Sermon: The Art of Blessing

This homily on blessings, begins with a celebration of our music director retiring after 21 years, and ends with a hard look at our government’s practice of separating children from their parents on our border.

         This morning’s story is one of my favorite folk tales. You’ll likely to hear it from me annually at some point, and I think you have. It’s been told and retold in many different cultures. It’s the classic story of feeling like we have nothing, when in truth we already have everything we could possibly need. The trick is remembering we have it together – we don’t have it alone.

         Sometimes in life, we want to make soup, and we don’t have all the ingredients. Playing well with others can bring out the best in what we can accomplish as a community; you might have the onions, and I just might have a plate of pressed tofu ready to add. But that’s just the surface of the story. Sometimes the thing we bring to the banquet, is the thing we’re not aware we have to offer. The traveling stranger comes into town, asks for nourishment from the community and the community says at first – “Sorry, we don’t have that here.”They say that at a time when they clearly do have it to share. I don’t think folks are being greedy or miserly; I think they just don’t realize what they have. And we have a lot, together.

         I’ll begin this message with celebration, and the local matter of our own Fellowship, and we’ll find our way toward the broader matters of our world, along the way. Richard – you’ve been with us for 21 years. It speaks to your talent, your temperament, and your ability to teach us in ways that we are open to. I picked our wondering this morning, the story of Stone Soup, thinking of you. It’s the story I told on my last worship service with my former congregation, and I know it applies even more so here.

         The stranger in the story with the magic stone, is the parable for the best kind of teacher. Blessing their students with an awareness to their own talents. There’s an art to teaching, and there’s an art to such blessing. Some of our singers are pros, and some want your help in bringing out the talents they don’t always know they have. It’s the ego-less way of teaching. I know we’ll joke from time to time about how just a look from you can terrify the choir into action. But as true as that may be, your ministry with us is mostly from that place of ego-lessness. You remind us that we have that spare parcel of food in the kitchen, and we have it within ourselves to share it with the wider community – so that together we can make a meal for all that come to our table hungry on Sunday mornings.  Thank you for that precious gift.

         And, eventually, the stranger in the story leaves; and leaves the magic stone behind. The town learned the secret of building community. Other meals would be  made together, again and again. All of the work any of us do in life, is always interim, always in-between. Sometimes it’s far shorter than we would like, and sometimes we are blessed with a long tenure, as we have been these 21 years. The mark of success for any of us, is how well we honor what came before, and bring it forward, true to who we are always becoming. I’m confident our choir will continue to show your success.

         A strong choir is a good metaphor for a strong congregation. The person conducting has to manage their own sense of ego, while helping people to bring forth their talents. Although the choir director often can sing, themselves, they can’t do 15 part harmony alone. So too, that’s true for our congregation. It takes all of us to live that 300 person harmony in the world.

         As we come to the close of another Fellowship year, I’ll ask each of us to use this time as a chance for reflection. I asked this question of us five years ago when I first arrived here, and with this major transition in our ministry team, it feels right to ask it again. We should reflect on this as a community from time to time. Our committee on ministry will be leading some of this reflection work in the new Fellowship year. But for right now…

         What’s the hidden thing you have in your kitchen cabinet waiting to share with this congregation?

         Sometimes, the hidden thing in our kitchen cabinet isn’t a thing to do. Sometimes it’s what we bring to the table simply by being ourselves. Religiously, it’s our call or calls in life. …Our purpose for being; our gift to the people around us; our talent that fits the world’s needs – here and now. What is your purpose? What is your call? This is the art in blessing – fitting the world’s needs with the grace we have been given – and letting ourselves admit that we may have that grace stashed away in the kitchen cabinets of our soul.

What stirs your heart? And if you’re not doing it, why aren’t you doing it?

         How does that connect with the everyday, and how you engage in this community? … Ask yourself what you were thinking when you first came here; whether that was 50 years ago or just this morning. What were you looking for? What felt like it was missing? What were you hoping to engage with? What were you seeking to learn or experience? Has it changed over time? Are you still working with that today? Did you find it? Did you letyourself find it?

         We sometimes need to own for ourselves – what we commit to or haven’t really committed to – in our community. Sometimes it’s the world, or the congregation, and sometimes it’s us.

         If you came here seeking community, have you allowed yourself to prioritize that? If you came here to ensure your children received quality religious education that values diversity and free-thinking, have you committed to prioritizing their attendance? Sunday school continues all Summer long. Just as will our services. If you’re in town, and not on vacation, we hope to see you here. [possibly insert flyer for July preaching.] (and I’ll be back in the pulpit all of August.)

If you come here to help make the world a better place; to deepen your engagement with the on-going work of social justice – are you still engaged? (Who are our social justice team folks – can you raise your hand? Consider talking with them over coffee hour, the world still needs us in July.)

There are so many reasons, and so many needs; it can be completely overwhelming. The world of production and consumerism clamors for our attention. The world of obligations and responsibilities fill our calendars.

And the world of beauty, equity, and compassion wait quietly behind all the noise.It is always there – calling us. We can’t do it all, but we can be intentional about what hunger we do choose to nourish; and in community we can encounter so much more than alone. We can feed more hunger, here, when we know where the empty places are. We must be open to new ways. Mindful of where we feel the holes in our lives; knowing that at the core of life is a beauty that is always present, always ready to be seen.

Sometimes our call in life comes from within. Sometimes our community calls us to live as better people, whose core is not grounded in the false idols of anxiety or fear or the petty frustrations. We too often worship those three small gods, and the beauty of the world is again lost to us for a time. Prioritize your values, and live so boldly that you nurture what stirs your heart, and defines your character.

         Our call is not always about ourselves, or about our community. A nation can also be called to live its values. As a people, we can ground our actions in our values with consistency, not expediency – for expediency is the pathway to discarding morals.

         I’ll close this sermon by talking about the other meaning of the story of Stone Soup. Sometimes people coming into town with magic rocks, aren’t bringing out our best selves; sometimes they are charlatans, and they are taking advantage of our worst selves, for their own profit. Not all stones are magical, and not all teachers are true.

         The implicit lectionary for this week, was given to us by Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. He blasphemously quoted Romans 13 to argue that God approves of pulling children from their parents at the border, because we should follow the law of the nation. The tragic sentiment was echoed later in the day by the White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, by using the racist dog whistle of saying we are a nation of law and order to echo that the Bible supports following the law.

         Now, I could spend our precious time this morning arguing that proof-texting scripture to fit your personal and individual moral code is bad exegesis. Romans 13 was largely telling Christians – basically – yes, still pay your taxes. But that the core of the message is that “loving your neighbor is the fulfillment of the law.” Essentially, the Attorney General, like a Pharisee of old, relied upon the letter and not the spirit.

         For those that want more of those details, follow me on facebook, and much of my posts of the last few days have been about that. But there’s a much deeper concern with this take on scripture…. It’s been done before…. When the US government tried to qualify the atrocity known as the Fugitive Slave law – proponents of “law and order” strategically quoted Romans 13 to demand northern states return escaped slaves. No, that’s not what Romans 13 meant.

         Nazi Germany, would use Romans 13 to argue that Jews should be rounded up. No, that’s not what Romans 13 meant. Now, the sitting Attorney General of the United States, is putting himself in the hateful company of Nazi and Slave apologists by falsely using scripture to argue we should separate immigrant children from their parents on our border – with one of the rationales being stated as “a deterrent for other immigrant mothers.” As if children should be used as a leverage to win some political game. This is sin. This is exactly sin. If that word makes you uncomfortable, this is the right moment to use that word – sin. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – here are the people that separated children from their parents – Pharaoh, Herod, and Pontius Pilate.  We have crossed a line – we have become biblically speaking – empire at its worst. It’s the exact moment in Hebrew and Christian, and Muslim scriptures that teaches us loudly – turn away, and back to that righteous path. And the leaders we should follow, are the ones that are being targeted by Pharaoh, Herod, and Pontius Pilate. Not the ones hiding behind empty and hypocritical claims of law and order.

