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#35 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn - Based on the sermon, “Where the Desert Meets the Sea” preached by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons at First UU on 3/3/13. This session explores the role of heroes in our lives. The sermon it’s based upon is found here: http://www.fuub.org/home/clergy/sermons/?sermon_id=104
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (Please read aloud) excerpt from the sermon by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons
‘“We are each the joining of two worlds.” We stand at the place where the desert meets the sea. We stand at the place where absolute absence intersects absolute presence. And as much as we hunger to declare ourselves just one or the other, the fact is that we have a dual nature. We are dust and ashes and at the same time for our sake the world was created.”
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.
Reading: Excerpts from Rev. Ana’s sermon.
“This is what I call our desert consciousness. Dust, ashes, sand, rock. Our consciousness of ourselves as defined, like a desert, by what we lack. It’s an ethic of scarcity and humility. Like a desert, where you can see the bones of everything that came before baked white in the sun, it’s a vision of our mortality. We become like the human Jesus who was said to have prayed in the desert for 40 days, preparing for his own suffering and death. If you’ve ever been in a desert at night, you may remember the feeling – the visceral feeling of clinging to a dry planet that’s spinning through outer space. From the perspective of desert consciousness, we are decidedly not God, we are small and vulnerable and utterly dependent on the universe for every breath we take.”
“This is what I call ocean consciousness. Wavelike, surging, abundant energy, teeming with life. It’s the consciousness of ourselves defined by what we have and all that we are, rather than by what we lack. It’s a vision of grandeur, even of ourselves as the substrate that supports a thousand life forms. In ocean consciousness, humans are heroic. It is the awareness of our God-self, like the ocean that will always be crashing on the shore, impervious, immortal, and infinite.”
Discussion Questions: We often make heroes of the people who excel in what Rev. Ana would call Ocean or Desert consciousness. Extreme success or extreme sacrifice. Why do we choose to look up to the people we choose? Who are your personal heroes? Who are the ones you might be afraid to admit you admire? What do these choices say about ourselves? Do you feel more drawn to the Desert or the Ocean? Where have you found that balance, and where have you fallen short?
Closing: (please read aloud ) Serenity Prayer
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Happy Mothers’ Day to all our mothers, and to all those hoping to some day be mothers. Since Fathers’ Day is rarely celebrated here in the Summer months, let me extend the same to all our dads, and dads-to-be. And for those of us who are mourning our parents, may we hold them in our hearts this hour so that the memories that are good may echo on in our own living actions.
By a show of hands, who hear has noticed that I’m preaching from the floor this morning? (Oh good, most of you. I must be doing something right so far.) I’ll be preaching from the lectern this morning because I’ll be moving around a bit more than usual, and the high pulpit doesn’t have much room to move about.
As some of you may already know, before there were Hallmark cards, Mothers’ Day was started as a day of peace. It was a political activist call for Mothers to stand united to call for the return of their sons and daughters home from war. It’s grown into a secular holiday that celebrates motherhood, but it’s rooted in a peace movement.
A peace movement may seem a bit quieter these days than it did generations ago, but it’s no less important. As I remind us from time to time, my generation, and the generation that came before me and the generation that’s coming after me, have never really known a time when the U.S. wasn’t at war. Even if it might seem to most of us that war doesn’t really affect us. Some of us have family that are abroad, or have friends who have died in war. I personally haven’t felt that loss close to home, although I do have family serving in the military right now. For most of us who don’t know anyone serving in active duty, war is a thing that’s far away, or just in video games. We don’t have to put ourselves at risk. We don’t have to ration butter like they did in World War II. We don’t have to risk being drafted by the military against our will, like folks had to in the Vietnam War.
For many of us, we can kind of forget about it. And that’s a sad thing. It’s not sad because we’re not really affected. It’s sad because some Americans are very, very affected, but most of us don’t have to share that burden. A few people are asked to accept huge risks to their safety and quality of life, while most of us don’t have to shoulder anything at all. It’s sad because it makes it easy to think war’s not that big of a deal, when it’s a huge deal for a few people. It makes me wonder if bringing back the draft weren’t a good idea after all – at least everyone would realize that war might affect them, and maybe we would go to war less frequently or with more reservation. I do recognize that sometimes defending ourselves is necessary. By less frequently – I mean – “not being at war all the time.”
