Archive for October, 2011

Prayer for our Lost Youth (Remembering those lost to Teen Suicide)

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names and one Transforming and Abundant Love, be with us now.

On this crisp October morning, may we find it in our hearts to be grateful for the life before us; for a life worth living.

We tremble before a world that generates the pain and cruelty necessary to bring so many of our children to the point of despair. Our hearts break for the families who have lost their sons and daughters this week, this month, to suicide. For being gay, or for seeming gay, or simply due to the callousness of another thoughtless heart. May we remember that this crisis is an everyday occurrence, not so that we come to despair ourselves, but so that we are stirred to lives of compassion.

Spirit of a Renewing Life – Broaden our hearts this morning. Teach us to love one another.  Move us to love ourselves.Inspire us to speak words of love. In these ways, may we ourselves become a spirit of renewal for the corners of the world in which we choose to dwell.

This morning we lift up the names of Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas and Tyler Clementi.  The hope these four teens brought to the world is lost to us with their deaths.  May their families someday find solace in a world transformed by our care.


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The Slow Slide Back

This sermon was originally preached for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 16th, 2011 at First UU of Brooklyn.

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. 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.”[1] (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 there); 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. 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 simply necessary response to the torpor our collective consciousness otherwise lied in at the time.

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.
With the closeness in timing of this national holiday to the recent shooting tragedy in Tuscon, Arizona, I can’t help but wonder about the slow slide back from non-violent protests of the Martin Luther King, Jr legacy we celebrate. I can’t help myself but to imagine the lines of intersection and difference between the two – not in the rationale of madmen, but in the effect they have had on our collective consciousness. I won’t take the time now to analyze the clinical facts and details, beyond reflecting that I am grateful the assassination attempt of Reps Giffords, has so far failed, while mourning the death of six people ranging from age 79 to 30 to 9. The youngest of which, Christina-Taylor Green, would have been 10 years old this coming September 11th. She had appeared in the book Faces of Hope: Babies Born on 9/11 (page 41).

This last detail in itself is so heartbreaking. A child who symbolizes hope in the face of tragedy is now forever lost to us. It makes it easy to imagine why pundits, and politicos, and preachers might wax eloquent in every direction possible. Desperate to make sense of the senseless; craving a need to point fingers elsewhere. Seizing an opportunity that might allow us to push forward some bit of legislation or another. Frantically, loudly, trying to return our collective consciousness back to a point of stability we’re familiar with; where we’re comfortable again. These days that looks like a few people, or a pair, neatly and quickly laying out opposing views as if the world were so simple we could define everything as either “Purple” or “Not Purple”; most notably articulated by former president George W. Bush in an address to a joint session of Congress on Sept 20, 2001. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” …He may have framed the next decade for us with those words.
All the voices clamor for our attention! ‘Better gun control laws would have stopped this assassin from buying a gun.’ (Forgetting that he had no prior record or tipped any criminal notice, so how could we have flagged him?.) Or we get Rush Limbaugh’s split-personality finger pointing. On one hand saying, “What Mr. Loughner (referring to the alleged gunman) knows is that he has the full support of a major political party in this country. He’s sitting there in jail. He knows what’s going on, he knows that…the Democrat party is attempting to find anybody but him to blame. He knows if he plays his cards right, he’s just a victim….”[2] While on the other hand we can see photos of advertisements for Mr. Limbaugh where he calls himself a “straight shooter” amid a visual background of bullet holes. The giant-sized billboard remained up in Tucson, Arizona – sight of the shooting – until 9:30am Monday morning following the shooting.[3] (Both of the links to these news stories are on my Facebook page, and will be posted with the sermon on Tuesday to our website should you wish to see the photos for yourself.)

All the voices clamor for our attention! ‘Sarah Palin should be accountable for drawing bull’s eye’s over congressional districts’ (Realizing that while her language choices are regretful, shameful and violent in nature, I’d ask ourselves to consider how often we use references to violence in our quest for social justice – for example. “Fight for the rights of …”, “Shoot down legislature…”, “Silence the opposition…”, “Community organizers who are hired guns.”