         I thank Greta, and our many members who gave public witness on Thursday night for the atrocities at our border. We will continue to keep all of us as informed as we can as a community. This week, our denomination gathers in Kansas City for our annual General Assembly. I fully expect we will be making formal statements of condemnation for this practice, with further calls to action. Expect to hear more soon. And remember, when charlatans try to dance around and make mockery of basic ethics and morals, remember, loving our neighbor is the fulfillment of the law.

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Sermon: Beatitudes

This sermon reflects on the intersection of the Beatitudes and Liberation Theology.

         All this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of blessing. Last week we celebrated the blessing of our youth, as they discerned their own sense of faith through their year of coming of age, and where we recognized our oldest youth joining our ranks as adults. We very much are blessed by their presence and their insights.

         Blessing, or being blessed, is a word that means different things to different people. From the most mundane greeting after a sneeze, to the curt “bless your heart” after someone is less than their best selves – we casually use it in every day language. Sometimes, it’s a prayer for another in times of hardship, and it’s the  spiritual response or emotion in the face of Grace realized in our lives.  In the common American Christian sense, it’s all of these things. Jesus leaned toward a meaning closer to a sense of Grace than the others, but he did so in a way that our modern ear doesn’t always register. Blessing wasn’t a cutesy thing for Jesus. And his sermon on the mount, the Beatitudes, were a series of very serious teachings about blessing.

         We’ve heard two contemporary versions of the Beatitudes today – one a poem by a UU clergy colleague, Rev. Robin Tanner, an active leader in the Moral Mondays movement, following the national leadership of Rev. William Barber. And one a video clip of Rev. Nadia Booz-Weber, a Lutheran minister and founding pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints. Both women having a calling in the ministry that seeks to serve those who are not always well served, who are judged, who are held back and held down. Our quartet sang a beautiful rendition of the traditional words just now as well.

         Let’s hear them again as they were written in scripture:

“The Beatitudes (NSRV)

When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

         The last line is the one that many of us hear that gets us to think all this is about heavenly rewards. Jesus does preach salvation; and he also preaches that the “Kingdom of Heaven will be known in [our] midst.” He’s talking both about a spiritual reality and he’s talking about salvation while we’re alive – building a community that is heaven on earth – in our midst.

         Jesus’ sermon on the mount, is a sermon on blessing, and a teaching on how we might understand the spiritual message more deeply. Blessing is a gift of sorts, and it is also a teaching for all of us. Jesus is telling us where God resides. God blesses the poor in spirit (the downtrodden, the exhausted, the oppressed) and God is with them; God blesses those who mourn, they are not alone in spirit. God blesses the meek and tells us the earth is their true inheritance. Mercy, peacemakers, and those who are wrongly persecuted, all find God’s blessing. Blessing isn’t about a feel-good feeling in the Beautitudes.

         Like most of Jesus’ teachings, some of this doesn’t seem to logically follow. Most of those blessed, are choosing the harder path – or have the harder path chosen for them. Little of the Beatitudes point to anyone going through anything we would easily call a gift; but Jesus says they are blessed. We shouldn’t understand it as a reward, but a natural outcome of being in right relations with our neighbor. Grace, peace, and mercy are the outcomes of living a path of grace, peace and mercy.

         This is core to the Christian message. Power, and privilege, are not the way of Jesus. God is with the least of us, the exhausted, the meek. Dr. James Cone, the most influential Christian theologian of the past 50 years, and whose life was recently celebrated and mourned at his funeral at Riverside Church in NYC, would change Christian theology – or rather I believe, course correct it – by teaching that God was on the side of oppressed. His theology was a large part of what helped save Christianity for me.  He was the founder of Black Liberation theology in the US, and Liberation theology globally. Dr. Cone would famously state, like Jesus ending on the Cross, God was on the lynching tree. Each generation is guilty of crying “crucify him” or “them” again and again. And those guilty are certainly not the heroes of the parable or the heroes in the news today. In seminary, Professor Cone would ask us where we kept ourselves, where we positioned ourselves, amidst all the horrors of the world. It would be no stretch to say today, as we hear the horrors of children being stripped from their parents at border detention centers, that God is lying in those cages today with those children. And we can hear the echos of the crowds crying crucify them in our tragic politics of xenophobia and isolationism…. Where are we? And Jesus teaches, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek.

         There’s a tendency to try to strip Jesus’ teachings of their punch. To think the Beatitudes and blessings are sugary coated truisms. Jesus was never sugar-coated. Jesus was teaching what right living was about, and where we should find ourselves. If we are full of judgement more than mercy, if we are building up cages and walls more than we are making peace and aiding the poor and hungry, we are assuredly not blessed. Where we give room for no mercy, we will know no mercy ourselves. You can hear that as a message about the afterlife; you can also hear that as a warning for the state of our own humanity as we live into our days.

         To tie the earlier Navajo (or Dine) teaching into Jesus’ message of flipping the story of power – beauty is all around us.When we walk in such a way as to honor the beauty around us, move with meekness in the face of reverence, rather than with power over all before us, we flip the story of power, and the blessing in return is our inheritance. For those that lord over the earth, who rule over things, and treat people as things, are themselves living as things. In the clutch and grab of greed and avarice, in the callousness of mercilessness …we have things… but we have no spiritual inheritance. We fail to know the beauty of creation, to appreciate the gift of life, and we abandon the deeper comfort of the spirit, the true value of this earth, and we know no mercy in the relentless hunger of the ego. And create hell on earth for those around us.

         That’s the core of the Christian message. We should not live as kings over things, but as equal citizens of the kingdom of Heaven on earth. That’s what he meant when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven would be known in our midst. We build it, and God’s blessings point us on the right path. That is the inheritance Jesus speaks of when he teaches the meek will inherit the earth. It’s the early meaning of righteousness that gets lost to our contemporary ear. I’ve said this recently, but I’ll say it again, because misunderstanding this word causes so much harm in our world – righteousness. Misunderstanding it pushes so many people away from religion. The early Hebrew meaning of righteousness implies a sense of solidarity with the wider community. It’s justice with the implication of community. We all come ahead together, or there is no righteousness. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That sounds very different when you think righteousness is about right belief, than when you know it means justlycaring for all the people as one community.

         I’ll end with some actions in the world. The Poor People’s Campaign, a resurgence of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, now led by the Rev. William Barber, is deeply theologically rooted in Jesus’ teaching of blessings. It may intersect with our political world, but it is a purely theologically grounded prayerful action. I know some of our members are taking part in public witness with this work up in Albany (check with Social Justice, or Susan K to learn more about how you can take part.) This coming Thursday, Greta will be taking part in public witness with an event our Fellowship is cosponsoring in Huntington Village-  a prayer vigil drawing attention to the 1500 children who are missing after our government separated children from their parents at the Border. I don’t mean the kids that are kept in cages at the border, I mean the 1500 children we took from parents and lost track of. And this practice predates our current administration – going back from some news reports as early as 2014. Parents and kids are separted when both parents are taken into custody for criminal action. Typically, they are fostered out for the duration of the criminal custody of the parents. Associated Press reported recently that with this practice, our Government typically doesn’t get more than an 85% response rate from the households where kids are fostered – when they try to check up on them. This whole crisis is exaberated now, as our current administration chooses to prosecute parents as criminals for trying to seek saftey within our borders. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

         I know so much of what we hear feels like a daily firehouse of horror. We each can’t attend to everything. And it’s still important to pause and remember all the things that we should not think are normal – and make sure they remain understood as the horrors they are in the public mind. If we mindfully keep that truth in our awareness, we can continue to act where we need to act. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

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Finding Our Spark

This sermon was preached on 5/20/18 and reflects on learning to be creative, when your verve feels gone.

