This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/15/17 in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It looks at our cultural norm of silencing our prophets.
Nationally, this weekend we pause to honor the life, the accomplishments and the heroism of Martin Luther King, Jr. We learn about the man, the mission, and the vision. We remember his quest for racial desegregation, his promotion of peace in general, and his widespread expansion of non-violent protesting as a mark of active citizenship in the United States. We encourage civic volunteering as a nation this weekend; we also tend to take a day off from work tomorrow; and our schools will be closed, as will our office. It wasn’t till 2000 that the holiday was observed in all fifty states. Interestingly, “[the holiday] is combined with Civil Rights Day in Arizona and New Hampshire, while it is observed together with Human Rights Day in Idaho. (…) It is also a day that is combined with Robert E. Lee’s birthday in some states.”(Apparently Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi.) …
… We honor his legacy now in ways that we never could honor his life; for when he was still living, we in the States at least, our collective national consciousness – used different ways to single him out. We used dogs, and we used fire hoses (most of us will remember that classic photo, and some of us in this room were active in his call to justice); and finally and tragically a gun. We pick a day, as good as any other, to remind ourselves that we’re not always our best selves when it comes to integrity of character; to remind us of the importance of compassion for our neighbor; and maybe to dream once more that there might be another way; to remember our moral failure as a nation. We take a weekend each year to mark the truth that something great happened on this soil; something that grew from centuries of pain and suffering; something that was most notably brought into pinpoint clarity by this man. Something great that was an appropriate, and fitting, and remarkable and yet a simply necessary response to the torpor our collective consciousness otherwise was mired in at the time (and maybe still is today.)
On this weekend, we thank you Mr. King for your dream; for your vision; for your sacrifice – even as we mourn and regret that such a sacrifice was apparently needed or allowed to occur. And we try to shake ourselves once more to realize that each one of us are the people left to pick up that mantle once more and still. May our hearts come to know a way to celebrate that goes beyond the ready ease of just another day off that otherwise might pass us by unremarkably.
Over the New Year, I went to see Hidden Figures in the movies. It’s a blockbuster hit that beat out Star Wars: Rogue One’s opening weekend – something few thought possible for a historical drama. For those that haven’t heard, it’s based on the true story of the women who helped us get out into space, and ultimately, later to the moon. The story focuses on three African-American women in particular amongst a larger cadre of African-American women who were part of the human computing program at NASA — Dorothy Vaughan, NASA’s first African-American supervisor; Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated the trajectories for Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission; and Mary Jackson, who, according to NASA, “may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field” in the 1950s. I can’t recommend the movie enough – it’s well worth seeing – and if you’re feeling despair at what might be, this movie may rekindle a sense of hope in difficult times. I think I can safely say, without spoilers, that the United States eventually gets out to space.
As a kid, I was a strong science junkie. I loved all things science fiction, all things that involved dinosaurs and all things about space. There’s an old comic that shows a graph of our knowledge of these topics that peaks during our younger child-aged years and then spikes up again when we’re grandparents. I was one of those kids who ate it all up. I would sit glued to any science discovery show on TV; I took every science class my school offered. I wondered if I would turn out to be an astronaut, or a marine biologist or maybe even an archaeologist. Despite it all, I never once heard those women’s names, until I saw this movie.
These three women were impeccable; patient beyond all reason, brilliant, strong and integral to the success of the race to space. And although Katherine Johnson would receive the Katherine Johnsonin 2015 for her 33-year career at Langley, we as a nation waited 55 years to tell their story to the wider public. Actress Janelle Monáe (who played Mary Jackson) said (in an NPR interview), “I was really upset because, as an African-American young woman, I had no idea who Mary Jackson was, who Dorothy Vaughan was, who Katherine Johnson was, who the colored ‘computers’ were. I had no idea. And I’m just like: This clearly had to be a mistake. These are American heroes. Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would have not made it into space. We would have not made it into orbit.” These three women were cultural and scientific saints in their own ways, and we couldn’t tell their story – not for 55 years after. In the 1960s, America wasn’t ready to share the celebration of one of humanity’s shining intellectual achievements with three Black women – stellar individuals or not.
We widely know the story of Rosa Parks who was the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott – and she deserves every credit given to her for her prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of segregated America. NPR writes:
“Few people know the story of Claudette Colvin: When she was 15, she refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white person — nine months before Rosa Parks did the very same thing.
Most people know about Parks and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that began in 1955, but few know that there were a number of women who refused to give up their seats on the same bus system. Most of the women were quietly fined, and no one heard much more….. When asked why she is little known and why everyone thinks only of Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because “she was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look.
“Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” says Colvin. “She fit that profile.”… After Colvin’s arrest, she found herself shunned by parts of her community. She experienced various difficulties and became pregnant. Civil rights leaders felt she was an inappropriate symbol for a test case.”
I don’t bring this up to be critical of the practical decisions of leaders in the Civil Rights movement; rather to reflect on one of our tendencies to find any way to quiet our prophets. Those leaders were making informed strategic choices to address our collective cultural bias – so they shouldn’t be blamed for speaking to the times. If Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson could get us to the moon and back, and we couldn’t speak of them, how would we ever hear the truth coming from a 15 year old girl who didn’t look the part of respectability politics? Our Mary Oliver reading Wild Geese claims, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles, through the desert, repenting.” Mary Oliver is a frequently heard poet in many UU congregations, and an excerpt from that poem is even in our hymnal – so one could say that her poetry informs our lived or practical theology. And yet, some of us do have to be better than good; some of us do have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles – to be heard, to be valued, to have impact on our wider story and to be known for that impact.
