet; right now. For we truly are of the same stuff. Every quest has the possibility to help us to find our way home.
This sermon was first preached at the First UU congregation of Brooklyn, on October 4th, 2009.
“Courage my soul, and let me journey on, though the night is dark and I am far from home.” I’m really glad for these words from our offertory song this morning. They were written by Charles A. Tindley, an African-American Methodist minister and gospel music composer from a century ago. Like me, before he was a minister, he was a church custodian. My mom thought it was really funny that I chose that line of work while I was first in college, since I never wanted to do anything like it growing up at home. Mops, like broccoli, were undiscovered country until I was 19. I’m a vegetarian now too, so it’s really funny how much I hated broccoli. (Guess what my favorite vegetable is now…)
I have a special place in my heart for folks who have also swept the floors. Custodians make the world a better place, by showing that we care about the places where we live. I feel we have a special wisdom to share with the world too! The first bit is that “custodian” is a big word for someone who gets paid to clean up after other people’s messes. Sometimes those messes are the extra glitter and stars used in craft projects, like last Sunday where our Kindergartners and first graders (you all out there? wave your hands!) met with our Senior High Youth group. They learned about giving gifts to one another as they got to know each other. It was a good thing to tidy up after. Little bits marking the sacredness of joy and community and friendships forming.
Sometimes the cleaning projects are less than joyous. Like when Michael, our custodian, repainted the space in our fellowship hall where rested the evidence of the hate crime of a few weeks ago. His sacramental work reminds us of the holiness of this space. We care about the places where we live; and will not long abide hateful actions. The glitter of fun projects past, even though cleaned up, still carries with them memories of family, community and good times. Just like that, repainting a wall doesn’t remove the memory of the crime, although the cleaning is a necessary first step. Each of us are responsible to be custodians of the spirit here.
Living our lives with respect for difference, making sure the space is kept for voices to be shared, and a smile on our faces even if only to show how grateful we are for one another. I am not glad for the crime, but I am glad that we are known so well for our good works. I am glad that we continue to move forward with our eight year collaboration with Muslim communities in our neighborhoods and Brooklyn at large. I am glad that our respective youth groups will have opportunities this year to do service work together. I was humbled at our 9th annual Iftar to learn that Nadji Almontaser, a Muslim lay leader and friend of our congregation, chose to join his hands with all of ours at our 175th celebration when I was ordained. More than one religious heart commissioned my ministry, and I will remember that.
For those of you who may have missed our Summer services, this Sunday is the fifth in a preaching series of mine where I explore our seven principles. I feel that we have much to gain by looking at our principles as action statements and as religious promises we make to and with one another. How we respond to last month’s hate crime can only inform this for me. Our actions and our promises made and kept with one another will lift this congregation up.
We sometimes talk about our fifth principle as how we we covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. Our children learn about this principle more as a reminder that all people have a voice and a right to be heard. We as a religious faith lift up our voices as sacred. Each time we do so with integrity and respect, we pick up the mops and brooms of the spirit, and make shine the floors and windows of our sacred home – this community and our earth.
“Courage my soul, and let me journey on, though the night is dark and I am far from home.” I said earlier that I was really glad for these words of Rev. Dr. Tindley. I pray that few of us feel far from home sitting in these pews, but there are times when we all feel this way. … With a smile trying to break free despite it all, Coyote from our Words for All Ages felt this way too. As he journeyed on trying to get away from all those ridiculous creatures, rabbit, moose, and so many twittering birds, he came to the dark of night, and lost the memory of how to be himself; to play his flute, and drum, to sing his song, and maybe someday to lose his fire. In traditional Native American stories, sometimes Coyote taught humans how to make fire – not all the stories, but some of them. For even him – the teacher of lighting our sacred flames – to forget how to do it – is pretty serious indeed. Moving away from his community, he was losing himself. Seeing others as ridiculous and useless, made him feel empty and a little useless too.
That’s democracy right? Realizing that we can’t do it alone, and that other people’s views are important. If we stop talking and learning from one another, if we stop being able to even hear the content of another’s message, we’re a little less human than we were the day before. And Coyote’s a little less Coyote than once he was.
So let’s do something a little different than usual here. Let’s learn from one another during the sermon. This is something I’ve learned from many of the past youth groups I’ve worked with. Let’s do what Coyote did in the story – toward the end, not the walking away bit. Let’s get to know one another a bit better – and realize how much of each other is within ourselves.
I’m going to ask Coyote, Rabbit and one of our Birds to come up to the lectern to ask some questions of the congregation. If it’s true for you, stand up – or raise your hand if that’s better for you. Then, look around. Take notice. Have you been coming here for five or more years? …Look around. Take notice. Is this your first month here? …Look around. Take notice. Are you part of our Religious Education program; a teacher, a child, a youth, a parent, or part of it’s leadership? …Look around. Take notice. Do you serve on a committee of this congregation? …Look around. Take notice. Is this congregation the primary or only place where you get the chance to socialize (and not just work) with people more than five years older or younger than you? …Look around. Take notice. Do you like Play Doh? …Look around. Take notice. Are you living away from most of your family? …Look around. Take notice. Are you a life-long UU? Have you been attending RE since childhood? …Look around. Take notice. Do you take part in our Small Groups Ministry program? …Look around. Take notice.
Are you willing to take on the challenge of this hate crime of a few weeks ago? To live a life with respect for the integrity of others – whether they be Muslim, or Gay, or Black? …Look around. Take notice.
Thank you, everyone, for trying that out with us today. And thank you Coyote and Bird and Rabbit for leading those questions. (I had a pretty good idea with what I thought the results for Play Doh would be, but I wasn’t so sure about some of the other bits.) “Courage my soul, and let me journey on, though the night is dark and I am far from home.”
Sometimes being custodians of the spirit will require small local action like repainting our walls. Sometimes it will require a kind heart and presence in the face of a world forgetting who it is. Sometimes it will be letting ourselves have fun, and hear one another like we just did – ever open and ever learning. Sometimes, living our fifth principle will require more sustained and concerted action. We’ll have to exercise the power we have, with respect to the people around us, so that those without that power are kept in mind.
Thinking of the story about Coyote traveling away from his home, making himself left out in the cold fearful of even losing his fire, reminded me of how many people face this problem here in our own city; only their own actions are necessarily the reason they have no home to goto. About six years ago, when I was still in my second profession as a non-profit consultant, advocate and researcher, I accepted a one year long project working with the Association for Neighborhood Housing Development otherwise known as ANHD. They are an excellent not-for-profit that serves as the umbrella organization for over 100 NYC community development groups. In essence, they do the higher end research and advocacy work for the body of non-profits, so that the member groups can continue to focus on their services. Like Coyote and the other animals taught us, we each have a role to play, and have talents to share and be heard. None of us can do it all, and fortunately none of us have to. They exercise the power they have, their voices in concert, to live out their conscience with effect.
My talent there was in research and presentations. Even before the recession, NYC was undergoing a housing crisis tied to a long list of issues, including national level budget cuts for affordable housing, and the scheduled termination of housing contracts first written in the 70’s when many New Yorkers were rapidly moving out of the city. Where Coyote in our story was choosing to be as far from his friends as possible, NYC residents often weren’t given a choice to remain in homes they could afford.
Wielding my mop once more, I felt like I was cleaning up other people’s messes again. I wasn’t even here in the 70’s, the 80’s or even the 90’s. And yet, I was collating and analyzing data consisting of literally hundreds of thousands of low income or affordable housing agreements. I was able to definitively project where and when, and most importantly, in what district, those homes would be lost. Could you imagine knowing when a home was no longer going to be affordable enough for someone to live there, and doing nothing about it? That’s often what we do though.