Now, I’m not going to solve the problem of war and peace in the following 10 minutes, but I would like us to look at the idea of peace in a possibly different way. I think there’s kind of an art to it. I remember a Buddhist proverb that says, “If you want peace, smile.” I recall that the first time I heard that I thought the Buddhist teacher was a little crazy, and probably minimizing the idea of peace. I’ve come to see it a little differently. Let’s do a quick experiment. Everyone here – try something with me for just 10 seconds. On the count of 3, smile. And not a half-hearted smirk. I want a real, full-blown, smile. Pretend your happy – just for 10 seconds. Ok, ready… 1…. 2… 3…. :::smile:::
Alright everyone, you can stop smiling now. If you need to go back to frowning, feel free. Although you may want to bask in the waves of niceness coming off everyone for a few more minutes first. Did anything bad just happen? Did anyone break out into a fight? No, good. By a show of hands, did anyone actually feel better, you know, happy?
That’s what the Buddhists are getting at. With some rare exceptions, if you smile, a sense of peace does break forth. I learned this smiling trick had some real-world work applications too. In a former career, I ran a computer helpdesk for 5 years. I would tell my staff that the more someone on the other end of the phone was driving them crazy, the more they should force themselves to smile. It’s hard to sound mean while you smile. I’m sure you can do it, but it’s tougher. … (smiling) “When you say that your computer crashed, and you went to your email, and then nothing happened… what sort of nothing actually happened…?”
So where does the “art” piece come in that I mentioned? Let me tell you the story of Vashti and “the Dot” by Peter. H. Reynolds.
… “She handed him a piece of paper and said, ‘show me.’… and now.. ‘please …. sign it.’” I think that’s where the art comes in when we’re talking about crafting peace in our lives. It’s not about being perfect, or doing it all, or having all the answers. It’s not always about diplomacy, or bigger muscles, or smarter brains. Sometimes it’s about being willing to make our mark, even when we can just muster a smirk on our faces. It’s about play, and experimentation. But it’s also about being willing to “sign it.” To put our name, or our commitments, to the things we care most about.
You notice how Vashti realized that she wasn’t the only person who could learn how to make art? I love this story because it reminds us that even when she’s kind of the hero of the tale because she learns to be an artist, she extends that gift upon someone else. She finds another classmate who was feeling all down because he was really bad at drawing a straight line (a fellow after my own artistic heart – a ruler doesn’t always help me either. In fact, I asked my partner to help me with the straight lines that were pre-drawn on our canvas for this morning’s story. Yes, sometimes’ I’m that bad.) So she finds that other classmate, and Vashti inspires him to bring about his own talent, to make his mark, and to sign his name onto what he just crafted.
That’s the art of peace. It’s about coming to accept we can do whatever small thing we can do – even if it’s just making our mark in a small way at one time and place. Then owning our efforts for what they are. And most importantly, helping to inspire another person after us to be creative in their own way.
During our prayer this morning, we crafted a peace mosaic out of colored felt squares. Each was just one little bit of color, that on its own didn’t do much to create the symbol of peace on our flag. But when about 200 or so of us each made our own mark, it became a lot easier to make out the symbol of peace that was lying there waiting to show. For those of us who believe in God, we often see God’s presence in things like this. Individual acts of compassion or care, over time, seem to paint a pattern that’s hard to see if you only look at the one act. We all benefit from so many acts of kindness that have allowed us to live as we do, too many to see by themselves, and there is a sense for some of us that they’re leading to something more.
When we leave this worship, what can those marks of peace look like? Let’s hear some ideas, I’ll repeat them back if I can hear you so that we can all hear…. what can those marks of peace look like?
Those are all great. We can start even before we leave this room. Go back to that exercise we had earlier in the homily – the smiling one. Start there. Go up and speak with someone you don’t know – whether they’re new to us, or you’ve been ignoring them for 20 years. Take this day to deepen your connections with a friend or a stranger. It’s the foundation for peace.