All of this month we’ve been reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of creativity. From the creativity of our choir and our Music Director-led service at the start of the month, to last Sunday’s celebration of our almost one hundred year old Flower Communion service, which sought to imagine new ways to include and honor the diversity of humanity. This week we’ll look at the inverse of creativity, when we’ve lost our verve, and need to find our spark again.

There are some ways where this is a pretty constant challenge for many of us. In our current exacerbated political climate, which fosters serious risks to historically marginalized communities, many of us feel fatigued by the barrage. It’s always been there, but it seems right out in the open now, plain as day, and the wounds are very sore. I found myself numb on Friday when I learned of yet one more school shooting. Of course many of us are emotionally and spiritual worn to our core. We should be in the face of all that is broken in the world….

How do we keep our spirits up, how do we imagine new ways, how as good religious citizens, do we do our part as our hearts break again and again – sometimes to the point of numbness? And for some of us, home- and work-life is enough to keep us feeling like we’re just threading water. Keeping a family fed, or keeping a family together, or maybe leaving an unhealthy relationship, is all that we have the heart and will to manage right now. That might be enough to feel like our sparks have been blown out. And when they have been blown out, we feel the void in the center of our chest. How do we keep our spirits up?

There’s the practical side – not any one of us by ourselves can fix all the crises around us, or have control over all that happens in our family and work life. But we all, from our places of strength, need to do our part to help where we can. And still, the barrage leaves many of us feeling helpless and uninspired. And losing our verve, impacts all aspects of our life. We sleep more poorly, we’re less creative, we forget to feel joy, we become less effective.

I’m going to talk about how we can find our spark when we feel we lost it today in two main ways: 1) following our intentions and 2) following our distractions. Both are important in their own way – we all need a balance of intention and distraction. We’ll start with intentions, and I’ll close the sermon with talking about distractions.

[Tell story of the stonecutter]

I remember an old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”

Finding our spark, is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using that as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.

As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and anxiety rises. Money is tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hardand forgetting to focus on our core intentions. The bad, or the not perfect, becomes our focus, and we exhaust ourselves to the point we stop seeing the good.

On Friday, as part of our Services Auction, I hosted a gathering for about 25 of us here, where we watched an episode of Doctor Who (a popular British kids show that’s been around for over 70 years.) I followed the showing with a reflection on the spirituality found in the episode. There’s a closing line in this one episode we watched where a character tells another, “There’s good in the world, and bad in the world. The good doesn’t always erase the bad, but the bad doesn’t override the good.” When our gaze forever and only falls on the bad, we let it erase the good for ourselves. And that’s exhausting, and usually heartbreaking. (Not that we should ever ignore the bad.)

I believe life has meaning. I believe our purpose is to see the world as it is; to notice the spark of life, of divinity, in each breathing being around us. As the presiding Bishop of the American Episcopal church preaced at the Royal Wedding on Saturday morning, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” That’s at the core of what I’m talking about. Recognizing the worth around us, coming from a place of love. When we notice that, our purpose is met, and the rest can grow from there. Ethics and values are rooted in the mindful recognition of life around us. It begins with seeing – or recognizing. It begins with coming to a place of reverence for that which surrounds us. And to be moved to actwith reverence for the people and life around us.

And what we bring to our everyday connections, is sometimes what we get in return. (Tell story of the dog that got lost in the funhouse mirror room.) And like the dogs in the funhouse, it’s much easier – or maybe I should say it’s much more pleasant – seeing the world with our tails wagging than our mouths growling.

The world around us has meaning, and it also has form. Finding the substance or distinction between this can be easy, yet is often nonetheless difficult. Dr. Martin Buber, a prominent Jewish philosopher from the 20th century, influenced generations of wonderers on this very topic.

Here is a short excerpt from his book, “I and Thou.”

“The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives the being that surrounds him, plain things and beings as things; he perceives what happens around him, plain processes and actions as processes, things that consist of qualities and processes that consist of moments, things recorded in terms of spatial coordinates and processes recorded in terms of temporal coordinates, things and processes that are bounded by other things and processes and capable of being measured against and compared with those others – an ordered world, a detached world. This world is somewhat reliable; it has density and duration; its articulation can be surveyed; one can get it out again and again; one recounts it with one’s eyes closed and then checks with one’s eyes open. There is stands – right next to your skin if you think of it that way, or nested in your soul if you prefer that: it is your object and remains that, according to your pleasure – and remains primarily alien both outside and inside you. You perceive it and take it for your “truth”; it permits itself to be taken by you, but it does not give itself to you. It is only about it that you can come to an understanding with others; although it takes a somewhat different form for everybody, it is prepared to be a common object for you; but you cannot encounter others in it. Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.

Or man encounters being and becoming as what confronts him – always only one being and everything only as a being. What is there reveals itself to him in the occurrence, and what occurs there happens to him as a being. Nothing else is present but this one, but this one cosmically. Measure and comparison have fled. It is up to you how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you.”

 

Buber is referring to the perception of two worlds. One world is of things. We can measure, count, taste, sense that world. But we also keep that world as “a common object,” a thing. The other world is the world of relationship. Not just a conversation with another, or the act of gardening in all its logistical complexity, not just petting a dog – but the place of encounter. It’s the world when we are recognizing another living being as a being, and not as the sum of its parts. It’s going into the mirror room at the funhouse and recognizing that how we related to the world around us, will be the scope of what we encounter in return.

We each live in both. The world of it, allows us to work, and eat, and learn and teach. It makes sure the pets are fed, the bills are paid, and our roofs stay above our heads, and our basements stay dry. As Buber writes, “Without it you cannot remain alive; its reliability preserves you; but if you were to die into it, then you would be buried in nothingness.” There is nothing bad about the world of it, except for when we live only in and by its rules. A life whose purpose is simply the details, is a life without meaning, a life of nothingness. Or it might be more accurate to say a life whose awareness is only on the details, is a life without meaning. Awareness of only the details, and not the relationships, is to die into the world of it.

Fortunately, there’s nothing needed to do, nothing to accomplish, to live from time to time in the other world – the world of being. It’s not a check-box on our to-do lists. It’s simply being aware of our interdependence. We can’t easily do this in every moment, though any moment would do.

Take the night sky. Sometimes it’s hard to see many stars since we’re so close to NYC, but other nights it’s not so hard, and as Summer comes, I look forward to our youth camp out on the east end of Long Island where it’s very easy to see many stars. But assuming a clear night, the sky and stars are  there every night, but not every night do we see it in all its glory. Often we just pass it by, with casual indifference, as if it were not some tremendous, amazing wonder, we are lucky enough to live beneath. It’s a modern retake on one of our oldest stories, of Moses and the Burning Bush. We can treat that story literally, or we can think it’s silly because bushes don’t burn and speak, or we can look a little more closely to what the story is teaching us. God speaks in a moment of vividness when the bush before God is alight. In a rare moment of grace and awareness, Moses sees a bush alive with fire and life – shining before all else, commanding his full attention. It’s a reworking of the story from the Torah, that later Rabbi and theologian Martin Buber would use to explain his theology of I-Thou. Buber would use the phrase “I-Thou” to talk about reverence, and he meant it in a relational sense. When we come to respect the worth and presence of another – whether it’s your neighbor, or God, or the tree on the corner that comes alive to your sight, vibrant in its springtime pinks, or it’s autumnal reds – when that bush is burning with vibrancy – and we are present to see it as it truly is – that is reverence.

To take it down a notch, when a kid is seeing some awesome thing by the seaside that is so entrancing, or a cool rock that commands their attention, and their parent casually dismisses it, maybe the kid is onto something, and the adult may be missing out on a little bit of wonder. For most of our days, we pass by a thousand burning bushes, leaving thoughts of them to madmen and artists.

Where we place our intention, and maybe our attention, leads to cycles of joy and despair, we all have our spiritual swings as human beings. Whether it’s prayer, or meditation, a belief in God, Gods, or the oneness of all nature and being – we can go from deeply reverential moments knowing briefly the sanctity and splendor of creation, and in the next moment we can think we are alone and empty because a friendship ended, or a loved one broke up with us. The night is still starry with the wonder of creation, there continue to be burning bushes all around us, and yet we’ll still find ourselves distraught in our beds.