In fact, we as a nation have all too often demanded that of our prophets, in order to be heard. It’s one of the tools of oppression to silence our prophets – make them adhere to a perfect standard or invalidate their message by attacking their character. It’s a strategy we’re taught as kids is wrong in Debate class, but one as adults we fall prey to again and again. None of us have to look too far in contemporary news stories to hear this old trick play itself out again and again: 1) The woman, who’s been assaulted, being blamed because she wasn’t chaste. 2) Transfolk being implied to be pedophiles for needing to use a public restroom. 3) Young black teens, gunned down in our streets, being described as thugs in news coverage, when their only “offense” was playing outside their homes.
That woman, that transperson, that teen – are today’s next prophets – crying out in the wilderness for a more just world. When we find ourselves quieting them down, or negating their message of truth over some perceived imperfection, we’re silencing our collective conscience, bit by bit. That which stirs in us unease, should not be confused with being wrong. Too often we become complacent with what is actually wrong in the world and that feeling of unease is trying to tell us something. Complacency can be the death of the spirit; it can also allow threats to our neighbors to go unchallenged – as history is rife with such tragic stories.
Martin Luther King, Jr is such a prophet – who we as a nation have tried over and over to quiet how his story gets retold. We remember his visionary speech about dreams that we can all find our place in, and forget his more challenging messages like this. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (MLK.) He asked us to get uncomfortable. Or his reminder in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963 that read, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In that same letter King would go on to lament, “Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Hearing his words travel ahead 55 years to today, I think of all the protests over the last few years where in one breath pundits would extol MLK’s calls for freedom, but pretend he didn’t shut down roadways in Selma, or demand desegregation in a hundred public ways. It’s another form of doublethink that’s alive and well in our national conscience and we need to nurture that healthy unease to it.
Last Sunday I spoke at length about our first principles in terms of religious promise – the promise of worth. I want to continue that line of thought this week with our second principle where we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. For those that were snowed in last Sunday, I was talking about understanding our principles as religious promises that we make and remake again and again. They’re action statements, rather than creedal beliefs. What does our second principle mean as an action statement? In light of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, how does it challenge us? As we reflect this month on what it means to be a people of prophecy, what does our second principle demand of us?
The promise of justice, equity and compassion in human relations is a promise that humanity may yet to have ever fully seen – for all of our people. I probably could drop the word “may” and just say – we’ve never reached that promise. It’s an aspirational spiritual value that we’re called to live into. As Unitarian Universalists, we are saying we’re obligated to moving our world closer to the realization of that promise. Spiritually – justice, equity and compassion in human relations are fully possible truths; we as a people choose to fall down, again and again, in living them out. But it’s a choice to not live into those values, not a necessity. It’s a choice, and one that our society chooses to make again and again.
Theologically, we say those values are real, central to our spirituality and we commit to the striving. That’s an important distinction. These days, we seem to hear a growing cynicism that those values aren’t possible in the real world; that the world just doesn’t work that way; that if others get more we have to get less so why bother. … Cynicism is a lie. It draws us deeper and deeper back out of our centered spirit; it separates us spiritually from the potential in Creation; and it makes us forget our own holy power. As we come upon our national holiday commemorating one of our world’s great prophets, let us renew our commitment to living the truth of the spirit – the promise of justice, equity and compassion – in our hearts, and in words and in our deeds. Our faith demands that of us; we are all called to birth that promise into our lives and the lives all around us. Let us make a little more room for our prophets to be noisy; to be challenging; to make us uneasy to injustice.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/8/17. It looks at our first principle in terms of self-worth in light of our trying times.
Every New Year, many of us feel the pressure to make resolutions; to give up this, or to strive for that. Eat better, exercise more, and maybe drink less and probably hide from the holiday sugar crush. Some of the more detail oriented of us write them up as if we were in a work-based performance review – smart goals that are quantifiable, actionable, timely and measured. “I will lose x pounds a week for the following y number of months.” Others keep it simpler, “Maybe I’ll go to church or Temple this week.” If that’s you; I’m glad you made that resolution – welcome to our Fellowship!
Looking back at the year just over, I know that many of us felt like it was a long slog through hardship, turmoil and disappointment or loss. It became so culturally endemic as “the worst year ever” that we realized we needed to create spaces at our Fellowship for folks to come together through small groups, vigils, social action and we even updated our website to clearly ask, “Are you looking for a safe place during these uncertain times? A place to find people who share your values and concerns? We welcome you here.”
In some ways, for many of us, 2016 felt like an unwelcome guest who came knocking at our door. Now that 2017 is here, we’re wondering what kind of stranger it will turn out to be. Do we still walk with hunched shoulders waiting for the other shoe to drop, or do we plan for something new and more positive? Do we even feel we have a choice? As the year came to a close, many of my messages each week were dealing with harder and harder topics. Taking a deep breath, I wonder if we can begin our new year on a lighter note, clear the fog, and begin again to do the hard work that won’t magically go away – to build the beloved community – maybe with our backs a little straighter and taller than they’ve felt in awhile.
Imagining years as guests at our door got me thinking about the folk tale I told earlier in our service today –The Soup Stone. I think it can be really helpful in looking at a new year in a new light. It began by saying that “A woman in a village was surprised to find a very well-dressed stranger at her door, asking for something to eat. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I have nothing in the house right now.’”
What a curious challenge this story creates! All we know about the man with the odd soup stone, is how he’s dressed. Just a first impression really. But with it, a rock and some good clothes, all the folks in the village go from not feeling like they have anything to offer to being able to cook a meal for the whole town…. It’s enough to make one want to carry a rock around with us all the time.
