The Promise of the Unknown

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 9/25/16. It explores the painful sense of our national “new normal” of violence and unrest.

We are coming to a close this month reflecting on what it means to be a people of covenant. One of the more precious forms covenant is the one we share with one another person; our marital vows. Some of us have never been married, some never plan to, others have been there and moved onto other roads, and the rest of us are walking that path right now. The marital covenant is in some ways personal, and in some ways universal. And if you have a family through it, it turns out not to be just about those who got married. A whole other set of obligations and expectations arise. But I’ll begin with my experience.

My husband and I have been together for almost 6 years, but we’ve only been married for just under a year and a half. So in some ways the relationship feels in the early years, and some ways it feels like a well known road we’re traveling together. It begins though, grounded in a sense of the familiar. Most of us enter marriage – for those who do enter marriage – into a covenant with someone who we know well. We think we know what to expect, and we think we know how they’ll handle the hurdles on the road ahead of us. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we’re wrong; but we’re making that commitment based on a history that has told us something about our relationship.

There’s a way in which we can throw all of that out once we’re married. Things do change. The new extended family acts differently; sometimes it’s more confrontational, sometimes you’re welcomed with open arms to new cries of “brother!” I’ve married close to 90 couples and I don’t think I’ve every recalled a time when siblings didn’t say something to that effect – often for the first time. Something changes because of the ritual and the commitment. I’ve even seen this for couples that took a long time to get married – like 7 or more years before settling down. Even in those extended dating relationships, siblings started to act differently once the relationship turned formal.

Marriage can offer a promise in the unknown. Whatever comes our way, we’ll deal with together. That’s the ideal, and recent divorce rates prove that not to be fully accurate about half the time. But there’s still a reason to have hope in it. When we are entering into that relationship, we’re often doing it knowing a history, and there’s good reason to let history teach us what we might accomplish together on our better days; especially if all those involved have a similar sense of how to honor the covenant they’ve made with one another. I know that’s too often a big “if” but it’s still worth mentioning since it still works half the time – even today. But when it does work, it works because of a shared history that has meaning, value and purpose. The road ahead is a little bit less unknown because we know what’s come before – it should be less of a surprise. In these cases covenant can help us keep on track.

But what about those times when the track record isn’t so good. I’m looking right now at the broader world. I’ve tried to keep the tone of the sermons this month lighter than what the world news might indicate. And there’s a certain impossibility to that, particular with our In-Gathering service falling on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. But I know how world-weary so many of us are in light of world events, and national politics. But the last 8 days have seemed to be particularly maddening, even for our “new normal” in world affairs. I know I need to work from there, and we’ll find our way to what the planned sermon topic “the promise of the unknown” may teach us.

Last Saturday, my husband and I were supposed to be going to a friend of his’ birthday party in Manhattan on 23rd and 8th – a block from where the bomb went off – around the same time the bomb went off. Earlier on I decided I needed to cancel. I wasn’t fully ready for Sunday’s worship service, and I’m usually in my pajamas anyway by 8pm on a Saturday night. Sunday’s a big day here every week. Around 5pm, Brian decided that his head cold was turning into too much, and cancelled also. I think about the Chinese folk tale I told earlier this service, where we never know what good or bad may come from the next thing that changes our course, and it’s sometimes better not to place judgement on it till we get further down the road. We can get real depressed over any disappointment, and not always see the bigger picture.

I know for us, we were a little bummed to be missing the birthday celebration, but when the news came along around 8:30pm that an explosion occurred, we seriously began to wonder would we have been on that street at that time. There would have been a very good chance of it.  …And we still have to live our lives without being mired down in the what if’s of the world. But a broader perspective, can sometimes help us through.  The Late Night TV circuit would joke that New Yorkers were largely more upset that they couldn’t get their rental cars back in time, or the subway was running slower than usual, or even more notably being woken up at 7am to a screen alert on their phones about a suspect for the bombings. …Sometimes cynicism is part of the broader perspective.

The suspect was ultimately identified by other New Yorkers who found another pressure cooker bomb when they were busy stealing the suitcase that was in it. (Classic New York.) But despite it all, this is now a new normal in our sense of world affairs. The alleged bomber managed to set off 4 bombs, get into a shootout with police, tragically injure two police, before finally being taken alive into custody.

We also heard this week about two more unarmed black civilians – who apparently were also not in any way being confrontational (one was a disabled man reading a book in his car waiting for his kid) – were shot and killed by police officers. I saw photos Tuesday night of Charlotte, North Carolina with police in riot gear and reading updates from a clergy colleague of mine who was talking about the peaceful protests of the executions and the riot gear response. She spoke of the first time being targeted with teargas as a peaceful clergy witness. We’ll undoubtably learn more over the coming days, but this too is the new normal for our sense of world affairs. As an informative aside, this morning I woke to the news that in Knoxville, Tennessee there were riots with people burning furniture – apparently Tennessee came back from a 21-0 deficit to beat Florida 38-28 on Saturday in Knoxville. Police were onsite but not attempting to stop the public destruction.)

I’m not in a place this week where I can stomach too close an examination of every detail and sort out who was at fault and who wasn’t in Tusla and in Charlotte. I hope our judicial system will rise to the occasion this time. But I do want to reflect on the road that’s led to here and wonder what it promises for our unknown future ahead. We know of one story (the Chelsea and Seaside bombings) where an alleged bomber can set off 4 bombs, get into a shootout with police, tragically injure two police and still be taken into custody. Whereas a disabled dad waiting for his kid, reading a book in his car, can be shot dead as a threat. There’s a disparity there that is hard to miss and even harder to white-wash. Even if we learn tomorrow that there was more to the stories in Tulsa and Charlotte, we still have to wonder how can a suspected terrorist get into a shootout and still be taken alive, when these other black men are shot on sight? What’s the difference.