So, when I was done, we presented my findings to New York’s City Council. ANHD succeeded in convincing enough council members that they had too many people in their districts that would be displaced from their homes. The work ever and always needs to be continued. But I’m glad to have seen some of the new laws put into place in how we generate affordable housing in major projects like the Far West Side in Manhattan, or some of the Brooklyn waterfront developments, or Williamsburg north of us. It took a lot of people to get those passed. It may not be enough, but it’s more than it could have been. And it’s often, and possibly only, ever accomplished when we work in collaboration; each relying and learning from the gifts of one another. The advocates working with the researchers working with those directly affecteds – and the list goes on and on. The cheerleaders from the pulpit reminding the rest of us, that a way can be found so long as we have the courage to take it.
Transformation, whether it be in city policy or our own spirits, occurs primarily in the light of one another. My ministry grows in light of what you all here have to share. And I pray your ministry does the same in light of what I have to share. I mourned yesterday at my home congregation of All Souls in Manhattan for a mentor of mine in my ministerial discernment and my minister, the Rev. Forrest Church. During the service, one of his son’s mentioned a time when he was watching a sports game with his dad. During one gatorade commercial, Forrest dozed off and woke up suddenly as if from a dream. His son said that he blurted out, “Life is a team sport.” I want to thank you one more time Forrest for inspiring me to make sense of the things that I continue to wrestle with. Life is a team sport, and we can only truly do it when we don’t make ourselves falsely feel alone; or attempt to shoulder the burdens of the world ourselves. It won’t work anyway, even if we try. And it’s not true; we’re not alone.
We are always given this religious choice – do we head off on the road alone – thinking everything and everyone along the way are ridiculous? (Coyote, you’re crazy! Moose – those antlers are so silly.) Or do we recognize that we realize more of who we are, and whom we can be when we enter into covenant with one another. When we use our voices to lift up each other, rather than to tear us down. This is the religious promise of our fifth principle. Playing our flutes, and our drums, and our Coyote yelps in concert makes the world a much more fabulous and human place to dwell.
This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on October 16th, 2009. It looks at our third principle as a covenantal promise rather than a belief statement.
When I first moved to Brooklyn last summer I was pretty excited to be so close to Prospect Park. I had remembered it being just as pretty as Central Park, but way less crowded. I’m an avid walker; the time in nature is really good for me, and to be able to be there without the jostle of thousands of other folks – all the better. On my first trip into the park after I moved here I came across a map on one of it’s little boards. It mentioned there was a dog beach! I thought -wow! I didn’t think the water line came this close to the park. Growing up in Jersey, I imagined a shore line with dogs frolicking as far as the eye can see. Owners alternating between feeling joy for the playfulness of their pups and stressing over the more powerful waves around their little NYC apartment canines. I knew of some beaches that allowed dogs, but I didn’t think it’d be possible in a city of this density.
Well, apparently it wasn’t possible. In case you’re not familiar with Prospect Park, it’s roughly about nine avenues from river. Now, I’m not much of a gullible person, but I hadn’t really been to this part of Brooklyn much. And to be completely honest, I have a rampant imagination that sometimes gets the best of me. In reality, the dog beach is one fenced off stretch of water connecting into a larger inland lake. In the early mornings when the leash law is waved, dozens of dogs do frolic in it, but the only waves that occur are what they generate chasing balls, ducks and each other. In afternoons, it’s usually only two or three dogs at a time who are tethered to their owners.
I find it fascinating how all these dogs I encounter have completely different personalities. Some are very stand-offish, distant from other dogs while maintaining a “just try it” look on their faces, that may or may not just happen to resonate with their human on the other end of the leash. Others come across as playfully stupid. Eager to please, grab attention. They’re the ones that run up to each new dog to say, “hey! Where ya been?” Even though they’ve likely never met.
I’ve started to notice my own reactions these different doggie attitudes. I pay way more attention to the cute, friendly, lovable dogs, than I do to the ones that maintain their distance. They make me feel better; and I imagine they are probably a bit happier than their counterparts. I used to just think of them as slightly dumb creatures who showed interest and care for anyone around them. Lacking in discernment, they gave their acceptance and love freely.
I’m starting to think they’re the smart ones and I’m the one that needs to catch up. They’re happier; I’m happier. The mind at the end of the leash might be a bit concerned that their pet is overly social and willing to run away with anyone to the circus (like my upstairs neighbor who recently mentioned to me as one of her concerns when her two “hot dogs” wanted to go for a walk with me.) I’m amazed to report that even the local area duck population shows no concern or fear from the friendly dog types. They might be convinced to slowly wade away from their intensity, but there’s no flapping away to safety from the gregarious ones. They only flee the stone-cold ones.
I wonder what it would be like at coffee hour if we were all a bit more like the carefree, floppy-eared mutts, than the strong but distant barkers and yippers. It might be tough on the introverts among us from to time, but I understand that will ever and always be the case for any of us that need time to ourselves but choose to try to do that in public settings. I imagine overall though, it would feel pretty good.
I’ve tested this theory out this Summer at coffee shops, beaches and the occasional bar night out with friends. I’ve learned something amazing. Generally speaking, when I show others I’m interested in getting to know them; that I’m outwardly friendly; and that I accept them for who they are – they mimic my behavior! By channeling the wisdom of floppy-eared dogs everywhere, I have found friendly people in places where only unfriendly people once dwelled! I wonder where they all came from…
Our reading this morning talks about how we don’t notice people, or dogs, or even days. “We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real.”
I believe we do the same sort of waiting with people (and possibly dogs.) Ever waiting, we give away our lives in the hope that one will some day show up. And the truth is: it’s already here – and it’s pretty wonderful; even when it’s pretty awful. And there will always be those days. But so long as we have breath to breathe, we have a precious gift to unwrap and experience. “For some reasons, we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a long time.”
The same is true for each person we encounter; even when they’re pretty awful. We can choose to interact with abandon or reserve, but we ought not be surprised when we receive only what we give. We can not control how others act. I’ve often hear it said that as Unitarian Universalists, we accept all people, but not all behaviors. But we can control how open we are, and how committed to engage we will be.
That’s the religious discipline inherent to our third principle. We covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encourage spiritual growth in our congregations. Like I’ve pointed out in our previous two installments of this preaching series on our principles, it’s phrased as another action statement – not a creedal belief. We aren’t saying we believe in acceptance in growth, although many of us may in fact believe so. We are saying that we will commit to promote acceptance and spiritual growth with each other and in our religious homes.
I say it’s a religious discipline because it’s hard work, and something our religion asks of us. It also happens to be something we ask of each other as congregants. The promise of this discipline is saving. I don’t mean to say that it’s saving in the sense of some afterlife that will happen at some indeterminate point in the future. I mean to say that it’s saving right here, right now. Without the conviction of this discipline, we are only promised a life of isolation and stagnation. With it, we enjoy the promise of a deeper connection with the life around us. The main demand is to channel a little bit of that carefree mutt in each of us; to let go of the clutch and grab of judgement we so often employ against ourselves and others. To move through tolerance of others who we may or may not resonate with, and to learn to accept them for who they are. To let go of that clutch and grab requires a discipline for most of us. Our third principle offers the promise of connection, but demands that we allow ourselves to allow others in.
In a recent walk through Prospect Park I came across a story that matches this discipline. This time it’s about little kids, not dogs. I saw a gathering of yellow shirted summer camp first and second graders. The camp advisor was doing a call and response with the kids as they were marching in a line to their next destination. “One day I heard a bird singing … it had a great thing to say to me…”. It got punctuated by the advisor calling out after one girl who was lagging behind. “Anna, come on over. Stay with us.” This went back and forth for about 30 seconds, before the counselor invoked the terrifying “count to five.” I remember the horror of that teacher threat back in grade school. “One, two, three…” and then Anna came running. She got back to the group, and all was forgiven, they continued their march in the warm, fun summer sun.