I’ve always liked this story for the rare tale of the charlatan who uses their charisma for the good; the sacred trickster who generates wealth and compassion rather than the type to siphon it away for their own ends. It reminds me of stories friends have shared who have benefitted from the random driver ahead of them who chose to pay their toll at a collection site, only to generate a string of folks paying for the next person behind them. Maybe nothing has actually changed if each successive driver still pays the same amount, but it makes a world of difference in how we see the drive. Or as our image on the screen today shows rose-colored glasses covering a bleak landscape – we can sometimes choose the meaning of the story – creating beauty along the way. We can choose sometimes to feel like the kind-hearted well-dressed stranger in the story, or sometimes we can choose to be the villager who feels they have nothing left to give. We don’t always have a choice, but I think in our times of strength we have much more of a choice than we allow ourselves to think we have.
The story we heard this morning is a sad one in a way as well. It relays truthfully the world we live in when it reminds us of how much clout and status we give to strangers (and maybe to New Years too.) There’s a message here that we all have something to give, but we so often give away that power to others with rocks in their hands and a smart set of clothes. Remember that as we go boldly into a new year. It’s the internal voice that convinces us that everyone around us is smarter, or more skilled, more talented, or better looking. It’s the same one that loudly lies to us that others are more self-assured and confident. In case no one’s mentioned this to you today regarding self-assurance, (and it’s a message I need to hear just about daily to remember,) the other person is probably thinking the same thing about you. Most of us think we’re more of a mess than those around us; even and especially those who outwardly act like the entire world is more a mess than they.
Of course, we will all go through times where we are particularly down from loss or illness, drawn out from work, or enervated from family. And the guest at our table – in the form of 2016 – may have gavin us many reasons to doubt ourselves. They are all realities in life that we will forever struggle with. But even in those moments, worth comes from within, even if it might take a stranger or a community to help bring that sense of self-worth back to the surface. The Soup Stone’s resolution involves a secreted exit for the trickster of the story, who leaves the very precious rock behind. The people of the village have been gifted with the magic they need to realize their capacity for giving. They are better able to see what they are able to offer to the world. I see them as better recognizing their own value. What they can only achieve from within, they are only able to do so by being in community; with a little good-hearted kick from the story’s roving trickster character.
So why do we do it? Why do we give rocks magical powers and think we have none of our own? Why do we so clearly see the value in others, and so often have a terrible time seeing the value in ourselves? Why do we all do it, and easily forget that that means the person next to us is also similarly struggling? How do we lift up the mantle of trickster in the story, and live that generosity for ourselves? That’s the religious question (or questions) for the day.
For those who are new to Unitarian Universalism, we have 7 principles that are central to our ethics. You can read them all in your order of service but today I want to focus on our first principle – what I think of as the promise of worth – our first principle states that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In practice, it means several things: First, that we must stand on the side of love in our human relations. Every person is deserving of love and compassion. Just because we live, each of us are deserving of being treated with respect; regardless of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality or gender expression. Even though we don’t always succeed in this, this principle reminds us of our struggle toward that lofty and healing goal.
The second is about spiritual calling: just like those we strive to support, we too are deserving of respect from others. We fight for others’ rights, and we struggle for our own. In this way, this principle reminds us that when folks are treating us poorly for our differences, we do not deserve it.
There’s at least a third aspect that’s important – especially when years grow long and wear on our shoulders. If all of the rough treatments we may be subjected to by others is wrong, what of those we inflict upon ourselves? Who do we go to when our harshest critic and the most unjust judge is no one other than us? It’s the villager that believes they have nothing to give, when in fact they have so very much to give. Some years may tell us we have nothing left to give, and we can’t listen to that message. Just the other day, Starr Austin and I were talking about a cartoon we saw make its way through social media. It had two people talking on a piece of ground that read “2017” and it showed one person asking a gardener how did they know the year would bring up something new – and the gardener replied “because I’m planting the seeds.” I think the world can be a harsh place at times, and this cute cartoon doesn’t speak to that, but it does remind us not to still the work of our own hands because we’ve convinced ourselves that we are powerless. We still have agency ourselves despite all the sound and noise of the wider world.
We often hear the first principle as a justice issue; and it definitely is that as well; but it can be a pastoral issue as well. How do we convince ourselves that we deserve to treat ourselves as well as we expect ourselves to treat others? How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others – within us as well?
I’ve been wrestling with these questions in relation to our seven principles. As Unitarian Universalists we are a covenantal faith. Rather than coming together based on a shared creed, we are a faith whose identity is based on shared commitments. As a tradition we first stand in relation to one another, rather than how much we agree with one another. Despite all this, we too often speak of our seven principles as beliefs. The wording for them all begins with us agreeing to “covenant to affirm and promote…”.
How can the principles be more than affirmations of static belief – which they’re not supposed to be – while still speaking to the questions of the spirit and the heart? How differently would we engage with our principles if we saw them as religious promises, rather than simply religious beliefs? As a covenantal faith we focus first on our relations, and so too can our core principles. A promise is a sort of belief that we extend out into the world between ourselves and someone else; although sometimes it is a value that we commit to just with ourselves. And I’m talking here about the bigger ones. Like the promise a parent makes to their children, verbalized or implicit, in that they will raise and care for them with all their heart. It’s a belief that the parent typically holds to, and one that children usually believe (– at least till our teenage years, then all bets are off.) The promise is lived between the parent and the child. It has as much power and substance as the maker invests in it. It’s deeply relational, and intrinsically based on belief.