That disparity, that tragic tension, is where I challenge us to go when folks argue that everything is working as it should; that things are just; that everything is a simple right and wrong, and those in authority or always right. Don’t walk away from that tragic tension too soon, or we will continue to be faced with new tragedies.

There’s clearly a sense that our new reality is faced with daily turmoil and heightened moments of rage and violence. Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a poll “that showed that 63% of people say that the Civil Rights movement pushes too fast; that 58% said they were violent; 58% said they hurt their own cause.” You would think I was talking about today and the Black Lives Matter movement. But I’m not. I’m talking about the Civil Rights Movement of 1964. Some of you were alive and very actively engaged in that movement. Were you violent? Were you hurting your own cause? Were you pushing too fast? Do those words echo what gets repeated over and over in today’s news and over the broader family dinner table?

We never fully know where our next steps will take us. And all too often we rewrite history once it’s past us. The same folks that may have critiqued Martin Luther King Jr. for moving too fast, or hurting his own cause, or being too violent (as if he were ever violent in the pursuit of civil rights), may be the same people who look back at that movement and extol its virtues of pacifism and justice now – as the quintessential application of our freedom of speech. Will we recreate that same short-sighted error again in this generation?

Two Sundays ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After popular request, I will continue to lift up a different stone each week till we cover all five. Next month I’ll get to the 4th and 5th stone. But today, I want to focus on the 1st stone in Adams’ theology. That precept paraphrased is: “Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth.” Revelation is not sealed – the promise of the unknown. How can that be true in the face of the weekly tragedies we continue to be plagued with?

Some of that is mediated by the question posed by comedian, Stephen Colbert, (paraphrased) “How can these things continue to happen when we continue to do nothing different?” Our theology states that Revelation is not sealed; it doesn’t say that if we continue to act as if nothing can change, or nothing new can come about, that newness and healing will spring forth on it’s own. That sometimes happens – we call it Grace or a miracle or just good dumb luck. But systems of oppression or systems of disparity, don’t change through dumb luck; they change through intention and attention.

And there are cases where our actions are different and it changes the world. The NY times reports “The number of people living in extreme poverty ($1.90 per person per day) has tumbled by half in two decades, and the number of small children dying has dropped by a similar proportion — that’s six million lives a year saved by vaccines, breast-feeding promotion, pneumonia medicine and diarrhea treatments!” The UN is meeting this week discussing their plan “to eliminate – (yes eliminate) – extreme poverty by 2030, and experts believe it is possible to get quite close.” The history of the world says neither of these things are possible, but revelation is not sealed and there are new ways and news truths forever in our grasp if we treat it so.

If we were to live as though we believed that revelation was not sealed, we would commit to a spiritual discipline of openness; with especial care to was the weakest or the most abused among us have to say. In the Christian tradition, that was what Jesus was most known for – caring for the least among us. The meek shall inherit the earth. As we move further and further into cycles of struggle and power and suffering, we denounce our birthright in this one, precious life. How do we return? To some openness can come across as weakness. I find that it takes a lot of strength to listen to what we may not agree with, and decide for ourselves a new path.

Sometimes what has come before teaches us how horrible what may some day come. Sometimes what came before teaches us how beautiful the possibilities can be. Depending on where we’ve come from, we’re going to imagine a different future. But if we believe our theology that says revelation is not sealed, each new page offers another possibility. Will we act for the world we aspire to, or will we accept the dominion of the past?

I see these five stones as precepts of our faith that offer concurrent demands upon our actions if we’re going to live ethically as engaged Unitarian Universalists. The matched demand to this first stone is the question: “Does this action or view leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit?” If we continue to accept the new normal as fact and immutable, do we leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit? Our faith demands that we don’t accept the new normal. Our faith challenges us to continuously experience life in new ways as we make room for the continuing evolution of the human spirit. It’s not a cold creed or set of belief; it’s a call to action to make this truth so. Stay informed; stay engaged; lovingly call your neighbors to face the hardships of a world divided by power and privilege – and do so so that another soul may live and grow to their fullest potential.

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Out of Isolation

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/18/16 and looks at the role of community in light of the personal ego.

 

I have a small garden that wraps around my terrace – think herbs and some wild flowers and grasses. When the weather is nice, I write my sermons from there. It’s probably why I have so many nature references in my sermons. My dog will lay down in the shade of one of the flower boxes, and my cat gets the proverbial popcorn and watches the “Nature Channel” in my garden. Everything is extremely fascinating to our cat – Toby. He’ll stare at ants like they are alien creatures, but won’t go too close or engage. Bees on the other hand – bees turn him into a jerk. He’ll stalk them and swipe at them if they linger too long on a flower.

At first I was horrified – without a clue as to what to do about it. I have a mild allergy to bees, so I’m not going to get too close to intervene, but they also don’t deserve that fate before the claws of my cat. In another feat of dog-training magic, I’ve figured out how to train our dog to tackle the cat when he goes for a bee. It was based off an earlier essential lesson in tackling-the-cat when the cat scratches the furniture. Basically, we’ve trained our dog to tackle small cats on command. I think it’s fun for everyone really, but I’m sure the bee appreciates it as much as my couch does – I dare say moreso. Enough times being tackled by the dog, the cat is becoming increasingly hesitant to swipe at bees (it doesn’t seem to stop him though from destroying our furniture though. Can’t have everything I guess.)

Bees are interesting creatures. The common wisdom is that they defy all laws of aerodynamics in order to fly with their wings that should be too light for their bodies to get lift; but they still do. They live cloistered away with several thousand of their closest family members. They work tirelessly, so that the next generation which they may not live to see, can be born in another season. How many millions of worker bee hours does it take to produce one jar of honey for our toast and tea? …Then they return, again and again, to the field, to gather more and more food for the honeycombed table.