Let’s be real here, although she’s misguidedly taken it to the extreme, the fact is most of us have bought into that way of speaking. You can turn on the news and listen for 5 minutes to any politician on either side of the aisle, and you will hear at least one violent phrase just about every time. PTA’s will get far more “up in arms” about sex education in the schools than most members will ever get about violence on TV, cartoons and the movies. Our rating system for movies, and the access we grant children, skews more heavily against acts of sex and love than it does toward shooting. At its core, the blame for this atrocity begins and ends with the perpetrator of the violent act. If collectively, however, we want to investigate a different question – one that asks how our broader consciousness affects the life and world around us, and we only speak up to criticize others, we’re probably missing the point of such an exercise.
Our reading this morning by Pema Chodron is very spiritually instructive here. “When the flag goes up, we have an opportunity: we can stay with our painful emotion instead of spinning out. Staying is how we get the hang of gently catching ourselves when we’re about to let resentment harden into blame, righteousness, or alienation. It’s also how we keep from smoothing things over by talking ourselves into a sense of relief or inspiration. This is easier said than done. Ordinarily we are swept away by habitual momentum. We don’t interrupt our patterns even slightly. With practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge…. We can bring ourselves back to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment – over and over again.”[4]

What a challenging instruction! How are we staying with our collective emotional pain and how are we seeking to relieve ourselves with the tools of blame and righteousness? I imagine these questions themselves are almost the answer. The knee-jerk quest for the solutions to the act of terror that I’ve spoken at length about; that the barrage of pundits has enumerated this week; that the Facebook proliferation of petition’s that we’ve “liked” and done little more about; and the posters, screenshots, and ad campaigns grassroots groups have crafted all speak well to the latter half of the question. We adeptly implement tools that help us to manage the sense of loss of control; to alleviate the fear of a spiraling society where the extremes have greater access to voice than the broader middle; and we rebuild our way of thinking that bolsters our sense of rightness and “their” sense of wrongness.
I’m unclear if this strategy changes anything. It does maintain the stasis that existed prior to the mass shooting in Arizona. Prior to January 8th, we lived in a polarized society. After the shooting of January 8th, our society remains polarized, despite all the talking points. And none of those lives will be returned to us for all the talking points, all the gesticulating and all the righteousness in the world. The call for finding the middle ground isn’t really an answer either. The mythic middle ground is yet simply another belief, another viewpoint, another position. Sure we could add a third pundit in any piece of entertainment media we would like, but I fear it would simply be a vaguely more sophisticated way of confusing us into thinking we’re being more open-minded, more productive, more sane. No, we’d just be giving space for a third kind of sound byte. Chodren’s “habitual momentum” would remain in force.

As Unitarian Universalists, we hold in tension a theology that gives space for two pressures. On one side we value dialogue, conversation, and communication. Beliefs and viewpoints are expressions of personal human experience. It’s one of our valued religious sources. On the other hand, we lift up the reality that beliefs are ephemeral. As a creedless faith, beliefs are not at the core of our spirituality. How do we hold that in tension? The goal of conversation is where our 5th and 3rd principles unite; namely the communion of the democratic process with the call toward spiritual acceptance of one another. The goal of dialogue is consensus building, not winning over the other side. I hear a lot of debate these days; I see a fair bit of finger pointing; but I witness very little consensus building. In this regard, our practical challenge is to refocus our assumptions about success to how well we’re able to generate consensus rather than how well we can win a 51-49 vote or a 60-40 filibuster break. Consensus building is what we teach our youth here, and it’s what we hope for with our congregational leadership process annually.
The spiritual challenge Pema Chodron calls us to, is a different matter. To remind us of her last words of advice from the reading, “…with practice, however, we learn to stay with a broken heart, with a nameless fear, with the desire for revenge…. We can bring ourselves back to the spiritual path countless times every day simply by exercising our willingness to rest in the uncertainty of the present moment – over and over again.”[5] You know, we could easily ignore these words. We could say that we need practical solutions. But practical solutions won’t bring back the victims of assassinations. We could say we need to prevent these things from ever occurring again. That would be an ideal outcome, but as a goal, I imagine it would look a lot like a police state to secure if we were to try to achieve it through policies, laws and procedures. If we attempt that ideal outcome, however, through spiritual self-discipline, I feel we’d be spinning a few less wheels while getting a lot further along the way.