So, what changes? Promises bring us back to the theological question. In the case of the first principle, our faith makes the bold statement that everyone has worth and dignity; including yourself; including myself. I promise you that your inherently worthy. You may not be feeling that to be the case at this moment because of something you’re carrying with you from work, or school, or how you acted on your way in here this morning, or how brutal a year was for you. But it is a promise Unitarian Universalism makes. We’re not saying we’re forgiven, although we all need to be from time to time. We’re not saying we’re justified, or sinners, or lost or found – although we may all be all of that at different moments in any given day. We’re saying we have worth, and we deserve to be treated with dignity; even by ourselves.
So, in light of the question I posed before. “How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others within us as well?” We have the theological basis for a religious discipline. As we begin again this New Year, whether excited, or worn down, how do we choose to begin it? We’re writing our collective open letters to the New Year; do we choose to assent to the promise our faith puts forth, or do we choose to turn away from it? Recognizing the worth in others; others recognizing the worth in us; and we recognizing the worth in ourselves. If the first two ways come more naturally to you – and I know they do for me; remind yourself of them when you can’t find anything about yourself to value. That’s the beauty of a promise made. They may be difficult to keep, but if they are made with integrity they plot a very honest course.
The promise of our faith encourages us to live knowing that we believe in the people around us; that we are all deserving of a place at the table. Our story this morning ends with the exclamation, “Bowls for everyone. Then they all sat down to a delicious meal while the stranger handed out large helpings of his incredible soup. Everyone felt strangely happy as they laughed and talked and shared their very first common meal.”
We too often give up our self-worth to the judgments of others, or the ardor of years now gone by. We too often sooner place credence in magic rocks than believe we ourselves have something to contribute. The promise of our faith teaches us another path.
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Christmas morning, 12/25/16. It looks at the role of Angels in the Christmas Story with a special nod to some favorite childhood memories.
Merry Christmas! Angels are on my mind this Christmas. We’ve just sung a few songs that spoke of angels. The angels from Jewish and Christian scripture, are not the cutesy cherubs from Renaissance paintings. Scriptural angels tend to begin every conversation with the words, “Fear Not!” for although they are messengers and agents of good, they are also God’s presence on earth, and quite scary when they need to be. Eternity is both beautiful and terrifying – any of us who have stared into the deep oceans know that to be true.
When Angels speak, I know the message is both meant to be vitally important, but also to be one that shakes us to our core. The world will not be the same; something is demanded of us. We must change before the newness of the next moment. Change may be the one great universal source of dread for most of us – right? And angels mean change.
Even if we fear it, all change is not bad. In the Christmas story, the angels demand once more we fear not, for unto us is a savior born. …But the world will change for it. Hope, redemption, healing – all mean change – yet too often we fear it – that which brings us further into wholeness frightens us nonetheless.
I remember another story about fear, or overcoming fear. It’s a story from my childhood that returns year after year. Every Christmas I would look forward to Charlie Brown’s Christmas special. I related to Charlie Brown – maybe a little too much. He was awkward, and made a ton of mistakes. But had a lot of friends – who in the end usually came around – but along the way were sometimes kind of horrible kids. Without going into too much detail – I’ll leave it at – I related to that as a kid. Maybe I still do, and I doubt I’m alone here in that. The annual Charlie Brown Christmas special was all of that – ramped up a few notches. At a culminating point of the story, when Charlie Brown can’t get anything right, and the Christmas pageant is about to be a total wash – and the other kids are brutal to him, laughing and pointing – out comes Linus to remind us the reason for the season. Linus is the classic kid who has it together, more mature than the others in many ways, but is still stuck to his infant security blanket. He hasn’t grown past that yet.
The story begins in Charlie Brown’s moment of fretting:
“Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone, who knows what Christmas is all about?!
Linus: Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about. Lights please?
And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Now, in most ways it’s the traditional telling of the Christmas story – Linus’ words are almost identical to the translation of the scripture we use each Christmas. But what’s always been so powerful about Linus retelling the story is the moment where he cries out as the Angel saying, “Fear Not!” At that moment, Linus drops his security blanket – Linus never is separated from his blankie before that moment, and never since. But when the Angels, when eternity, is staring at you and saying fear not, we are called to something greater than our everyday selves.
What holds you back from the change that the birth of Jesus demands of us?
Christmas is a way of telling and retelling the story of a baby who’s name was Jesus. We sing songs about shepherds, and angels, and wise men (called magi in the stories) traveling to find him and give him gifts. We sing about a mother and an adoptive father. Why is Jesus so special – why are we getting together today to honor his birth?
(ONLY IF A LOT OF KIDS PRESENT) [(Tell me – what are some things that people believe about Jesus? What did he teach us?) (love one another, caring for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, visit those in prison.)]
He was a great teacher, a healer, and some people believe he was the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. All of us here may have different views about all of these things, but as UU’s we definitely value his message of hope, of caring for those who are hurt, and being loving to all people as best we can. Just being nice, just being caring to our neighbor may sound like a really easy thing to do – but has anyone here ever had to deal with a bully at school, or an impatient person on line at the store, or ever had a fight with their mom, or dad, or son, or daughter (anyone here ever have a fight with their family?) – those things remind us how hard it is to always be loving.
But we also believe that with every child that’s born is another redeemer for this world. The “hope of the world” as he’s sometimes called, didn’t come from money or power, or comfort. He was born in a dirty barn, among a lot of farmyard animals. Simple Shepherds were the first people to visit him – the wise men, the kings won’t find him till later. His family was traveling and homeless when he was born – and yet he would become one of the greatest of teachers.