We accept all people here, but not all behaviors. Try not to dwell in your minds too long on the metaphor of a single line marching anywhere — that will likely never be a true descriptor for Unitarian Universalists anywhere. Think more about how that counselor let the annoyance of the last 30 seconds go. She accepted the situation within clearly defined boundaries, and then allowed herself and Anna to reconnect and move on. Sometimes the affronts in our daily lives will seem more severe; but I’m convinced that the vast majority of those affronts are simply the dressed up equivalent of Anna’s lingering a bit too long when the rest of the group needed to move on. In the clutch and grab, we force ourselves to tolerate bad behavior, but never loosen our grip on the offense or the frustration. If the counselor had held onto the bad behavior of the little girl, she would have had a much worse afternoon and probably ruined it for the kids as well. Instead, she let herself and the children present be free to hear the promise of what great thing that bird singing in the tree had to say to them that day.
If the realm of the spiritual is in accepting and appreciating the lives and world around us, how then can we do this in our congregations? I’ve already mentioned how to do acceptance 101. I call it coffee hour. We’ve got it coming up again shortly right next door. Practice, practice, practice. And accept how your neighbor succeeds or trips up along the way.
For those ready to move onto 201, let me invite you to join one of our Small Group Ministries this fall. If you looking to get to know more people in our congregation; or if you want the opportunity to explore more deeply some of our ministers’ sermons; or you are looking for a spiritual space mid-week; small group ministries may be for you, whether you are a newcomer, or long standing member of our congregation. They are generally lay led groups that each commit to meet once a month for about 90 minutes. They involve a chalice lighting, some poetry or short writing, and a few questions that are intended to start dialogue and reflections around a set topic. These are designed to be places for the heart and the spirit, rather than educational forums. I write the sessions for our facilitators and keep in mind this third principle when doing so. They’re essentially a monthly structured exercise in acceptance and spiritual growth. Check out the sign-up sheets in the back by the welcome table, or ask me more about them during coffee hour.
Our words for children of all ages this morning weaves our great unease of days and people together. The start and finish of the tale talks about the forward rush of our lives. Businessman and fisherman are both seeking to enjoy the life and days around them. The fisherman seems to have already found it, while the businessman puts it off for the future. “Well, then you could spend the rest of your life just doing whatever you wanted to do, sitting in the sun, relaxing and enjoying yourself, with no worries…”.
This is an aspect of acceptance that leads toward the second half of our third principle. It’s a marker of spiritual growth to be able to appreciate what you have and where you are when you’re there rather than forever holding off to some point in the future or clinging to some past existence.
I should offer the caveat that not all businesspeople delay their life for some future date, and not all fishermen are so moderate and steady with their fishing habits. I could imagine a tale that offers the same message with the roles reversed. It would involve an entrepreneur who may or may not enjoy what she’s doing, but fully appreciates how it allows her to share time with and support her family or friends. In this story there would be a fisherman that overfished the seas and criticized the entrepreneur for keeping her company so small and not expanding to consume more resources. In either case, one of the people in the story suffers discontent and disconnection with their own lives, and feels the need to project that out onto the life of another.
In learning to accept one another, we inevitably will encounter this last truth. Much of what makes us unsatisfied with others is merely a projection of what we mistakingly believe is lacking in our own lives. The spiritual dimension of growth calls us to a life where we recognize the abundance we have. We may not have abundant wealth, or health, or love, or talent; or may be in a place where we have all or some of these but we lack the abundance of clarity to be able to see what we do have.
In either case, if you’re hearing me now or reading this later, you have enough of an abundance of life to be extremely grateful. This is a tough discipline for all, especially for me; but one that has life saving potential. One way to repay that gift is to help others to recognize this truth. Rather than seek to teach it, model it by living into acceptance; every chance we get. Which just so happens to be right now.
Spirit of Solidarity, Compassion and Understanding, God of all these names, rooted in Love, Enter our lives.
Our city is wrestling with democracy, protest, witness and every day living. As always, we will not all agree about the path forward. Help us to remember the matters that trouble our core, To focus and reflect on the injustices of the world, To heal and make amends – the definition of Beloved Community. May we not fall in the traps of seeing the world as Them, or Us; May we support each others’ call to action, even should our actions be in contradiction. So long as love enters reason, we will find a way.
Help our individuals, and our leaders, and our media to speak the truth in times of conflict, crisis and anxiety. Help our communities to find ways to allow the public dialogue to continue in peace. Help our public servants to feel they can contribute rather than be ostracized, Our radicals to lift a hand to cross the hurdles of habit and inertia, And our traditionalists to remind us of the practicalities of the world before us.
Spirit of Life, we know that where there is pain we are called to extend compassion. For those who see the immediacy of need, help us to find long term solutions; For those who understand how our society functions, help us to handle the immediacy before us. May our desire for change, or our wish for stability, not create a divide in our search for meaning, substance, and care. For in the messy work of living, community can never happen with any one of us alone. May the joys of connection, the hopes birthed from relation, and the dreams of a world united help to steer us toward the common good.
We pause to feel gratitude for the abundance in our own lives, especially when it is hard to find. May we come to know a fullness in life that emboldens us to live generously with one another. To pause, and break bread with friend and stranger alike. Knowing that rarely are we alone the baker, and the farmer, and the deliverer of the food before us; Yet still we eat and live this day.
It is in our relations that we are able to appreciate the awe of this living breathing world. It is in our reliance upon one another that our civilization is possible. May religion continue to inspire us to appreciate the everyday, and the great horizons before us.It is in this inspiration that we come to know what it is to be human, to be alive.
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This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on Nov 15th, 2009. This sermon is about not making an exception of oneself.
When I was still working as a consultant for not-for-profits and city government, I used to live in Manhattan at 14th street and First Avenue. It was back in the days when I was blessed by the Rent Stabilized Fairy; she’s a close cousin to the tooth fairy, but she left me more than quarters or one dollar bills. I had a great two bed-room apartment with a fellow NYU grad student who just happened to have a cousin who had a friend who needed some folks to sublet for a while, while she was in Canada. Better than putting your tooth under the pillow any day!
We were on the 11th story at the intersection. A short distance north of us was Bellevue Hospital. A block south of us was a fire station. Ambulances and fire trucks were usual distractions. Even living 11 stories up, it took me several months to learn how to fall asleep despite the noise. Trying to wake up to an alarm clock, that sounded a lot like all the other beeps below us, was quite tough. I remember finally going out to buy a new one that had a “nature” setting. Crickets! Crickets will now pull me out of the deepest slumber. One unintended consequence is that I can only camp in the winter time now. I am really, really glad that I got hooked on insect noises for my alarm, and not the “ocean” setting.
At the corner itself was a traffic light with a left turn signal. These are fairly harmless creatures back in the suburbs. However, in NYC, like my cricket alarm clock, they too have unintended consequences. The militant pedestrian that many of us New Yorkers are, sees a green/red light change across the way and are immediately convinced that means us too. Roughly every 60 seconds, I got to hear the roar of the honking taxi cab yelling at wayward jay-walkers who didn’t think the turn signal applied to them. Up on the 11th story, trying to sleep, I knew it did.
Our quote at the top of the order of service today by Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, speaks directly to this traffic phenomenon. “The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” I’m told by a colleague in religious education that an old UUA advertisement used to have this quote printed next to a yellow traffic light. Vroom, vroom – I can make it through. Or for those folks, like me, that rely on sidewalks and mass transit – the depiction on the banner would have to be a green turn arrow paired up with that “do not walk” red pedestrian.
I feel this traffic issue, is a microcosm (or a smaller version of a bigger problem) regarding the world we all share. I hate to say it, but our sixth principle, where we covenant to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all – is directly challenged and often defeated by left turn signals. How can we possibly bring peace and justice to this planet, if we can’t even stay on our sidewalks for 10 more seconds to let the other people around us get their chance at moving forward? Not to mention remaining completely unaware, or uncaring, that someone might be trying to sleep in plain earshot.