It’s also the art for building a more effective ministry in this congregation. To paraphrase a colleague, “To be welcomed, is to be welcoming.” When we haven’t been reached out to, we can always be the one to reach out. I think of Vashti and her teacher. Vashti had no interest in making art. Her teacher didn’t accept Vashti’s lack of excitement for an answer, and kept meeting her halfway till she came along. Sometimes we all have to do that in community, or in our playgrounds, or our co-ops. When others aren’t meeting you where you are, sometimes you have to meet them where they are. There’s no rule for it, but there is an art to it.
Last Sunday, our Senior High Youth lead an educational social justice project toward the end of the religious education day with our children, as part of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. After teaching our children a bit about love, marriage equality, and justice, we made Valentines to send to the NY State representatives who voted to support Marriage Equality. Being a Brooklyn congregation we sent the cards to Brooklynrepresentatives. We also included Valentines to our Federal Senators, our Mayor, our Governor, and the four Republicans (state-wide) who made a stand of personal conscious across party lines. It was a program that was rooted in gratitude for the efforts of our secular leaders on a matter of human conscience. Juliette and Cooper Richey-Miller crafted a beautiful video of the day that you can watch on our website. http://vimeo.com/36797503. It’s a hopeful snapshot of our religious community – and a good indicator of who we are and what we can be.
What makes a community? Or a congregation? Or a nation? Our story this morning spoke of a church being built on a hilltop – one that would bring the folks from all around to it every week. It needed a bell to ring folks to service. It needed strong stone and wood to stand firm against the wind and the weather. And it needed light – a whole lot of light – so that folks could find their way. I think it’s really beautiful that we learned from Zora’s mom in the story, that in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we each carry a light of our own. Like the song we heard today – this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
That’s at the core of faith. For UU’s, it’s not so much about belief, faith is in part about trusting in yourself – and the people around you. It’s trusting that all our lights are there; they’re worth uncovering; and they can help lead us on the path ahead. Right from the start, we come pre-packaged with that light – even if we sometimes find it hard to feel that warmth. It’s still there.
That’s what a community is about. It’s remembering what’s true for each of us, is also true for all of us. We each bring something of value to light up this church. You know, this is one of those kind of truths that we like to say is so incredibly apparent. “Duh, we all know that!” And yet, it’s probably one of the hardest things to remember.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was talking with two god-parents who were about to make promises during one of our child dedications on a Saturday morning. Three of the questions they had to commit to were, “Will you teach her to tell the truth and to trust herself? Will you teach her to be compassionate and loving while being there with open ears and open hearts when she needs you? Will you keep good words and ways so that you will be an example for her?” They seem so straight forward, but one god-parent reflected, “At first I was thinking, oh sure, these are obvious. I can do that. But then I got to thinking – be compassionate and loving – how about the long line at the deli, or behind the wheel when someone cuts me off. Those three things are really hard!” And to be honest, she’s completely right. They’re all hard. Sometimes obvious things are very hard to live by. That’s partly why we go over them again and again.
It’s easy to say that each of us have value – but sometimes it’s hard to feel like that applies to ourselves. It’s easy to say that everyone has a light to shine, but it’s hard to feel that way when the other person is telling you what to do with a really mean voice. With a show of hands – who here has ever felt less about someone who was being mean to them? (alright, I thought that would be a strong showing.) We’re all a little guilty of not finding the worth in another when they’re being difficult, and we’re all probably just as guilty of thinking less of ourselves than our religion tells us we should.
But sometimes we do the opposite. Sometimes we think so highly of ourselves, that we think we know what’s best for the people around us. Sometimes we’re so sure that if only things were done my way, all would work out just right. Out of curiosity, with a show of hands, who here has ever thought that last one – if only the world worked the way I wanted it to… OK – we’re all in good managerial company.
That problem is happening from time to time all around us. It’s not just within our congregation, or over the dinner table. It happens in our country at large. Right now, we hear stories in the media of struggles around religious freedom. What are some things we think of when we hear religious freedom? What do we mean by freedom – call out one or two words (worship, belief, faith of the free, personal choices, medical treatments, congregating where and how you need, etc.) It’s an important value in our country. It’s also an important value in our faith tradition. It comes from the Edict of Torda. In 1571, a Unitarian, Francis David, convinced the King of Transylvania to pass a law that said that “no one shall be reviled for their religion by anyone.” Francis famously said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” It’s thoughts like this that influenced the foundations of this nation.