What does staying with a broken heart look like though? I’m not sure I could describe it directly, just like I couldn’t readily define love. But I can say that we find out what it would mean when we stop resorting to our everyday mini-escapes. When we resort to blaming, chastising, or herding the friends for a great batch of righteous gossip, we know we’ve utilized another one of our tools to escape. When we only listen to Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow – whichever one fits our personal preferences – we might be using an avoidance strategy. When we stop turning from the reality, and seek to be present to it – in its fullness – with the intention of self-transformation, we’re probably not using an avoidance tool. When we seek to change ourselves, in all our everydayness, we’re on the right path. In the big picture, the rest (the policies, the laws) may need to happen as well, but starting with ourselves will probably get us there faster – or may be the only way ever to even arrive. Real solutions, real transformation, happens most essentially, when the reasons for the change have become part of our nature. Rules and reactions can take us only so far. Character is the more helpful path, and that path is a very everyday one. That’s the business of the religious community and how it hopes to shape public discourse. Or in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr; “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. ~MLK, Strength to Love, 1963.” Friends, we’re at our best when we model these changes in our lives, and seek not to get caught up in the fevered noise that districts us from what our heart knows is true and right; compassion, moderation in speech and well-reasoned conviction. We can’t fix the world by succumbing to the same strategies that help to break our communities.

Our anthem this morning gets at the core of this message. Thanks to our soloist, Cameron Mitchell Bell, I now know that the song from the musical entitled Floyd Collings[6] “comes at the very end of the show where the lead character is speaking to God asking him all the questions we hear in the song before he finally accepts his death.” Our Music Director, Bill Peek, really picked an amazingly fitting piece this week for the message of the sermon. It culminates with the words, “Only heaven knows how glory goes, what each of us was meant to be. In the starlight, that is what we are. I can see so far…” We’re hearing the character’s struggle between knowing all the answers to what will come when we finally die. At the resolution, there’s a comfort that comes to us in not knowing. Only heaven knows how glory goes, what each of us was meant to be…. All the thinking in the world, all the beliefs we can craft, will not change this essential unknowing. What will happen to us? What is next? The character learns to see further when he comes to accept the lack of certitude alongside an increased awareness of where he is in this moment. In the starlight, that is what we are.
[4] “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chodron; Shambala, Boston and London. p. 7-8. 2003.
[5] “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chodron; Shambala, Boston and London. p. 7-8. 2003.
[6] from a musical by Adam Guettel entitled Floyd Collins:

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Not My Problem

The following sermon was preached at First UU on Feb 20th, 2011. The story it references comes from the UUA Tapestry of Faith curriculum found here:

Who would have thought one little drop of honey could cause so much trouble! Our story’s Queen learned otherwise, right? She learned that sometimes leaving something unattended for long enough could create mischief, fighting and even fire! I can remember my mom yelling at me as a kid to clean up my bedroom, or pick up my toys from the living room floor, or to turn off the television when I was done. I think I now have a better idea of what my mom was worried might have happened – although the biggest risks were probably just broken legos and lost toys – either one though would certainly threaten a crying little Jude.

Cleaning up after ourselves, putting away our toys, doing the dishes now before the friendly neighborhood cockroaches and rats arrive to do our work for us are all good habits to have and the reasons are mostly clear. But what can this story mean when we’re not talking about honey, or food, or dishes, or legos? What can it mean when it’s referring to the everyday mistakes we make? The nasty emails we clicked the send button for; the failing school grade that we hide the report card for; the impatient remark we make to a fellow congregant – to a friend; or the promise we fail to uphold? Can these things spiral into something more with the proverbial cat and dog fighting amidst the baker and the butcher?