There are many Buddhist stories that remind us that changing the world starts with home. One odd phrase that took me a while to figure out was when one monk was asked about how his efforts helped to stop the war in Iraq and he responded, “I’m smiling.” … My knee jerk mental response was, “You’re smiling – what do you mean you’re smiling…” Then I compassionately told my inner New Yorker to shut-up, and I sorted the response away for later inspection.
We can’t really change anyone. We only have the power and control to change ourselves. I suppose, smiling is a good start to better human relations; and somewhere down the line, probably does in its own way reduce discord. I can tell you right now, that I’m grateful for the smiles and laughter of the morning so far. From our multi-generational skit to our best efforts at singing a round during worship. They bring with them a good spirit that warms our little home here in this corner of Brooklyn. And it would probably do us all good to do so more frequently with the people around us. New York has a way of reminding us always to “get stuff done” and we sometimes forget that life is more than the ends. The means – mean – sometime.
That’s what our Words for All Ages were about this morning. How do we go about doing what we choose to do? Is the goal the biggest, best hut to live in? Or is it finding a better way to live together. Hyena had to work really hard for twice as long to accomplish what he did because he chose to do it all by himself. Rabbit barely did anything, but achieved far more. Sure – more people had to work together to make the village work, but there was also a lot more time for stories, and song and dance and fun. I imagine Hyena was also probably a bit more burnt out than Rabbit too. Doing it alone, took more work, and got him less for his efforts.
But it wasn’t just about the end goal for Rabbit. It was the means all along. We’re building a community here for the sake of growing and living together. So as long as we’re growing and living together, we’ve already accomplished what we set out to do. It’s not some point far in the future. It’s here … now. We just get to keep chugging along.
This promise of community in our story about Hyena and Rabbit reflects a broader truth about world community. What we do by ourselves will always be harder, and will always be less than it could be. I believe, that thinking we alone, can do anything alone better than in community, is simply wrong. We may need to step up, like Rabbit, to help build something more. We may be in a position to affect to the world for the better, and we may need to act, but we will never be the only people in that position to act. Even though it’s often tempting to think so. Sometimes it’s building a village by ourselves, or policing the world against terror or injustice, or it’s trying to fix everything that needs to be fixed regarding the financial challenges of our congregation. We in this world community are in this world community together. The Sixth Principle, that promise that our liberal faith ever reminds us of, is that we do not need to believe the lie that we are alone, or that we alone bear the burden of the world upon our shoulders; whether the world is the middle east, or dealing with that bully in school, or our finding a way to pay the rent this month. In fact, it’s often ourselves who pick that burden up and place it there when we choose to solve it by our lonesome. No one told Hyena that he had to labor for a cycle of the moon to build that hut by himself. But he sure thought he couldn’t do it with anyone else. We’re here. Reach out. Come to me, come to Patrick, go to each other. Maybe if we do so long enough, if we remember to smile like the monk said, it will make a difference. At the very least, it will be a better place to sing and dance.
I want to share with you now something that I often feel like I’m going at alone. It’s a problem here at home. But like that left turn signal, jay-walker, honking noise problem of my old apartment, if we can’t solve this one I don’t how we’re going to be able to look beyond ourselves long enough to help bring peace and justice abroad. It’s not the same thing, but all things are connected. I want to read to you a blog post from “StandingontheSideofLove.org” by the Rev. Meg Riley who is the director of Advocacy and Witness at the Unitarian Universalist Association. She wrote it the morning after our recent elections results in Maine where citizens voted to deny people the right to marry those of their same gender – those whom they love.
“It is the morning after election day. I went to sleep early last night, when results were still unclear in all kinds of races around the country, and learned about them as I learn about many things now—on facebook. The first posting I saw was from a ministerial colleague—I am heartbroken for Maine. My stomach twisted and my heart sank. We have faced so many of these ‘mornings after.’ The people who live in the states where their full humanity and their equality has been shouted about, argued about, snickered about, and ultimately voted upon, now have to get up and go about their business. Those I feel most for are the parents, preparing their children to go to school this morning. Kids who see elections pretty much as they see sporting events, who want to be on the winning team, must now go to school to face the gloating that losers always face. We who parent send our hearts out into the world each day, and those hearts are broken today. And yet, I know from parenting my own daughter, the strength and resilience and vision of the next generation is what pulls us through. In my daughter’s short lifetime already, we have moved quantum leaps towards marriage equality, towards valuing all families. Part of me is amazed that 47% of the people in Maine voted for the rights of less than 10%. The whole notion of putting the rights of a minority up to a vote of the majority is blatantly undemocratic, completely counter to the notion of the Constitution as I understand it. I am incredibly proud of the work that people of faith did in Maine to present families of all kinds with dignity and love. So, on this morning after the election, I am mostly grateful to know that I am in the company of other people of all ages, shapes and sizes whose still stand on the side of love, even with broken hearts.”
The Rev. Meg Riley’s words are powerful. As a gay man, I get hopeful every time one of these votes are held – and at the same time – to be quite honest – every one of these votes horrify me to my core. I am horrified that my fellow citizens think it is appropriate to vote whether I am fully human or not. What audacity it takes for anyone to determine which person anyone ought to love. If you think it’s not a question of humanity, consider this. Most world religions place love and compassion at the root of their theologies. We are putting to the popular vote what is considered central to human nature – love.
We often say at this congregation – “Who ever you are, and whom ever you love, you are welcome here.” I see it as central to our UU identity. It’s pastoral, humanity-centered and a very moral thing to adhere to. It’s also the very basis of the promise of world community. Whoever you are, whom ever you love — how ever culturally you choose to live in right relationship with the consenting people around you – you are welcome here. Could you imagine how different the world would be if we were to live by that tenet in international relations? If we were to shift our stance from competition to welcome? From believing in scarcity to offering open-handed support? To building our huts together, rather than competing for the biggest one? That’s the religious turn called for here – and something incredibly difficult to do. Humanity has the chance to be the first at something – if only we allow ourselves.
There was a discussion on the blog post about leaving room in a democracy for difference of opinion; that once the votes are cast we need to accept them since they were determined democratically. I was happy to see an excellent response by one of our own congregants, Sean Fischer. He wrote, “Taking away the rights of a specific group of people (including through a popular vote) solely based on their identity runs counter to our 1st, 2nd, and 6th principles. At its heart, our faith seeks justice and freedom for everyone. Putting the rights of minorities, including LGBT people, up to a popular vote is always wrong.” Sean also made the connections between putting up the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as women to a vote. I would personally add, that all of these other identity groups have in fact had their humanity voted upon in similarly, and in my opinion, often more demoralizing ways.
If we were to take a poll of folks in the room right now who fall under the category of disempowered minority – it would without any doubt in my mind – be the majority of this room. Yet, vote our humanity away, we still do. I often wish we could tackle these problems with what we learned as children. With a show of hands, how many people as a kid or an adult were ever between the ages of 3 and 5 years old? Look around – that’s exactly what I thought. Most of us were asked to split a pie or a cake with a sibling or a friend at this point in our life. Everything I ever needed to know about life I learned in Kindergarten. For all our kids in Kindergarten – listen up – you’re learning some very, very important things in your classes. If my teacher knew that there were going to be arguments about who got which piece – she would say, “one of you cut the two slices, and the other gets to choose which one they take.” So sure, if we need to vote about our humanity as people of color, or women, or gay and lesbian and transgender, then let those on the receiving end of the decision pick which of the results affect us. If that’s not part of the decision making process – it fails the Kindergarten justice measurement. And I’ve rarely seen a more accurate measurement of justice than what works with Kindergartners. We get older and we forget.