From the perspective of us humans in the northeast, they are gone for half the year, isolated from the cold and inclement weather. Even raindrops can be a challenge when you’re that small. When I water my garden, they head for the hills. Then as the weather turns to spring and summer, they fly back out of seeming isolation, and live fully in the wider world. Food, and garden hoses, and allergic bystanders, and yes, even psycho-killer felines are here to greet them as they return. It’s a microcosm of the world we live in, and just as true.

We all have our times of quiet, introversion, renewal, in between the periods of work, or study. For the bee, it’s the call of physical nourishment, that brings them out of their quasi-isolation from the world. No matter how much we hunker down, at some point, the reserves run dry and it’s time to go back out for connection.

This month we are imagining what it would mean to be a people of covenant. Maybe you know the word covenant mostly from Jewish and Christian and Muslim stories about God and God’s people. That understanding is about the promises we are given, and the promises we are held to, in light of the demands and support given to us by God in those stories. I plan to discuss that even more fully next month in one of my sermons – how goodness presses obligations upon us. But for today, I want to focus more on what promise is held in covenant. Community and covenant draws us out of loneliness into a shared humanity that defines our lives.

Our Fellowship crafted a congregational covenant – that can be found on our website, and in our membership directory. It has several points to it – and we hand it out to all new members who formally join our Fellowship. And if you’re considering joining our Fellowship, please do reach out to me after the service, or later in the week if that works better for you. But the essence of the covenant centers around our desire to be accountable to one another. In a secular world where consumerism and convenience trumps a sense of a common ethic of mutual support, it’s imperative for religious communities to stretch out to, and within, one another to build the common good. Covenant is about building the common good – or what Martin Luther King Jr commonly referred to as the Beloved Community.

Last Sunday, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. In short, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. Right now, after popular request, I’d like to focus on one of those stones. Next month I’ll try to get to the 4th and 5th stone. But today, I want to focus on the 3rd stone in Adams’ theology – and go a bit further with it than I was able to in last week’s sermon. That precept paraphrased is: “We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression.”

As I paraphrase it, community has a corrective effect on systems of oppressions. Theologically, covenant is the antithesis of oppression. You only build a covenant when folks come to it with equal footing, and when we have equal footing, we can hold one another accountable from an equal place. So when we talk here about someone falling out of covenant, we’re talking about a situation in our Fellowship, where one person is leveraging their power, or their feelings, over and beyond the shared agreement of how we work together collaboratively. It’s referring to a situation where the individual ego is leading over another person’s worth, or another person’s pain. And to be fair, we all fall for the tricks of the ego. Falling short of our covenant doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it means that you’ve let your ego run before the rest of us, before all of us, and that’s something we all do from time to time. We all do it. It’s human, and it’s our quintessential challenge to overcome as humans. As UU’s we choose to face that challenge together; publicly, and to do that together publicly fosters some awkward moments. So when we fall for it, and someone points it out, try to hear it with love, and begin again and again. It’s being human at our best.

Last week, I also spoke about demands that our faith places upon us in relation to those precepts – those “stones” Adams proverbially spoke about. The matched demand to this third precept would be the theological question, “Does this thing or value before us, seek to bring more harmony and more equity in our relationships (– even if the work is very difficult?)” What does that mean though in every day language? When we’re trying to decide on an action, or a belief, or a value, or an angered reply to something someone says or does in our community – the essential question follows: Does our response bring more harmony and equity to our relationship? If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, then we are straying from the religious path our faith challenges us to adhere to. When we ask ourselves if our response or actions bring more harmony or equity, and the answer is no, we’re falling prey once more to our lone ego. The domain of the ego is isolation, and community calls us out from that lonely place. I believe that progressive faith calls us out of isolation, to do much in the world, but it also calls us out of isolation to spiritually mature through our attachment to ego. And it’s in that maturing through our attachment to ego, that we also begin to do much good in the world.

See that? We sometimes joke that we can believe anything. I don’t agree with that, and if you think I’m wrong, then next week let’s plan for me to preach about whatever I personally feel like and see what happens. Because we can’t. We can’t believe anything. We’re not about belief, but we have central values that are very specific, even if we don’t always see it. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring together what demands our theology places upon us. Our actions in the world, as UUs, as religious people of faithful purpose – demand that we act so that we nurture harmony and equity in human relations. When we act from anger, or ego, we’re being very human, but we’re falling short of our theological convictions. We’re not evil for doing it necessarily, but we have fallen short, and our faith calls us out, calls us in, and calls us for more.

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The Five Stones

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/11/16. It addresses a faith with no creeds.

 

I’ve told this story about how I found UU before, so I’ll be brief, but it’s important for today’s wider message. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.

In many ways, the Morristown UU Fellowship was the last place I would have imagined myself joining. They were a staunch atheist fellowship that had severe allergies to theological language – and I very much believe in God. H forbid anyone use the G word. And the J word was right out! Buddhist influence wasn’t wide-spread enough yet in the mid-nineties to inform the spirituality of the services overtly. And yet there was a lot of heart in their meeting space on Sunday morning. There was a there – there – that I couldn’t exactly place at the time. If I’m honest with myself, my younger self appreciated the stark contrast to conservative Christian teachings that I hadn’t yet worked through. It was a community that was wrestling with the nature of being. And that was enough for me. I didn’t need an answer, I needed a space to find myself, and live into community.

The next congregation I was a member of, couldn’t have been further afield in style or expressed theology: All Souls in Manhattan. Largely toted as NYC’s only New England Style white-steeple church. A 1500 member churchy-church, with an organ, actual pews, multiple pulpits, and monthly communion services. I joined there while I was in graduate school.