I’d guess that we can all imagine ways in which these things can easily get out of control if we let them sit there and work their mischief. Emails can cause hurt feelings that only grow when we confirm them by ignoring the hurt in our writing. The same can be said for bitter attitudes with folks around us in person. Hiding our school troubles only delays when the truth comes out, and in return we only cut ourselves off from the support of our family when we probably need it the most.

The answers are often simple even if they feel hard to do at the time. Face what we fear in the moment rather than letting it grow out of control. The more we avoid it, the more we fear it, the more troublesome or hurtful it can become. The more power we give it to define our lives.
What if the everyday negative things that happen are part of a bigger problem that goes beyond us? February is Black History month, and I’ve been wondering how an attitude of “not my problem” has contributed to so many of the difficult stories Black Americans have had to face. I wonder how our unwillingness to face our fears of the moment help to support discrimination, prejudice and injustice even though we might not agree with the attitudes that create unfairness between people with different ethnic backgrounds.
I put a call out on Facebook for stories our congregation might be willing to share. June Wohlhorn, one of our Kindergarten-First Grade teachers shared one such story from 25 years ago. She wrote to me,

“At one of the offices where I worked, I was friends with the bookkeeper who was a black woman. At lunch, we’d sometimes run across the street to the Korean deli to grab something to eat at our desks. After doing this a number of times, I noticed that although the man at the cash register would always put my change into my hand, he always put my friend’s money on the counter. I didn’t notice the first few times, but eventually I did and discussed it with her. She said it was one of the things that happens when you shop while black.
I suggested that we not go back even though it was the most convenient and cheapest place nearby. She didn’t want to give up the convenience and said it happened in lots of places and if she let it get her too crazy, life would be even harder than it was. I had known there was prejudice but had not really understood how even the smallest things like how you receive your change was a way of people keeping others ‘in their place’.”
Take a moment and imagine what it would feel like if folks went out of their way to avoid you in everyday interactions? How would it feel if people treated you differently than other people? Have you ever felt this way before? If you have paper and a crayon, you could draw out a time when this happened. Or you could draw a picture of how you think you’d feel. … Take your time, there’s no rush. But when you do that, I’d like you to draw another picture of how you could handle it differently – how would you make it better? This could be really important for you or someone you care about someday because things like this still happen even though they shouldn’t.

Our first principle, where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, reminds us that treating people negatively because of who they are, or whom they love, is a moment where we fall short of who we could be. We’re not at our best when we diminish, when we put down or insult others. And our Unitarian Universalist faith asks more of us than that.
How easy would it have been just to ignore the little fact that the cashier gave change to some people in their hands, and to other people they put the money on the counter? Paying attention to how folks interact is a really important skill. Speaking up, or reaching out – depending on the situation – makes a huge difference too. Taking the time to talk about what happens matters too. It can show we care. It can show we know something’s not right. It’s the beginning of solidarity. These are all ways in which we can live out our first principle too. We often talk about how we affirm the worth and dignity of every person, but our principle also calls us to promote their (and our) worth and dignity. It’s important and great to recognize the value of the people around us; and it’s just as important to protect that sense of appreciation for the people around us. Our principles are not beliefs so much as action statements.
Some of us may be thinking that none of this is really new. That we all know that racism and prejudice and discrimination are bad. And yet it still continues, so I feel we need to regularly have a reminder. I’m not convinced that we always speak up, nor am I convinced that everyone in our religious and social circles are always enlightened on this matter. I get a glimpse of it from time to time because I frequently get confused with someone who is of a Jewish background. I’m actually of a mixed background, each grandparent coming from a different European country. I have a lot of immigrants in my family tree. I was raised Italian Catholic, and for those of you who also were, you know exactly what I mean when I say Italian Catholic. It’s a cultural identity that means a lot to me with all its humor and strength. And I’m not Jewish, but I’m told I look it.