The second half of our sixth principle determines the possibility of the first half. Without peace, liberty and justice for all, we can’t have a world community. The promise of our liberal faith is that community is possible when we leave room for peace and justice; when we leave room for the other person to choose which slice you cut they’ll take. The call of our religious tradition is that this sixth principle is not a belief, but rather an action statement. We do the work of world community when we diligently preserve the values that it relies upon within our neighborhoods, our villages, our classrooms, and congregations. It is not left for someone else to do, and it is not left for us to do alone either. It is for us to seek to act with those around us. Our sixth principle begins with “We affirm and promote” for a reason. It does not begin with “I;” it begins with “We.” And so too does world community.
This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on January 24th, 2010. It looks at our 7th Principle in light of our covenantal promises. It engages UU, Islam and Native Spiritualities. And takes a mythic look at the movie Avatar.
I recently saw the sci-fi blockbuster Avatar. Some friends really wanted to see it. All I needed to hear were the keywords “blue,” “alien,” and “fey landscape” and I was on my way. One aspect of the movie focused on the alien world’s capacity to relate and communicate with it’s ecosystem. Imagine a world where the trees held our memories and their own. A place where living beings had enough a synthesis with one another that emotions, needs, and intentions were known by all the natural world. The sentient alien race similarly had the capacity to “upload” their thoughts, memories and feelings into this living matrix.
It completely felt fantastical down to the state of the art utilization of new filming techniques to transform human actors into alien CGI with remarkably emotive facial range. Stunning landscape visuals elicited an alternating sense of realism and other-worldliness. Ultimately, we went away feeling like we saw something completely other that was none-the-less readily relatable.
Upon reflection, I’m no longer sure that magical setting is all that different than our world. I grant you that on the whole, our world is less so vividly colorful, it’s no longer as pristine as this alien landscape’s forests and jungles were, and most notably, none of us have “upload” plugs coming out of our hair – please correct me if I’m wrong – particularly on this last point. What I believe is similar is the sense of memory and awareness. Maybe we do sense in the air the needs of one another. Call it mindfulness, synchronicity or actions of the Holy Spirit; I continue to be amazed at how fluidly needs, pains, joys and other “stuff of the heart and spirit” get communicated in human communities without words, and sometimes with barely a glance.
I frequently hear congregants and newcomers comment how a particular sermon or small group ministry topic hit home. Words and phrases like “right on the mark” or “timely” often come up. Or I watch the ebb and flow of conversation and recognize how despite our often seemingly endless capacity to feel “uniquely indisposed,” so many of us are going through the very same sorts of life experiences and challenges. Originating from radically different places, we all end up in this religious home at a time and a place where we have similar needs and common intention.
We could explore the how’s and why’s ad nauseam to identify the cause and effect of this very human phenomenon. I’ve had similar discussions with a close staunchly and avowedly non-religious and non-spiritual friend of mine who leans clearly on the side of the brains’ capacity to make intuitive connections from seemingly disparate information. I tend to lean more toward the Jungian notion of a collective unconscious. Millennia of humanity has endowed us with a substantial and subtle awareness of the world and psyches around us that’s not straight-forward. We’ve been doing this “human-thing” for a long time, and our connections run deep. Simply put, sometimes we just know.
However it is, I’m more concerned with “that it is.” I’m more interested in reflecting on our very human experience of that alien fey landscape’s magical intuitiveness. In the movie Avatar, I saw a glimpse of a powerful world of relation that I wished were here on this earth as well. I’m coming to realize that – it is. We see the fantasy as other and fey because we close ourselves off to the reality of it in the present. If it remains fantasy, we get to hold onto our sense of isolation, of loneliness, of the ego as an island amidst a crazy world.
There’s a Native North American word that doesn’t have an easy English spelling pronounced (Oh-tauk-we-ah-sen.) It translates as “all our relations.” It’s a sacred word that points to our interconnectedness. It reminds us that we are part of something more expansive than our lonely selves. It understands humanity in terms of relation. I find our 7th principle to echo this; where we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.
Where our 1st principle begins the archetypal journey with the self — “we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person” (and I would add every being) the 7th principle integrates this valuing of the self in light of the truth of the world around us. If each person or being has inherent worth and dignity, and it is our religious promise with one another to strive toward making that expression a lived reality, then the 7th principle brings the saga of our principles back home. The world is full of meaning and value. We find a mirror of ourselves in the faces and lives of one another. We only truly live out our 1st principle by living into our 7th. We reflect the dignity of all around us by recognizing our places of connection. The relations matter.
Something is lost when we isolate ourselves. In the cinema of Avatar something was lost when the trees and stones were seen as commodities or obstacles. Even if you haven’t seen the movie – imagine any human story where we devalue the world around us while elevating money and power. The same is true for us living in this world. We replicate this in a million ways in our daily lives with less violence or extreme. It happens when the annoying co-worker is seen as simply the barrier between you and an otherwise good day. It happens when you hate your classmate because you believe them to be smarter, or prettier, or more athletic. It happens when we relate to our family or congregation as having obligations rather than having commitments.
The crux of the fantasy dilemma was the rare ore hidden beneath a rich world of interlaying connections. The rare metal worth millions an ounce was called “unobtanium.” A bit cliché a descriptor for that which we forever covet; but it’s aptness makes the sledge-hammer like title forgivable. If we’ve stopped wincing from the naming by now, I’d ask how that relates to our interdependent web of life? In your own lives, what is the thing or dream that lies out of reach? What is the object of discontent that keeps you from recognizing satisfaction? If you think back over your life, what were past things that fit this bill? Did they last?
I remember back when I was 2 years old, I left my stuffed animal lamb – who was aptly named Lamby, at the mall. (I know, I missed my calling as a Hollywood screen-writer) My mom and I scoured the department store for what felt like forever. He was never found. I was a wreck. It mattered acutely. My mom could do no right since Lamby was gone. The world didn’t care about me. I couldn’t see my family as “good” any longer. Feel free to heap on any other great tragedy and my two year old mind probably thought it up. My mom made her best effort by eventually finding another Lamby that was blue instead of beige. It sort of worked. Over 30 years later, it doesn’t even matter to me; except to recall that it was my oldest memory.
I’d guess that we all have our unobtanium’s and our Lamby’s of various stripes and sizes. They ever distract us from the beautifully woven networks of human and natural mutuality that are deeply rooted in our lived experience. We uproot our homes in search of what is not. We give up the most precious stuff we have – our realization of our place in this living world – in the hopes of grabbing the precious rock of the hour; whatever it might be this time.
I sometimes find our beliefs or thoughts about things to be similarly divisive; certainly when they’re centered on us. Our Muslim story of Nasrudden is like this. His belief that the pumpkin ought to grow from the strong branched tree and the walnut ought to grow from the weak thinly vines, makes a certain sense to the human eye. For a time, Nasrudden denigrated these plants for making less sense than they should. As if the world centered around our sensibilities or predilections; and yet we so often act in exactly this fashion. Even the humorous resolution to the story, of the walnut landing on his head and Nasrudden now being very glad that pumpkins didn’t grow on trees, is very human centered.
We see a glimpse in the tale that the world is not about our singular perceptions or preference; while it’s humor makes light of that very assumption. The “way things are” has a pattern that’s not always obvious and reminds us that we may not always notice. The connections and meanings we make or find rely in part upon our awareness; but the connections are there, regardless of our acceptance. When we metaphorically place ourselves under the walnut tree with a commitment to wonder and humor; when we remind ourselves that we are part of the tale and have a role to play, we come closer to the Ah-Ha! moment that hits us on the head because we’re finally paying attention to our own real story; then we rejoin our sacred covenant. The promise we made to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.