And we close with the opposite message. Creativity, and finding our verve again, is not always about what we do, what we intend, or what we attend to. Sometimes it’s about distraction. Looking at my own writing practice, folks will sometimes ask how long it takes to write a sermon. Most clergy who have been doing this for ten or more years, will say, it takes about 8 hours plus whatever reading you had to do to prepare for it. Some may say, it’s about half the job for a full time minister. Both are right and both are wrong. The weeks where I hammer out a 20 minute sermon in 4 hours of writing, happen because I spent most of the week with the idea in my head, and constantly stepped away from it, and back again. All the creative work was done up front, and the productive work came when the hard part was done.

When I get writer’s block – no amount of staring at my screen will add one more single word to the text. My best recourse is to get distracted. I’ll walk the dog for an hour and when I get back to my desk, I’m writing again. An important caveat – any distraction will not work – email is notoriously horrible at inspiring any creativity.

There’s a part of our human psyche that wants to believe everything we accomplish is fully due to our efforts, our intentions, our attentions and our strivings. They do matter, but when we’ve lost our verve, working harder won’t relight our spirit’s spark. But turning our gaze toward burning bushes aflame with the light of life, may turn us back on our right course.

 

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Coming Into Our Own

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/22/18 and looks at the perennially changing nature of life and spirit.

 

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”[1]Pema Chodron

I’ve been reflecting a lot this year about being immersed in a season of change in our lives. It seems perpetual. I hear our congregation talking about all the transitions going on for our community as well. Some of the stories are energizing and sustaining; some of the stories speak of slowing down; some have suffered losses in their family or continue to wrestle with health concerns that don’t seem to go away; while others are celebrating new beginnings with college, or school, or work. Each of these are happening all the time. On any given day, look around and you’ll see a little bit of sorrow and joy in each of our faces. (Although sometimes it’s hard to notice if the person doesn’t want you to see the vulnerability.)

We often talk about the Springtime of our life being childhood, and the Winter being our elder years. In some basic ways, the metaphor has merit on its own, but I’m not sure it goes deep enough. Reincarnation aside, Winter inevitably turns to Spring – and I have yet to meet anyone who’s successfully turned back the clock to childhood. It’s more helpful if we consider the seasons in each time of our life. However old we are, there are always beginnings and endings. There are always times of excitement and exhaustion. We can be renewed by Spring, or we can be reflective in the Winter. This can happen through the course of the day, but over the arc of our lives it’s most visible in hindsight. We see it most clearly when we turn a new leaf in our story. They come together and they fall apart.

What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? Ask yourself right now –What season are we in, at this moment, in your own life? What season is our congregation in?  What changes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?

Change happens. And will continue to, for a very long time. Someone comes along and hears a thing, or a phrase, or a way of living, or a tradition. She thinks it’s meaningful, and helpful, but has a new use for it. She takes it and runs with it; hopefully bringing the idea a new life and a new direction. She makes it meaningful and relevant to her generation or to a new time. All of that’s critical in the life of a community or a person. Times change and so do needs and outlooks. But an idea or a ritual or a tradition came from somewhere and had a meaning and a value all its own. It grew out from a place of shared values of another people or another time. It can be a snapshot of a generation or a family. Where it goes and grows toward is just as important as where it came from – what soil it was rooted in. An idea or practice can grow ignorant of its foundation, but will be more rich and certainly stronger for the knowing.

What season we’re in will often influence how we react to the intrepid new leader or idea. Maybe more importantly, how we feel about the season we’re in will influence our response as well. Are you in a dry time of your life? Will new pathways offer renewal and a turning to Spring? Or are you feeling bitter and willing to allow the coldness to wither new openings? Or are you in a time of reflection in your life where it’s not yet time for new beginnings?

 

And in the life of this congregation, I’m especially wondering about our new staff team in the coming year. When I got here five years ago (This weekend is the 5thanniversary of when you voted to call me to the ministry here with you,) all the other staff were here from periods ranging from 1 year to 16 years. Now the only staffer with more seniority is our bookkeeper who comes in twice a month. We have had a tremendous amount of transition, and we continue to. Some things we can control, and some things we can not. “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”[2]Pema Chodron

Shortly we will hiring an acting religious education coordinator to cover our program while our DRE is on medical leave, though should she return after this long medical leave, the permanent position will no longer be full time. And after 21 years of service, our music director will be enjoying retirement. (Thank you Richard again for all that you have given us.) Whoever comes –next, will not be Richard. In the coming months, we will need to allow ourselves to leave room for grief, for relief, for misery and for joy. These are the days we are given.

 

And we choose to spend these days in community. What emerges from community can be the spiritual discipline to manage the pain, and to celebrate the good. In community, we grow, we fail, and we achieve. In community we learn, interact, exchange and connect. As Rev. Nguyen’s reading earlier reminds us, “We are part of community when we show upshiny and not so shiny. When we bring our sour and our sweet. When we shed the shiny and show up hungry.”

 

As a religiouscommunity, our central purpose, our strength on our good days, is in the realm of values. These days, we seem to be that rare place that explores values, ethics, and theology in a communal- and self-reflective way. And this is wherein our community saves lives and renews dreams. And yes, change will happen here, even here – maybe especially here.

Instilling values is an art. It’s integral to the process of growing up. I have the suspicion that growing up is not so much about learning more stuff and knowing how to do more things and better. I expect it’s less about expertise. Growing up is coming to grips with the reality of the brevity of life. An appreciation for how precious and delicate we all are; that life ultimately is more about the questions of value than the details. The “whys” that lead to who we become overshadow the “hows” and “how tos” of daily living. If values are the central act of religious community, and I believe they are, then this is the greatest gift we can offer – both to the wider community and to ourselves.

Pema Chodron’s quote points us to the “longer view.” (Tell Buddhist Parable of the lost horse.) The failings and disappointments that sometimes feel like catastrophes may in fact be the doorways to new opportunities. The new, the fresh, the next great thing sometimes can’t come about without something else ending. The longer view reminds us that “not all that is bad,” is actually bad, in the long run.

I find that it comes down to what stories we tell about our lives – what stories come out in the moment, and which ones paint a decade or a generation. When we’ve experienced less, we may be more prone to fixating on how difficult, or downright awful, an encounter might seem. But in the longer view, most of these stories seem to open up more doorways than we can possibly imagine. It doesn’t take away the horribleness of the sudden turn in or lives though. (The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy)

Last Sunday I told a little more about my own time growing up, laughing at the absurdity of all the well laid plans we make. I want to quickly focus in on one of those moments with today’s lens. When I was in my early twenties, I was working in Information Technology. I had a solid job supervising a 24/7 computer Helpdesk; with what was then my longest term relationship, little debt and more vacation time than I could possibly use. That was a story I told for several years. But most of it was really a trap for me. I had taken that job as an opportunity to get professional experience right out of college and save up enough money to actually go into non-profit work. The truth is that I was never going to leave that job unless it became a horrible place to work. One new Vice-President later, and suddenly so many qualified, capable and expert colleagues left; many of us emotional wrecks in his wake. I could find no place of compassion or care for this particular VP. I could not find a way to “story” that experience in the affirmative. In the blink of a few months, I was miserable and needed a way out, and couldn’t see the silver lining at the end of the road. Looking back with that longer view, without that Dilbert-esque VP, I simply would not be where I am today. Back then, I honestly couldn’t imagine this new world at all.

 

The acute clarity of the short-term vision brings the pain and difficulty vividly to the forefront. We can choose to revision all that has come before us and see it in the bigger picture – and still – we don’t need to be old to realize this truth about life, just like we don’t have to be toddlers to still throw a wailing tantrum. (As I said last week, we are all the ages we have ever been.)  Doorways forever open and close, but the ones we walk through were necessary to get to where we’re going. We can always choose differently, excepting the realm of death, but the new destination will never be the same. I personally think it’s very bad theology to say everything happens for a reason; but I do think it’s true that we can find meaning and purpose in all the things that happen. It’s how the story of our life emerges. That ability to tell a story, may be the very thing that defines our humanity.