If each child that’s born is another hope for the world – what does that say about us? Sometimes we feel bad about ourselves, sometimes other kids, other people can be mean, and it’s easy to believe the lie – it’s easy to believe that we’re not important or special. The birth of Jesus is about many things, but it’s also about how very important we each are. Fear Not! It’s about how we are each called to try to make a difference in this world. How we’re to try to leave the places we go, better than they were when we got there. We won’t always succeed, but we’re born to do this.
The birth of Jesus, and his life, has inspired so many people across the 2000 years since his time – to make the world a better place; to lift ourselves up when we are down; to birth love where this hate and hope where this is fear. May we honor his birthday by promising to strive to live with compassion, with caring, with love, and with hope.
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Christmas Eve, 12/24/16. It celebrates the conjunction of Christmas Eve and the First Night of Hanukkah while looking at the role of the Vassal King, Herod in the story of the birth of Jesus.
Merry Christmas everyone! And Happy Hanukkah! It’s a special night – with both holy days celebrating as one. The last time Hanukkah began on Christmas Eve, I was 3 years old. In Unitarian Universalist houses of worship, we traditionally have an annual service we call the Festival of Peace and Lights – which draws from the spiritual message of these holy days. Earlier in the month of December we reflect on the teachings of hope, and peace and miracles in the face of despair; the spirit of the holidays is realized in those virtues.
This year, I keep finding myself being drawn to the stories – or the early history of these Holy Days. Jesus was born into a world, into the small town of Bethlehem, whose nation was wracked by war, and revolutions, and invasion, and the occasional periods of independence. The miracles told in the story of Hanukkah occurred only just over a 150 years before his birth. Jesus was born under the rule of Herod; a vassal king to a foreign power. Herod was a convert to Judaism and went out of his way to be liked – beginning massive building projects like expanding the Second Temple. But he often misstepped – by building golden statues, lavish spending on gifts and used taxes as the means to glorify himself over the nation he ruled through his pomp.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, we hear a story of a ruler who is willing to sacrifice the infants of a town, to protect his own power and life of extravagance. The wants of the most powerful, taking precedence over the basic needs of the most vulnerable. The very birth story of Jesus is a clear repudiation of the false gospel of wanton greed, of baseless ego. Salvation is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The great and the powerful are the villains of the Christmas story, and take no part in the nativity scene.
Our image for this short homily flips the nativity scene on its head; it depicts the story with no one who is Jewish, or Arabic or African. We see only the manger and the animals. The absence of the heart of the story is the lesson for this year; a year where so many in our world, rail against the disenfranchised, pretending they are the enemy. With anti-semitism on the rise here in Long Island, and the KKK openly leaving out flyers in parking lots, kindling our Menorah as we light our Christmas Trees, is a holy blessing reminding us to ever look for the Star of Wonder to lead us from worldly arrogance – away from the baseless fears that are disguised as vicious hate.
Herod was a fearful ruler who lashed out with vicious hate, and Jesus was born to lead us away from such a small-hearted world. This empty nativity scene reminds us that we have no Christmas story without all of us; in our full humanity, and in all our difference and diversity. We offer sanctuary to the refugee fleeing oppressive rule. We keep the lights in the inn warm, and the doors unlocked for the migrant who needs a place to stay. It is in this spirit, that we remember to keep our Fellowship shelter open on Christmas night – tomorrow. We thank Joanne, and all the families and individuals who will spend Christmas night tomorrow here, celebrating the holy day by ensuring shelter is always available. There is no greater spiritual obligation we have than to care for our neighbor in the hour of their need; humbly knowing that we all come to times of great need; and in the times of our strength we are called to share that strength.
As we move from the spirit of Christmas into the acts that inspire healing and change in the world, we remember the great poet Maya Angelou’s words we heard earlier in our service. “It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time….. We jubilate the precious advent of trust. We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope. All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices; To celebrate the promise of Peace.” So friends, this Christmas, loosen our voices and speak that great Peace “without shyness, or apology, or hesitation.” For this is the great message of Christmas; this is the true reason for this holy season.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/04/16. For many of us, this time of year can challenge us with times of sadness while others are feeling joy. How can we be present to our ourselves, and each other during such times?
When I was growing up, we used to wonder if we’d have a White Christmas. It didn’t mean to us, will it snow in December, only will it snow on Christmas. Of late, we seem to be perennially wondering when winter will start. This year I think it was December 2nd before I realized that October was over. One recent Thanksgiving, I remember dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seem a bit mixed up, and neither I, nor that bee, had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.
The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green, well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves seemed to only fall in the last day or two. I swear our trees here still had leaves on Wednesday. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays sneak up on me unprepared. Although the drug stores had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I dodged hearing a Christmas tune until two days ago when I accidentally changed the station to the 24-hour Holly Channel.
…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?
To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults. For many of us, this becomes the Blue Season, while the rest of the world seems to be full of joy.
But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in: Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.
In traditional earth-based spirituality we will soon be crossing through Yule – the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:
“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”
Those trees that were holding onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are now just bare bones outside our windows and along our walks – If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable jolly-old traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come December?
This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons – A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces: To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.
It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. My husband and I finally had that talk after 6 years of also doing the Way-To-Much. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe just didn’t realize as a kid.
Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself: The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.
Life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention; the poet’s “still point” – the lack of motion within every motion.
Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.
One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the Winter Holidays and Holy Days relates to this – especially when the holidays have become The Blue Season for you. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas Party or a Fellowship pageant, all the logistical bits—the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be an intentional way of reminding us that for that short span of time, we should be fully present. We commit all this time, energy, and focus to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of that candle being lit while singing Silent Night, is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.
And it’s those moments between the moments (to now brazenly quote T.S. Eliot) that we can return to for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. (Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal.) The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal, stopping so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.
In the holiday season we stop, we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.