Both settings are Unitarian Universalist. Both hold the same values. Both are seeking a faith path that is open to hope, possibility and joy. Openness, mindfulness, reverence – have become central in most of our congregations. All of our communities have religious humanists and religious theists among us. Trappings are the difference, not content. All of our congregations have a central UU theology – in some locations it’s more clear and others it’s simply felt beneath the skin.

I’ve long identified as a sort of hybrid UU. Denominationally speaking, most of us are converts and some of us are life-long UU’s. I have converted to this faith, but I did so right at adulthood – so in many ways this feels like my life-long choice. By a show of hands, how many of you have been attending our Fellowship for 2 years or less? How many of you have been a UU since childhood (prior to turning 18?) How many for 30 years or more? (I love watching the changing demographics!)

Now I’m guessing that the folks that have been attending for 2 years or less are thinking – “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.” I think it would be safe to guess that the folks who have been UU for 30 years or more are thinking, “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.”

Being a non-creedal faith is both a strength and a challenge. Folks are reticent to assert theological claims when we have no test of belief. We don’t want to make any theological truth statement because we appreciate that we all see the world differently and that’s not what we’re about. Some years ago, I was attending an annual conference of religious professionals in Williamsburg, Virginia. One Sunday evening I attended worship at their local Episcopal church – which was led by a former professor of mine when I was studying in England, and who became a dear friend of mine over the years when he moved to the States. They got to the point in the service where the community recited the Nicene Creed. For those who are unfamiliar, this is a minute or two long creed with some very specific theological details in it (just about none of which I actually agree with.) My UU colleagues next to me were visibly shocked (one actually jumped – and he’s not a jumper by nature) when I began reciting it from memory. For context – it had been over 20 years since I had attended a Catholic Mass, and left the Catholic church in my high school years. …We have nothing like that. Although I imagine we could begin the practice of reciting our 7 principles as a covenant and it would fit that role. Our principles are promises we struggle to keep with each other. But they’re action statements – not creedal assertions.

Our UU theology is rooted in our six sources. But our sources themselves are not strictly a theology. Our sources are not an interfaith smorgasbord, although we sometimes treat them as such. “I prefer the course of cultural Christianity and a heavy dose of agnosticism please.” They ground us in our religious meaning. Any theology would need to reckon with them to be true to our core. Here they are more simply put: Transcendent mystery and wonder moves us to a renewal of spirit. Prophetic deeds challenge us to confront systems of oppression with compassion. All world religions hold wisdom to inspire our ethical and spiritual lives. Love our neighbors as ourselves. Reason and science warn us against idolatries of mind and spirit. We are part of this world and ought to live in harmony with it. (Ok, maybe that could work as our Nicene Creed.) None of these sources answer whether we ought to believe in God or not, but frankly – that’s not what our theology could ever look like again. But our Six Sources are rich in very different ways. They give us space to be true to ourselves, to learn how to live into community, and hold a rich depth in themselves. And we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a reason to disagree with any individual source – except for maybe how we apply them.

That’s a framework though, and not a theology. One friend once asked me, “but isn’t the central theology of Universal Unitarianism that there isn’t a central theology of universal unitarianism? Theological Switzerland, so to speak?” I won’t fault him on his placement of U’s in that sentence. And he’s right in a way. We tend to live with an explicit theological message that this is so: All are welcome. All can see the world the way they see it. (The only really important theological question is the nature of God so let’s just say we don’t have a theology because we’re not going to touch that one!) But that’s not the case.

I’ve been heavily inspired by the writings of James Luther Adams. He’s a mid-20th century theologian, minister and academic from the US who lived in Germany in the 1930s and was active in the clandestine resistance to the rise of Nazism. We often take our theologians out of context. And as I talk about his thoughts, keep his experience in Germany in mind.

After the breadth of his 40+ years of writing were complete, folks started pulling together bits and pieces of his thinking, jumbled them together, and came up with some pretty helpful combinations. One such is an essay on “The Five Stones.” It’s a metaphor back to David and Goliath. In the Jewish story, a teenager “David” manages to defeat the Giant named Goliath on the field of battle with a sling and five stones. It’s a violent story, but a course of action that prevented two armies from colliding. There was one death instead of thousands. For JLA, the five stones become a metaphor for how we can combat systems of oppression in the world. What are the five things we can do that will unbind the oppressed? In modern language – how do we end Racism, Homophobia, Classism and Misogyny – to name a few.

What does our liberal faith say about living? I will paraphrase the much longer piece, which itself is an edit of a sort, using language that might be more familiar to us: 1. Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth. 2. Relationships between people ought to be free — mutuality and consent are both ethical and theological principles 3. We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression 4. Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another. 5. We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.[1]

This faith statement is central to our UU theology. If you are craving an affirmation or a negation of the nature or existence of God, I can only say again – that’s not how we do theology. Our kind of theology is like the scientific method. When we learn that Newtonian Physics is only correct at certain speeds and certain proximities to really big gravitational objects (like the Earth going at about the speed we happen to be going) we don’t throw out physics and say Science (I hope you can hear the capital S) is wrong. We say that there’s a process of testing and observation to follow. Likewise, our theology is one of testing and observation. When you have questions of purpose, belief, or values ask yourself – Does this thing or view leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit? Does it draw me closer into a community that is mutually supportive? Does it seek to bring more harmony and more equity in those relationships – even if the work is very difficult? Does it falsely make me forget that I have the capacity to live into this holy work? Does it remind me to live with hope?