Although I’ve spoken a bit about trees, nature and the natural world, I’ve skirted around the environmental aspects of our 7th principle for a reason. The 7th principle, I believe, does call us to act for the well-being of our earth. But I’m not convinced that we’ll ever learn to treat this world with a life-saving and life-affirming spirit until we learn to apply those teachings to our world of human relations. The Native North American precept of (Oh-tauk-we-ah-sen) or All Our Relations is as environmental as it is sociological. We replicate in the natural world how we interact in human society. The two are intrinsically connected. I believe that transforming our environmental stewardship, something implicit to the call of our 7th principle, can only be done by first living with this intention in mind when interacting with all our relations; beginning with our classmates, and siblings, and co-workers and parents. Why would we live more perfectly with the natural world than with our own human world? Why would we be able to get it right there, if we can’t get it right here?
We minimize and objectify the human world around us. How many of us living and studying in NYC have heard, “You should really go to that benefit, or that talk; you’ll get to meet the movers and shakers. It might get you a job, or help you into that school!” I remember so many times in studying at the graduate school for public service (of all schools) this very statement regarding why a function was worth attending. Even, or especially, in the not-for-profit world — who you know matters more than what you do. Human connections serve the utility of personal advancement. …But it’s for a good cause…
Even in the more classically noble professions, it’s the mode of doing things. How do we transform our human relations to reflect our higher aspirations? Yesterday, I was up in Boston for a executive staff planning meeting for Star Island’s annual Religious Education retreat week. I was asked to implement a Small Group Ministries that integrates people of all ages. The theme talks for the lifespan faith development retreat are centered around “Ministries across the generations.” One person on the team mentioned in passing how it’s sometimes best to go to Star to learn how to be in an intentional religious community. You see, at a retreat week like this, you spend about 6 days in a cloistered community of about 200 people of all ages that seeks to live out our principles and purposes every step of the way. We don’t always succeed, like all things in life, but there’s an accuracy to the aim there that I don’t always notice elsewhere. I mention this because everyone around the table easily nodded to the assessment of the intentional religious community on an island 6 miles off the coast of New Hampshire for 1 week a year. My own head was nodding too.
As I was reflecting upon it on my train ride back to NYC last night, I realized that I readily believed that it’s easier to do this sort of thing far away from our normal day to day. Being intentionally religious in community – building that “sense of here” – is easier when we’re not distracted by the creep of normalcy. It’s why fantasy and sci-fi writing like Avatar are so successful in transforming human perception. We go away (either to a retreat in the woods or a retreat into our imagination) to remind ourselves of how to be human, and to be closer to the natural world. It’s telling that these two things are connected and seen often as far from home — being human in community and being back in the living world. In fact, our respect for the living world does improve. So many of these retreat centers are on the cutting edge of water treatment and recycling, composting, waste management, energy efficiency and the list goes on. You see it at so many summer camps too – places where kids finally get to be kids in what’s often viewed as safer environments than where they otherwise might live.
Earlier, I suggested that healing the earth must begin with our own human ties. I do believe this to be the core challenge. I should give space that in all likelihood, it will take a little bit of both, to move either forward. Environmental stewardship mirrors stewardship of our own humanity. All are related. And we need both to heal either.
Our second reading this morning ended with the words, “For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” The promise of our 7th principle is fulfilled when we make space for the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. When we clear away the fumbling perceptions and projections of our maddened discontent with whatever human relation seems to be ailing us this hour. When we stop turning our connections solely into advancements that are “worth our time.” When we carve out room for substance rather than merely stuff to do; we may come to see the breathing world as worthy of encounter. The “nothing that is” is an openness to experiencing this living world as receptive members with intention rather than competitors acting from reaction. We are connected; we are reliant; we are dependent through and with. The religious promise reminds us that this is so; and calls us to seek to make it a realized presence in our lives and of those lives around us. And it begins at home.
This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on Feb, 7, 2010. It’s about the wonder of the universe, the imminent and the transcendent. The poem by Neil Gaiman can be found at http://j.mp/kOu7yw
At the beginning of this month, I went on a retreat with 20 other Unitarian Universalists to Murray Grove, NJ. It’s a simple retreat center about 2 miles from the ocean that serves as a Universalist pilgrimage site. It’s the location where John Murray, founder of Universalism in the U.S. got stranded off a sandbar on his way to NYC from England in the year 1770. The very brief version of the story goes that local farmer, Thomas Potter, had built a church 10 years prior to house a Universalist preacher in the pulpit. The problem was, there were no Universalist preachers yet in the U.S. It was either a case of extreme forward thinking, or merely fantastical wishing come true. The farmer Potter managed to convince the reluctant John Murray to preach the following Sunday should the wind not change by then, thereby freeing his boat. The wind didn’t change, and Murray did preach, and Universalism was born in America. This is said to be the only recounted miracle in Universalist history.
So 240 years later a few friends invite me to leave the barracks-like retreat center to go for a hike to the spot where Murray’s boat got stranded. I’m thinking, “sure… an easy walk through some forest and farmland to the ocean sounds lovely.” It’s sunny out, and a balmy 40 degrees. I run back to my room to put on better shoes – well sneakers without holes in them really, and my nice hand-crocheted scarf. I decide not to change out of my good jeans… and we’re off. The start of the walk is lovely, an easy trail through light woods. You couldn’t tell there’s a strip mall just off the road from where we started. The (first) time my running shoes break through the patch of snow hiding a thin veneer of frozen ice covering ankle deep water I vaguely recall the retreat director saying something about “everything should still be frozen over.” And I think, “oh, that’s what she meant.” Good thing those sneakers, the ones I had just bought that day, were black – or they’d really clash with the new shade of mud coating my good jeans.
This is the first teaching or challenge of the Universalist retreat center for my urban-self. Can a city-boy keep his heart and mind on the beauty and indwelling-presence of the natural world caked in mud and baptized in frozen water? Can I push aside the thoughts of my colleague next to me giving me a lesson in how to treat tough to get out stains, while focusing on the “now” I traveled 3 hours to get to encounter? Can I stop berating myself for packing so insensibly? Twenty minutes in, I realize after my crocheted scarf starts getting caught on thorns and 5 foot tall grass, that the “everything should still be frozen over” comment of the retreat director was a reference not to patches of ice, but to the frozen swamp that was the doorway to the ocean. I could hear Thomas Potter laughing as I realized that a century of untended farm-lands means that they’re probably not farmlands any longer. In New Jersey, most of the area surrounding the ocean eventually turns back to marshland when humans stop fighting it. And that was the trigger that woke me up – the absolute absurdity of unexpectedly trekking through an icy swamp in sneakers dressed as what another colleague labeled – “fashionista.” The mind turned off, and I could see the world around me again.
We heard from Emerson in our reading this morning that, “I do not wonder at a snow-flake, a shell, a summer landscape, or the glory of the stars; but at the necessity of beauty under which the universe lies; that all is and must be pictorial; that the rainbow, and the curve of the horizon, and the arch of the blue vault are only results from the organism of the eye.” What we encounter we glimpse at through our world of perception. What we see, or hear, or feel. It’s also what gets conveyed more subtly or more insidiously. The beauty of the surrounding is modified in our minds by our company of friends or family, or our perception of those loved ones, at the time. It’s altered by our concern for the stuff we bring with us – whether that stuff be our designer jeans or attachment to our opinions. We forget the present with thoughts of homework, deadlines, debts and other fears. Or it could be innocuous like my one friend who can never simply say that the day is rainy – it always has to be “awful and miserable” as well. Or more troublesome prejudices – the kind where one gets distracted by two men or two women holding hands in the park, or those of us who may need to cross the street when someone of a different race comes our way.
I usually preach against bias as a justice issue, going through all the ways that it separates us from our common humanity, or fails to honor our first principle where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – and some would say every being. This morning, I’d like to remind us that it also is a spiritual crisis. The biases of the mind – whether they be the awful miserable titles to our rainy days or the more serious slurs we label anyone who’s different than ourselves, makes it distinctly more difficult to experience Emerson’s “necessity of beauty under which the universe lies.” They cut us off from our religion’s first source — that transcendent mystery that affirms life and defies description. They garb us as fashionistas in a landscape that’s better suited to more practical attire. They may build us up, and make us think we look better than those around us, but in truth it just serves to slow us down; to complicate the snags along the way; and to leave our hands and feet icy and cold for the road ahead.