I mentioned that I get a glimpse of discrimination from time to time. I can most easily tell when someone’s mistaking me for Jewish when the person becomes oddly mean, or dismissive, or patronizing (a big word for talking down to me.) Sometimes they’ll make an explicit reference to me being Jewish. I’ve honestly not experienced this at our congregation, but I have run into it at other UU congregations that have fewer Jewish congregants, and I do encounter it from time to time in stores in NYC. When other folks are present, no one ever says anything. No one ever speaks up. I try to focus more on changing their habits, or calling them out on it, than I try to change their assumption that I’m Jewish. It’s an opportunity not to avoid their discrimination, but rather to correct it.
One interesting thing I’ve come to learn about our first principle is that it doesn’t try to say we’re all the same; it reminds us that we all have value – that where we come from matters and is worthy. It is correct to say that we’re all human, but I think it’s a mistake to hide or cover up our differences. Just like I strongly value my Italian cultural household (yep, mom won out on that front), our First principle suggests we value the different backgrounds we all come from. We shouldn’t discriminate because of how someone looks, or where they come from, but we should learn from the identity and culture our neighbors grew out of. Ignoring the strengths that come from our differences is another way of the Queen ignoring the honey she dropped. Without stretching the metaphor too far, something is lost when we let that nourishment go to waste as well.

All these things that might seem to some people as small things (the change on the counter or the hand, the disparaging comment, ignoring who someone is,) can really add up to bigger problems. All these stories when looked at broadly paint a picture of a world where folks are treated unfairly based on characteristics we choose to dislike for no good reason. I believe that these drops of “messy honey” from the “unconcerned Queen” from our story, can add up to fighting and a burning kingdom. It’s up to each of us to clean it up in the moment; to not let a bad thing spread.

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The Polity of Abandonment

Recently I attended an excellent youth ministry intensive at the Liberal Religious Educators’ Fall Conference in Portland, Oregon. In it we reflected on the old model of youth leadership development often getting confused with youth abandonment. We (adults) sought to foster our youth’s development by waiting for them to come to us when they had troubles; or to allow them to plan events and programs without adult inclusion or guidance. This sometimes resulted in incredibly powerful youth groups. This often resulted in youth leaving our denomination as adults. And sometimes, there was great pain or harm present without the guidance of adult mentoring.

I’m reminded of the old adage, “the youth shall lead the way.” It was certainly true with our merger of Unitarians and Universalists 50 years ago. What if this cultural system around youth abandonment is true for our adult leadership circles as well? What if our system of congregational polity reflects all to well the failures of the old youth development model? I think the similarities are striking.

Do our District Executives, Program Consultants, and the UUA Headquarters (or Ministers, Educators for the old youth model) lack authority to intervene in our congregations when there are real crises without first being invited in? Check.

Do most of our congregations invite in district, regional and continental leadership on an infrequent basis to help steer the future? Check.

When congregational leadership begins to “age out” (in youth terms) or die/move away/become home bound (in adult terms) do they fail to change their systems of governance/conversation/process to adjust to the new generation (Freshman Class)? Check.

Personally, I’m all for congregational polity. I wouldn’t want to throw it out. But we have to find a middle ground to integrate the expertise of our regional and continental leadership into at least the quarterly-to-quarterly leadership of our fellowships, churches and congregations. Otherwise, we’re closing our youth group doors to experience and wisdom we desperately need as our denomination shrinks.

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This Side of Paradise

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn on March 27th, 2011. It’s a radical message of universal salvation and hope for the realization that grace is found in this day, while still living.