Our theology is both a faith statement and a process of reflection. Our faith teaches us that we can expect to continue to be inspired, to learn from one another, and to seek out that spiritual growth. Wheresoever we freely choose to enter into communities with one another we are doing sacred work – not easy work – not convenient work but holy work. In this we are obligated to vigilantly transform systems of oppression with acts of love and compassion. We all have the capacity to make this happen, and everything that we need to do so already exists. There is a reason to hope in this world.

[1] This is a paraphrase of James Luther Adams. Various sources include “On Being Human Religiously”, The Tapestry of Faith Online Curricula, The GOLDMINE Youth Leadership School and the 2012 Keynote address at the LREDA Fall Conference by Dr. Raser.

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Breaking Ground

This child-friendly sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 8/28/16. It explores the challenges of bringing our values with us during times of challenge and change.

As our year of formal religious education begins this coming month, (as does the secular school year) we have begun by blessing our backpacks in our service. Each of our students also received a copy of our Seven Principles as part of the tags on their backpacks. We carry our best values with us wherever we go. Fellowship and religion happen in our walls, but they don’t begin or end here, they travel with us when we’re our best selves – everywhere. Could you imagine wearing your best selves as a tag on your clothing? That’s the spiritual practice our kids and youth are trying out this year.

Part of our religious education program is about growing up. We cover many of the corners of the world that our secular classrooms don’t touch every day: relationships, identity, peer pressure, helping over receiving, giving over getting; and in the teen years – scientifically accurate sexuality education – and this last bit is something that the law still doesn’t even require to be scientifically accurate in all our public schools. I’m grateful that our community is so supportive of this critical education. Religious education is about moving through our years’ always striving to be more fully human, more fully alive. It’s not always obvious, but in living for one another, and for community, we can grow into fulfillment.

When I was entering kindergarten for the first time, or moving onto grade school, or junior high, or High School, I don’t remember any formal opportunity to reflect on what I was going through. Sure, when I was a bit older, I talked with my friends about the changes, my hopes, and what was scaring me, but I don’t remember any adults, or my church community, or really even any teachers, helping me along my way. The public schools were sometimes good at helping me get most of the facts I needed, but they never put much energy into helping me sort through the values – the choices – I would have to wrestle with in light of the facts of growing up.

Is this different for folks here? If you’re new to our community, let me help with you a little bit of a map of the year. We have our weekly Sunday school classes, and almost monthly opportunities for our kids to do social service or social justice work. We recognize some of our grade schoolers every year or so as they complete a special period of study; our junior youth will have a year long period of study for Coming of Age and what we call Our Whole Lives and be asked to speak before their family, friends and Fellowship community about their religious values – or Credos. Our graduating 12th graders do something similar again by reflecting on a childhood or a teenage of growing up UU – and they also speak before a Sunday service toward the end of the year.

By a show of hands with our adults – who here received at least 27 hours of education – like OWL (Our Whole Lives) prior to entering High School? Which of our adults received religious support from their communities in sorting through some of these life changes. I’m often amazed at how much more care and support our UU raised children and youth receive in these matters than folks do from society at large. It’s a necessary, powerful and potentially life-saving ministry we offer here.

As we begin this new year of education together, it’s also a time of some upheaval – a time of some change. The ground before us in every new year can feel a bit shaky. What will my new teachers be like, what challenges will my kid bring to the dinner table this year, how well will our new home or job really treat us? It’s in times of change, when the earth below us feels a bit wobbly, that we really learn who we are. Ideally, we you want to make sure that we got the basics down before times of struggle, and that’s a part of why we as a Fellowship are here, but it’s the times when we’re breaking new ground that those lessons take root.

As we don our backpacks and go into a first or new year of school, or start a new job, or move into a new home, when we’re breaking new ground, try to remember “why you are.” It’s an odd phrase. I’m going to try to explain it in two stories. One that’s personal, and one that’s a little mythical. (Well, to be honest, both are a little bit personal and both are a little bit mythical in their own ways.) And then we’ll come back to how that relates to all our next steps.

First, the personal story. One time when my husband and I were still newly dating, we were strolling through the West Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself, or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.

It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “why are you here” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.

Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Anyone here ever desperately want to go to the beach to relax. Then you finally make it through the hours of travel, sun block, prepping sandwiches, screaming/crying children/siblings/parents and lay out – only to realize that you can’t stop thinking about all the things that were stressing you out that you’re trying to get away from for a little while? You can’t sit still long enough to relax? The “why” of where you are is just out of reach. The sun, and spray, and sand might as well be miles away still. I’m hearing a lot of stories of folks frantically trying to get in one last beach trip for the Summer – when you do – just do it – leave the rest at home for those hours.

I want to share with you that second story now. It’s written by a UU minister. It’s called Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel. When I first heard that my colleague was publishing this children’s story I got really excited. I grew up hearing another odd little story about “Stanley the Christmas Squirrel.” It was a totally different squirrel named Stanley (who was dealing with his home getting upgraded into a Christmas Tree for someone else’s living room, but that’s another tale entirely.) But it’s notable because still to this day, my parents and I call every squirrel we see, “Stanley.” Even my childhood dog knew the name. If we would say, “Look, it’s Stanley!” my dog would jump up and make a bee-line for the squirrel. (I don’t recall him doing that if we just said squirrel. And no, he never caught Stanley, thankfully.)

(…tell the story of Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel…)

So let’s try to answer the Owl in the story. “Why are you?” Why are we here for? Feel free to call out a word or two response. If I can make out what you said, I’ll repeat it back into our microphone so that all can hear. (to love, show compassion, sow peace, to teach, parent, grow, nurture, to learn etc.) How often do we hold all these things in our hearts and minds throughout our daily activities? In this religious community, we can probably all agree that we’re here at least in part to show compassion, to nurture those around us, to sow peace. How easy is that to remember when we’re sitting in our third period class, or when we’re memorizing math formulas, or when the person with the full grocery cart races us to cashier? But the boredom, or the work, or the addiction to work or schedules can help us forget our purpose. Why are you? Why are we? When you figure out the answer, live by it, and the rest will follow.