Even Emerson is guilty of this dressing-up. We heard him write, “…There is no need for foolish amateurs to fetch me to admire a garden of flowers, or a sun-gilt cloud, or a waterfall, when I cannot look without seeing splendor and grace.” I do hope that Emerson could only see splendor and grace in all things – he’d be a truly remarkable soul if he could. I know that’s something that’s very hard for me to keep in the forefront of my experience. I guess I prefer to be in the company of foolish amateurs — I sure need them to remind me of what I’m seeing.
Our poem by Neil Gaiman laughingly prods at this human condition – our capacity to get so tunnel visioned that we miss the world for the problem. He takes us along a different road to absurdity with mythic alien invasions, walking dead, and robotic dominance that are readily missed for the much awaited phone call. The extreme is not seen for the mundane thing that we can’t let go of since we long to have it. This mirrors my parable of the frozen swamp. The extreme wonder of the living world can be missed by a cost-benefit analysis of mundane dry-cleaning prices. The beauty and indwelling spirit of our fellow human beings gets cloaked by our bias, or fear, or simple discomfiture. And that cloak is sooo easy to see, when the sublime “rose of beauty on the brow of chaos” is sooo easy to miss.
What are we waiting for? When we’re sitting in our living rooms staring at the phone for whomever to call, with a world falling apart around us in one hand, and extravagantly awe-inspiring on the other, what exactly is it that we need? When we’re checking emails or text messages every 3-5 minutes – what do we not have in the spaces between? Do we need to be reminded that we’re ok, just as we are? That we’re loved? That we’re human and beautiful despite what the magazine or billboards may otherwise depict? Have we convinced ourselves that those products of air brushes and photo-shopping Frankenstein creations are real and we are not? Is it that we’ve forgotten that the natural world is a resource and the anchor of being, and not a commodity? That we’re foremost and first citizens – not consumers?
All of these subtle shifts turn us toward or away from our living, breathing selves and world. We are barraged by an overload of information that constantly informs and misinforms. Some of it is useful data that allows us to navigate our daily lives. Some of it false. Some of it obscures with it’s addictive voracity. The correct or incorrect bits are useful or discarded for a time. It’s those bits that create a fog of hazy dreaming that I want to help dispel. When the phone rings, will he or she still love me? Will I lose my job? Did I make the right decision? Will she pull through? All those questions may really matter; they may all point to something truly serious. But do they also sometimes cause us to miss the transcendent mystery that is living? We’ve got a long road ahead of us, but regardless of that, we’re still on the road. The view’s worth looking at – always. I promise you, it’s a better sight than the silent phone.
One source of the barrage of information is the T.V. I’m beginning to wonder if some contemporary news sources are more like the mind that’s sitting waiting for the phone to ring than the investigative news of, say for example, the Nixon era. When a tragedy hits the world, we get cycles of information that seem to repeat themselves without adding anything new of substance. Getting the word out about Toyota’s recent recall is important. But I’m not sure that repeating the same clip of news about the disastrous threat of uncontrolled acceleration is the best application of cutting edge reporting or my precious viewing time for that matter. I could tell you everything about the delay in reporting, apologies, legal obligation of drivers to bring in their cars, etc. I can do this because I heard the story at least 6 times in one hour – the same story. It’s much like the utility of replaying that disastrous argument you had with your loved one. Some of it is valuable in recognizing how to move forward, but five sixths of it is wasted space that could be better filled. I’d rather hear more about the nuances of the health care debate, or comparative views on the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But I suppose we’ve relegated that to episodes on comedy channels, like the Daily Show. That’s the only T.V. news source that I’ve seen consistently do comparisons between politicians promises or views of 2 years ago with their stance dances of today. It sets an odd tone where we label intelligent investigations as comical, and name serious, reporting which fixates on repetitive fears.
I used to blame the conglomerate that we call news for its own failings. Well, to an extent, I still do. But a greater part of me begins to wonder whether prime time news is simply reflecting our human condition. Are we so used to fixating on the moment of disaster in our lives, that we can’t let ourselves move on to the stuff that matters, or the life that continues on, or the complexity of what brought us all to and through that moment? Maybe the news is structured as it is, because it better matches our own minds.
Considering it in this light, I suggest that paying attention to the disease of that news medium, the repetitive kind of news that fails to add more substance to data, can prove helpful to our own capacity to more fully engage life. Attend to the feelings that arise from the repetition. Take note of how it affects you bodily. Do you feel more anxious? Do we feel frustrated? Does our breathing change? Do we feel more connected to our global community or feel more isolated? Do we feel more connected to our humanity, or less so?
These questions are valuable in regards to our own often repetitive minds as well. The negative iteration of some contemporary news sources can be seen as a useful mirror to how our over-thinking minds impact our lives and our humanity. Holding onto the moment that was, or will be, or might be – over and over – affects our feelings, our breathing, our anxiety and our human connectedness. Allowing the barrage of information to echo in our heads, rather than inform us, actually serves to diminish our awareness of the world rather than better inform it.
I’m not sure simply being aware of this will change how our news sources communicate, although it’s probably advisable to frequent the less common but genuinely investigative reporting than the more common type I’ve been speaking about. But we can change how we are affected by the medium. We can change how we are conscious of echoed talking points. We can be aware of the over-thinking mind that’s reflected in the cultural-consciousness we call the news. I feel it’s a metaphor for our own selves and a useful tool to awaken to the reality that we often do this to ourselves within our own heads. For myself, one clue that this is true is that I find it much simpler to point toward the noise on T.V. than I am to the noise in my head. Easy target. And yet, it does map the pattern. Just like people, the only ones we really have any power to change are ourselves, so we might as well seek to start there.
If awareness of considerate reporting that remains conscious of nuance and complexity is the goal for a healthy news medium, what is the path toward healing in our own consciousness? If we accept that the news can reflect our own mental states at times, what does it point toward? In my heart, I believe we as a species are struggling deeply with learning to be able to disagree with one another without holding onto our sense of rightness; without maintaining a stance that demands our take on the information we see to be 100% truth. There’s another verse from Emerson’s writing that talks about that indwelling spirit, that sense of presence, being likened to a bird flitting amongst the trees. It lands on this branch then the next, popping up from different locations and directions. No one tree masters it. Conscious awareness is like this. Truth is like this bird. Once we try to grasp firmly, the bird is no longer free to be itself. A certain beauty is lost or mangled, and the capacity for flight is grounded. The lessons of Emerson’s flitting creature is in the awe it inspires, not teaches. It’s in whatever wondrous moment that finally pulls the person, waiting for the phone to ring, away from their stupor and schools them back to life. It laughs at a world view that suggests we can sift through all the data pouring through our well-informed minds and separate things neatly into a sense of right and wrong that just so happens to cleanly align with our way of doing things. …Whatever that might be this week, or year, or century. We are awash with another type of information in our lives; one that gets lost beneath our thinking distractions. Our first source as Unitarian Universalists points toward that direct experience of wonder that leads us to a renewal of the spirit – one that affirms and upholds life. I would marvel at an education that used this litmus test on truth. How does what I’m learning right now affirm and uphold life?
This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn on March 7th, 2010.
Grudges. Our story this morning packed them all up, and stored them heavily in the backpacks we all carry. Weighing us down, we can never forget their presence, and often have a hard time letting them go — even though we know we don’t want the added poundage on our shoulders. Or do we?
I remember one crazy week when I was serving the UU congregation of Shelter Rock. I was still living up at Riverside Church in Manhattan, which is right next to Grant’s Tomb – the civil-war General for the North. It was a day or so after New Year’s. I had been borrowing a small car from a congregant who was gracious enough to help ease my commute from the border of Harlem all the way out to Manhasset, Long Island. It was the choice between a 40 minute car ride or close to a 2 hour mass transit trip. It was a really great gift she gave me.