We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The spiritual work of this season isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating over the holidays—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place for the migrant in the manger, for those oppressed and seeking a miracle for even more than 8 days and nights. If we do that work, the rest will follow.
The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking, which in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the spiritual work of the season as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.
Mystically speaking – The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.
Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990’s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?
As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. Allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/20/16 looking at the differences between faith and belief. We also explore the tension between character and values, and how they struggle with broader ideologies in light of a nation with increasing frequencies of hate crimes.
Four years ago, my husband and I were entertaining out of town guests. They wanted to experience the NYC night life, so we took them to one of the then newer dance clubs in Hell’s Kitchen.I used to go out dancing pretty regularly in my twenties, but as the economy changed and the clubs died out, I slowly got out of the habit. This was probably the first time I had gone to a major dance club in over ten years. We got there and I simply couldn’t handle it. The sound, the vibrations, the smoke were all bad enough, though manageable. The twenty foot tall wall of LEDs was too much for me to handle. I started feeling like the beginnings of a seizure were happening – seriously. I left quickly and got into a cab.
On the car ride home, the cabbie was the friendly, talkative type. Now there are three places in the world where I try very hard not to reveal my vocation – bars, airplanes and yes, taxis. Despite my best efforts at dodging, he quickly zeroed in on what I do for a living. Ministry. The next 20 minutes were filled with conversation around theology, meaning, values, interfaith dialogue and my views on homosexuality, women’s rights, immigration, etc. Remember, I’m still feeling all sorts of wonky from the fading sensations induced by flashing lights and vivid screens. But I do my best. The driver was raised Catholic; came across as a progressive person of faith who felt a bit distant to organized religion, but remained a Christian.
My husband left the club shortly after me to make sure I was doing ok. He got into a cab and met a driver who was the talkative type. The cabbie also quickly zeroed in on Brian’s religious tradition – Pagan. They had a similar conversation around beliefs, practices and religious community. This driver turned out to be a practicing Pagan. When the taxi driver dropped him off, he said to Brian, “Funny, I just dropped a minister off at this same apartment a little while ago who came out of the same night club.”
It amazes me that the cabbie was Christian-sounding to me, and Pagan to Brian. The New York cynic in me wonders if part of that was playing to the tip. But there’s another side to it as well. The driver’s religious upbringing was still a large part of his values. Particular beliefs aside, he maintained the Christian sense of compassion to strangers, helping those in need, the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount. All of that came up explicitly or implicitly in our conversation. (We were both fast talkers.) And he held another set of beliefs as well. Does he get to do that and still call himself any particular religious tradition?
Yes. Yes, he does. There’s a difference between the words faith and belief. I feel this difference is both the source of unrest in our world, and the potential for healing. When values become secondary to belief, we walk dangerous ground; ideology then trumps character. Our American roots in 18th and 19th century Unitarianism, saw a direct connection between the state of our soul and the nature of our character. For preachers like Theodore Channing, character was a spiritual value; but character is based not on belief, but on action, values and commitments – living from a moral bedrock. Although coming from different places, we could argue what that bedrock should look like, but truth and facts seemed then to weigh more heavily than they appear to do these last 2 years with the expansion of social media, and the reduction of trust in journalism and Cable News. In a recent survey, only 32% of Americans trust the media these days.
Political gridlock in the House and the Senate, which ultimately impacted the future of the Presidency. Our recent (but frequent) history of voting pledges being demanded of potential politicians over reproductive rights and taxation – we saw this mostly strongly in the rise of the Tea Party; although campaign promises seem to now be able to be dropped at a faster rate than we’ve ever seen; maybe campaign loyalty to established figures matters less than the cult of personality or the cult of simply feeling wronged. These are symptoms of beliefs taking precedence over religious values of compassion, or free-will, or non-violence. Ideology, or party unity, seems to trump common values to the point where folks can’t even see that they are doing that in the slightest.
Since the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in the past 40 or 50 years, we’ve tended to conflate the two in the United States. For example, “You’re only a true Christian if you adhere to these strict set of beliefs.” But that’s a modern sense of religious life. It’s also a Western sense of religious life. I will also suggest, it’s not in line with central Christian teachings. And sorting through this difference may become increasingly more important for our democracy as our nation becomes more and more polarized over beliefs – we need to find our way back to our central values.
How has faith shifted to it’s modern understanding? Historically, the word faith, as it appeared in the Bible, tended to be translated more with the sense of trust than belief. When the Jewish people were delivered from Pharaoh, and the importance of faith in God came up, the prophets weren’t trying to make the people believe that God existed, they were trying to convince the people that they could trust God to deliver them. In the biblical world, God was a given. The lesson to be learned was one of hope. Hope in a future, hope in a way forward, hope that the way of cruelty and tyranny was a thing of the past. …Faith demanded a new worldview, a new orientation to life, a letting go of baggage and an unclenching of our hands for a future of possibility.
The conflation of faith and belief is also a Western notion. In the East, millions of religious people can be categorized as having a “dual-belonging.” They hold to the religious values of two or more traditions simultaneously without intellectual conflict. In some countries, it is common for babies to be dedicated with Shinto practices and the dead to be honored with Buddhist practices. It’s both/and without the stigma of hypocrisy. Why is that? In many Eastern traditions, beliefs are seen to be ephemeral, secondary, or nuanced. Practice, actions and personal dedication take precedence. The way a person lives their life matters more than views on any particular thing.