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

What’s our missing farmyard animal? What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
I love stories like this. They really can draw out the essence of our daily challenges and struggles and they use humor to do so. It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude. Getting into that college program; securing that job; hearing better news about the medical results. Those are some really serious concerns. If you’re like me, I imagine in the everyday you can catch yourself putting the same value on smaller events though. Catching that traffic light before it goes from yellow to red; or missing those closing doors on the subway, or waiting for that email or that text message to arrive; or the anticipation you feel waiting for the next episode of Glee…
What’s happening in between? That moment between otherwise being happy about how things are and the next where we convince ourselves that things will only be good, or OK, if the thing we’re waiting for actually happens. Let’s start with the little things first. Try to remember what it feels like in your body when I mention these. That traffic light. Getting caught behind a slow moving pedestrian on a narrower block in Manhattan. The iconic subway rider that won’t move out of the way of the closing doors. I’m going to hazard a guess that at least one of these can drive you absolutely nuts.
What are we letting go of when we let this occur? We might have someone in our lives we love; we may have home and health; we may be enjoying a warm beautiful day on this side of paradise; but the traffic light, or slow moving pedestrian, can take it all away in the blink of an eye. We may be thinking about picking up our kids from their RE class, or prepping for the next congregational committee meeting, or just steeling ourselves for the rush of coffee hour instead of fully resting into this hour of reflection, refreshment and community connection. It’s so easy to fall into this habit. We’ve all been there, and we’ll likely all experience this sense of “momentary want” again – probably even today. The little things are just as easy to laugh at ourselves about – as they are to forget not to cling to them again and again. They’re not big, and yet they can all snatch from us the awareness of the awe in the living world around us.
…And the bigger things are much less easy to sweep away. Concerns for one’s home, or job, or prospects or health aren’t frivolous or insignificant. The death of a loved one, or feelings of concern for our friends who are grieving, are major turning points in our lives. For good or for ill, their effects will travel with us – possibly – for the rest of our lives. And yet, the simple truth is that the awe and wonder of this living, breathing world continues unabated in every moment. What happens to us, doesn’t change this truth; even if the awe and wonder becomes hard to see for a time… even if we can’t feel it for a while. A connection to our source, this life, remains. And yet those times of forgetfulness – those times of feeling disconnected from our source, will come. It’s the reality of a world full of promise and pain.

Our Universalist predecessors believed in universal salvation. They believed that when we died, all souls would be saved to heaven in glory. The reasoning went such that an all-loving, all-powerful God could not condemn anyone to eternal pain or misery. Personally, I’ve come to feel that salvation is accessible in our current lives, for all people, while we’re still living and breathing. I’ve come to see salvation not tied to death, or notions of original sin, but a salvation tied to life. A salvation responding to the hells of our daily making; a salvation responding to the hells of our communal making. It starts with being able to connect and reconnect with this awe-inspiring living breathing world. It’s a salvation that’s grounded in healthy community; a salvation that responds to our religious humanist forebears who found in religious community a saving grace from the false idolatry of the individual ego. It’s a salvation that liberates us from our ties to the mythic worlds of “what if,” the traps of “if only” and the fears of “no, not that.” It’s not a false sentimentality. It’s not wishful thinking. It’s not a brazen disregard for the horrors, and pains and tragedies of our world. It’s a salvation that reminds us of the honest connections we are ever blessed with. It’s the kind that puts into context all the complexity and nuance of our often frenetic yet ever poignant world.
Our reading this morning by Pema Chodron offers a Buddhist take on this contemporary Universalist message. “Moving away from our experience, moving away from the present moment with all our habits and strategies, always adds up to restlessness, dissatisfaction, unhappiness. The comfort that we associate with concretizing and making things solid is so transitory, so short lived.” (2) Alright, let’s take a little mini-poll here. By a show of hands, who here has ever wanted anything? Ok, keep your hands up if that thing you wanted you got. Ok, now here’s the tricky part. Please keep your hand up if after getting that thing you wanted, you at some point stopped wanting or enjoying it. And finally – keep your hand up if that thing you wanted that you got, you came to wish you never got it? Alright, I thought that was a pretty common occurrence. I’m glad it’s not just me… phew!

That, my friends, is what concretizing can lead to. We sort of chase our own tails for dreaming. Call the grass on the other side always greener, or just admit that sometimes we don’t really know what we want. The draw to make things appear more solid in our lives is very alluring, but it’s ultimately a fruitless desire. I don’t mean to suggest we ought to give up on development, or goals, or hopes; but rather I hope to inspire us to offer a more realistic appreciation for the moment we dwell in. Our world is more full of joy if in our daily strivings we remain rooted, as best we can, in a thorough appreciation for what is before us. It’s from this place of fullness that we realize salvation. And it’s available to us in every moment; including this one.
There’s another message that comes out of the words for all ages we heard this morning about our practically perfect farm. Did you notice how the rooster went to every animal in the farm before even trying to figure out how to crow on his own? It made more sense to him that the pig, or cat, or sheep, or duck might know better how to make a rooster crow than he himself did. The part about that story that I love even more, is that the pig, cat, sheep and duck also thought that they knew how to make that noise better than the rooster. If they knew so well, I wonder why they didn’t take on the role of morning wake-up call till then; and yet they remained certain they could. How often do we take on one of those roles in our lives? When are we the know-it-all expert? …When are we the rooster that’s given up all our power?