Our elders among us can help remind us of this truth; they can help steer us back on the path of moderation, compassion and forgiveness – ever reminding us that our family and our religious community matter more for how well it strives to support us than it seeks to always agree with us. Our longest-term members (regardless of age) have seen a congregation of shared values living out the past thirty to fifty years. We pass on our values in light of the changing seasons, and activities, and habits, and styles. There is an essence to the life and spirit of this congregation that can be felt and can be lived, but words would rarely suffice. It is our task, regardless of age, to witness this transition; to strive to crack it open for the next generation to partake and to be enlivened by this sacramental work; for the transmission of communal spirit is a sacred endeavor.In the awareness of the precariousness of life and the appreciation for endings that enliven our beginnings we come to know the time of our lives.We honor the best of ourselves by blessing the sanctity of the lives we share in community. In doing so we become a blessing ourselves to the world around us.

Sometimes the season we’re in in our lives isn’t going to shift neatly to the next, or turn back to an earlier time. Sometimes when we live out ourselves fully, and honestly, we can help another person make a profound choice toward wholeness – wherever they are in their path – whichever season.

….

At the start of this sermon I asked two questions. “What does it look and feel like as we turn to our next leaf in our own lives and the life of this congregation? And what changes within us as we take on the long view of a million or more such turns in the life of a soul or a community of souls?” I cannot answer the first for any of us. But I can ask all of us to be open to accepting a new look and a new feel to the next page of our communal story, for the leaf must now turn. For the second question, I hope that for each of us we learn from the perpetual transition in our communal story. May it remind us that in our own lives each new challenge or adversity is for but a time – and it might just be something that opens a new path that is wondrous all in its own. With each new step, something may pass away as the Autumn leaves; something may finally birth anew as our current Springtime demands; and sometimes the change is nothing more and nothing less than our souls bending toward the motion of that perpetual light which transcends and imbues all life.

 

[1] Pema ChödrönWhen Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times

 

[2] Pema ChödrönWhen Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times

 

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The Cruelest Month

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Sunday, April 8th and looks at the poetry of T.S. Eliot as it speaks to times of change in our lives.

 

We just heard a few words from T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece, The Wasteland. The great poet, was one of ours before he wasn’t. He was raised Unitarian Christian, before he would begin to explore the world’s religions in depth, only to find his way back to Christianity in his later years. There’s a tension in his poetry that seems to return us again and again to that central reverence in life – the moment between the moments, when all else stops, and we are present to the eternal. There’s a way that in all his questing through world religions, he was striving for that eternal spirit at its core.

I first came to Eliot through religion. It was taught in religious studies, rather than English literature, at my undergrad. Going line by line through his dense allegories, required far more knowledge of folk, religion, and the classics than the common poem. And in an age before google, translating his non-english pieces took far more work than it does today. But like language and word choice, poetry sometimes takes the long way round, in order to help the hero in the story get back to the heart of their meaning. “The moment between the moments,” may reveal more meaning than telling someone to “simply pay attention.” It’s evocative, and that evocation brings us somewhere new.

“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” There’s so much to his epic narrative poem, but this line is the core spiritual message we’ll reflect on today. Eliot is traveling through the Wasteland. He’s feeling tired, feeling aged, and April is reminding him of the possibility all around him, that he feels cut off from. The world has possibility; he does not. Lilacs from what has died, brings back memories of yesteryear, and fresh spring rains taunt his dull roots that ultimately won’t respond. It’s an act of cruelty from his vantage of spiritual decline. Aging becomes a condition, rather than a perspective; banality rather than wisdom. And spring’s hope feels like a thing flaunted, rather than the road forward. It’s an extreme case of being cut off from the moment between the moments; the fullness of time causes us to forget the fullness of life.

The first few stanzas become a walk through memory lane. It shouldn’t surprise me that the poet that can write these sentiments into words, would be the same poet who would pen the silly verses about cats, that would lead to the same named Broadway play. If you instantly want to evoke a sense of nostalgia, begin playing in your head the song Memory, from the musical Cats, and it might get you to where Eliot is taking us in this poem at the beginning.

I want to point out two more ideas from this poem, before I go through my own sort of memory lane, and how we can spiritually use memory, or be used by memory. The point of this poetic message isn’t in staying in the Wasteland, but in finding the key through, in the image of the Hyacinth Girl. “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; they called me the hyacinth girl. – Yet when we came back, late from the Hyacinth garden, your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing, looking into the heart of light, the silence. Oed’ und leer das Meer.” (empty and desolate is the sea). [The earlier german quote and this one together, are a reference to Tristan und Isolde, an 1865 opera by Richard Wagner about the ill-fated affair between the knight Tristan and the lady Isolde. The opera is based on a medieval romance that was absorbed into the Arthurian tradition. The quoted scene occurs near the beginning of the opera, with Tristan escorting the captured Isolde by ship to Cornwall.] Talk about pressing into a few words the fullness of another story. We know Eliot’s connection to the Hyacinth Girl is likened to an ill-fated romance. But what does she signify?

The flower and the girl are the counterpoint to lilacs out of dead land; the other side of dull roots with spring rain. She’s the force that doesn’t allow winter’s snows to keep us forgetful, but warm. If April reminds us of the fullness and the sting of time, the Hyacinth girl reminds us of the fullness of life – and that fullness, can leave us speechless – our eyes can not contain all of it, and it reminds us that all the things we think we know, amount to nothing in the face of that fullness.

How do you story your days? In the fullness of time, reflecting the cruelty of April’s seasonal time-clock of the spirit, or do you story it in the fullness of life, being stunned over and over in our not-knowing before it’s face?

Over the years here, I’ve told most, or probably all of these stories in one way or another. Today, I’m going to try to story them (this time) by reflecting on the tension of time and life.

When I was a teenager, I kept myself busy. That’s a character flaw I’ve yet to grow out of. I replaced lunch with an honors class. I replaced study hall with choir. I stayed after school for Cross-Country or Theatre. I was at the gym five days a week, and ran 7 miles a day right after school. I tried to control every bit of my day, so that I could feel like I was succeeding. I was finding the fullness of time, but not the fullness of life.

I also had the competing desires to lose weight and put on muscle. I was about 65 pounds lighter than I am now… and I thought I was fat (and today, I laugh and laugh and laugh at all I did not know.) It’s amazing how the pressure we put on our youth, and the pressure our youth put on themselves, can translate in weird ways – ways that bring harm to our teens that we would never imagine or wish on them. I remember the day, after working out for an hour in the gym and running the usual 7 miles on top of that, when I looked down at my leg and realized what I had been seeing as fat, was in fact muscle. I was so busy trying to achieve something more than I thought I had, that I stopped allowing myself to see that I was already there. One of my mentors, the Rev. Forrest Church, would often remind us to “Want what you have.” It’s difficult advice to hear or live by. I already had what I wanted, but couldn’t even see that. That phrase would often remind me of my teenage years, and how not wanting what I had, kept me from appreciating and living the fullness of life.

But not to knock the teens years too strongly, many of us keep coming back to that hard lesson in every stage of life. I learned in human development, that we areevery age we have ever been.Wanting what we already have doesn’t necessarily get any easier as we age.

I don’t know what shifted inside me that allowed me to see me for who I was. It’s probably the first moment of Grace that I can vividly recall. I’ve had others, but I was too young to remember them. Being born was probably my very first moment of Grace, right? We come in this world through no fault or effort of our own (- that we know of at least.) That moment in the gym felt like that. So many people hold onto poor body image for years, unable to free themselves from the traps of the mind. I woke up, but I didn’t do anything to wake up. I just did. Moments like this, echo backwards and forwards through time for me. Openness – openness to our selves, to others, to loving ourselves, or loving others – doesn’t always come, but when it does, we don’t achieve it through effort or actions. It’s a gift that we allow to happen. We can get in the way, or we can simply be. But sometimes, we learn to love ourselves – in the fullness of life – seeing the hair dripping wet as the poet tells us, and being stunned by encountering worth.