From a Christian perspective, and this is the most radical thing I’m going to say today (I think), linking the adherence of belief to the practice of faith was not originally a core Christian value. In one of the most well known passages of Christian Scripture, Jesus tells a parable about the end times, of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The values that were critical to Judgment Day were not about belief. They were about acts of compassion. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…..” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In other words, we can find the face of God in every person we meet, and how we treat each person becomes an encounter with the Holy. That becomes the utmost priority. Central to the Christian story is an opening of our sight to find the sacred around every corner.
I believe the connection we often make between the use of the word faith and the use of the world belief effects how we engage with religious life. If religion is about hollow views we no longer espouse then we’re less likely to allow our hearts to stir before the sublime. Our heads take over, and we get trapped up here (pointing to my head) rather than responding from a place of warmth (hand over heart.) We’re reading a few words ahead in our hymns making sure that whatever we’re saying matches exactly our opinions, rather than being present for the connection of the spiritual communal act.
This cuts both ways. If one’s faith is entirely dedicated to adherence to right beliefs, when those beliefs are challenged or insulted, so too is one’s religious life. Such an affront to the mind’s assessment of right and wrong can result in extreme emotional responses. It doesn’t take a long search in the news to learn the range of those tragedies. And we are sadly and tragically seeing that expand rapidly, even in the past week since the election. Hate crimes are on the rise. Swastikas and the word “Trump” are being graffitied in tandem on progressive church walls, and in playgrounds in Brooklyn Jewish neighborhoods. When right belief gets confused with right ideology and then right ideology gets connected with race, sexuality or religion, we have a real threat to our democracy and our basic American identity.
In Unitarian Universalism, we’re asked to embody our faith through our relationships. It’s an act of faith to assume the worth and dignity of one another, and to live in a way that matches this given. It means sometimes tamping down our egos so that compassion and equity can take precedence. Even harder, it means that when another is not acting with grace, that it doesn’t prevent us from continuing to act with grace – ourselves. In this way, faith can almost be the opposite of belief. Belief keeps us from living our faith – or rather I should say that strict adherence to our beliefs have a cost to them. What’s foundational to our religious tradition is a sense that there is an awe at the center of life, and we should live as if it were always obvious.
I was talking with a former student minister of mine, now a UU clergy colleague, the Rev. Beth Dana. This Sunday last year, I had the privilege of offering the prayer of ordination and the laying on hands for her service of ordination in Dallas, Texas. She mentioned (with amazement) how many folks have said to her that they used to feel like they needed to check their brains at the door when they went to a church, and with UU they didn’t need to check their brains any longer. Beth is a life-long UU, so she never had the experience of a religious tradition that didn’t match with her intellectual understanding of the world. I think it’s a common experience for converts though. It can be a very freeing experience to finally find a religious home that allows for science and reason in its core values. (Starr Austin and I are leading a 7 part class on Adult Coming of Age, a sort of Credo Workshop on Second Sundays. Check in with her if you’d like to sign up, and you’ll have the refreshing chance to get support while working through your own beliefs in light of our UU tradition.)
The free and responsible search for truth and meaning is a central pillar to our 7 principles. That being said – I want to challenge you by saying, “Check your brain at the door.” (W’oh, we might have just had our first UU heresy spoken from this pulpit.)… “Check your brain at the door.” I don’t mean stop being reasonable, or begin accepting of what anyone tells you as truth. I mean lets put a check on our brains – they’re in charge most of the time anyway. Let’s not give them a free ticket to running all aspects of our lives. Living in Long Island, there’s a high likelihood that you’re stressed by the cost of your rent or mortgage, or the weight of your student debt, or the credit card collectors calling, or a long stretch of unemployment, or the next regional test to make sure you get into the school you want to get into (or the school your kids want to get into), or your incredible work schedule, or the demands of your vocation. Just saying all these out loud raises my own anxiety level. These are all rational problems that require rational solutions to them. The technical steps we take to addressing them are matters for the brain.
When you walk through this threshold, I want to ask you to let another part of yourself take the reigns. We often think of this in terms of the heart. I would go a step further, let your soul come to the forefront. Let your guard down a little. Let go of your assumptions around the worst of religious life, and leave space for the best to grow here. I don’t mean to start buying whatever foolish thing someone says, but rather, allow who you are to shine without the running internal monologue categorizing everything. We have a million things that need our attention and care in the wider world; and you probably come here to work toward that as well. Ease down the trappings of the head, and let your heart give more guidance. Let values of love, and care override hate and indifference. Let character lead away from ideology. May relationships overcome intellectual isolations.
Robert Frost once said that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Good rational boundaries are helpful. But living perched on that fence all the time also makes it hard to go play in your yard. We might not have fundamentalism of the right in our congregation, but we sometimes have fundamentalism of the left. Take a step back from your beliefs, and search for the openness of the yard. That openness is what religion is about. Openness is what faith is really about.
And as, maybe we travel to see family for the holidays, or they travel to see us; let us remember this openness over difficult meals. Not an openness to empty unity in the face of difference of opinion, but an openness to get off our fences, or the need for fences in the first place. An openness to finding our shared values that build up our national character. For a healthy unity comes in values, not ideology. Matthew 25, which we briefly quoted in our sermon last Sunday, and I referenced at length today, reminds us what our central values are in caring for those in need (the hungry, and naked, and homeless, and imprisoned, and thirsty.) If you hear an ideology that calls for unity that denies this central value of the teachings of Jesus, it’s a false ideology and give it no room in your heart. Give it no room. Unity at the expense of our neighbor, is no unity, it’s the old lie of power and oppression dressed up in pretty words that ring hollow, and offer nothing but brokenness.
 Matthew 25:32-46
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/6/16 for our annual All Souls day service.