I’m sure there’s a few sermons in the question of being a know-it-all, but I’ll save that for another day. The second question though, really fits our worship this morning. I’ve reflected a bit about how we give away our connectedness with the moment, with our connectedness to this side of paradise, by ever wishing for the next great thing. How do we do that when we give up our own answers? How do we disconnect ourselves when we solely rely on others to save us from our unknowing, or our quandaries, or our sense of loss? In religious community, I applaud the rooster’s desire to learn from his peers and elders. I applaud his willingness to engage with his neighbor. But I’m concerned that it never occurred to him to even try to rely on his personal experience. Our UU sources talk about this. One of our sources is our own human experience, and our story’s hero takes a while to get back to the beginning.
What’s going on there? I’m going to guess that we’re all a little guilty of this in our lives. Think about a time when you’ve had a big decision to make and the first thing you do is call every close friend and ask them to tell you what you’d do. A certain amount of that is good for the process of reflection. But so often we go to the absurd extreme with it. We give up our connectedness with the moment in our repetitive mental musings – with the proverbial spinning of our wheels while going no where. Maybe we need the advice, but maybe we already know our answer. Maybe we already know how to speak our voice and do what needs to be done if only we were to try. A friend of mine says that, “We can’t rely on others to show us the beauty of a moment. Another person can’t give us the eyes to see that; we’re born with them and we have to learn to use them.”(3)

In the Christian tradition, there’s a verse attributed to Reinhold Niebhur, that goes, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” This great prayer of discernment sums up the quandaries associated with fearing what will come and fearing who we are right now. If we can figure out how to live out the words from the Serenity Prayer, as it’s commonly called, we come closer to an appreciation for the moment. We come closer to loving this amazing world as best we can just as it is. It holds an honest balance between loving ourselves (and the world) as we are, and loving the world and ourselves as we might be — without making ourselves or the world out to be wrong in the meantime. It calls us to give ourselves a chance, without struggling against the impossible; while lifting up a sense of ownership with our feelings and experiences.
In all of this, if we were to name it for what it is, we might say that there’s a hole in our hearts for what we sense to be missing in our lives. In some traditions, we’d call it a “God-shaped hole.” In others, we’d call it “living in a state of suffering.” In psychological terms we might label it “insecurity” or “co-dependence” depending on its manifestations and triggers. I believe each one of these has their merits. As a minister though, and not a psychologist (except for maybe in the pop sense of the word) I’ll stick with the first two names. “Living in a state of suffering” and “A God-shaped hole in our heart.”

Our reading this morning by Pema Chodron clearly is in the school of thought that engages our sense of suffering. It’s a philosophy that calls for deepening our sense of comfort with the groundlessness of life – that ‘not knowing what will be;’ that ‘acceptance of the present moment.’ “This moving away from comfort and security (she writes,) this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted and shaky – that’s called liberation.” (4) I used the Universalist language of salvation before to reflect on this same sort of thing. As our religious tradition transforms, changes and grows we’re going to learn and develop more and more ways to express the complexity of life and matters of spirit in our own religious language. But I believe the core truths, the essential questions and challenges remain the same for us – we’re just learning better ways to translate them for our own hearts, minds and ears.
The “God-shaped hole” language may really work for you. Or maybe it’s a kind of language that’s really hard for you to relate to. As Unitarian Universalists, I’ll challenge us to be the best translators we can be. And I’ve given us a few ways to translate today. For the theists among us, when we give up our sense of faith in our own capacity; when we give up our sense of appreciation for Creation as it is; when we disconnect ourselves from a real communion with this side of paradise; we realize a God-shaped hole in our lives. We confuse ourselves into thinking that we’re alone; or empty; or unloved. We confuse ourselves into thinking we’re powerless; or incapable; or that the world is devoid of meaning.