Moving forward in time – Parenting, or success in our careers, can be very similar creatures. We don’t always have control over what comes from our love or care. We don’t always know which way the road will turn; what will happen to our kids, or what jobs we’ll lose.  Some of us have huge families we’re born into and love. Others have a tight-knit family they’ve made by their own care and effort. Careers can be the same. We can fall into the vocation of our dreams, or cobble together a living from so many different parts of our lives.

Often when we’re teens, dealing with school or considering college, we’re given a false-road map; one that many of us continue to buy into throughout our lives. We’ll work hard at school; we’ll make or fail the tests that matter; by our Junior Year in High School we’ll know what major we’ll focus on for college and that’s what we’ll be doing entirety of our lives (and I laugh and I laugh and I laugh.) Why do we tell that story? Frankly, it’s a silly map – one that will only get us lost if we trust it too much. There should be a legend at the bottom of the map that reads “*Objects May Appear Closer Than They Really Are.”

And for those that work hard, and succeed, or do well enough to just get by – believing in that roadmap – sometimes think it’s mostly about their effort, and not about the grace of being in the right place at the right time too. Or living into a world that privileges some, and makes it even harder for others. A recent study in the news this week indicated that “40% of white Americans think African Americans just have to work harder.” It’s painfulto hear that – 50 years after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. That so many white folk can forget the parts of history, the parts they need to forget, so that they can still pretend that silly map, that silly, dangerous map.

I started out studying environmental science at Rutgers, Cook College. Dropped out, and started up again a year later studying Teaching; then English; then Anthropology, then Archaeology, then Religion. (That combo is probably the main reason why I love the poetry of T.S. Eliot as I do.) I went on to work in computers for the first 5 years after college. Funny, right? We tie ourselves in knots throughout our lives hoping we can control what comes next, as if our best laid plans will come together as expected; That all hard work, in the fullness of time, is neatly sequential and ordered. When you hear me say that aloud, you’re probably thinking, no, of course it doesn’t work that way. But then we go about and live our lives as if that story was in fact the way it worked.

Sometimes they will, most of the time they won’t. It doesn’t mean that we don’t plan. We have to plan if we want to have any chance of getting to where we want to go. Spiritually, we go off course when we think the map we’ve drawn though, is the same as the life we hope to live.The map, the plans, the details – are not the fullness of life; they’re the fullness of time. The art of growing up, is learning to leverage the details to enjoy our life, but not to replace our life with the to-do lists.

Or in parenting – who here as ever read a book about parenting? So many of these books tell you how wrong you are, or how right you are, or how to hover over your kids, or how not to hover over your kids. It’s like reading an owner’s manual to a car – except you don’t know which car it’s for – it’s just for “cars.” My favorite parenting book is called, “Nurture Shock.” It’s my favorite because it never intended to be a parenting book, even though it’s a parenting book. The biggest lesson I took from it is the simple truth that of all the tricks, tips and things we can do for our kids – the most important lesson we can ever give is that when the nearly-verbal child points at a spoon – we in return say “spoon.” All the rest are details. All the rest,will likely drive us mad if we let it. Human connection, attentiveness, being fully present to the fullness of life, rather than tracking the achievements in the fullness of time.

That’s the essential lesson in life. Being mindful to the moments when our best course of action is to say, “spoon.” (avoid making the joke about The Tick here.) Whether growing up throws at you challenges around continuing school, or career, or parenting, or not parenting – we struggle to learn to live in the fullness of the life before us, not clinging to the to-do, or the details or fretting over what might be or never was. Over the course of a life, all our choices lead us to who we become. We may feel trapped by what we once were, both good and bad. Both are always part of us – as the good and bad has nurtured the person sitting in your chair today… but we’re not trapped in any one of our many lives we lived. Doors close and open, sometimes through our actions, and sometimes despite our actions. Beyond what we can control – are the moments of grace.

For me, Grace came in each career rebirth. From computer guru, to community development specialist, to religious educator to congregational minister. There were things that I accomplished to make each happen; but being open to the possibility of change – was not an act that could be measured anywhere on a map. In all of our struggles, it is possible to hit the reset button when we need; I only know that it rarely seems possible… until we actually do. Lilacs do rise out of the dead land – and we don’t need to see them as April’s cruel reminder of possibility for other people – we can rise out of our own dead places, suddenly, through no fault or cause of our own – Grace.

But we still age – and the Wasteland will not allow us to avoid this truth.

For years, I would spend the night of Christmas Eve over at the house of a close friend’s grandmother along with her extended family. The family friend’s grandmother wasn’t blessed with good mobility in her elder years, but she had her clarity, kindness, and wicked scrabble moves. Her home would be decorated in every corner for the holidays. We’d attend worship at her Baptist church, and follow it with the best Chinese take-out made to order. Those Christmas Eves were something I cherished. My own grandmothers had passed years ago, and this was one way to see them again.

Then one day, she had a stroke, and should have died, but the visiting care-giver resuscitated her – against her previously written instructions. The clear- thinking grandmother I knew never really came back. Now relegated to a nursing home, there would be no more Christmas Eve’s, or take-out Chinese food. The dementia that set in was strange – as so often it is. When her grand-daughter and I would visit her in the nursing home, she would completely remember me. The part of the brain that stored the memory of meeting me remained largely intact; but her grand-daughter would be a stranger to her. She would remember her own children as if they were still in their teens. Time didn’t mean the same thing any longer. The year would be in the 2000’s with me, the 1960’s for her children, and her grandchildren didn’t quite fit anywhere – but they were in the room, they kept making sure they were in the room.

That fits well into what many of us would consider a nightmare. You prepped as best you could, handling the paperwork you needed to handle; raised an awesome family that you loved and who loved you well into your eighties; who even brought their friends,who also loved you, around to spend time with you for the holidays – and chance rolls snake eyes – memories blend, disappear, and you’re no longer self-sufficient. Your helpless, confused and don’t recall many of the highest points of your life while your loved ones watch helpless themselves to change or heal what will remain broken.

That can happen. That can be what chance brings to us. For some of us, we’re carefully treading in this territory right now; whether for ourselves, noticing some things slipping more readily from our minds – or for our loved ones, wondering how we will cope with slowly losing the person we knew. There are practical matters that need to be attended to, medical advice that might be sought after, or financial concerns that should be addressed.  Each of these can matter immensely to our quality of life. And yet, our perspective may matter the most for our sense of wholeness. How do we view the changes – beyond being horrified, or fearful?

For me, the moment of grace was in the witnessing of her granddaughter still visiting her daily or weekly; she still visited even though she wasn’t recognized any more. Grace is found when we focus on the relationships we built and whose love continues on in our passing. There’s no thing we do that makes this love endure. We don’t deepen our love in the fullness of time with busy-ness or tasks; we make eternal our love through the fullness of life. I want to live my life in such a way that should the worst happen in my elder years, if I am so lucky as to make it to my elder years, that I know the people around me will still love me and try their best to make my close as peaceful as possible, knowing I helped to make their life as joyous as possible. You can’t quantify that; and it’s what life is about. It’s what we mean when we speak of reverence – at its core. Being in awe of the depth of humanity; being in love with the possibility of the human spirit – unfurling even when its bud is swaying in the storm.  It is not given to us to know when our bud will open; it is given to us to know that it may at any time; again and again and again.

 

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Spring Cleaning

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/18/18 reflecting on the winter times of our spirit, the suddenness of change after hardship, and the effort that accompanies Grace.

So we’re coming to the end of another winter. I’m not sure what to make of it. As the years go on, I find myself making an assessment of each end of Winter. I remember in my childhood, and even in my college years, I found it magical that like clock-work, on the first day of Spring, the temperature would radically change – it seemed always clear that Winter was over. I haven’t felt that has happened in recent memory.