I recently attended ten days of working conferences for religious professionals. One part of those conferences was primarily about having difficult conversations. How do we as leaders, how do we as religious people, have the difficult conversations around the big topics: money, race, death and sexuality. I was also asked to lead part of the workshops around race, identity and racism. Not surprisingly, the week started with the comparatively easy (I kid) topic of money, and (not surprisingly) saved sexuality for the last day.
One of the premises of the conference was that we needed to understand our frameworks around each of these topics if we’re to have the difficult conversations within our communities of faith. Where we start from, when we’re thinking about race or death, has as big (or even bigger) an impact than any set of facts or subset of knowledge on the topics. What’s our story about money or sexuality, and how do we tell it? One of the odd stand-outs for a very unusual conference for religious professionals, was realizing that if something happened to me, my husband would have a hard time figuring out where all of my investments, or retirement portfolios are, where my bank accounts are and so on. That’s something we’re working on fixing, but it taught me something about myself that I hadn’t quite realized: Part of me is still living, in some ways, a story of individuality.
Don’t get me wrong; almost everything that impacts our household goes through a rigorous schedule of fretting, and arguing – like any very happily married couple. But there are some habits of the single years, that I haven’t quite put to rest: shared documentation, shared calendars, and negotiating where we go for Thanksgiving and Christmas – all still trip us up – even after six years together. How do we start a shared google calendar – has become a near weekly refrain that despite all my tech savvy, I find extremely onerous. Individuality runs deep in our culture, and it’s a hard practice to unlearn – and I don’t think I’m alone here on this.
Another side of individuality is isolation. We all live in isolation at some time in our lives, even if we’re surrounded by people all the time. (And we don’t have to be alone to be in isolation.) It’s another story we tell ourselves: how alone are we…We can become most aware of it when we’re going through times of crisis – whether or not we have all the communal support we can ever dream of – how we relate to crisis can determine if we tell our story as individuals, or tell our story as part of something larger. Do we fight that struggle with cancer as lone warriors, or do we let ourselves lean on our friends and neighbors for moral support, even knowing still that we are the ones that have to go in for chemo? When our relationships wither, do we reach out, or do we hunker down? Having good friends and family – even when we have many of them – doesn’t necessarily mean we let them in when the road gets rough. Sometimes that might be the right choice – only you know that answer for yourself – but sometimes we think isolation is the best choice – even when it’s not.
I was listening to an interview with a comedian some of you may know, Patton Oswalt. He was being interviewed on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert earlier this week. He’s a man in his mid to late forties with a 7 year old daughter. Six months ago, his wife suddenly died in her sleep – there was no warning. She had been working very long hours and he finally convinced her to stay home and get some sleep; there was an accidental and very tragic dose of sleeping medication…. He’s been very public with his grief, and is only now getting back to work in comedy. Something he said about grief in the interview really struck me as true. “If you don’t talk about it, then grief really gets to setup and fortify its positions inside of you and begin to immobilize you. But the more you talk, the more you expose it to the air and to the light, then grief doesn’t get the chance to organize itself, and maybe you can move on better and easier…
…[grief] can’t be remedied, it must be endured – and it’s the endurance, oddly enough, that becomes the remedy.”
He goes on to talk about how he’s found that not only has talking about his grief with others helped him to move forward with his life as an individual and now as a widowed dad of a young child, but he’s learned that his sharing has helped others in extreme grief find avenues for healing. Speaking our stories has a healing power that can help us get back to living more fully after times of great loss.
This reminds me of the old folk saying about twigs. Take any twig you find and try to snap it. It’ll break pretty easily. Put that same twig into a bundle with other twigs, and it gets harder and harder to break. I think when we separate ourselves too long from one another, from community or friends, we can become like that singular twig. Life’s pressures can become too much; grief or loss can become too much – and we don’t have to do it alone.
Alone or together – the story we tell about our life changes us. British fiction author Terry Pratchett said, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” All this month we are imagining what it means to be a people of story. Well, we are a people of story. Our services just about begin weekly with a story, and most of my sermons start by telling another type of story – basically parables of daily living. For us, we don’t have to imagine being a people of story as much as consciously realize how deeply stories impact our lives and our living.
What are the stories you come back to year after year? What stories do we raise our kids on, and why? Which stories defined your character, or pull on your heart strings, or get you in the gut when they resonate with what’s happening in your life? As Pratchett writes, people are shaped by stories – we should choose our stories wisely. And we should choose the stories we tell about our lives just as wisely. What negative story do you choose to try to convince yourself is true about you? I spoke about separation and isolation before, but there are many other stories we tell about ourselves that harm more than help.
A few weeks ago, a colleague of mine was sharing a story about their congregation on Facebook. (I have permission to share this here.) He wrote, “One thing that I never expected to be quite so good at – helping calm really little kids down who are missing their parents. I wonder if this sort of inherent knowledge came when I was hired as a DRE, or if it was there all along.” On one level, there’s a story we all tell about our capacity to be in the world; what we’re good at, what we’re bad at, and what our roles are in our lives. But on the spiritual level, his story reminded me about the central purpose of communities of faith – and I don’t say this flippantly.All religious life is essentially helping one another struggle through our separation anxiety: our sense of separation from the Holy, from God, from one another. In times of grief, we remember those who have died in our lives. In times of change, we hold one another’s hands to remember we’re not alone. In the every day, or maybe for you only a few times in your life, we struggle with whether there is meaning and depth to this world; whether we’re part of something greater. For some the answer is community, or compassion, or justice-building. For the more mystical among us, I believe we’re never truly alone – but despair sets in when we forget that truth. Religious life is helping one another through our struggle with separation and isolation, through grief and loss. And the other side of that struggle is a question of the spirit – and an answer that draws us back out – again and again.