None of these things are true. We are not alone. We are loved. Life is full of promise. Our potential and capacity for love and for life is an amazing gift – an amazing blessing that we only need to open ourselves up-to to know its full wonder. As Zora Neale Hurston audaciously proclaims, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” That’s the core message in living into this side of paradise, regardless of our personal theologies, or beliefs. Loving the moment, loving the world in all its nuance and beauty, loving ourselves and the beloved communities we build together, loving this life through all its uncertainty, is the process of crawling out of our places of pain and fear and hiding. Friends, this world is too full to forever find answers outside ourselves, and it is too full to forever think we hold all the answers for our neighbors. This living, breathing world is too full to hide from it, each other, and ourselves.

1- “A Lamp in Every Corner” by Janee K. Groshmeyer p. 88
2- “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chodron, p.43. 2003 Boston and London.
3- Brian Brewer
4- “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chodron, p.44. 2003 Boston and London.

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Reflection on the 10 Year Anniversary of 9/11

Ten years ago today, most of us woke up to a Sunny clear sky. I remember not a cloud in sight. It was a shade of blue that many of us can recall vividly still. It was a Tuesday morning, and kids were just starting school for the year. Not all of us were born yet though, and some of us might be too young to remember. I was working at a University in Northern Jersey then, and remember meeting new college freshmen who were away from home for the very first time.

At 8:46am, when kids were in school, and some folks were at work, a group of terrorists – who also identified as Muslims – crashed the first of two planes into the Twin towers of the World Trade Center. About every 20 to 30 minutes we would learn of another such tragedy. The second tower and then the pentagon and finally Flight 93 which crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The news was all confused for some time, with conflicting stories. I remember not believing it when I first heard about it from a co-worker a few minutes before 9.

Some stories would remain confused to this day. People would say that all Muslims (or followers of Islam) hate America. The truth is that although some people are filled with hate, the core of the Islamic faith that I have come to know in the United States calls for peace. Some would say this was the beginning of a religious war; but the truth is that victims on that day came from all religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Paganism to name a few…. Sometimes people hide behind their lies about religion to further their political goals.

We mourn for the loss of those almost 3000 lives, and we gain strength from the stories of hope and renewal. I am inspired by the tales of all those firefighters, police and EMT’s who ran toward the towers to help when everyone else was trying to get as far away as possible. Or the passengers of Flight 93 who wrestled with their hijackers, not knowing what might come, so that even more harm did not happen to innocent lives on the ground. Or the story of our own congregation. Led by our minister at the time, Fred; we crafted an interfaith service on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade overlooking the World Trade Center. That Tuesday evening, members of the churches and synagogues and mosques all around here gathered for a candlelight vigil together. At a time when fear was the easy answer, First UU reached out with love and compassion. It is these stories of hope that we honor those who are lost to us. Not by the clutching or grabbing of anger and fear, but by the reaching out of loving hands do we rebuild and strengthen community.

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In-Gathering Worship

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and One Transforming Love, stir in us now a sense of hope found in new beginnings.

As we waken to a new year of school, and an end to Summer playtime, As we put away our beach blankets, and shorts – trading them for backpacks and sweaters and hoodies, As we complain of the coming cold, or lament the return of allergies, or sigh through our math homework,

May we remember, as the song goes, All that is our lives. To give thanks and praise … for all the easy problems, and the simple discomforts. May we be grateful for whatever routines we find, for they may mark a life that is full of health and love.

Knowing that there is always another nearby wishing for the ease of “just” having allergies, or longs for a good school and a good education. Let us pause in the rush and the crush of the average New York City minute,

To breathe into these 30 seconds of silence, to this still moment in the turning wheel of our often too fast paced lives.

May we learn to return to this place, to this sense of being. May the calm in the center of the crazy, find its way into our routines and our habits. May a sense of joy in the pause nurture and lift up all that we do and say.

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