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Sermon: Putting Down Roots

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/21/16 after the second vandalism of our Black Lives Matter billboard.

Community, communication, and commitment – three very closely related words that each point in the same direction – how well we are interdependent in the world. It’s the foundational part of our seventh principle – interdependence. We’re reflecting this month on what it would mean to be a people of rootedness, and this week we’ll reflect on how communication – or the lack of communication – helps or hinders our ability to put down roots in our communities.

I want to begin a little more light-hearted and then we’ll inch our way into the more heavy-hearted side of the world this week. A little over a week ago, I had the honor of working directly with 30 of our youth at our annual Summer Camp called Fahs (along with 40 other adults and around 110 children and youth all counted – I was co-leading the 11th and 12th grade youth group.) One of the practices of the camp is that none of the youth or kids are allowed their cell phones during the week. They’re either left at home, or the ones who need to still have them on the car ride in, feverishly are sending their final texts for the long 6 days without social media. I could laugh, except I don’t recall the last time I went fully without a cell phone for 6 days.

So the adults live by another set of rules. We need our cell phones to handle the rare emergency or the frequent updates that happen throughout the day. We’re not supposed to be on them much in sight of the campers, but the Camp Board need to be able to text us at any point. And wow – do they text! For a week where we are supposed to limitedly be on our phones, I received more text messages than any other time in my life! To be fair, the camp board needs to be able to balance out clear communication, and they err on the side of abundance of information rather than someone missing something that might have been critical. But in effect, everyone gets messaged about everything, whether we personally need to know or not. I’d feel better about critiquing the practice if I actually had any clue as how to do it better. That’s the challenge of modern technology – we have all the ability in the world to do just about anything we can dream of – we just haven’t figured out yet what actually works well.

It’s a challenge for our congregation too. We may send out information in seven different ways, and one person will ask why are we inundating the community with info, and the next person will ask when are we finally going to let folks know about that very same thing.

In our reading earlier today, we heard a light-hearted poking of our current culture around cell phones by the writer, Neil Gaiman – always waiting for the next message or update, we miss the sense of reverence in the world all around us. I want to quote him again, this time from his fictional story, American Gods. The character who pens these words is Mr. Ibis (named after a fictional version of a certain Egyptian deity of knowledge and the moon), “One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.”

Gaiman isn’t talking about social media or newsletter, but part of me wishes he were. And we can all imagine the wisdom there – few if any of us would ever have the time to sit down and ingest all the events in the life of this Fellowship. But if we don’t, we’ll miss something. And if we do, there won’t be the time in the day.

Instead, Gaiman is really referring to the role of story, and the use of symbol. In much of his writing, he alludes to how nothing actually happens the way the story suggests – that none of it is true – but he goes on to tell it anyhow and you walk away feeling that we’ve encountered something more real than the facts. It’s the eternal challenge of religion – do you get caught up in fact-checking the stories of faith, or do you focus on learning the moral and spiritual lessons? It’s a trap for both sides of the ideological theistic divide; both atheists and fundamentalists are guilty of worshiping historicity over impact and meaning.

Do we browse the newsletter, website or e-news at the last minute and decide which events on our social calendar can fit into our tight schedules –if any, or do we prioritize our community connections first and fill up our schedules afterward? Do we put down roots and engage in the life of a community, or do we take Fellowship to be just one more item on our to-do list? And you can be here only 1 day a week and still be engaged – as long as it’s more of an intention than an after-thought. The word “congregation” can be understood as engaged living – a symbol of a thing and the thing itself – or the word can be empty and just another habit of our day while we wait distractedly for the next thing and the next thing. “The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.” Religious community is a story about what we aspire to be; it’s one way to get there; and it’s where we end up when we arrive. When we remember this, we’re more likely to be doing it right.

This week held some particular challenges for our Fellowship. Our Black Lives Matter billboard was uprooted from the ground and tossed to the side. Someone came by and pulled both posts out from the ground that our youth group installed. It happened overnight, to avoid anyone seeing who did it. The Hate Crimes division of Suffolk County police came for the second time – the sign was originally vandalized 6 days after we put it up back in June. The good officers, without us realizing they were doing it, and without being requested, actually reinstalled the sign for us in the ground. It was a beautiful act of grace, and a clear sign of their high level of professionalism. They then offered to attend some of our events, and mentioned that they offer community forums. We plan to take them up on their offer in the near future. But community connections didn’t begin there. Back in July, after the terrible shooting of Dallas police and transit officers, our Fellowship held a vigil in the evening, and our social justice co-chair, Steve Burby, dropped by the local precinct with a note of support and some pastries. Putting down roots, and building community, means that as we speak the hard truths that are impacting so many in our nation, we still maintain and foster connections that seek to preserve and make all of us safer.

But this part of the story also tells us that the dominant myth that it’s us vs not-us, that gets told and retold, isn’t really true. No community or group is a monolith and many of us are trying to extend a hand, and find a way forward through a very difficult issue. Every letter we receive, or email, and the painful slog through the comment section of any news article about our Black Lives Matter sign vandalisms – reveal some serious mischaracterizations. And they’re emblematic of a culture – where despite having more access to information than any generation ever before – we are woefully ill-informed about matters that we disagree with. If we disagree with a topic, we will enter into a bubble of isolation, that will protect us from any data that will conflict with our world view. News blogs that have the comments sections turned on – originally designed to increase communication and public discussion – have since become the sole province of trolls and what Time just called this week, “The culture of hate.” Discourse is silenced as the will to hate, or the will to silence diverse and lively honest discussion has taken hold.