My household is ready for Spring. I’m ready for Spring, my husband is ready for Spring, my dog is ready for Spring, and my indoor cat can’t wait to plaintively look out the screened window into the wide world that he can not inhabit – once it’s warm enough for us to finally open the windows. (Lest you think we’re cruel, the last time the cat got out, he evicted the family of rabbits from their den beneath our porch. No one wants that. My cat makes for a much better absentee landlord.)

We were talking about this in my household yesterday, that everyone seems ready for Winter to be over; that we feel like it’s been a hard winter. …But it hasn’t really been a hard winter. I stopped wearing my scarf a month ago. We haven’t had much snow, and I swear last week, my loveable dog that hates being out in the cold – I caught that dog sunbathing on the back porch in a sunbeam. But it still has felt like a tough winter.

The nor’easters are part of the reason. A lot of the trees in my neighborhood – 100+ foot tall Pines, lost so many branches – branches the sizes of normal trees. Our front hedgerow probably won’t survive the damage, and our magnolia tree lost the lower back third of its branches.

I think that’s what this feeling is really about. This season has been a symbol for us; this Winter has felt like a symbol for what we’re going through in our personal lives. School might be tough; others have dealt with health issues for a long time; our Fellowship has lost many long time friends and family members to illness; One more thing can feel like just too much.

And in the news cycle, it seems like every day is another cultural or political nor’easter coming out of nowhere and straight for us. Our next generation is being raised in an America where ethical mediocrity is the norm, and they need to make sense of that while never knowing a world where this was strange.

But tough times don’t last forever. We have to grieve through them as best we can, but they do end and something new comes through eventually. It’s not always comforting when you’re in the midst of an endurance run through rough times, but it’s important to believe; because it’s true. Sometimes the Spring comes, however late, and we’re still thinking it’s Winter because the Wintertime has lasted so long. For our elders, there’s a wisdom that’s learned in growing through the Depression, the World Wars, the Cold War, and so on and so on. They have seen Winter after Winter, come and go. It doesn’t make it easier, I imagine, but there’s a knowledge, from past experience, that Spring always comes – with some great effort. But if this is your first spiritual Winter, it seems like it extends forever.

One of these long Winters, in particular, comes to mind. From Ferguson to Parkland, gun violence, and our culture of gun violence, has permeated our nightmares. Led by our youth, there will be national rally to end gun violence on March 24th – with a local rally here in Herkshere Park. The Fellowship will be gathering at 10am and it runs till 1pm. I’ll be there; I hope you will too. In the natural world, Winter turns to Spring all on its own – but in our cultural world it takes all our effort to make the wheel turn back to life.

And this is true for the smaller everyday winters of our spirit, especially when they go on and on. Maybe the kids at school have been mean for a long time; or we can’t seem to catch a break in our career; or health problems or day to day stressors fill our world. All of those very real things can change how we understand the world. They may be tough; they may be hard, sometimes even very hard – but they don’t define the world. They don’t define joy, or limit hope, or change the nature of our character. I often talk about reverence in our services. For some that means revering God, for others it means to find a sense of awe in life. Today, I think it means recognizing that moment when we see the first flowers poke up past the ice and once froze earth – and knowing that matters – at our core. … and taking a step back and knowing that life has always been there beneath that frozen earth, whether we see it or not…. In the Wintertimes of our heart, life still grows. …

Our story this morning about the magic vase that leads to an epic tale of spring cleaning – is one of the ways we can begin to find balance. There wasn’t anything actually magical about the vase, but that little bit of beauty that we let in (or poke up through the frozen ground in the case of the earlier imagery) begins to help us to see the places where we can contribute to rebuilding our home, in the case of the story, or rebuilding our communities or lives, or even our sometimes broken hearts. Sometimes, Winter, is just a matter of perspective.

Greta and I were talking about spring cleaning earlier this week, and she made the point that often our homes get dirtier at first when we start the big spring clean – stuff comes off shelves so you can dust, every sock needs to be taken out in the desperate hope that this day we might finally find all the missing pairs, all the pillows and what not need to come off for the steamer clean, and so on. Spring cleaning isn’t about making everything instantly better, neat and tidy – it’s a very messy process. When we come out of the winter times of our spirit, even with the suddeness of flowers poking through the earth, everything doesn’t become neat and tidy overnight. There’s a lot of sudden change, but it takes effort, and probably getting things a bit messier first before the final turn.

It’s important, from time to time, to teach our own Fellowship history – lest the wisdom and mistakes of yesteryear ever get lost. We have a booklet that was published at our 50th anniversary that details some of our highlights. I remember first being handed it by Lois Ann Sepez, when she was still alive. She had a smile on her face, and was eager to share our stories with me. It had a story in it just like magic vase (well almost just like it) – our own homegrown story of spring cleaning. Apparently, there was a time some decades back where our building wasn’t as well kept up as it is right now. The minister at the time (Rev. Ralph Stutzman) would go to committee meetings, board meetings, town halls. He would talk with folks individually, or on the phone. He apparently tried everything to get people inspired to clean up the Fellowship building and grounds. Then one Sunday morning, as folks arrived to the Fellowship, they saw Ralph doing the last touches of paint on what are now our outer red doors. He cleaned up the outside of one part of the building, and as the story goes, the membership was finally inspired to start cleaning up the rest of our sacred space. It just took one person to step up, bring a little beauty into a place, and the rest began to follow.

Ironically, I often heard it said that we must have red doors because we’ve always had red doors – it’s our tradition. I disagree. I think our tradition isn’t red doors. Our tradition is a Fellowship that will rise to the occasion when the need is there. We will always find new challenges to face as generation mentors generation, but when the time comes we will come through. Reflecting our theme this month – “What would it mean to be a people of balance?” What balance can you bring to this space? What talent do you have that you can share that might inspire others? How does your presence remind others that there is beauty and worth and value in the life around them – to help balance out the times of despair and exhaustion when we otherwise feel worn down by the long winters of our spirit?

When we build communities and spaces with fear in our hearts, or prejudice in our minds, we create pockets of hardship for some immediately, but in the long term, it affects us all. Sometimes balance involves seeing the holy in the other; sometimes balance is fixing the paint on a door. Sometimes balance is remembering that all our hardships are interconnected; what affects me now may affect you later, or vice versa. May we learn to find more vases to bring to the table – what is your magic vase you bring? May we bring our individual strengths to build the common good. May our times of hardship remind us of the humanity of one another, and carry that lesson forward to the days of our strength, so that we may some day craft peace and joy where there was sorrow.

 

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A Theology of Doubt

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/4/18 reflecting on the balance of doubt in faith.

“There once was a farm in a valley that was practically perfect in every way, except that it had no rooster to crow at the crack of dawn, and so everyone was always late getting out of bed.”[1] If only all our problems seemed so simple! But I imagine it didn’t seem like such a small deal to the folks on the farm. From missing newspapers to late-milked cows, to plain cranky attitudes, life in this otherwise perfect valley was marred by its one lack, a missing rooster.

What’s your missing farmyard animal? What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
I love stories like this. They really can draw out the essence of our daily challenges and struggles and they use humor to do so. It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude.

I love this story. I try to tell it annually at one of our services. It’s an excellent lesson on our third principle – where we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. For the rooster in the story, the one thing missing, was their confidence in themselves. Doubt was the story they had to overcome. And for all the well-intentioned helpers in the story (the pig and duck and cats), the one thing missing for them, was a healthy dose of doubt. They had to overcome their own stories of expertise and confidence, to leave room for the rooster to find their own voice. Doubt is not always helpful, and over-confidence in all things, can lead down the road of mainsplaining – or in this story’s case – pigsplaining and ducksplaining and catsplaining. (For some of us in the room, that’s just funny, and for others it’s funny because it hits so close to home.)