But just like how we sometimes think the world would just be a better place if it worked just like we wanted it, sometimes that mindset gets into the heads of our leaders. This is a difficult subject to talk about, but I think most of us have seen the photos, or the news, or posts on the internet – so if we don’t talk about it here we’re being strangely silent.
I’m thinking of those pictures of all-male testifiers before congress, giving their expertise on how women should receive medical care. I think just saying that sentence that way, more or less gets to the point for most of us. I don’t see a problem in men being involved in the decision-making process of how people receive health care – after all some doctors are male. I do see a problem in women not having a voice at the table – especially on matters that solely affect women’s health. I think it’s even more odd that several of those experts were clergy. In case this congregation has the same confusion – if you have a medical issue – I am not the person to come to for health-care advice. They do not teach that in seminary. Frankly, it’s a really severe case of abuse of power. In our story this morning, Zora had her own lamp to shine. Whenever we create situations where only certain people get to lift up their lamps, we’re probably doing something wrong.
Anyone here watch NBC? Well on Friday morning, following the spread of the all-male congressional panel photo – The morning talk show called, “Morning Joe” began talking about how inappropriate it was for Congress to have an all male line-up of experts. However, in one snapshot (and you can see it on my Facebook page) all five of Morning Joe’s experts were themselves men.
Now some of you may be scratching your heads right now. I started out by talking about religious freedom, and then shifted into talking about health care for women. If you’re having trouble seeing the connection, you’re in some very good company. The connection that’s being made in the media is stretched so thin it must soon break. Religious freedom is about being able to worship as you see fit – or don’t see fit for that matter. It’s about belief and it’s about personal choices (and you can hear the emphasis on personal right). Personal freedom, or liberty, is not about having the freedom to make the world do what you want. It’s about making your own best choices regarding personal matters – especially those matters that affect no one but yourself. I think managing one’s own body is the clearest definition of that I can imagine.
And in this congregation, we take that so seriously, that we educate our children and youth through the program Our Whole Lives. Right now, half of our religious education program is in an OWL class. It’s an age-appropriate comprehensive science-based sexuality curricula. I mention science-based, because not all programs out there on this topic are even legally required to be scientifically accurate. Our K-1 class started in January. Our Junior Youth began back in September. And our 4th and 5th graders will have two Saturday programs. And our Senior High will be continuing it throughout the Spring.
Just like the story, someone had to make that lantern and pass it down. In our tale, Zora had to learn to carry it on her own. From a caring, loving community, she grew into a mature adult that would do the same in return. I think if we were to edit the story to fit the current trend to misconstrue what religious freedom actually means, we’d have Zora’s dad carrying the lantern for her for the rest of her life. And her mom would be strangely silent. That image isn’t one of freedom.
I don’t want to end this sermon on a national matter. This time I want to bring that national crisis back home, back to our pews. Whatever emotions you may have felt, or are feeling, about the paternalism being inflicted on women in our culture right now – consider how we might be the cause of that kind of strife in our own lives – for other matters. How are we acting in such a way that we’re trying to mold people in our own image? How is our personal freedom affecting the freedom of those around us? How are our immediate wants hurting our neighbor? Do you speak over everyone around you? Do you let others be heard? Are you kind when someone does something that you disagree with? Do you seek to understand where someone is coming from – or do we try to fit their actions into our way of seeing things?
There’s this photo floating around the internet of a saying on a t-shirt (that I think was intended to be a joke.) It reads, “I’m a Unitarian-Universalist: the bedrock of my faith is an unshakeable belief that your guess is as good as mine.” Now as far as faith statements go, that’s more shale than bedrock. But it does speak to one very healthy mindset. My opinion doesn’t rule the day. Remembering that – not only in political chatter, but also in the coffee hour, is key. A little bit of humbleness is good for the health of a community, of a congregation, and yes – of a country too.