Well, one morning, I went out to that car. It was parked right outside my apartment window. In fact, my bed was right at the window, so I was literally sleeping 10 feet from the car. And I’m living beneath Riverside Church – the great Protestant “Cathedral” (as some call it) of NYC — so the neighborhood has to be safe. The window was all smashed in, and someone had stolen the $10 radio inside. But instead of carefully extracting the cheap radio, they simply ripped it loose from the dashboard. Well, the dashboard decided it would go along with the radio. So the ten dollars the robber would get for selling it on the street, was going to cost me $800 in repairs for someone else’s car which wasn’t even worth $800 itself. On my 60 hour a week internship salary – that was almost 3 weeks of work. Happy New Year!
So I have this unusual personality trait. The more absurd a thing gets, the calmer I become. Let me tell you, I was very … calm. This high level of calmness lasted all the way till the police finally showed… 4 hours later; when one detective asked, “Did you lock the car?” I innocently responded, “Yes.” The police officers laughed and shook their heads while jotting down notes. “You really shouldn’t lock your car. It’ll only cost you more in the end.” …. That wasn’t the thing to say, to me. Even though they’re right. “Oh, now it’s my fault.” Fortunately, in a rare moment of editing brilliance, I managed not to say that out loud.
So for the next two weeks, I didn’t overly fret over the cost of the repairs, or the sense of violation by some stranger, or dwell on any sense that my neighborhood was somehow less safe. I took the longer commute in stride, and had the difficult chat with the congregant who was loaning the car. All of these chores were unpleasant, but I handled them well enough considering. But that cop, who told me I shouldn’t have locked my door – O M G. Strap that backpack on, write me some grudges, and fill it up please sir. I will gladly increase my burden, to stay angry at you.
Anyone else ever do that before? Or is it just me? Find someone to be angry at, and hold on tight to that anger? There’s a certain sense of rightness … maybe righteousness… that we gain when we do this? “The way I see the world is correct; I’ve been wronged somehow, and as long as I maintain that strict position, I get to stay right. Yay!” Sound familiar? That’s the fundamental story for most world literature, movies, after TV specials (they still have those right?) and our daily living. It’s the central thing that religion strives to undo. Well, pluralistic religion – in any of its many forms. Because it’s pretty clear every religion out there has some form that says it’s got the right answer and everyone else is wrong. But there’s a challenging tenet at the core of religion that values the virtue of forgiveness.
The Jewish teacher and the Christian Saviour, Jesus, made this a central focus of his ministry. When someone “wrongs” you, “turn the other cheek.” We could leave it just at that. Forgiveness is tough to do, but we should do it. But why? In a recent sermon our Senior Minister, Patrick, to paraphrase, said that if God exists, God does so within our human relations. And if God doesn’t exist, it’s all we have. This reminds me of Luke 17:21 that tells us that Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven is in our midst. Different translations will call it the Kingdom of God, others will say that it’s “among us” or “within us.” Whether it’s in our midst, or among us, or within us – it implies it’s here right now. Not some other worldly location that’ll happen at the end of time. Right here, right now. It’s the difference between living in Grudgeville and renaming it Joytown. Seriously, I think that’s it.
It’s more than being “nice.” Forgiveness is a religious discipline. It’s practice not only makes our individual weight less burdensome; it not only reconnects us with our “wrong-doer” whoever or whatever they might be this time; it also rebuilds community. Without it, we are condemned to a life where we fixate on that past moment. As this morning’s story goes, we carry the burden of the grudge of our grandfather who was called a horse-thief some decades past when he was running for mayor; rather than enjoy our life in it’s renewing newness. It’s the choice between remaining unhappy with a work-place slight, and being free to enjoy the next day as you otherwise make or accomplish something. It’s remaining unhappy by the thing you were told you were not able to do by a parent or teacher, and forgetting that there’s so many other things you can still do. It’s not letting go of the way things were 30 years ago, in your family or in this church — if we don’t let go of how things were, we can’t really see the people around us for who they are now. Look around you right now — these are some pretty awesome people that are harder to meet with our backpacks stooping our shoulders since it fixates our eyes on the ground.
With a show of hands — how many people have ever felt wronged? How many people thought at some point in their life that the thing that wronged them was the biggest thing in the world at the time – that it was the end of the world? How many of those of us who have felt that way are still here right now? Forgiveness is about this perspective. It helps us to recognize this truth in life. Life will go on beyond that thing, whatever it was. We just get to choose whether we’ll keep up, or stay back. But it will go on.
Now, this doesn’t mean we need to stay in abusive situations. It doesn’t mean we can’t identify when we’re being taken advantage of, or being mistreated. It doesn’t mean that we can’t look for healthier or more balanced relationships or life situations. Forgiveness means that when we realize we need to move on or through something, that we do just that. We don’t hold onto a sense of guilt, or shame, or condemnation for ourselves or others. While we work to remedy whatever is genuinely ailing us, forgiveness means that we commit our focus to that end; not using most of it to remain in anger.
I said before that we get to choose whether we’ll keep up, or stay back. What is staying back mean though? It’s losing our way. Jesus spoke a lot about his school being “the followers of the way.” It’s a way into right relationship. It’s a way into living into community with love. It’s a way home. Whether you believe Jesus was a teacher, or the Son of God, the core message in his prophetic teaches, I believe, is the same. It’s not just about ethics and morals, though they are certainly there as well. It’s about showing up. It’s about recognizing that whatever you name or see or feel about the details of the sacredness of life, it’s only going to be found in our midst, within, between all of us. It‘s recognizing that we realize the world’s sacredness when we allow ourselves to be open to the people around us. Without learning to forgive all the things we think we can’t, we’re lost. Without forgiveness, we only cut ourselves off from the connectedness with being, with living, with our classmates, with each other. Forgiving is a way home to our birthright.
I just said a very odd thing. Forgiveness is about showing up. Usually people say that forgiveness is about letting go; and that’s definitely part of it as well. I don’t feel we’re the same when we hold grudges. I believe that part of us that really matters isn’t present. I believe that although we might be standing in the room, when we hold onto something we think wronged us, we’re just holding onto a vision of how things might have been rather than how things are. Not only do we not accept the world as it is, but we keep ourselves back in that moment we didn’t particularly like. Frankly, grudges are kind of pointless. They don’t change anything. And that’s key — they don’t change anything. They keep us right back in the moment of pain, or disappointment, or frustration. “I didn’t get to stay up that extra hour to play,” or “your salary just got cut,” or “that shelf hasn’t been dusted in weeks.” Some of these are serious and some of them are not. But holding onto all of them keeps us from coming home. They each, in their own ways, keeps us from showing up to the world that is. They keep us from engaging our community in healthy, loving, full ways.
At the beginning of this homily I asked whether we really wanted the grudges we hold onto or not. We know they don’t do anything to make us feel any better or solve anything, and yet, every one of us – including myself – holds onto them from time to time. Some of us, even have our specialties. We excel at identifying certain types of offenses. And look!…we find them everywhere we turn! I think the problem is simply that we forget ourselves. We forget that birthright I spoke of. We forget that community and fellowship is more important than being right, as if being right ever changed anything – if you’re unsure about this last bit, take a look at politics or any dinner table conversation at home to know that being right is of little importance. So, next time we find ourselves being seduced by being right, let’s commit to letting that go and maybe we’ll find more forgiveness coming our way home.
Let this be a house of hope!
May our souls come together this hour,
And our hearts open up to the rhythms of our songs.
Let us leave behind the frets that ever cling to us,
And share our true burdens with one another.
So that in prayer and companionship,
we may find ourselves a love that shall inspire and endure.