The vandalism of our Black Lives Matter sign, was covered this week by Newsday, News 12, and I was also interviewed by Fios TV news. In a pique of irony, the Newsday article online is only viewable by those with a subscription to their service; but anyone logged into Facebook can post comments on the news article… whether or not they were able to read it. We have all the technology in the world, and we don’t know what it means and how to use it. One’s opinion – uninformed or not – is readily available to all, but the actual facts of the story are not.

At the top of our Fellowship letterhead, we have three words. Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. Most of my sermons will explore these topics every week; sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly. But they are foundational to community, communication, and commitment. We can’t begin to have a healthy community without openness; from the cliques of high school to the barriers of gated communities – groups form that bar certain people from entering, and those communities are less for it. Mindfulness and reverence may seem esoteric, but there’s a core of truth to the idea that once we stop seeing one another with a sense of appreciation, and even the occasional awe, is the moment when we stop being able to relate to one another as fellow human beings. Without reverence, maybe we can interact with others as if they were cogs, or pawns, but we cease to be able to do so as people. The excesses of the comments section of the internet is the logical conclusion to a culture that is closed to difference, and apathetic to others’ worth and dignity.

As we close this service, I invite you this week to take stock of your practices in our community, your neighborhood and maybe even online. Where are you mindful? Where have you become closed? Where do you allow yourself to be open to a sense of reverence around you? I can’t easily write out an exhaustive map of how to build the beloved community, but the story is the territory, and we tell that story, as best we can, week after week.

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A People of Summer

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/7/16 and looks at the impact nostalgia has on our sense of selves.

A few weeks ago, we took a trip down to DC. My husband had a non-profit work conference and I decided to tag along. While he was in workshops, I was visiting our national museums, and the national zoo. We only got to see three museums together, since he was in meetings all day. The Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, and the Natural History Museum. There were some awesome exhibits, and there were some extreme disappointments. The IMAX movie about gophers would have been more riveting than the summer blockbuster, Independence Day II, not even the IMAX in our nation’s capital could save that rotten tomato. I wanted to show him the Star Trek Enterprise that I remember hanging from the ceiling; but sadly it was smaller than I recalled and tucked away in a corner. But my husband is an Air Force baby (born on one of our bases), so getting to see the history of air flight, and much about our armed forces, was still rather amazing.

But the American History museum was my prime goal. I used to visit the Smithsonian twice a year throughout most of my twenties. In my college years, in addition to religion, I studied Anthropology, Archaeology and World Art History. I couldn’t get enough of seeing the things I read about in person. But contrary to all that, the most engaging exhibit in my memory was the section on TV History. Cultural relics from the small screen ensconced behind glass for the generations. Maybe it didn’t make a lot of sense, but Archie Bunker’s and Edith’s chairs – Kermit the Frog – the Ruby Slipper from the wizard of Oz. All those small pieces of culture stood out as amazing to me twenty years ago when I finally got to see them in person.

I remember visiting it twenty years ago, and the exhibit circled round and round, with artifacts from the golden years of Television. You couldn’t get through it in less than 3 or 4 hours if you took the time to read it all. But this Summer, we get to the museum, and the whole layout is so different. Everything looks more polished, but I don’t recognize much of what I’m seeing, beyond maybe the steam engine on one floor. Good museums change their exhibits regularly, so there’s not an issue there. But soon we’re circling and circling and can’t find the TV History section. We ask guides, and I’m starting to think we’re in the wrong museum; that maybe there was a museum that was entirely dedicated to TV and Radio. But one more guide insists that’s not the case and points us in another direction. We double back three times, before Brian spies the ruby slipper.

It’s just not the same. There’s a lot less there. The lighting is dim, and all the relics from that era can fit in a room that’s maybe only a little larger than our social hall here at our Fellowship. This isn’t a three hour exhibit, it’s more like 15 minutes. We never found Kermit, though Edith’s and Archie’s chairs were there, as were the ruby slippers. It felt a little ironic that I was pining for a time when our yesteryear relics shined a bit more than they do now. How we remember how things once were, has less glamor than it once did.

I know it has more to do with the reality that as time rolls on, the shows that I remember from my childhood – even if some of them were already in repeats – may not even be known by the generation that came after me. I think I saw every episode of Lassie three times, and anyone born after 2000 won’t even know that’s a dog. Time rolls on. But it struck me. At a time in our nations’ life, where many of us are pining for nostalgia, as all too often things feel like they’ve gone off the rails, losing the relics from yesteryear felt more like a punch to the gut than maybe was all that rationale. The wrestling with nostalgia may be counterproductive, or even misleading. Shows change, cultural reference points change – that doesn’t mean we’re worse off – just that history is making room for those who come after us.

…July was another rough month for our nation as we heard the tragedies in Dallas and throughout our country. A black man shot in his car over a broken tail light. So many police officers, and transit cops, gunned down by a US war veteran – while they were peacefully doing their duty protecting civilians who were protesting the earlier police shooting. That’s a police force, at its finest, doing the most American Civil service we can imagine – protecting free speech – and their lives are lost….

This month we’ll be reflecting on the spiritual discipline of rootedness. Where do we find grounding in times of crisis; how do we find connection in an era that feels like we’re further apart than ever; where does upheaval help us to find our footing again. At the mid-point of this season of sun, I want to reflect on the lessons of this time of year – what it would mean to be a people of Summer. It’s been my favorite season more at least 20 years. You look forward to it for much of the year, and then in a blink – half of it’s gone away. I’ve recalled before from this pulpit about childhood summer days that seemed to stretch on to eternity, and as the years go by, and we get older, finding those never-ending days in the Summer sun seems more and more elusive. And I don’t mean, whether you can get the time off, or the time away. Even on long days at the beach, as we age, I think time-spreading out seems more elusive than in yesteryears. We are so often, more a people of nostalgia, than a people of summer; living into what was as some mythic time of ease and perfection, rather than living into the day that is before us – which we should rejoice and be glad in it.