All this month we are asking ourselves, what would it be like to be a people of balance. Doubt and confidence – in the case of our rooster, and doubt balanced with faith, as a religious community. For most of us, our knee-jerk reaction to these questions is to go straight to our heads. In the everyday push and pull of the world, for the small daily acts of what next, we can paralyze ourselves before the great “what if?”

I wonder if the problem isn’t just that though; if it isn’t just about cautiousness and due-diligence gone wild. I wonder if it’s more about the problem resting solely in our minds and not also our hearts. I wonder if we sometimes have a tendency to overly value our intellectual rigors over our emotional awareness. Do we ask more of the practical questions; more of the detail-orientated concerns, than we seek to be comfortable with the choice in our center, the choice in our spirit?

I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 58 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. We as a religious people wrestled with the mind and the heart. We combined the cool rigors of our Unitarian forbears with the passion and verve of our Universalist predecessors. For sure, both traditions had members with more of the traits of the other as well, but the religions had a tendency toward one or the other. Painting a broad swath, one could say they both had a style to them; mind and heart.

Over 400 years ago Unitarianism came about in Eastern Europe where it first gained a foothold (while also developing in parts of Western Europe where it wouldn’t solidify, however, for a while). Impassioned preachers these Unitarians certainly were, but their arguments and concerns were rooted in the rise of scientific honesty and intellectual cohesion at the expense of valuing adherence to doctrine. Simply put, they made sense, and they got most worked up when things didn’t make sense. Not that they weren’t very heart-felt in their convictions, (and there was certainly mainsplaining going on between theologians back then as well) but their ultimate concerns theologically, wrestled with the realm of the consistent mind. It first had to be right up here (pointing to head.)

Universalism on the other hand was a truly American creation at around 1800. It was an emotional reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the times. Their great critique was rooted in the heart even if it also made intellectual sense. “How can an all-loving God condemn anyone to ever-lasting pain and suffering?” Their answer was – “God wouldn’t.” For sure, theologians coached their arguments in logic and scripture. But at their root, their concerns were less about doctrinal consistencies and more about how our theologies reflect the God we know in our lives. It’s as if they were saying, “The God I know loves us. How could you say anything to the contrary?!” Their theologies were about the heart.

So starting about 58 years ago, we began our great struggle of sorting through these conflicting theological impulses. The two denominations had their own conversations prior to that as well, particularly among the respective youth groups, but up till that point it was always discussions between denominations – not within the same. (And the youth conferences merged first, bringing the rest of us along a year later.)

The big questions: Are we going to focus more on making sure we can all agree? Or is that beside the point now that we’re in a truly non-creedal tradition? Or are we going to focus more on where our hearts and spirits meet? How can we make our deeds match our thoughts while living true to our hearts? What do we do when each of us have differing concerns we put to the forefront? Our histories and backgrounds are often very far apart, yet we struggle to find a common language.

Our minds and hearts are in conflict with one another theologically and it sometimes causes us unease and pain from the disconnect. (Remember that when I use the word “theological”, I simply mean “how we find or make meaning in the world.”) We get frustrated for the lack of a common language or we lament the loss of the ease of creedal certitudes even while never wanting to return to them; we came here or we stayed here in part for this reason. But wouldn’t it just be so much easier if we could simply state how we wrap up the complexity of the universe in one neat little “elevator speech” for our friends, family and co-workers! (An “elevator speech” is what we can spew out, in between the time it takes to get from one floor to our destination. I get asked with frequency what Unitarian Universalism is as one of our ministers. My elevator speech goes something like: “We’re a covenantal faith which means we place a greater concern on our shared commitments with the people and world around us – our shared relations – than we do on the beliefs we hold at any given moment. Ideally, our pews reflect the diversity of experience and views in our community. In other words, we seek to reflect living experience. We will never all agree on everything, and our spirituality needs to match this reality. When folks ask how can we have a religion when we don’t all agree, I remind people that we have a planet where this is the case. We don’t all agree, and yet we need to learn to live together through the difference. This challenge and this vocation is my faith.”) OK – maybe we can describe what we’re about… but even so, it’s going to take a few sentences. It’s not simple and it’s not quite rote.

Depending on where we came from, the word doubt will be heard differently – at least religiously speaking. If you were raised UU, it’s probably an honest word, that reflects the uncertainty of faith. If you were unchurched growing up, and are coming to a service for the first time, you might have a curious approach to the word. And if you’re a convert from a creedal tradition, it might be shocking to hear from the pulpit that doubt isn’t a four-letter word for us (so to speak.) Striving to be a people of balance, doubt is part of that balance – so long as we allow it to inform, and not to limit.

It may turn out to be the case that Unitarian Universalists are called to bear the burden of not having an easy answer. We keep the space in human conversations around meaning – for incertitude, for complexity, for nuance and for doubt. On our better days, we also keep the space for relations, networks, justice-building and integrity. We could likely come up with neat definitions for all these latter virtues, but no definition in the world would ever truly explain what we meant. We can’t define justice – we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We can’t define relations – they are only realized in action, in living them. The mind can take us pretty far, but the mind can’t live the reality, it can only describe it. That’s where the heart comes in. That’s also where the pain comes in.

One frequent theological challenge is the idea of God. We have many books we draw wisdom from, but we have no source that tells us what to think, what to feel exactly about this concept or experience. I say concept or experience because some of us in this room view God as an idea and some of us view God as an experience. And this is likely true whether or not we believe in God. There will be atheists who encounter God through heart-felt experience, and there will be theists who only see God as a concept in their minds. …

We heard earlier in our service an excerpt from an essay by Parker Palmer. “To live in this world, we must learn how to stand in the tragic gap with faith and hope. By “the tragic gap” I mean the gap between what is and what could and should be, the gap between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it.” Palmer is helping us to realize that seeing new ways, being open to new perspectives, can both paralyze us into inaction through corrosive cynicism as he calls it, or make us useless through ineffectual idealism. But we need to still have the room to find new ways, if we are ever to build the beloved community. Ultimately, even “Heartbreak can become a source of compassion.”

Palmer’s tragic gap is largely built upon the balancing act of heart and mind; of doubt and faith. Unitarian Universalism offers a saving message here. Whatever our well-informed opinion helps us to understand about whatever facet of the world we currently are considering with our minds or hearts, Unitarian Universalism calls us to tread upon that facet lightly. We ought to engage, or wrestle, or dream, but we ought not to come to understand our opinions as facts. We ought not to confuse perception with universal truth. We ought not to demand those around us obey – our take – on a given issue or concern. Whether this be about the nature of the Holy, or which political parties offer the best solution to a given problem, or the best way to run this congregation, or which exact track we must take to liberate this world from injustice. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to break apart the idols we craft our opinions into; whether those opinions are about thoughts or feelings. And some of us craft our idols very diligently – yes even us. (Maybe especially us.)

Our faith may not offer us easy answers, but it does try to save us from the hard, unwavering rules we so often create for ourselves. It does free us to question and to wonder; never fully knowing. It does free us to be nimble with life. Faith is a religious word describing how we orient ourselves toward living. I feel that Unitarian Universalism calls us to orient our living with a certain amount of wanderlust, a certain amount of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a deep sense of caring for the life around us. In short, the questions matter. The answers are never better than just good enough for now though. May we ever seek to have our minds a little bit untidy and our hearts left as wide open as we can dare to this moment.

And that may be the only healthy way to build community. Community is hard to form when our minds or our hearts are rigid, closed and set. When we fixate on our sense of how things are, or must be, to the exclusion of another’s sense of things – our world becomes more about our own ego than about the needs, hopes and dreams of those around us. I think our faith teaches us to grow past that. We may need to face the anger or strident sounds with compassion, but we must not long tarry in the pain. A healthy reverence for doubt allows us to live into community. It keeps us from becoming our rigid selves. Life is sometimes less full in the face of such certitude.

[1] “A Lamp in Every Corner” by Janeen K. Groshmeyer p. 88

 

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