We hear so often, folks lamenting how things once were and why can’t we go back to that. Well, that’s nostalgia speaking. Things aren’t worse these days, we’re just hearing and seeing more of what always happened, through the advent of cell phones, and cameras in every hand, and Twitter poking national media’s attention. There are regular tv newscasts now that follow what Twitter says, because posts on Twitter often are the first sign of a news story. With all the instant access news, it feels like things are much worse than they once were.

Police deaths are actually at a historic low. Despite partisan politics, every president – every single president since Reagan, every single president, has presided over a period of history where police killings were less than their predecessor. Yet, there’s a story that says we’re at our most violent. Every death is tragic, and we need to reach no deaths. That’s the truth, we need to. But we’re also not getting worse, we’re getting much better. But that’s not how we feel. We feel like it’s worse. There’s a way in which that’s real for some people, especially anyone who has lost a loved one, or fears for the loss of a loved one. That’s very real. And there’s a way in which that’s a form of nostalgia that makes it harder for us to do the work we need to do, in order to make it better for those who are serving and living today in this world. We can’t fix something that’s broken, if we don’t address it as it is – as it really is and not as we think it is.

Communities of color have had to face this reality since their first days in our nation, whether they were born here, immigrated here, or forcibly taken here, or were kicked off their own land. Waves of white immigrants have experienced challenges like unwelcome signs, housing and employment bias, and so on. But within a few generations, white immigrant families integrate and dodge the bias by being known as white, rather than Italian, or German, or Irish. But beyond us simply being more aware of the violence on our streets because of cell phone cameras and Facebook poking the attention of newscasters faster than they can follow on their own, there’s a sense among white communities across our country that somehow whiteness is under attack. For a long time, I mostly saw it the pains associated with having some of your privilege taken away and confusing that with oppression. But a July 25th New Yorker article had an interesting story about the advent in popular culture of putting real and mocking faces on what we derogatorily call “white trash”, and compare that to “proper” elite whites.  Urban centers are taken seriously, rural communities are taken as a joke. Enough decades of that, and we have a problem in our national identity. If whites in urban centers advance, and whites in rural centers stagnate, it gets worse. Maybe we’re starting to see that in some parts of our suburbs as well, right? And when we live into our identity of a people of nostalgia – we remember back to all the black and white TV classics, where middle America seemed to be the best of us – we want to go back to how things were then; with a vibrant middle class, a one family income, and no cell phone cameras showing us where the fire hoses, and the shootings, and beatings are happening in real time. From the fire hoses that lead to Selma, to any story we hear about daily in our news feeds today – They’ve been there all along – now we’re just talking about it more – or maybe I should say all of us are talking about it more; because communities that have lived through oppression have always talked about it.

When we live into being a people of summer, we don’t stick with the notion that the days only stretched out into eternity when we were children. That’s a trick of our monkey mind. We’re letting the part of ourselves that are weighed down with responsibility and obligation rule our down-time even when we don’t have those obligations – we keep them with us, and our days become shorter and more fret with anxiety. It’s the classic trap we’ve all done. Sunday comes along and you lament you have to go back to work on Monday so much that you lose much of the joy of the day off because we’re already living into our next day of work. Rootedness is a spiritual discipline. Being rooted in what’s right before us – for good or for bad – is the most spiritual way to live. When we work, we work; when we rest though, we get to rest. Nostalgia for what was – even knowing in all likelihood it never really was like the way we like to remember – only keeps us from rejoicing and being glad in every new day.

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Prayer for Black Lives and for Dallas

Prayer for Black Lives and Dallas Police: –Rev. Jude
 
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
Many of us are numb this week,
Overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty
in the face of story after story,
Of another person killed in our streets.
Alton Sterling for selling cd’s at a gas station,
Philando Castile for a broken tail light.
 
And 5 Dallas police and transit officers who gave their lives, and 7 who were wounded, while protecting civilians, who were peacefully protesting the deaths of Alton and Philando.
 
The names of the fallen that are now public are Brent Thompson, a 43-year-old transit police officer and Patrick Zamarripa, a 32-year-old police officer who served three tours in Iraq with the U.S. military.
 
We are grateful that 3 of the officers injured are expected to recover. We pray for the healing of:
 
Omar Cannon, 44; Misty McBride, 32; and Jesus Retana, 39 – as well as all the officers who names are not yet public.
 
Let us hold a moment of silence for the injured and the dead…
 
 
 
Mother of Hope,
 
We ask for their healing,
While we know that the grief, the sorrow and the fear that rests in our hearts
May not heal anytime soon.
We mourn with the victims families – whose lives have forever changed with the loss of their loved ones.
Grant us a spirit of resolution to do the work of community building centered in justice and compassion;
Ever knowing that violence never leads to justice for any of us.
Help our nation to move through the impasse of pitting the value of Black Lives against support for our officers.
Teach us ways not to fall into the false message that one cannot value the rights and humanity of Black civilians if one values our police.
May we cease to pit one against the other; yet ever continue to affirm the mattering of Black Lives who are so egregiously assaulted; while ensuring our officers have the resources they need to do the hard work they are here to do.
 
We ceaselessly pray for a time in our nation where gun violence does not plague our lands;
where power and privilege wage war on the rights of the individual for a life of meaning and substance;
and we commit and recommit to doing the public work to change our practices and policies that lead us relentlessly down this tragic road.

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